Folk-Lore/Volume 31/Witches and the Number Thirteen

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In tabulating the evidence in the trials for witchcraft, certain facts come to light which are not visible at first. They are not brought out by direct or leading questions, but appear incidentally and are passed unnoticed by both the contemporary recorder and the modern commentator. As examples of such facts it is interesting to note that the “Devil” never appeared as a goat in Great Britain though that was his usual disguise in France; he is found as a horse, never as an ass; and though witches were often transformed into hares, the “Devil” never took that form. Again, the divining familiar is common to all Europe, but the domestic familiar occurs only in England, and is limited there almost entirely to the eastern counties.

The most clearly marked of all these hitherto-unnoticed details is found in the organisation. According to Cotton Mather “the witches are organised like Congregational Churches,” and on investigation his words are proved fairly accurate. There was first a chief who presided over the whole community; then there was a small body of persons who correspond to the “elders” of a church, and lastly there was the general congregation. It is the study of this small body or company of “elders” which yields some interesting results. These companies were called “covens” in Great Britain, a word which is derived from the same root as “convene,” and I have adopted it as a technical term to describe a band of male and female witches, in other words, the hierarchy of the cult. In each district there was at least one coven; in a large district there might be two, three, four or even more; the members being drawn from the villages in the district. As a rule families entered the same coven; husband and wife, parent and child, were together. Unfortunately the contemporary chronicler was more interested in the appearance of the "Devil" and the recipes for "flying" ointment than in the organisation, therefore the information is recorded only in conjunction with other matters and has to be sought for and carefully tabulated.

Modern French beliefs bring to light the fact that there was a definite and unalterable number of members in each coven. "Il est de croyance générale qu'il faut un nombre fixe de sorciers et de sorcières dans chaque canton. Le nouvel initié reprend les vieux papiers de l'ancien."[1] This fixed number will be found also among the witches of Great Britain whenever a full record of a trial is available, and that number is invariably thirteen. In a small district the coven would consist of the "Devil" and twelve members; in larger districts, the thirteen would appoint one of their number as their officer or leader, the "Devil" presiding over all the covens of the district. The coven consisted of both men and women; the proportion of the sexes varies a good deal and therefore was probably not considered of importance.

In two cases only do we find the witches making a definite statement as to the number of members in a coven; as a rule the number can only be found by actually counting the names, by indirect references made by the witches, or by inference from statements in the record.

The two direct statements were by Isobel Gowdie of Auldearne in 1662 and Ann Armstrong at Newcastle-on-Tyne in 1673. Isobel said, "Ther ar threttein persons in ilk Coeven";[2] and Ann spoke of "five coveys consisting of thirteen person in every covey."[3]

One of the earliest indications of the number, without a direct statement, is in the trial in 1567 of Bessie Dunlop of Lyne in Ayrshire. The "Devil," whom she called Thorn Reid, led her "to the kill-end, quhair sche saw twelf persounes, aucht wemene and four men. And Thome was with thame."[4] Here was clearly a coven of thirteen, including their chief. In this case as in many others the recorder has merely written down the evidence without realizing that it was important. At St. Osyth in Essex in 1582 there was a great trial of witches, obscured by an immense amount of evidence to prove their use of familiars; when the number of the accused is counted it is found to be thirteen.[5] In 1590 the witches of North Berwick held several meetings to compass the death of James VI.; at one of these meetings nine witches stood "in ane cumpany," and the others "to the nowmer of threttie persons in ane vthir cumpany"; that is, there were three covens present, each consisting of thirteen members.[6] In Aberdeen there was a great witch trial in 1596-7; and on counting up all the names which occur, the number is sixty-four. Of these seven are merely mentioned as witches known to the accused though not as taking part in the ceremonies, and five of the arrested number were acquitted; thus leaving fifty-two persons or four covens. Of these fifty-two, one was condemned and executed at the assize in 1596 and twelve in 1597, rnaking in all thirteen persons, or one coven, who were put to death.[7] In the Lancashire witch-trial of 1613 there is a grand total of fifty-two names, i.e. four covens; on counting up the members who are recorded as having actually taken part in the ceremonies and practices of witchcraft, there are thirty-nine names or three covens.[8] In Guernsey in 1617 Isabel Becquet confessed to being a witch, and was then put to the question to discover her associates. It is usually supposed that witches under torture accused recklessly all the women of their acquaintance; Isabel Becquet's confession does not bear this out: "At the Sabbath the Devil used to summon the Wizards and Witches in regular order (she remembered very well having heard him call the old woman Collette the first, in these terms: Madame the Old Woman Becquette); then the woman Fallaise; and afterwards the woman Hardie. Item, he also called Marie, wife of Massy, and daughter of the said Collette. Said that after them she herself was called by the Devil: in these terms: The Little Becquette; she also heard him call there Collas Becquet who held her by the hand in dancing, and some-one [a woman] whom she did not know held her by the other hand); there were about six others there she did not know."[9] This evidence points to thirteen persons being present, and is of value as showing that even under torture the witches adhered to the stated number. At Queensferry in 1644 thirteen women were tried all together as witches.[10] At Alloa in 1658 thirteen persons, or one coven, were brought to trial.[11] At Forfar in 1661 the girl-witch Jonet Howit stated that "Ther was thair present with the divell besyd hirselfe, quhom he callit the prettie dauncer, the said Issobell Syrie, Mairie Rynd, Hellen Alexander, Issobell Dorward, and utheris whoise names shoe did not know, to the number of 13 of all." [12] In the unpublished trial of Jonet Kerr and Issobell Ramsay at Edinburgh in 1661 we find the names of thirteen persons, or one coven.[13] At Crook of Devon in 1662 thirteen persons were tried and condemned at one assise.[14] In 1662 Isobel Gowdie of Auldearne, who has been already quoted, gave her evidence freely and without torture; she stated that there were thirteen persons in each coven, and gives the names of all the members of her own coven, including the officer.[15] Janet Breadheid, of the same coven as Isobel, gives the names of thirty-nine persons or three covens who were actually present in the kirk at Nairn to see her admitted as a member of the organisation.[16] In Somerset in 1664 the number of the accused was twenty-six, or two covens.[17] At Newcastle-on-Tyne in 1673, Ann Armstrong, whose words have already been quoted, was (according to her own account) taken by force to a meeting where she saw ten people whom she mentions by name "and thre more, whose names she knowes not"; at another meeting "she see the said Anne Forster, Anne Driden, and Luce Thompson, and tenne more unknowne to her"; and at a large assembly where many persons were present "every thirteen of them had a divell with them in sundry shapes."[18] Again, on counting the names of those who, according to Ann Armstrong, were present at the witch-assemblies, it will be found that there were twenty-six, or two covens.

It seems certain then that, in the constitution of the witch-societies, thirteen was the appointed number for a coven in Great Britain. The French evidence is not so clear, for the French trials are rarely published in extenso. There is, however, one cause celèbre, which in modern times is usually regarded as a trial for murder; but was considered by the contemporary recorders, and is in its essence, a witch trial. This was the trial in 1440 of Gilles de Rais, Marshal of France.[19] The evidence is given in full detail, and the number of persons implicated can therefore be ascertained. Of those who were proved to be closely connected with Gilles in the rites and sacrifices which he performed, nine, including Gilles himself, were arrested and tried, two saved themselves by flight, and two had died shortly before; in all, thirteen.

Nowhere either in Great Britain or in France is there any suggestion from the legal authorities that the witches were formed into companies or that there was a definite and fixed number in each company. The Malleus Maleficarum is equally silent. Except in the cases of Isobel Gowdie whose evidence was given voluntarily, and of Ann Armstrong who was "King's evidence," the number composing a coven is not mentioned, no question on the subject is ever recorded as being asked, and the evidence of the witches also shows that they were not questioned on the matter. Yet, as I have shown, in case after case—ranging in date from 1440 to 1673, and as far apart as Brittany in the east and Ayrshire in the west, Nairn in the North and Somerset in the south—thirteen or multiples of thirteen are the numbers which occur in any one trial when the records are complete. Whether the evidence was volunteered or whether it was given under torture, the same result is found: "un nombre fixe de sorcirs et sorcières dans chaque canton," and that fixed number is thirteen or a multiple of thirteen.

A single case would prove nothing, but such an accumulation of evidence cannot be disregarded.

  1. Lemoine, Sorcellerie Contemporaine. La Tradition, vi. p. 108.
  2. Pitcairn, Criminal Trials, III. p. 603.
  3. Surtees Society, xl. p. 191.
  4. Pitcairn, op. cit. I. pt. ii. p. 52.
  5. A true and most iust Records of all Witches taken at St Oses.
  6. Pitcairn, op. cit. I. pt. ii. p. 245.
  7. Spalding Club Miscellany, i. pp. 87 seq.
  8. Potts, Discoverie of Witches. Chetham Society.
  9. Goldsmid, Confessions of Witches under Torture, p. 13. Translated from the French.
  10. Fyfe, Summer Life on Land and Water, p. 87.
  11. Scottish Antiquary, ix. pp. 50-2
  12. Kinloch, Reliquiae Antiquae Scoticae, p. 114.
  13. From the record in the Edinburgh Justiciary Court.
  14. Proc. of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. New Series, x. p. 219.
  15. Pitcairn, op. cit. III. pp. 603 seq.
  16. Id. ib. III. p. 614 seq.
  17. Glanvil, Sadducismns Triumphatus, pt. ii. pp. 140 seq.
  18. Surtees Society, xl. pp. 191, 192.
  19. Abbé Bossard's book on Gilles de Rais is the most easily accessible.