The Bewitching of Anne Gunter: A Horrible and True Story of Football, Witchcraft, Murder and the King of EnglandBMJ 2000; 321 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.321.7259.516 (Published 19 August 2000) Cite this as: BMJ 2000;321:516
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Some eminent 17th century doctors gathered at the bedside of Anne Gunter. They included the regius professor of medicine at Oxford and John Hall, almost certainly the Dr Hall who married Shakespeare's daughter. All were agreed that the bizarre fits from which Anne suffered could not be due to illness but must have some supernatural cause. Other physicians who examined Anne later, notably the famous Edward Jorden, were sceptical. The matter was eventually brought before King James I himself. Was the 20 year old woman from Berkshire the victim of witchcraft? The king thought not, and he uncovered a story of deception and torture that began with a game of football.
Football hooliganism is nothing new. A game at Anne Gunter's home village turned violent—Anne's father, Brian, intervened and beat two young men of the neighbouring Gregory family, who both died from their injuries. Relationships between the families became bitter. When Anne collapsed with what all believed to be an attack of “the mother” (hysteria), Brian Gunter saw his chance to discredit the Gregorys.
He accused goodwife Elizabeth Gregory of bewitching his daughter. Anne was forced to feign convulsions and vomiting of pins. Witnesses swore that she became unnaturally heavy and showed psychic powers, and that her clothes unlaced themselves during her fits. In fact, Brian was forcing her to play a part. He made her swallow toxic concoctions of wine and salad oil (“sack and sallet oil”) and a “green mixture” of unknown content in order to make the act more convincing. The physical and mental stress drove Anne to threaten suicide. In the end, the charade failed, and Anne Gunter passed into obscurity until Professor Sharpe, an authority on the history of witchcraft, revived her case.
His account shows that the Jacobeans were not as credulous as we suppose. Nor were they driven by simple misogyny, although it was accepted that women were inferior, unstable, lustful beings. Political considerations fuelled some of the more notorious witch trials.
Anne's story is an aside to James Sharpe's major work on English witchcraft, Instruments of Darkness, but it is a compelling tale in its own right. For the ordinary person, demonic possession had a sound basis in the gospels. Belief in sorcery was part of a mental world that contained a wide variety of refashioned Christian and pagan beliefs. Many educated people at the time looked for natural explanations of apparent bewitchings. They invoked melancholia and the wandering womb, just as the modern analyst is intrigued by the psychological and sexual aspects of such cases. The history of witchcraft is also the history of mind and body.