Although many Londoners were increasingly sceptical of witchcraft by the 17th century, and the laws against witchcraft were struck down in 1735, the belief never entirely disappeared. Nor was the suspicion of witchcraft confined to impoverished or poorly educated people. The London diarist Samuel Pepys, who was a highly educated and influential figure, recorded conversations in which he and his friends shared their knowledge of protective charms and discussed other ‘enchantments and spells’.
As late as the 1680s, prosecutions for witchcraft were still taking place in London, with the accused generally on trial for causing the illness or death of an individual. In 1682, the Old Bailey heard the case of Jane Kent, indicted for witchcraft after supposedly bewitching a young girl named Elizabeth Chamblet. It was reported that Elizabeth ‘fell into a piteous condition, swelling all over her body, which was discoloured after a strange rate’, and subsequently died. The distraught father, who had previously argued with Jane Kent over the unsuccessful sale of some pigs, blamed witchcraft for the inexplicable death of his daughter. Kent was eventually acquitted, after numerous people testified to her good character and her regular attendance at church – but Elizabeth Chamblet’s mysterious ailment was never deduced.
Just as the distinction between magic and religion was a vague one, with holy powers in perpetual battle against witches and the devil, so too was the distinction between magic and science in early modern London. ‘Natural philosophers’ such as Sir Francis Bacon and Nicholas Culpeper combined their studies of logic, medicine and botany with experiments in alchemy, astrology and fortune-telling. These were not regarded as incompatible practices, but as complementary efforts towards understanding the natural universe, with the human body at its centre.