AS a campaign to exonerate all those tried and convicted of witchcraft in Scotland gathers momentum, a new piece of evidence regarding historical witch hunts has come to light.
Academic, Dr Mary Drymon has hypothesised that many of those accused of having the devil’s mark- considered to be an identifying feature of a witch- had most probably been bitten by a tick and infected with Lyme disease.
This comes as Nicola Sturgeon prepares to pardon the thousands of victims who were accused of witchcraft between the 16th and 18th centuries. The Witchcraft Act was brought into law in 1563 and remained until 1736.
3,837 people – 84% of whom were women – were tried as witches with two-thirds of them tortured and executed.
A members’ bill submitted by Natalie Don MSP has been supported by the First Minister who is expected to issue an official apology when it is passed next year.
Dr Drymon, said: “I have looked at the concept of the Devil’s mark and the Witches teat, as it is described in the literature.
“It seems that the Devil’s mark is the bull’s eye rash of Lyme disease and the witch’s teat may be the lymphocytoma that sometimes develops after a tick bite.
“People talk about finding pins stuck in their skin that mysteriously disappear in time. An attached tick looks a lot like the head of a handmade 17th century pin and drops off after a bloodmeal.”
“Those are the areas at highest risk for Lyme infection-in the past and in the present.”
“I did a statistical analysis correlation between historic witch execution numbers and geography of tick infection rates for modern Lyme disease prevalence in both Europe and North America.
“The association between the level of borrelia infection in modern Ixodes tick populations and historic witchcraft executions was statistically significant.
“It can be said with a 95 % confidence level that about 19% of a person’s chance of being executed as a witch in any area of historic Europe is associated with the rate of infection of modern ticks in that area.”
One of the earliest writers to mention the mark was the Calvinist theologian, Lambert Daneau.
In A Dialogue of Witches, he wrote that there was not a single witch, “upon whom [the devil] doth not set some note or token of his power and prerogative over them.”
Ludovico Maria Sinistrari, wrote that judges in witch trials were advised that suspects should be carefully examined- “pull and shave, where occasion shall serve, all the body over, lest haply the mark may lurk under the hair in any place.”
In medieval Scotland, witch hunting was a profession.
Suspects would be shaved and inspected for tell tales signs of having been recruited by the devil. The incriminating mark could have been on any part of the anatomy.
However it was often found in the pubic area where ticks tend to attach themselves.
The belief was that the suspect had been intimate with the devil who then branded them.
Dr Drymon cites a trial which took place in North Berwick.
She says: “Court records described the initiation of witches as involving a sort of ceremony where “the devil doth lick them with his tongue in some privy part of their body, before he doth receive them to be his servants, which mark commonly is given them under the hair in some part of their body.”
“When Agnes Sampson, an accused Scottish witch was shaved, “the devil’s mark was found upon her privities.”
In 1658, another Scottish witch, Margaret Taylor, confessed that the devil, “gave her his mark . . . in her secret member.”
Dr. Jacques Fontaine wrote in 1611 that “writers . . . who say that it is difficult to distinguish devil’s marks from natural blemishes, from a carbuncle, or from impetigo, clearly show that they are not good doctors.”
There were other factors at play in the mass hysteria about witchcraft in Scotland and there there have also been calls for a permanent memorial in tribute to all Scots convicted of witchcraft.
Mitchell and Venditozzi have both been invited to the Scottish Parliament to the petitions committee which is keen to hear further evidence.
In reference to the theory about tick bites in relation to convictions for witchcraft, Ms Venditozzi said, “This is an interesting hypothesis and not one I’ve heard before.
“It could make sense of some of the cases but we also know that many of the so-called ‘witch’s marks’ could be as arbitrary as a birthmark, scar or mole. I knew there was an idea that the searching for markings was scientific, it was a livelihood for some people who made money from it.”
Dr Drymon has a personal interest in the persecution of witches.
She is related to a woman by the name of Rebecca Chamberlain from Billerica in Massachusetts who was accused of witchcraft and who died in prison in the 1600s awaiting trial.
Dr Drymon herself has suffered Lyme disease.
She said: “I have a Lyme related lymphocytoma on my hand, so would have been a gonner in 1590’s Scotland”
The last person to be legally executed for witchcraft in the UK was Janet Horne, of Dornoch, in 1727. She was stripped, smeared with tar and paraded through the town in a barrel before being burned alive