Contains Scenes of a Graphic Nature: Sympathy for The Devil

Published on 26 March 2018 09:00 PM
By H Laurel Rowe
This post masthead


My interest in constructing a narrative for a graphic novel evolved from the concept of history writing as a kind of story-telling. Story-telling constructs narratives that are meant to engage and immerse an individual in a narrative that is controlled by the story-teller; the plot and outcome of the story are controlled by the author. I was interested in the ways which the representation of history is altered and reinterpreted depending on the medium within which the narrative is framed, and to what degree an audience participates in the interpretation of the performance of history within different mediums. In a graphic novel, the reader must interact with the medium to locate and engage with the narrative. Unlike a film, the images are static and therefore active participation is required in order to follow the narrative from one panel to the next and fill in the gutters between the panels with the actions that move the narrative forward. However, the action between the panels is determined by the reader while the author is only able to make a suggestion of it through what is depicted in the next panel. This is a unique experience, unlike the engagement that is necessary for viewing a film or reading a text. The process of creating a graphic novel entailed not only careful research of the subject matter but also an exploration into the medium itself and the tools of the trade which were used to craft graphic novel narratives.

The interplay between the reader’s interpretation, storyteller’s agenda, and narrative seemed to be suited for discussion of the infamous historical figure of Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne, "witchfinders" of 17th century East Anglia. There is a well-known story told by historians of the modern European witch-craze, and has been told effectively in prose by historians such as Malcolm Gaskill, but there are gaps and unknowns in the evidence and these piqued my curiosity. Their narrative created an opportunity to discuss the witch-hunts from a perspective other than that of the victim. I was intrigued by how such a narrative would play out from the point-of-view of persons in positions of power: how it would change the interpretation of their experiences, their victims and the experience of the communities in which they worked.


Research process

The research process was eye-opening, specifically in terms of understanding to what degree a historian is able to exert control over the narrative reconstructed through their historical writing. The experience elevated the importance of remaining open to different interpretations, and deviations from them, throughout the entire research and writing process. I spent a significant amount of time combing through various sources to find and understand who Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne were. This consisted of reading and analyzing the works that they had written: The Discovery of Witches, 1647, by Matthew Hopkins and A Confirmation and Discovery of Witches, 1648, by John Stearne. To better understand the pre-scientific mentality of the 17th century and grasp the kind of language and thought of the period, I looked to sources such as the Plain Mans Pathway to Heaven, 1601, by Arthur Dent and the Diary of Lady Margaret Hoby, 1571-1633, 1930, edited by Dorothy Meads. Additionally, I sought to understand how previous historians such as Craig Cabell and Richard Deacon, had come to their conclusions. I began my project with an idea of who these men were which had been shaped by the ways in which they performed within the historical narrative constructed by other historians. With this particular performance in mind, I had already begun to imagine how I would play with the historical interpretation of them in my graphic novel. Believing that, like many of the articles and secondary sources I read had concluded, they were villains and sinister figures, I had thought that my graphic novel would playfully twist the reader’s interpretation of them and transform them into heroes of their time. However, as I began to dig into the primary sources and come to understand the worldview of 17th century Protestantism I found my initial notions of who Hopkins and Stearne were, crumbling. Pursuing their voices, I continued to find myself returning to the same question over and over: what if these historical figures believed they were doing a good thing and how does the villainization (or victimization) of historical figures affect our interpretation of historical events? In order to address these questions, I decided that my project would visually and narratively play with common narrative tropes of heroes and villains found in Western popular culture.

Gaskill, Deacon and Cabell focused their attention on Matthew Hopkins, and yet of the two, it is Stearne who is easier to locate in the sources that have survived. A large portion of what I have inferred about Hopkins was determined through the writings of John Gaule, whose pamphlet amounts to a scathing criticism of Hopkins and Stearne’s actions. John Gaule was the Puritan preacher who was made vicar for the parish of Great Staughton in Huntingdonshire by Viscount Valentine Wauton (Gaule, 1646). Gaule published the pamphlet Select Cases of Conscience touching Witches and Witchcraft in 1646, around the same time when Hopkins and Stearne were operating in Huntingdonshire. Gaule’s writings indicate that he believed in witches but that he found it suspicious that two previously unknown gentlemen were gaining fame and status throughout the East Anglian counties as experts on witches. Gaule’s voice is similar to the contemporary opinion, that those who persecuted others as witches took advantage of vulnerable people and manipulated god-fearing communities. However, placed in the role of the antagonist and in opposition to the heroes of the narrative he becomes a more difficult figure to trust and his motives fall into a grey area, just as the motives of Hopkins and Stearne do when they are placed in the role of the protagonists. In many ways, Gaule was a mirror of Hopkins. Both had strong religious convictions and both believed in the existence of witches, which helped to establish a clearer picture of who Hopkins might have been. Gaule’s comments concerning the informal nature of their status as "witchfinders" helped to identify how Matthew Hopkins may have differed from other 17th century gentry (See my blog post "Who is Matthew Hopkins?" posted August 24, 2016 and "The Seventeenth Century Puritan Gentleman" posted May 19, 2016). As I continued my primary source research, I found that John Stearne was, perhaps, a much more dynamic and prominent figure in the East Anglia witch-hunts than the I had assumed at the outset of my project. The conclusions I came to about Hopkins and Stearne were the basis for my decision to construct a character-driven narrative. However, choosing to do so highlighted the fact that I was going to use fiction to buffer and bolster my historical narrative.

I chose John Stearne as the principal focus of the narrative for two reasons. The first being that I felt better able to reconstruct his character from the source material to which I had access than Matthew Hopkins and the second was that Stearne would more easily straddle the line between "hero" and "villain" for contemporary readers. Reading his pamphlet, A Confirmation, and Discovery of Witches, I gained the sense that he was a man who believed strongly in what he was doing but was perhaps haunted by some of the decisions which he had made because of his belief. I wanted the reader’s interpretation of characters to be participatory and in constant flux. I felt that readers might have the most difficulty in pinpointing where Stearne fell on the spectrum of hero and villain, believing that how they interpreted his character would be the most revealing of how they interacted with the narrative as a whole.


Women's Voices

The difficulty with focusing all of my attention on Hopkins, Stearne, and Gaule was that I could have erased the role of the witch and the minimal traces of women’s voices from this period of history altogether. The first article Malcolm Gaskill wrote was for the book Women, Crime and Courts in Early Modern England, in which he discussed the case of Margaret Moore who was accused and tried for being a witch at the courts of Isle of Ely, Cambridgeshire in 1647. This article took a point of view on the label of "witch" that I found refreshing. Gaskill’s argument sought to show Margaret Moore's agency through her own belief that she was, in fact, a witch. Contemporary representations of the witch-trials in early modern Europe are often saturated with the notion that confessions during the witch-craze were coerced and extracted through means of interrogation and torture, but this attitude loses sight of the fact that the belief in witches was one held by the accused and the accusers. Moore’s confession described an evening when the spirits of her dead children spoke to her and persuaded her into making a pact with the devil to save her last surviving child. (Transcript of the Confession of Margaret Moore, 1647) As a "witch" she was able to contextualize the appearance of her dead children within her objective reality. By realigning the context of Moore’s confession with pre-scientific revolution mentalities, being a witch became a form of power that allowed Moore to protect and provide for her family when all other options had been exhausted. Margaret Moore is a relatable figure through her humanity and perceived sacrifice for her family - exchanging her soul to save her child - but in order to accept that she made this sacrifice, one is encouraged to accept her belief in her own magical powers and her participation in the popular belief of the existence of witches during the 17th century.

I was, and continue to be, somewhat uncomfortable about that fact that in constructing the narrative for my graphic novel there was an element of cutting and pasting of the facts that had to be done in order to create something that treated with equal respect the voices of those in power, who left traces of their voice in sources, and of those who were marginalized, whose voices were repressed or silenced in the same sources. And to do so incorporating the historical figures that were vital to understanding the East Anglia witch-hunt, as well as creating a compelling and unique narrative! I’ve mentioned that, for myself, John Gaule was key in helping to understand Matthew Hopkins and so incorporating him into my narrative was important. However, although there are historical sources that suggest both men were aware of one another, there is no evidence that these men ever met. Therefore, Select Cases of Conscience was a fundamental resource for constructing all of the interactions between John Gaule and Matthew Hopkins. It functioned as a transcript of one half of an argument between these two figures, and although A Discovery of Witches by Matthew Hopkins was not quite as bountiful in its depth of material, it provided the second half of the argument. The sources themselves interact with each other, as both reflect and criticize the opinions of the other. This helped to ease my concerns of creating a narrative in which they come face to face with one another.

The inclusion of Margaret Moore into the narrative was another area where I found myself struggling with notions of historical authenticity versus history-telling. Margaret Moore was not from, nor did she live in, Great Staughton and neither Matthew Hopkins nor John Stearne were directly involved in her case (Gaskill, 1994, p.136). John Stearne was present at her trial which he mentions in A Confirmation and Discovery of Witches, but the two men responsible for obtaining her confession were Benjamin Wyne and Perry Jethrell (Stearne, p.21-22). Relocating the Margaret Moore case, geographically and temporally, allowed me to create a situation in which both John Stearne and Matthew Hopkins could have come across her case, as well as come face to face with John Gaule. Pulling information I gathered from a map and timeline of Hopkins and Stearne’s activity in East Anglia that I had constructed from the primary and secondary sources, I determined that in May of 1646, around the time John Gaule published his pamphlet, Stearne and Hopkins were traveling around Huntingdon and St. Neots together, near to the town of Great Staughton. However, Moore’s case did not take place until the early summer of 1647, when at which point Stearne was traveling alone. Though I struggled with making what I perceive as some large alterations to the historical events, Moore’s story was one that was somewhat unfamiliar in contemporary perceptions of witch-hunting, and I felt that was in line with the less common interpretation of the Hopkins and Stearne narrative that I sought to tell.

Margaret Moore’s voice in the narrative was where I imposed the most restrictions on myself. Unlike the male characters in my narrative, I was unable to work with a source that provided an unfiltered reading of Moore -- my characterization of her was filtered through those who interrogated her, gave her testimony at trial, and wrote the transcription, as well as the contemporary voice of Malcolm Gaskill. With this in mind, I relied heavily on the transcripts of Moore’s trials in constructing her dialogue. Influenced by Malcolm Gaskill’s interpretation of her, I wanted her voice and agency to be somewhat represented in the story as a woman whose life experiences did not make her vulnerable to manipulation, while still acknowledging the silences in her narrative. I still feel that I was not entirely successful in reconstructing the agency and power that Moore obtained by "becoming" a witch. I believe that in order to pursue that I should have needed to recentre the story so that the focus was on her rather than the witchfinders.

woman's voices

Visual Narrative

I want to briefly discuss my visual narrative decisions for the graphic novel and how the historical source influenced the manner in which I developed the visual narrative. I previously only mentioned the influence of Albrecht Durer and woodcut prints as instrumental in the visual style. I wanted to find a balance between realism and the rough and sometimes simplistic feel of woodcuts used in pamphlets from the time period.

Johanna Drucker discusses a variety of graphic devices and their impact on a reader’s ability to navigate the story in a graphic novel that really resonated with me. One such device she discusses was the way the narrative is the "temporal unfolding of events within a story"; she also points out that narrative at the same time is "the action taken by a reader." She describes the way a reader acts upon the ending of a graphic narrative out of a desire for "meaning, closure, or resolution." (Drucker, 2008, p124). In the last few pages of my graphic novel, I have explicitly chosen to limit they inclusion of clear and concise textual narrative as a means of instilling within the reader a similar uncertainty that historians face when there is a lack of historical source or evidence needed to support their interpretation of a historical event. As mentioned previously, John Stearne was present during Margaret Moore’s testimony- however, there was no reference to Moore’s fate or if he even remained in town to witness her fate. (Stearne, p.21-22)

Drucker and Scott McCloud both have discussed how panel layout in graphic novels can be used to steer readers as well as enhance narrativity (Ducker, 2008, p. 129-130). Scott McCloud’s discussion of gutters, the gap between panels, and how readers act upon the narrative by filling-in the action that takes place between panels (McCloud, 1994, p. 69), remained a constant concern of mine during the creation process. I did not stray far away from standard grid layouts for the panels, and the visuals rarely overlapped the border or reached into other panels. I wanted to create a sense of order and formality. This helped to emphasize the more emotional and chaotic moments in the narrative because the page layout and panels at those points would deviate from the reader's expectations.

When I read Margaret Moore’s testimony and Malcolm Gaskill’s article about her court case, it was plain to see how Moore’s grief over the death of her children had impacted her interaction with the world around her. I was cautious with the visual depiction of those scenes because I wanted them to be evocative, while understated and in a sense believable. Hillary Chute (2008) in her discussion of the autobiographical graphic novel Persepolis writes

certain modes of representation depict historical trauma more effectively, and more horrifically, than does realism (in part because they are able to do justice to the self-consciousness that traumatic representation demands). (102)

However, I believe because of the frequency with which trauma is sensationalized and extracted for overall narratives of experience (particularly, in narratives about the history of the witchcraze, for example Witch Hunts: A Graphic History of the Burning Times by Lisa Morton and Rocky Wood), that a more restrained style does better justice to the historic individuals.



Returning to this graphic novel, a year and a half since I completed it, I find most of my reflection to be focused on my unease about giving Margaret Moore a voice when the only source I had to work with was one which had been filtered through men’s voices several times over. I did not want to be another layer of filtration so I chose to limit her words to what I pulled from the transcripts of her trial, restricting any embellishment or deviation from that source to the bare minimum. The nature of western history and historical record is that male voices dominated; one would be hard-pressed to find unfiltered voices of women in the sources or historic record that could provide as well-rounded a representation of 17th century lower class women as is possible with men. However, it does little good to further sideline women from narratives, whether those narratives are 'historically accurate' or inspired. Hillary Chute highlighted how this medium can perform and "bear witness" to women’s stories because of its inherently flexible qualities and the fact that the medium does not require a constant voice in the form of textual, or verbal, narratives (Chute, p.94). Now, I feel that I should not have allowed my concern for historical accuracy and authenticity to scare myself away from using my secondary and primary research to situate Margaret Moore in a more central role in the narrative. So long as there is transparency in the process of constructing the characters and narrative of a graphic novel, research and contemporary women’s experiences can be used to create more tangible, fleshed out representations of historical women that can stand on par with contemporary graphic narratives of women like Persepolis, 2000, by Marjane Satrapi, and A Girl Called Echo, 2017, by Katherena Vermette, Scott Henderson and Donovan Yaciuk. Graphic novels as an alternative medium for historical narratives can blend together history-telling and story-telling for representing women in history without the pressures of the archive.

To that end, further details of my character analysis of John Stearne and Matthew Hopkins, my notes on the popular protestant beliefs in East Anglia and discussion of the visual and stylistic choices of the graphic novel, as well as a full bibliography of the primary and secondary sources I consulted during the project can be found on the project blog: Contains Scenes of Graphic Nature: Reconstructing the East Anglia Witchcraze

Works Cited


Hopkins, Matthew. The Discovery of Witches. 1647. Reprint, North Charleston: CreateSpace, 2015.

Stearne, John. A Confirmation and Discovery of Witches. 1648. Reprint, Devon: The Rota, 1973.

Gaule, John. "Select Cases of Conscience touching Witches and Witchcrafts." London: W. Wilson for Richard Clutterbuck, 1646. From Early English Books Online.

Transcript of the Confession of Margaret Moore, Cambridge University Library, Ely Diocesan Records, E12 1647/14-14v


Chute, Hillary. "The Texture of Retracing in Marjane Satrapi’s "Persepolis"". In Women’s Studies Quarterly. Vol. 36, No.1/2. New York: The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2008. pp. 92-110.

Dent, Arthur. The Plain Man’s Pathway to Heaven, 50th ed. Belfast: Northern Ireland Book & Tract Depositry, 1859. From Internet Archive.

Gaskill, Malcolm. Witchfinders: a seventeenth-century English tragedy. London: John Murray, 2005.

Gaskill, Malcolm "Witchcraft and Power in early modern England: the case of Margaret Moore." In Women, Crime, and the Courts in Early Modern England, edited by Jennifer Kermode and Garthine Walker. North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1994

Cabell, Craig. The Witchfinder General: The Biography of Matthew Hopkins. UK: The History Press, 2006.

Deacon, Richard. Matthew Hopkins: Witch Finder General. London: F. Muller, 1976

Drucker, Johanna. "Graphic Devices: Narration and Navigation." In Narrative. Vol. 16, No. 2 Ohio: Ohio State University, 2008. pp. 121-139.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics The Invisible Art. New York: HarperPerennial, 1994.

Wood, Rocky and Lisa Morton. Witch Hunts: A Graphic History of the Burning Times. Illustrated by Greg Chapman. North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc. 2012.

Cover Image Tim Wright, Unsplash

Masthead Image Rowe, Sympathy for the Devil, pg 4