As shown in my novel, Widdershins, many people who were tried as witches were often simply cunning women who provided plant-based medicine, midwifery and healthcare services for those who were unable (or unwilling) to pay for a physician. Likewise prone to suspicion were barber surgeons who also provided plant-based medicines and carried out blood-letting, bone-setting and amputations.
Freshly picked elder berries
Other people who often fell under suspicion included the green women who gathered plants to provide the ingredients for cunning women and barber surgeons to prepare simples (herbal remedies made from a single plant) as well as more complex medicinal compounds. For instance, a green woman might pick elder berries and sell them to the cunning woman.
Elder berries ready for boiling
The cunning woman would then boil the elder berries with honey or sugar, along with warming spices, such as ginger or cinnamon, to create a curative linctus.
The resulting elderberry linctus would then be sold to villagers to prevent or cure coughs, colds, flu and lung diseases. A close look at the freshly picked sprigs of elder berries will show that the sprigs resemble the inner lung, which may be why elder is associated with the lung.
Beyond this, suspicion also fell on neighbours when times were hard. It seems it was easier to accuse a neighbour of witchcraft than to accept that sometimes bad luck was behind horses going lame, babies being miscarried or crops failing. It must have also been a convenient solution to anyone you didn’t like the look of, who posed any kind of threat (whether real or imagined), or who might have posed a perceived burden on the community – for example, the old, the poor, the disabled.
But it wasn’t just those administering folk medicine who risked accusation of witchcraft. Men of the cloth were also not safe. In the south of England, John Lowes, the vicar of Brandeston was swum; because he floated, he was then further tested and interrogated after being kept awake for several nights, before finally confessing to witchcraft.
Interestingly, it seems that the Rev. Lowes conducted his own burial service shortly before his execution. It’s interesting, not just because it’s strange to conduct your own funeral, but because most witches found guilty of witchcraft were put to death ‘without benefit of clergy’, which imperilled their eternal souls. So perhaps this was Lowes’ attempt to ensure that he at least had a Christian funeral.
Caution: This article is for entertainment only. and is not intended to replace professional medical diagnosis, advice or guidance. Many plants are toxic and can have fatal consequences, and it is very easy to mistake one plant for another. Before picking, preparing or ingesting any plant, it is essential to ask a qualified herbalist or plant expert to indentify the plant first.
Wallace Notestein (2010)  A History of Witchcraft in England from 1558 to 1718. New Haven, CT: Yale University.
Dilston Physic Garden runs excellent courses in botanical medicine. For more information, visit: http://dilstonphysicgarden.com/workshops/