The Curious Weight of Punctuation

I recently found a book on Project Gutenberg, Witchcraft and Devil Lore in the Channel Islands, while doing some research on the Islands (I have ancestors from St. Peter Port, Guernsey, and from a few places in Jersey). The book, first published in 1886, includes court transcripts of witch trials — including the purported witches’ “confessions” — in the original French followed by English translations by John Linwood Pitts, who put the book together.

In his introduction to the book, Pitts notes the curious use of colons in the transcripts “where they would not be required as ordinary marks of punctuation. These correspond, however, to similar pauses in the original records, and evidently indicate the successive stages by which the story was wrung from the wretched victims. They are thus endowed with a sad and ghastly significance, which must be borne in mind when the confessions are read. It must also be remembered that these confessions were not usually made in the connected form in which they stand recorded, but were rather the result of leading questions put by the inquisitors, such as: How old were you when the Devil first appeared to you? What form did he assume? What parish were you in? What were you doing? &c., &c” (Pitts 7).

To illustrate the kind of torture that was administered to accused witches at the time, Pitts provides an example of a witch trial that took place in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1591 (only 26 years before the trials he writes about). A Dr. Fian was accused, among others, of practicing witchcraft and was tortured. He eventually confessed before the king, but after he was released, he retracted his confession, saying that he only confessed out of fear of enduring more pain. The king (James I) then accused him of having made a new contract with the Devil, and Dr. Fian was “put to the question” again. Pitts includes an excerpt from C.K. Sharpe’s Historical Account of the Belief in Witchcraft in Scotland that precisely describes the torture involved:

His nailes upon all his fingers were riven and pulled off with an instrument called in Scottish a turkas, which in England wee call a payre of pincers, and under everie nayle there was thrust in two needles over, even up to the heads; at all which tormentes notwithstanding the Doctor never shronke anie whit, neither woulde he then confesse it the sooner for all the tortures inflicted upon him. Then was hee, with all convenient speed, by commandement, convaied againe to the torment of the bootes, wherein he continued a long time, and did abide so many blowes in them, that the legges were crusht and beaten together as small as might bee, and the bones and flesh so bruised that the blood and marrow spouted forth in great abundance, whereby they were made unserviceable for ever; and notwithstanding all those grievous paines and cruell torments, hee would not confess anie thing; so deeply had the devill entered into his heart, that hee utterly denied all that which he had before avouched, and would saie nothing thereunto but this, that what he had done and sayde before, was onely done and sayde for fear of paynes which he had endured. After this horrible treatment the wretched man was strangled and burnt. (7)

The “bootes” referred to above are the bootikens — boots attached from the ankle to the knee through which wedges were driven into the legs. Other infamous torture instruments often used against accused witches include the Pear, thumb screws, the Rack and ducking stools. I won’t go into a description of them here; the curious can always look up the details elsewhere.

Having read all this, here is one of the “confessions” provided in the book, dated 4 July 1617, an exact translation with all punctuation intact —

Marie, wife of Pierre Massy, after sentence of death had been pronounced against her, having been put to the question, confessed that she was a Witch; and that at the persuasion of the Devil, who appeared to her in the form of a dog: she gave herself to him: that when she gave herself to him he took her by the hand with his paw: that she used to anoint herself with the same ointment as her mother used: and had been to the Sabbath upon the bank near Rocquaine Castle with her, where there was no one but the Devil and her as it seemed: in the aforesaid form in which she had seen him several times: She was also at the Sabbath on one occasion among others in the road near Collas Tottevin’s; every time that she went to the Sabbath, the Devil came to her, and it seemed as though he transformed her into a female dog; she said that upon the shore, near the said Rocquaine: the Devil, in the form of a dog, having had connection with her, gave her bread and wine, which she ate and drank.

The Devil gave her certain powders: which powders he put into her hand, for her to throw upon those whom he ordered her: she threw some of them by his orders upon persons and cattle: notably upon the child of Pierre Brehaut. Item, upon the wife of Jean Bourgaize, while she was enceinte. Item, upon the child of Leonard le Messurier. (16)

The colons have a gruesome percussive effect. They’re slight little beats of silence that thump with the mystery of the torture happening behind the proverbial curtain. Even their appearances are like the heads of two tiny nails driven into the flesh of the paragraphs.

I’m not pointing this out for macabre pleasure. I’m making this point because it not only reveals the brutality of medieval European witch trials, which are usually only delicately mentioned in passing because an actual examination is often too horrifying a prospect; it also serves a lesser but still significant purpose: it proves the incredible power of punctuation.

People with poor grammar skills tend to use punctuation as if it were merely decoration, throwing in quotations for petty emphasis or commas whenever they want the reader to pause (even if the pause is natural and doesn’t have an effect on the intended meaning anyway). I’m not talking about typos here; this is often an issue of wholesale insistence on littering prose with useless signage. Oppositely, naive, self-described and -righteous grammar snobs place a dictatorial embargo on the creative bending (or breaking) of grammar rules out of an almost pathological respect for said rules.

There is a valid middle ground, of course. Punctuation rules are established to provide stability in written communication as well as to clarify what is being written. However, there are instances in which these very rules can — and should — be bent or broken to signify something important — in the above case, whatever happens “off stage” (although the original transcriber likely only wanted to create a sense of continuity while respecting the breaks in the confession for reasons of accuracy). In cases of fiction, poetry and other forms of creative literature, rule-bending or -breaking might be used in similar ways: to communicate something about the story, the narrator or other characters that otherwise can’t be expressed for whatever reason. Consider Faulkner’s or Joyce’s run-on sentences in their stream-of-consciousness styles that simulate the free, connected-yet-disorganized flow of thoughts and impressions in a person’s mind. Also consider Emily Dickinson’s frequent use of em-dashes instead of other punctuation, which creates a lingering echo, especially in the last lines. Remember e.e. cumming’s playful, liberated use of punctuation symbols to highlight words and phrases, disrupt the flow, or to reinvent the meanings of those very symbols.

There is a place and purpose for rules, of course, but there is also a place and purpose for breaking those rules. And, quite often, it’s the fact of the rules’ existence that gives the breaking its power and meaning.


Pitts, John Linwood. Witchcraft and Devil Lore in the Channel Islands. Guernsey, 1886. The Project Gutenberg. Web. 2 Dec. 2005.

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      1. Aha, punctuation… My great Grandfather was a Kings Counsel in southern England, a fanatic with the use of language, and a tyrant with punctuation. Family legend has it he fired one of his law clerks for not knowing how to use a semi colon. His reported parting words were…”You only have half a brain, and it’s too close to your bottom.” Find a way to recover from that one!

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