|Can modern historical interpretations shed any new light on the reasons for the witchcraft persecutions in England?
The witch continues to exert a powerful hold on the modern mind, and has provided an increasingly popular research subject for historians, albeit one that becomes more baffling the deeper it is explored. Despite repeated exposure through novels, films, and a recent revival in so-called New Age paganism it is difficult, from a contemporary viewpoint, to imagine oneself within this past world of suspicion and mysterious occult powers. The last thirty years have witnessed an explosion in academic research into witchcraft with many differing theories and explanations being advanced. This essay will concentrate on recent academic interpretations of witchcraft and in particular on the role of inversion in defining the witch, the significance of demonology and folklore beliefs and the influence of elite and popular perceptions and responses in the construction of this complex phenomenon. The multiplicity of explanations available to the modern scholar is outlined in the first chapter of G R Quaifes study, wherein some forty interpretations are described including anthropological, pharmacological, feminist and psychoanalytic.(1) Robin Briggs has provided a more critical and focused overview which emphasises that witchcraft is itself a reification, an imposed category whose boundaries are anything but clear.(2) Many studies now stress that there is no evidence that witches ever existed in the manner in which the Early Modern demonologists described them (although many people definitely believed in their existence, which is equally important) and that older explanations that they were the cultish inheritors of pre-Christian pagan rituals or more modern theories that the persecutions were an imposition of patriarchy or an excuse for state building are no longer tenable. Confronted by this multiplicity of interpretations it is becoming clearer that witchcraft is a result of multiple causation and that answers might be found within the interstices of this network of theories and interpretations.
As the functional case put by Keith Thomas and Alan Macfarlane has come under increasing criticism, the cultural and psychological construction of the witch has become an area of increased scholarly endeavour. The contemporary view is outlined by Robin Briggs when he states that, witchcraft was not an objective reality, but a set of interpretations, something which went on in the mind.(3) Recent research has stressed that there is not such a strong difference between continental and British witchcraft; more emphasis was placed on the pact with the Devil and the role of elites in Europe. Despite the massive erudition and scope of Keith Thomas Religion and the Decline of Magic some of its central theses regarding witchcraft have been the subject of academic debate in recent years.(4) The anthropological model of witchcraft persecutions, based on household and neighbourhood interaction, constructed by Thomas and Macfarlane nearly thirty years ago, has been superseded. Fresh ways of interpreting witchcraft have been put forward in place of Thomas and Macfarlane's pattern of tension and accusation in local communities, reflecting longer term changes in social relations throughout England. The decrease in charitable obligations towards the poor of the parish during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, caused by economic pressures, led to a fear of magical revenge through maleficium from those most affected, usually poor, elderly widows.(5) Although witchcraft beliefs antedated the main phase of persecution they became a credible means of explaining misfortune. The mid-fifteenth century witnessed the introduction of legislation, such as the 1542 act, repealed in 1547 and the subsequent 1563 and 1604 acts that became the main statutes against witchcraft.
Hugely inflated figures have been suggested for the numbers executed in Europe during the peak period of persection, but the most sober modern estimates agree on a figure of 40,000 to 50,000 between 1450 and 1750 resulting from some 100,000 trials. Interestingly between 20-25% of those tried were men. Briggs gives a figure throughout Europe of 40,000 to 50,000 between 1450 and 1750, roughly half the number of casualties during the seventeenth Century Civil Wars, with perhaps 1000 executions in England.(6) The definition of the witch had become increasingly broad as is illustrated in this statement from William Perkins Discourse on the damned Art of Witchcraft of 1608,
by witches we understand not only those which kill and torment: but all Diviners, Charmers, Juglers, all Wizzards, commonly called wise men and wise women; yea, whosoever doe any thing (knowing what they doe) which cannot be effected by nature or art; and in the same number we reckon all good Witches, which doe no hurt, but good, which doe not spoile or destroy, but save and deliver.(7)
Clearly, when examining the predominantly rural milieu of witchcraft we have to abandon modern preconceptions of village life. As Michael MacDonald has stated, Seventeenth century villages bore no relation to the peaceable kingdoms anxious urbanites imagine made up the world we have lost. Criminal records abound with evidence that hatred, fear and violence were endemic in rural England before the Industrial Revolution, and many witchcraft accusations were simply extensions of personal hatreds and family feuds.(8) The harsh economic conditions of everyday village life fostered a degree of insecurity and social tension. It is also worth stressing that for the average villager, according to the evidence, the experience of witchcraft was comparatively rare and that the spate of persecutions occupied a narrow period of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. He or she did, however, inhabit a world in which the community was perceived to be surrounded by hostile forces, shielded only by a magical and spiritual carapace that was sustained by religious practice and church related rituals, at least before the Reformation. Viewed together, a physical world marked by hardship and a mental world which permitted the possibility of witchcraft, both provided fertile psychological ground either for delusion and desire in the witch and/or paranoia and hostility on the part of the witchs victim. It is difficult to imagine from the isolated and atomised perspective of contemporary urban life the everyday pressures and rivalries common to the Early Modern village community.
More recent scholarship has argued that magic cannot be understood outside complete systems of belief and thought and that the objective assessment of events made outside the mental and cultural context within which they took place has robbed them of true meaning. In an attempt to address this issue, one of the most impressive contributions to the witchcraft debate in recent years has been the work of Stuart Clark. In order to elucidate the writings of demonologists, which to modern readers seem implausible and irrational, he asserts that, if the rationale which originally informed the literature of witchcraft is ever to be recovered, we must begin not by assuming some sort of mistake on the part of the authors but by locating individual texts in a linguistic framework, possibly extending far beyond demonology itself, in which they were expected to make sense of utterances of a certain kind.(9) He emphasises the subscription to the language of binary oppositions and the logic of argument a contrariis, which informed all manner of Renaissance thinking, but which was particularly appropriate within the context of early modern demonology. This was part of a greater universe of discourses preoccupied with order, authority, uniformity and intellectual conformity amongst the learned. He concentrates especially in a 1980 article on the stress on contrariness and inverse behaviour in demonism.(10)
The characteristic of inversion was commonplace in Early Modern ritual and ceremony, especially in the public spectacles of popular culture known as the skimmington and the charivari.(11) Other historians agree that belief in witchcraft was rational in its own context and that demonology was a means by which the learned developed arguments about other issues. Throughout the learned discourses, the witch is defined as, the inverted other, animalistic, antichristian, deviant, evil, female, unruly.(12) With reference to the witches sabbath Robert Muchembled describes it as, a reversal of the Christian liturgy, a copy of the Mass in which each separate feature was given a negative coefficient- a dark, morbid parody of the original.(13) As enemies of society, witches were also believed to form a furtive and conspiratorial anti-society at a time when many groups were believed to be plotting against the Christian state. The power of the inversion prototype was earlier exemplified in the downfall off the Knights Templar, whose members were accused of defaming the crucifix and kissing their brethrens anuses whilst worshipping a pagan idol(14). In the Early Modern period, at the level of state, Church and intellectuals there was a belief in the witch not as an isolated individual but as part of a wider group which drew their power from and were in league with the Devil.
In England one of the most savage periods of persecution has become associated with Matthew Hopkins, the self-styled Witchfinder General, whose activities between 1645 and 1647 led to the trial and execution of, it is claimed, around 200 witches in the East Anglia region.(15) These trials took place during a period of social unrest and administrative disruption caused by the conflicts of the Civil Wars. Many unusual ideas were in circulation owing to the proliferation of pamphlets and chapbooks, which were being read by an increasingly literate population. Assisted by John Stearne, Hopkins travelled throughout the area investigating cases of witchcraft and maleficium, but was especially interested in the allegations concerning pacts with the Devil and the keeping of familiars. The accounts of dealings with the Devil that emerge from the documentation open up a rich seam of contemporary beliefs about him with offers of revenge for some hurt or slight or promises of wealth and personal profit in exchange for the witches soul. In these accounts the exact relationship between popular beliefs and the demonological input of Hopkins and Stearne remains problematic and the motivation behind their acts has so far eluded historians. From the published accounts it seems that people already possessed a repertoire of beliefs about the Devil, probably from sermons and folktales, which they drew on when constructing their confessions. From an early stage the figure of the Devil was present in the discourses of witchcraft found in contemporary pamphlet literature and learned demonology was important in defining what constituted devilish acts or a witch. English demonology may not have been identical to Continental demonology, but the belief that diabolical power could be harnessed by humans to cause harm was widely held at all social levels. Apocalyptic sermons also reinforced the antithesis of good and evil.
Malcolm Gaskill has examined one of the many cases associated with the Hopkins persecutions: that of Margaret Moore. He claims that in certain cases individuals might be seen to play out struggles in an imaginary supernatural arena.(16) Her confession may not have been the result of torture but was, constructed in her own mind from desire, emotion, experience and belief.(17) He also states that the barriers between the physical and metaphysical, the natural and the supernatural were more permeable in the seventeenth century mind. Official attitudes to witches are exemplified in the statement that, More than any other sort of nonconformity, witchcraft could be held up by moralists to illustrate the ideal of religious and secular conformity because it displayed this ideal in its most inverted and corrupted form.(18) According to Diane Purkiss, social historians like Natalie Davis, Robert Darnton and Annabel Gregory have begun to see the popular written materials of the period as stories, reflecting on the fact that such texts may be strategic rather than transparent, self-fashioning rather than self-revelation, an idea which is similar to Gaskills thesis.(19) The folklore of the Devil in early modern England needs more thorough research in order to explain his appearance in these apparently bizarre confessions elicited by Hopkins and Stearne. Many stories were in circulation from the Middle Ages of desperate individuals who had sold their souls to the Devil. Parallels might be drawn between British folk beliefs and those on the Continent, such as those examined by Carlo Ginzburg in his book Ecstasies.(20) Whilst exhibiting a hugely impressive and eclectic display of scholarship, Ginzburgs book requires leaps of critical faith and reliance on the survival of tenuous folklore connections more familiar from such popular works of conspiracy history as The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. It would appear that fairy tales and folklore had a significant role to play in the construction and narrative structure of the witches confession.
A further perplexing aspect of the Hopkins trials is the prevalence of witches familiars. From 110 cases examined by James Sharpe 78 involved familiars which came in many guises. The most common is the cat but many other creatures such as mice, dogs, chickens, rabbits, rats and a polecat were also described as familiars. A difficulty emerges in the accounts of distinguishing the Devil from the animal familiar; this takes the reader away from the model of witchcraft based on maleficium into one where something like the diabolical element is present. The familiar could be said to be an inversion of the household pet, which has been such a common possession in this country. A famous earlier account from 1566, (the first English trial pamphlet) of Elizabeth Francis contains many examples of magical thinking in which hostile thoughts about neighbours, husbands and children are translated into maleficium by her cat Sathan, who takes a drop of her blood for each wicked deed accomplished.(21) Many witches confessions represented wishes and fantasies which were fulfilled in retrospect, often through the medium of their familiar.
A split between popular and elite culture has also been seen as a motivating force behind the English witchcraft persecutions. The interest of contemporary elite culture and the intervention in the form of court cases has been described as a major contributory factor in the rise of the witch craze. Persecution occurred given the coalescence of widespread popular beliefs in witchcraft and the agencies for enforcing social and religious conformity. A convergence of beliefs at the level of both elites and people in this period helps to explain why Europe as a whole should have witnessed a witch-craze. However, a very high proportion of English witchcraft trials were initiated from below, although this was possible only with the aid of legal machinery established by the elites and where some degree of interaction between law enforcers and the general population was commonplace. According to Stuart Clark, Protestant demonology arose at the intersection of clerical and popular culture, with the result that witchcraft came to include a very wide range of proscribed behaviour, most of it far removed from the classic stereotype of devil worship.(22) In many cases an extended period, sometimes of many years, was allowed for accusations to accrue against an individual. According to Clive Holmes, local suspicions and concerns had to be moulded to the requirements of legal categorization and procedure and, beyond these, to the political and theological concerns of the elite which informed and shaped juridical forms.(23)
According to Robin Briggs, witchcraft was about envy, ill-will and the power to harm others, exercised in small face-to-face communities which, although they could often contain such feelings, found it impossible to disperse them.(24) Many historians today believe that the study of witchcraft would benefit from a more self-consciously past-centred approach. Stuart Clark and Malcolm Gaskill prefer an approach which, seeks to insert the speech and action contained in recorded accusations back into the fluid structure of mentalities that shaped them.(25) The role of contemporary demonology and folklore is being increasingly explored as a means of approaching the interpretation of witches confessions. Robin Briggs summarises the psychological world of the Early Modern witch when he says that, as a form of fantasy, expressing the inner worlds of early modern Europeans, witchcraft belief mixed up a potent cocktail of forbidden libidinal and social desires; the process of extracting confessions helped to merge these with popular notions of a more folkloric kind.(26)
The pervasive nature of diabolic myths is evident in the recent accusations of satanic ritual abuse , which resulted in widespread, largely uncritical media coverage, that suggested disturbing implications for the rationality of the post-modern world, but which provided a fascinating example of the persistence of such beliefs.(27) A path has been cleared through some of the pseudo-academic and academic obfuscations that continue to surround this subject. Certain aspects of post-modern theory have been used by modern historians to interpret the narratives attributed to the witches in their confessions. It is worthwhile posing the question as to why this particular subject proves so fascinating at the end of the Twentieth Century. A recently published provocative study of hysteria has raised a number of points which could be applied to aspects of the Early Modern witchcraft phenomenon. Commenting on the extraordinary internal consistency of accounts given by so-called alien abductees the author says
Literary critics realize that similarities between two stories do not mean that they mirror a common reality or even that the writers have read each others texts...(the accounts)...have their own conventions, stereotypes and structures. Writers inherit common themes, structures, characters and images; critics call these common elements intertextuality.(28)
Perhaps some of these contemporary theories will help to explain this complex and fascinating historical event.
1. G.R.Quaife Godly Zeal and Furious Rage: the Witch in Early Modern Europe (Croom Helm, London, 1987) Ch.1