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Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Malevolent Nurture

Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Malevolent Nurture
© Photograph by Tat's Eyes

These books demonstrate the diversity of perspectives which now attend upon the history of witchcraft. The academic backgrounds of the authors – which include anthropology, literary criticism, and social policy, as well as history – reflect the development of a vibrant, dynamic historiography.

The theoretical and methodological issues raised reverberate far beyond the field of witchcraft studies. Indeed, these books allow us to compare some reasonably conventional social history and now familiar anthropological analysis with some of the most recent psychoanalytic and post-structuralist approaches.

In her splendid and original ‘The Witch in History’, Diane Purkiss analyses how stories about the witch operate in different cultural sites. She examines the discourses of radical feminism, modern witches, and academic historians, early modern accounts of witchcraft, and representations of the witch in early modern drama.

In the process, Purkiss launches a scathing, if somewhat essentialising, attack on the historical establishment and its methodologies. She claims that radical feminism’s “ahistorical stance” and emotional investment in the past exposes the extent to which “orthodox (male) history” uses a discourse of objectivity to suppress [presumably female] emotion (pp. 9-12).

Academic writings on witchcraft have “a hidden agenda”: to show the academic to be sceptical, impartial, sophisticated in contrast to the irrational believer in witchcraft (p. 60). Certain other works reviewed here might corroborate Purkiss’s impression. For instance, James Sharpe in his introduction to ‘Instruments of Darkness’ dismisses in particular the work of historians whom he describes respectively as a “religious fanatic” (p. 7), an “ageing radical” with a “romantic imagination” (p. 8), a woman “who eventually became a lecturer” but whose “views are widely discredited among serious scholars” (p. 8), and feminist writers who wrote “with scant regard for historical evidence and with little idea of the broader historical context” (p. 9).

Purkiss takes historians to task not only for latent anti-feminism but for under-theorisation. She condemns academic historians in general as empiricists who refute certain theoretical models “for no other reason than because it suits their narrow and empirical outlook” (p. 70). Unlike “most historians”, “only literary critics and a few maverick historians” know how to read historical documents which, Purkiss reveals, are texts. Purkiss thus parodies the attitudes of historians to both theory and method. She conveniently refers only to the weaker contributions to recent debates over postmodernism and history, thereby allowing her to conclude that historians’ refutations of postmodernism “are usually based on fairly comprehensive misreadings of what they refute … suggesting a certain interpretative carelessness”: “The assumption that historians are free to reject anything which calls the rules of their own discipline into question makes those rules seem unreasonably confining” (pp. 69, 70). We may ask, ‘confining’ for whom? The answer appears to be Purkiss herself, and other literary critics. In Purkiss’s account, the intellectually primitive historian is to the sophisticated literary critic what she claims the witch is to the historian. Purkiss seems so irritated, so cross, with history as a discipline. She appears to have as much, perhaps more, invested in dissolving the disciplinary boundaries as do those she criticises in keeping them intact.

Purkiss in ‘The Witch in History’, Deborah Willis in ‘Malevolent Nurture’, and Lyndal Roper in her now familiar essay on witchcraft and fantasy in early modern Germany reprinted for a third time in the Barry et al collection, ‘Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe’, each draw on the insights of psychoanalysis in order to interpret early modern witchcraft narratives.

Purkiss unwittingly puts her finger on why psychoanalysis has not been widely adopted by historians: psychoanalysis offers a way “to historicise or analyse patterns of thought which for me are well-nigh inescapable” (p. 2); “For us, in the late-twentieth-century, all aspects of the supernatural have … become naturalised as metaphors for inner states” (p. 13).

What is problematic for historians – its historically specific assumption of naturalness – is the very thing that makes psychoanalysis appealing. The essentialism and transhistoricism of psychoanalysis is noted by Willis, who concedes apologetically that even “a psychoanalytic theory attentive to historical nuance will remain to some extent tainted by anachronism and blind to aspects of early modern ‘difference’”. But for Willis, the alternative is “a history that treats subjects as if they have no unconscious, no childhood, no life haunted by a past of intrapsychic conflict” (pp. 20-21).

This insistence on psychoanalytic theory or nothing seems reductionist, especially as psychological explanations have remained at the forefront of historical studies of witchcraft since the early 1970s.

Nevertheless, analyses of witchcraft informed by psychoanalysis have much to recommend them, although all three of the studies reviewed here which employ psychoanalytic theory, offer interpretations that remain (at least partially) valid if the psychoanalysis is removed.

Willis argues that the witch is represented as “mother” in a range of cultural sites: grass-roots witchcraft accusations; Protestant tracts; aristocratic notions of witch-hunting; Shakespeare’s plays. Whilst her own arguments are rendered problematic by a lack of historiographical and historical context, and her reliance on psychoanalytic theory leads to a certain degree of overinterpretation, Willis’s sensitive treatment of early modern witchcraft raises and explores a series of issues that might be further investigated.

Roper too explores aspects of the relationship between witchcraft and motherhood in a stimulating way which has already been expanded in her influential ‘Oedipus and the Devil’ (1994). Purkiss’s conceptual scope is somewhat broader. She argues, for example, that women’s transformative role (especially regarding food, a “constant theme” in witchcraft narratives) was not just one associated with maternal care, but with the wider identity of the early modem housewife. Thus, the figure of the witch is imagined as an anti-housewife, one who pollutes and disorders.

Moreover, Purkiss demonstrates that the tensions that underlay witchcraft accusations did not arise merely from female competition as is commonly argued; they could also result from co-operation between women, such as the exchange of food and other domestic items. This is a far more sophisticated reading of the evidence concerning the roles of both women and interpersonal disputes in witchcraft cases than those offered by many conventional social historians.

The relationship between women and witchcraft has not been greatly clarified in recent years. The rather nebulous state of research in this regard is exemplified by the extremely valuable collection of essays edited by Jonathan Barry, Marianne Hester & Gareth Roberts, ‘Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe’. The book seeks “to re-evaluate the arguments” of Keith Thomas’s ‘Religion and the Decline of Magic’ in the light of developments in the field since the latter’s publication in 1971.

A number of the contributors broaches the gendering of witchcraft, but the eclectic nature of the volume (which is one of its strengths) offers a range of ideas but no coherent gender analysis. The same point may be made about Barry’s introductory chapter, which constitutes a useful historiographical starting point for students. Barry’s reinterpretation of Thomas – in which Thomas appears to have anticipated many of the recent themes of and approaches to witchcraft – reveals a desire to resolve problems of interpretation and methodology rather than to problematise them. This may have seemed unavoidable in view of the divergent, and often incompatible, theoretical positions taken by the contributors.

The role of gender is nevertheless highlighted in interesting ways in this collection of essays. Gareth Roberts’s chapter on the representation of the mythic temptress witch, Circe, in works of literature argues that contemporary male authors reacted to witchcraft’s implicit and sometimes explicit challenge to male potency and virtue. Peter Elmer examines the construction of the Quaker-witch stereotype that developed during the political and social upheavals of mid-seventeenth-century England.

Although he himself does not elaborate on how the language of witchcraft was gendered, Elmer’s excellent analysis of the ways in which linguistic conventions were modified in the light of those upheavals could clearly be expanded to include a gender analysis.

We might consider the significance of gender in contemporary attempts to create an alternative “language” of civil society, in how “common metaphors and analogues [took] on new meanings, amongst them witchcraft, which now came to represent little more than a substitute phrase, literally a metaphor, for the act of disobedience” (p. 173).

Malcolm Gaskill’s study of early modern Kentish accusations reconsiders common stereotypes of the witch in the light of the wider definitions deployed by those involved in prosecutions. Gaskill’s evidence demonstrates that whereas only a tiny minority of women arraigned as witches were “old, impecunious widows”, most seem to have been wives.

Importantly, Gaskill also considers the interpersonal dynamics at play when men were accused of witchcraft. Much of his argument is convincing: that many cases expressed conflicts born out of competition between households, and that one should view the accused parties “less as unpopular individuals and more as members of an unpopular household” (p. 273).

This latter exhortation would seem to be good advice. But his conclusion, that the strong emphasis on neighbourliness in the period may be explained “because in reality social relations were so commonly characterised by its dark reverse side: malice” is ultimately less convincing than Purkiss’s analysis which allows for both competition and co-operation between households, and which gives a higher priority to women’s position within them.

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