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Words

In response to:

Witches & Beggars from the May 4, 1972 issue

To the Editors:

In your issue of May 4 you printed a letter from Mr. Toby E. Huff in which the writer mentioned incidentally G. Rosen’s book Madness in Society (1968) and stated that “the influence of Trevor-Roper is to be found in Rosen’s account.” To this Mr. Rosen indignantly replied, “This assertion is totally incorrect. The chapter to which Huff refers was originally published in 1960…the publication precedes the book by Trevor-Roper by about seven years. Indeed, I was quite surprised when I read the publication by Trevor-Roper…” and he insisted on a public recantation of this inaccuracy.

When I first saw Mr. Rosen’s letter, I assumed that he was stating the facts correctly and in a letter to you I stated that I was “quite sure that Rosen and I have written independently of each other.” Mr. Huff also made the same assumption, and wrote to you to apologize for his “incorrect recollection.” Both of these letters were published in your issue of July 20.

However, I now find that we have been too ingenuous in accepting Mr. Rosen’s statements, for I have recently looked, for the first time, at Mr. Rosen’s book and I find that a whole page at least of his work is an almost verbatim transcription from mine. For I too wrote part of my book in an earlier form, in an article which was published in the New Statesman, early in 1959 (i.e., a year before Mr. Rosen’s “original publication”), and it is precisely this part of my work which Mr. Rosen has plagiarized. I say “plagiarized” because the identity of content, language, and style precludes any other interpretation, in spite of the pompous and erudite footnotes in which Mr. Rosen refers to older or more arcane sources.

I do not mind in the least if Mr. Rosen borrows my words, even without acknowledgment: indeed I am prepared to take it as a compliment; but when challenged, he should not disown even so trivial a debt, or demand apologies from those who notice the fact, or express “surprise” at the closeness with which my words echo his.

H. R. Trevor-Roper

Oxford, England

PS: As evidence relevant parts of my article of 1959 and Mr. Rosen’s work of 1968 follow:

Of course, shepherds and peasant women continued to talk of them, as they had done in pagan times: we find sympathetic magic in Theocritus, werewolves in Petronius, anointment and night-flying in Apuleius; and St Augustine, with his African credulity, did his best to preserve these peasant superstitions and fit them into his gigantic system. But in general the Church, as the civiliser of nations, disdained such old wives’ tales. They were the rubbish of paganism which the light of the Gospel had dispelled. Even the Devil, in the Middle Ages, sank through familiarity into contempt. The Prince of Darkness became a village hobgoblin, dismissible with a formula.

And then, with the end of the Middle Ages, what a change! In the sixteenth century, the century of the Renaissance, and the seventeenth century, the century of the New Science, all Europe seemed given over to witches. Countries in which they had hitherto been unknown—Scotland, Hungary—were suddenly found to be swarming with them. By their own confession, thousands of old women every night slipped through cracks and keyholes and flew off to the Witches’ Sabbat. There they worshipped the Devil in the form of a stinking goat, danced around him amid macabre music, kissed him solemnly under the tail, and feasted on such viands as tempted their national imagination. In Germany these were sliced turnips, parodies of the Host; in Spain, exhumed corpses, preferably of kinsfolk; in England, more sensibly, roast beef and beer. When not thus engaged, these old ladies were busy suckling familiar spirits in the form of weasels, moles, bats, toads or other convenient creatures; they were compassing the death of their neighbours or their neighbours’ pigs; they were raising tempests, causing blights, or procuring impotence in bridegrooms; and as a pledge of their servitude they were constantly having sexual intercourse with the Devil, who appeared (since even he abhors unnatural vice) to she-witches as an incubus, to he-witches as a succubus.

H. R. Trevor-Roper,

New Statesman, April 4, 1959.

Sympathetic magic occurs in Theocritus, werewolves are found in Petronius, and anointment and night-flying in Apuleius. Some of the Church fathers such as St. Augustine preserved peasant superstitions such as these, but in general the Church of the Dark Ages tended to regard such matters as old wives’ tales, as the rubbish of paganism which the light of the Gospel had dispelled. Demonic possession was acknowledged, but even the Prince of Darkness was dismissible through exorcism.

Consciousness of Satan was not at its height in the Dark Ages. But the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the period which witnessed the building of the great cathedrals, the rise of the universities, and the flowering of scholastic philosophy, were precisely the years in which awareness of the Devil and his powers was carried to a new and terrifying height.13 And then towards the end of the medieval period, during the Renaissance and the century of the New Science, all Europe seemed to swarm with witches. By their own confession, thousands of women, mostly old, some men and some children, slipped through windows, chimneys and keyholes and flew off on animals or sticks to worship the Devil at the nocturnal witches’ Sabbath. There they worshipped the Devil, sometimes in the form of a man, sometimes as a male animal (most often a goat), to the accompaniment of weird and macabre music, dancing around him, kissing him under the tail, and feasting on such delicacies as suited local and ethnic tastes. Furthermore, those present were alleged to celebrate the Black Mass by practising cannibalism or by parodying and desecrating the Host. Witches were accused of bewitching their neighbours or their neighbours’ animals, of causing the death of infants, producing miscarriages, or drying up the milk of cows. They were further accused of producing impotence in a bridegroom, causing blights or raising tempests.14

  1. 13

    The history of witchcraft, demonology, and related matters is very extensive. Interested readers may turn to: J. Hansen, Zauberwahn, Inquisition und Hexenprozess im Mittelalter, München, Oldenbourg, 1900; H. C. Lea, Materials Toward a History of Witchcraft, Arranged and ed. by A. C. Howland, 3 vols., Philadelphia University of Pennsylvania Press, 1939.

  2. 14

    Henry E. Sigerist, “Impotence as a Result of Witchcraft,” in Essays in Biology: in Honor of Herbert M. Evans, Berkeley, University of California Press, pp. 541-546; Gerda Hoffmann, “Beiträge zur Lehre von der durch Zauber verursachten Krankheit und ihrer Behandlung in der Medizin des Mittelalters,” Janus, 37: 129-144, 179-182, 211-220, 1933.

    George Rosen,

    Madness and Society, 1968 (Introduction)

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