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Bothered and Bewildered

Witches and Neighbors: The Social and Cultural Context of European Witchcraft

by Robin Briggs
Viking, 457 pp., $32.95

The Witch in History: Early Modern and Twentieth-Century Representations

by Diane Purkiss
Routledge, 296 pp., $17.95 (paper)

1.

Over the years I have met more than a dozen people who considered themselves to be witches and/or worshippers of a female deity, whom they usually referred to as The Goddess. They were of every age and social class, and of both sexes—though, as in the witch trials of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, women predominated. With one exception, all claimed that they were good, or white, witches, and worked only for positive ends. They celebrated the seasons of the year and the power and glory of nature. They cast spells to find lost objects; to bring health, wealth, happiness, and peace of mind to themselves and their friends; and occasionally to block the evil or misguided actions of institutions such as the Internal Revenue Service, the Pentagon, and Cornell University.

The one witch who admitted to a less benign use of her magic arts was the writer Shirley Jackson, best remembered now for her brilliant and frightening short story “The Lottery.” At one time, Jackson related, she and her husband (the critic Stanley Edgar Hyman) were extremely annoyed by his publisher, Alfred Knopf. “Unfortunately, my powers do not extend to New York State,” she declared. “But let him be warned. If he enters my territory, Vermont, evil will befall him.”

The warning was passed on; but a few weeks later, rashly disregarding it, Knopf took a train to Vermont to go skiing. The first day he was out on the slopes, Shirley Jackson said, he fell and broke his leg. After emergency medical treatment, he was helped onto another train and returned to his territory, Manhattan.1

If Shirley Jackson had lived four hundred years ago, she might well have been accused of witchcraft as a result of this incident. It follows what the Oxford historian Robin Briggs, in Witches and Neighbors, proposes as a common pattern. A feels him/herself to have been injured, cheated, or slighted by B. A threatens or curses B—or perhaps merely gives B a peculiar look, or makes an ambiguous gesture. Soon afterward B falls ill, has an accident, or suffers some other unexpected misfortune. B, and B’s friends and relatives, blame A, who is probably a witch.

Briggs’s scholarly and agreeably written book includes many such cases. Unlike some historians, however, he is also deeply interested in “the belief system that made witchcraft credible” and persecution possible. What he has set out to do, he writes, is “as much to reconstruct a way of thinking and living as to offer explanations for the great persecutions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.”

As Briggs and others have pointed out, our primary sources for these events are fragmentary, skewed, and unreliable, since they consist almost entirely of trial records and confessions obtained as a result of threats and torture. Nevertheless historians have come up with a variety of definitive, sometimes contradictory explanations for the phenomena: economic, political, social, and religious.

Robin Briggs’s approach is far more modest. He politely remarks that few of the theories of other historians “are wholly worthless,” though it is clear that he considers many of them extremely limited. Again and again he apologizes for his inability to come to definite conclusions, since the evidence is so patchy, compromised, and contradictory. Yet in spite of these continual disclaimers his book contains several new and interesting observations. Its title, Witches and Neighbors, for instance, is descriptive rather than exclusive. According to Briggs, most accused witches were neighbors and/or close acquaintances of their accusers. Also, as a rule, episodes of witchcraft persecution were not “essentially directed and managed from above” by the authorities, as some historians have claimed. Instead, they were the end result of long-term, small-scale social and economic conflict and superstitious belief. Today, Briggs remarks, “many people…deal with social conflict as the African nomads did; they move on or find new groups to associate with.” Meanwhile, in static communities all over the world, belief in witches flourishes.

Witches and Neighbors is based on an extensive investigation of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century data from Western, Northern, and Central Europe and New England, and also on “a close study of nearly 400 trials from Lorraine” in eastern France. Anyone who has ever sat in a provincial library or courthouse, trying to read a very old document in a foreign language, written in crabbed handwriting and ink faded to burnt brown on crumbling paper, must feel awe and admiration for Professor Briggs and the use he has been able to make of this obscure and recalcitrant material.

The villages of late sixteenth-century Lorraine, as Briggs reveals them, seem to have been full to the brim of petty dispute and sudden ludicrous events:

Claudon Colas Colin warned Jennon Etienne to keep her geese out of his meadow…. She passed before his horses and held out her arms, whereupon one of them fell down, dying a few hours later.

Even representatives of the Church were not immune from these occurrences:

…The curé of Bisping had helped arrange a marriage and was roused early from his bed to join the party which fetched the bride. As they went on their way Senelle Petter, whose own son had been an unsuccessful suitor for the girl’s hand, was seen looking over her door at them. The curé started to feel unwell…. He took to his bed with fever and a swollen leg, to die maintaining that she had given him the illness.

At times the perceived effects of witchcraft seem to be as delusional as the accusations: one woman, for example, “believed she was bewitched, because several rat-sized animals seemed to be running about inside her body.” In another case, early one morning, when Jacotte Simon was still asleep, two “marvellously big and ugly” cats, whom she later identified as two of her neighbors, appeared at the end of her bed. “Although she could not move, she managed to make the sign of the cross with her tongue, calling out to her husband for help.” When he rushed in, they vanished “with a great noise.”

As Briggs points out, almost all societies studied by anthropologists or historians believe in witches. The only exceptions are a few nomadic African tribes, who developed witches as soon as they settled down. Witchcraft, his book suggests, is the outward manifestation of inescapable social conflict. If you live in the same place for several years, sooner or later one of your neighbors will do something that irritates you very much. This is even more likely if you are in direct economic competition with him or her, as early modern villagers were. If you, like almost everyone else in your village, believe in the power of spells and the evil eye, it is a short step to blaming your most unpleasant neighbors for whatever goes wrong.

If times are hard, Briggs remarks, fears and accusations of witchcraft seem to be even more common.2 This happened during the sixteenth century, when most people in Europe suffered a continuing drop in their living standards. Overpopulation reduced stocks of food and depressed wages; there was increased competition for scant resources such as wood for fuel: “Wages declined in real terms, work became harder to find, pauperization spread.” Briggs compares the condition of the peasantry to that of “people trying to cling to a sharply inclined sandhill.” Local misfortunes also played a part: “Devastating weather, plagues of insects, epidemics of animal disease and similar misfortunes might arouse villages or larger regions to peaks of anxiety.”

When things went wrong in these communities, a common reaction was to look around for someone to blame. Usually the suspected witch already had a reputation for being difficult and easily offended, or unreasonably demanding. In a subsistence village economy it was taken for granted that you would help your neighbors out when things went badly for them, and that they would return the favor. Gossip and suspicion focused on people who openly envied and resented others’ good fortune, and on those who frequently asked to borrow food or small sums of money but seldom returned the favor.

Social slights were also apt to end in suspicions of witchcraft. The neighbor who was not invited to a wedding or a christening feast was frequently blamed for subsequent problems, especially if he or she showed resentment. As Briggs points out, this theme passed into folklore as the familiar motif of the excluded witch or fairy godmother taking her revenge.

Unusually persistent or ungrateful beggars were also very apt to be accused. In a world without organized public assistance, charity was a religious duty. Besides, the local beggars were often also longtime neighbors: people who in the past had been self-supporting, but were now too old, ill, or crippled to work, and had no relatives to support them. When times were hard, charity could become onerous. More and more often, the demands of aggressive beggars for money or food were met with refusal. And, as any big-city resident today can testify, beggars who are turned down often become unpleasant; they may even curse those who have refused to give.

In sixteenth-century rural Europe, such reactions were taken seriously, and might be blamed for any subsequent misfortune, even if there had been no overt threat:

Margueritte Liegey, known as la Geline (“the hen”), had allegedly been a much feared beggar…for twenty years. After Claude George refused her alms one day she fell ill with her mouth twisted….

Most accused witches, according to Professor Briggs and many other modern historians, were very far from the skilled and powerful figures of folk belief, though in their confessions they—and their examiners—drew heavily on these beliefs. At first they usually denied being witches, or claimed that they only used their knowledge for good. It was only later, after long-drawn-out examinations which often included torture, that they confessed to having cast evil spells, signed a compact with the Devil, or attended witches’ sabbaths.

Public accusations of witchcraft, however, were in fact extremely rare. When people believed themselves bewitched, the most common reaction was to ask or force the suspected person to remove the spell by means of a gift, a touch, or a prayer. If he or she refused, or denied responsibility, one might try some do-it-yourself charms and prayers. The next line of defense was to consult an expert: either the local priest, or a “cunning man” or “cunning woman” who would confirm the identity of the culprit and cast a counterspell. (Cunning men and women, of course, had considerable prestige in local society, but since they were known to have special powers, they were also in danger of being accused as witches.)

As Robin Briggs points out, it usually took at least fifteen or twenty years of gossip and suspicion before there was a formal accusation, and the majority of cases never reached the courts. There were several reasons for this. First, whether or not you won your case, the accused witch and his or her friends and relatives were very likely to take revenge on you—either magically or materially. The accused person might also decide to declare that you too were a witch; you might then soon find yourself in the same prison.

  1. 1

    See Judy Oppenheimer, Private Demons: The Life of Shirley Jackson (Putnam’s, 1988), pp. 132-133, for a similar version of this story—I heard it from Shirley Jackson myself, however.

  2. 2

    A recent case in the former Soviet Russia, which ended in murder, was reported in The New York Times, “In Modern Russia, a Medieval Witch Hunt,” April 5, 1997, p. A1.

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