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Bothered and Bewildered

Second, the economic consequences of a witchcraft trial could be devastating for the accuser. Traditionally the property of a condemned witch went to the state or local government to defray the costs of the trial, which might be very heavy. But if, as often happened, the witch was too poor to pay, the entire village (including the accuser) was liable for costs. If the witch was acquitted, the accuser might have to pay all costs, and could also be sued for slander. In some European jurisdictions, moreover, “it was still normal practice to imprison plaintiff as well as accused” until the initial depositions had been taken.

As a result, when there was a formal accusation it was common “for several families or individuals to pool their grievances and suspicions,” assuming probably that there was safety in numbers. Occasionally, Briggs relates, wholesale accusations were employed by the local political authorities to get rid of unwanted persons, usually vagrants and beggars—an early and drastic parallel to current denunciations of homeless and unemployed people, who (like witches) may be blamed for a wide variety of social ills.

Today, the popular stereotype of the witch is invariably a poor old woman. Historically, Briggs points out, this is only partially correct. It is true that in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries many witches were at the bottom of village society, or at least less well off than their accusers. Sometimes, however, the rich and powerful were accused—though usually by the even more rich and powerful, or their dependents. In such cases, the details tended to be extravagant. In Trier in 1588 the vice-governor was accused of having gone to the witches’ sabbath “in a golden wagon to urge the destruction of all the crops.” “On other occasions he and his followers… brought on a terrible hail-storm that killed forty-six cows, by standing in a brook and pouring water over their heads in the name of a thousand devils.”

The accused witches tended to be older than the average villager; but as Briggs points out, since in most cases suspicion against them had been building for at least fifteen or twenty years, it must often have started when they were fairly young. The idea that all witches were female is also an error. In many parts of Europe, Briggs says, “men comprised 20 or 25 percent of those charged; in some, including large areas of France, they actually formed a majority.” (According to Briggs, in a study of modern rural France, where belief in witchcraft is still prevalent, one out of four suspected witches was still male.)

Briggs’s explanation for this sexual imbalance is that women were and are apt to be poorer and more dependent, and that they were and are more apt to be associated with the family and the household: thus, domestic disasters such as the illness of a cow or a child are more likely to be blamed on them. He also points out that contrary to the belief of some contemporary feminists, midwives were less likely than the average woman to be accused, though they were often consulted when witchcraft was suspected.

Briggs takes pains to disprove other popular misconceptions about the persecutions of suspected witches. For example, he tells us that most estimates now put the number of people executed in Europe between 1450 and 1750 at forty to fifty thousand—not, as some modern writers claim, nine million. The persecutions were also far from general. Though most of the common people believed in the existence of witches, “a substantial majority of towns and villages did not experience a single trial, successful or otherwise, over the whole period.”

Though many accused witches denied the charge, or confessed only under torture, Briggs thinks that some of them came to believe in their own powers. After all, if you already believe in witches, and the curses you utter in a moment of rage or resentment come true, maybe you’re one of them. And if you have good reason to be angry, envious, or resentful—if you’re poorer and less lucky than your neighbors—the idea that you have special powers can be attractive. As Briggs points out, though, the power of witches “was essentially negative, to drag others down with them.” It is clear from the trial records that though the Devil might promise a witch wealth and prosperity, or the ability to heal others, he almost never came through on these promises. His only sure gift was the power to harm.

In England and Scotland, interestingly, the pact with the Devil was usually replaced by a compact with an animal familiar who was his representative. Frequently the animal was a cat, but dogs, chickens, ferrets, hares, toads, and hedgehogs were also reported. Usually the witch was believed to suckle the familiar with her own blood—a striking instance of the traditional British devotion to pets.

Though most of Robin Briggs’s tentative explanations of the witchcraft persecutions seem most reasonable, he does occasionally propose psychological explanations that will strike some readers as limited. He suggests, for instance, that some people projected their own hostile wishes toward their relatives onto outsiders, and then called them witches. Parents, he says, sometimes feel but repress hostility toward their children; and children often wish that their younger siblings would die. If these people did in fact die, “fear and repressed guilt would then combine to direct suspicion at surrogate figures.” This seems plausible, if impossible to prove; on the other hand, it is unlikely that most people would have felt repressed hostility toward a cow or a pig or a field of hay, and projected such wishes onto their neighbors.


Diane Purkiss avoids the problem of the confusing, fragmentary, and probably biased records of the witchcraft trials by putting aside any attempt to find out what “really happened” and concentrating on what people thought happened, both then and now. In The Witch in History Ms. Purkiss, who is a Lecturer in English at Reading University, has interesting things to say about contemporary witchcraft, and some striking if idiosyncratic comments about earlier (mainly fifteenth- and sixteenth-century) material.

Some readers will be turned off—and others, no doubt, turned on—by Purkiss’s vocabulary. This is full of words like “problematics,” “gender theory,” “reify,” “recuperation,” and “valorize”—words that are like red petticoats to prestructuralists. When some people see these words, they become maddened and charge. I felt a little restive myself at first, and began to paw the ground, but gradually I calmed down.

In Part I of The Witch in History, Purkiss examines the beliefs of the contemporary witchcraft movement. Today most educated Americans and Europeans who identify themselves as witches or pagans, and many who are merely sympathetic to the movement, believe what Purkiss calls “a religious myth…. The religion it defines is radical feminism.” According to this myth, she says, in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe millions of women who lived alone and worked as herbalists and midwives were accused of witchcraft and burned alive because their independence, sexual freedom, and medical knowledge threatened established religion and medicine. This myth, Purkiss points out, is also “often linked with another lapsarian myth, the myth of an originary matriarchy.” Radical feminist historians, Purkiss says, treat the witchcraft myth as relevant not only to the past but to the present. They believe (with some justification) that male authority is still trying to suppress strong women—though evidently with more success in some parts of the world than others.

Though Diane Purkiss sees—and presents—the attractions of the witch-craft myth, she is also aware of its drawbacks. Her relation to contemporary witchcraft on the whole is ambiguous—as seems natural for a writer who confesses in her introduction that as a child her favorite book was The Wizard of Oz, and that she identified strongly with both Dorothy and the Wicked Witch of the West. At four, her favorite game involved pouring a bucket of imaginary water over her mother, who “gamely went through the motions of melting many times a day.” (Robin Briggs, writing in a very different tradition, that of the very private British academic, only informs us by implication that he gets on well with his colleagues and likes his wife.)

Purkiss begins by describing the creation of the witchcraft myth in modern times. For example, she describes the transformation of the “action wing” of New York Radical Women, WITCH, from the potentially dangerous force Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell of 1968 to “a mild-mannered bunch of consumer-rights groups” with names like Women Intent on Toppling Consumer Holidays and Women Inspired to Commit Herstory. As she says, “committing herstory is significantly less threatening than committing terrorist acts.” The problem, in her view, is that far too often “herstory” becomes what she calls “hystery”—a false and melodramatic version of the past.

Purkiss also analyzes, rather critically, several modern literary versions of the witchcraft myth, such as those that occur in the poems of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, where death by fire is embraced and sexualized—in spite of the fact, incidentally, that English and American witches were hanged and not burned. She appears to think better of Fay Weldon’s rather frightening novel Puffball, in which the witch is wicked and spiteful, pointing out that this is the kind of story “early modern women themselves told about witches.”

One distortion of the feminist witchcraft myth that Diane Purkiss particularly deplores is the attempt to compare the witchcraft persecutions with the Holocaust, in part by inflating the number of women who died. The most frequently cited figure in feminist literature, she says, is nine million. “Worryingly, this goes two million better than the Holocaust, as if a competition is afoot, and at times there does seem to be a race on to prove that women have suffered more than victims of racism and genocide (as though women have not been among the victims of racism and genocide).” Feminists like Mary Daly, Purkiss thinks, “seem unaware that the Holocaust itself bore more heavily upon women, who were much less likely to be selected for work and hence survival than young men, and who were gassed automatically if pregnant or nursing an infant.” Such writers, Purkiss suggests, can sometimes become potential persecutors of women themselves, as when Mary Daly identifies non-liberated females as “fembots” (female robots).

The “myth of the Burning Times,” Purkiss concludes, “is not politically helpful” because it portrays women as helpless victims, both in the past and in the present. (This may be so in the long run, but it is also true that almost all political and religious myths, not excepting the one that is most popular in Europe and America today, include many stories of saints and martyrs who have died for a cause.)

Diane Purkiss is also critical of the feminist myth of early European—and also contemporary—witches as midwives, herbalists, and healers, “gentle, maternal, close to the earth.” She rejects this myth first because it is too “close to the conservative and even reactionary ‘Heritage’ culture of thatched cottages, country churches, and spinsters on bicycles.” It is anti-urban and patriarchal, forcing women into traditional, relatively powerless roles. (It also clearly excludes the successful lawyer, doctor, or college lecturer who lives in a high-rise flat and is too busy writing books like The Witch in History to cook or garden.) The end result is “to reify associations between women and the primitive, the uncivilized, the instinctual.” In some cases this may be true, but there are many feminists who believe that women have always been the more civilized sex—reading books and playing musical instruments and embroidering tapestries while the men in the family were away fighting stupidly.

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