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.
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.
Diane Purkiss’s analysis of the contemporary witchcraft movement, like her analysis of their myths, though generally critical, is occasionally and almost reluctantly admiring. She points out that witchcraft is not a thing of the past, but exists here and there in modern England and America in many different forms. Purkiss does not attempt to classify these forms, but Shelley Rabinovitch, in her contribution to James R. Lewis’s Magical Religion and Modern Witchcraft,3 has done so most capably. Rabinovitch distinguishes three main types: Religionist, God/dess Celebrants, and Ecopagans, though she notes that many individual groups combine aspects of more than one type.
American and British “religionist witches” usually describe themselves as Wiccans: they are often “concerned with legitimization of their belief systems as a bona fide religion.”4 They are the most hierarchical of the three groups, and the most dependent on ritual objects and ceremonies, such as the burning of incense and the consecration of the elements of water and salt; they focus on what Rabinovitch calls “power-over.” Members of these groups tend to come from the more ceremonial branches of Christianity and other faiths. Religionist groups often include men, and leaders of many are men—as in the ones I myself have visited in England and Ireland.
God/dess Celebrants, Rabinovitch says, are extremely eclectic: they include Radical Faeries (all-male), radical feminists (all-female), and Dianic (coed, but mainly female) groups. They tend to be more loosely organized, lack formalized leadership, and favor poetic do-it-yourself rituals. Their main goal is “to free the participants, and through them society at large, from patriarchal restraints and assumptions.” They focus on what Rabinovitch calls “power-from-within” and may also practice alone, like Shirley Jackson.
Ecopagans, though they may worship a god/goddess and celebrate the usual pagan holidays (the four solstices, May Day, Beltane, Halloween, etc.), are seriously concerned with social and environmental issues. Rabinovitch speaks of them as focusing on “power-with,” and they often cooperate with organizations like Greenpeace, the Quakers, and animal rights activists.
It is clear that for Diane Purkiss only Ecopagan witches are really admirable, and even they could improve. She praises the groups who took part in the antinuclear protests at Greenham Common, helped to halt roadbuilding projects through ancient forests, and challenged English laws against New Age travelers—laws which she sees as designed to keep “the undeserving and undeferential poor” in the cities, leaving the countryside as a refuge for the upper and middle classes. But she also complains that “witches emerge only rarely from Pagan activities to make common cause with other women” in campaigns for equal pay or reproductive rights. In my experience, this is not always so: often witches working on such issues deliberately conceal their identity so as not to compromise the campaign and cause bad publicity.
Some of Diane Purkiss’s charges against modern witchcraft suggest a Marxist viewpoint. Witches, she says, do not recognize how deeply they are involved in “capitalism and consumerism.” They buy expensive equipment for Wiccan rites, for instance, which is manufactured and sold through catalogs that list, among other items, “genuine black heavy cast-iron traditional three-legged cauldrons.” Moreover, many of their magic spells are “actually narcissistic rites of self-contemplation.” Rituals are valued as bringing psychic health; the emphasis is on changing oneself rather than altering the world, and “the self constructed is the familiar self of late capitalism.”
In spite of her many criticisms, Diane Purkiss ends her survey of contemporary witchcraft and its myths with the suggestion that feminist historians might learn something from modern witches, and a self-critical and rather odd postmodern vision of what might be the consequences. A
feminist history which sought to draw on the strengths of this movement rather than simply pointing to its weaknesses might be exciting…. It might be speculative, unreliable, often wrong, sometimes ridiculous, politically very useful, …and absolutely scandalous in the academy.
The remainder of The Witch in History is less speculative. Purkiss suggests that in any era, historians define witches as “the Other.” Whatever a witch is, the historian is not. Witches are poor, female, uneducated; the historian is well-off, well-educated, and male. Witches are credulous, prejudiced, and primitive; the historian is skeptical, open- minded, and civilized. It is quite true that this formulation works for Robin Briggs—but except for her gender, it seems equally to apply to Diane Purkiss.
More interestingly, Purkiss suggests that women in early modern Europe also saw the witch as “the Other.” The witch was “a kind of anti-housewife,” who destroyed rather than created and nourished, and wished ill rather than good to her family. A good housewife was skilled in what can seem a sort of white magic; she turned milk into butter, wool into yarn and cloth, inedible animal and vegetable matter into tasty and nourishing meals, and squalling infants into well-behaved, hardworking children. This was the front on which the witch attacked, and her black magic was blamed when butter did not come, yarn tangled, milk went sour, and babies and children sickened and died. Purkiss suggests that the witch “acts as a metaphor for the experience of watching a child’s illness and being able to do nothing as it suffers, an agonisingly common experience for early modern families.”
Occasionally Purkiss, like Briggs, suggests that the psychological mechanism of projection was at work in some witchcraft cases: that the witch was accused of doing what the mother unconsciously wanted to do in moments of exasperation. This seems possible; after all, what housewife hasn’t sometimes wanted to set a burnt supper before a grumpy husband? She also remarks that “stories of child bewitchment express and manage mothers’ fears that their children will not love them or will reject them” and “reveal deeper fears of children themselves….” In early modern Europe, children who behaved very badly could be said to be bewitched or possessed—thus relieving their parents of guilt—a ploy that has also been used occasionally by fundamentalists in contemporary America.
Purkiss suggests that the witch also disrupted the boundaries between the home and the world, entering her neighbor’s house when not invited, refusing to return borrowed tools that belonged there, and sometimes leaving unwanted and dangerous objects like knives and hammers in magically dangerous places, such as “near the threshold or in bedstraw.” At other times, the witch was seen as wanting to invade the home and take over the role of the victim as housewife or mother.
Though the witch trials ended in the early eighteenth century, Purkiss says, faith in the existence of witches did not. “Nineteenth- and twentieth-century folklorists record numerous stories and beliefs…which exactly parallel the tropes, narratives, and ideas” found in the classic trial depositions. This remains true: not so long ago I heard a friend who was seriously ill ask that a certain acquaintance not be admitted to her house. “I always feel worse after she’s been here,” my friend said, only half-joking, “and I think those wheat-germ cookies she brought last time made me sick. I’m sure she’s a witch, really.”
Like my friend, Diane Purkiss seems at times to half-believe in the supernatural. She criticizes Reginald Scot’s famous skeptical treatise, the Discoverie of Witchcraft, saying that it “begins the long process of recuperating women’s supernatural power as hysteria and madness,” though she adds in a footnote that Scot also explained witchcraft as everyday trickery. For Scot, real witchcraft was impossible because God would not allow it; he could not possibly “be made obedient and servile to obey and perform the will and commandment of a malicious old witch….” But in Purkiss’s opinion, even modern analyses of witch stories have a fatal drawback: “They cannot admit the possibility that the supernatural might actually exist.” She also claims a little later that “the supernatural is the repressed unconscious of historical narrative,” whatever that means.
Like many poststructuralist writers, Diane Purkiss is much involved with ideas about what is called “the body.” Somewhat confusingly she proposes that the witch (who, for her, is always female) represents “a very specific fantasy about the female body…. [She] is a fantasy-image of the huge, controlling, scattered, polluted, leaky …maternal body of the Imaginary.” This female body, however, is not only formless and shapeless, but (as others have suggested) a metaphor for the house. One familiar example of this equivalence is the magic house made of bread or gingerbread in “Hansel and Gretel,” which according to Purkiss “embodies and represents” the witch’s magical power. Like many other commentators, she remarks that the witch is the bad mother who wishes to eat children rather than feed them. In modern versions, she points out, the house is often made of candy and cake instead of bread, and “the lost children are no longer eating from need, but gorge themselves on food which would normally be rationed by caring parents.” “The witch becomes the modern idea of a ‘bad mother,’ a greedy consumer who sacrifices children to her own needs and fails to discipline their oral cravings so that they become as monstrously greedy as she is.”
Purkiss also discusses the witch’s familiar, which she sees as a kind of demon child, suckled by the witch with blood rather than milk. As she says, this identification made sense in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when breastfeeding was more dangerous than it is today, not only because of the possibility of infections but because if a woman’s diet was poor, feeding a child could weaken her seriously. (Even today many nursing mothers develop cavities if they don’t get enough calcium.) Some familiars were affectionate and helpful; others were difficult or unreliable. “Joan Upney’s familiars proved…unsatisfactory: her mole pined away and died, and her replacement toads kept abandoning her for other people”—exactly like real children, who tend to marry and move away.
Purkiss, like Robin Briggs, notes that the identity of witch was usually imposed from without rather than chosen, and most people refused it at first. Even after legal accusation and torture, many died protesting their innocence. A few, however, accepted the role of witch sooner, sometimes even without being accused. Apart from the danger of a trial, this role had certain advantages. Claiming to be a witch or a cunning woman could change your social status and give you the sort of power few poor peasants had.5
The final section of Diane Purkiss’s book, which deals with witchcraft in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, is sure to annoy many readers. She begins with a polemic against critics who see “literary texts” as central to history, or as reflecting or challenging current ideas. For her, works of literature (to use an earlier term) are peripheral or even irrelevant. “Apparently modest claims for the role of literary texts in disseminating ‘meaning,”‘ she says, “have a narcissistic end: save our jobs.” Essentially she complains that there are no significant connections between witchcraft cases and most of the plays about witches written in this period. Rather, the plays tend to draw on a mixture of popular belief and elite tradition, especially Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft.
In Elizabethan England, she points out, it was important for a dramatist not to present a strong negative female figure who might be thought to personify the Queen; witches on stage therefore tended to be weak, comic, lower-class frauds. But under James I stage witches remained figures of irrational stupidity—as in Ben Jonson’s antimasque to The Masque of Queens, where the witches represented “Ignorance, Credulity, &c, the opposites to good Fame.”
Purkiss especially dislikes Shakespeare’s use of witchcraft. According to her “the witches of Macbeth are a low-budget, frankly exploitative collage of randomly chosen bits of witch-lore, selected not for thematic significance but for its sensation value.” She accuses Shakespeare of suppressing female voices and says that he “buries popular culture under a thick top-dressing of exploitative sensationalism, unblushingly strip-mining both popular culture and every learned text he can lay his hands on for the sake of creating an arresting stage event.” She is so concerned to show how little aware Macbeth is of the realities of village life that sometimes she makes questionable assumptions. The statement of the Second Witch that she has been “killing swine” is said to suggest not ordinary spells against domestic animals like those Robin Briggs documents so thoroughly, but “the elaborate pig-fictions of Continental demonology, which systematically conflated notions of the pig’s uncleanness with groups deemed beyond the pale, including Jews and witches.” And the cauldron scene, though interestingly analyzed in terms of contemporary allusions, is finally described as “the sensationalism of the Jacobean stage at its worst.” It would be difficult to gather from this book that Macbeth is a brilliant and complex play and that people who like it are more than deluded “Bardophiles,” as Purkiss calls them.
Purkiss’s discussion of other witch plays, such as Middleton’s The Witch, is equally dismissive of literary values. She concentrates instead on the fact that witches were often presented as examples of popular superstition, and that “then as now, popular superstition was always apt to be feminized.” It enrages her that so many people made money out of “the displaying of witchcraft,” and that actual court cases, when turned into drama, were altered in favor of sensation and entertainment—an objection which, if taken seriously, would deprive us of much of classic and modern literature.
Purkiss concludes that we “are much more interested in witches than early modern dramatists were”—a statement that is rather hard to prove. She points to the ubiquitous presence of witches in fairy tales and children’s stories, and says that today our witch is “a shrieking hag on a broomstick” who “represents the dark forces of unreason.” But a few pages later she is claiming that “we no longer find the witch frightening” and that she has “been sanitized” and become “clean, pretty, a herbalist with a promising career in midwifery, a feminist,…sexually liberated.” It is another instance of the double voice that speaks through this sometimes fascinating and sometimes infuriating book.
Throughout her book, Purkiss is scornful of male historians’ disregard of feminist and poststructuralist ideas about witchcraft. “Having created a powerful myth in which the male Enlightenment investigator is a great hero doing battle with various more or less feminine darknesses, historians have been in no great hurry to abandon their fantasy in favor of alternative theories…,” she remarks. Most historians, Purkiss says, claim that poststructuralist approaches “lead either to nihilism or relativism.” Even if this is so, she claims, “the fact that poststructuralism threatens to throw historians out of work does not make it untrue.” Her solution is for us to see all historical texts as stories, and pay less attention to what is said and more to “the way in which things are said.” The question here, of course, is, who is to analyze these stories, and from what point of view?
Modern authorities on witchcraft like Keith Thomas and Alan Macfarlane, Purkiss thinks, have a patronizing view of witches as merely “harmless old beggars.” They deny them not only supernatural power but “all social and cultural power” and assume that the domestic disasters that witches were believed to cause were usually trivial and unimportant, “a view which reflects both snobbish incapacity to grasp what might matter to the poor, and the devaluation of women’s work.” Robin Briggs is not in fact guilty of these charges; he fully recognizes the damage such disasters can do to an entire community that believes in a witch’s power for evil.
It is a pity that Witches and Neighbors was not published before The Witch in History. If Diane Purkiss could forgive Robin Briggs for being male, she might have made good use of his detailed data and elegant analysis.6
October 23, 1997
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. ↩
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. ↩
SUNY Press, 1996. ↩
This concern, and the difficulties involved in going public, are well-illustrated in the contemporary American coven studied by Allen Scarboro, Nancy Campbell, and Shirley Stave in Living Witchcraft (Praeger, 1994). ↩
The same process of choice can be observed in nineteenth-century spiritualist circles, where lower-middle-class women who successfully claimed to communicate with the spirit world could not only evade the Victorian rules for proper self-effacing, homebound female behavior, but achieve unexpected fame and fortune, as Verena Tarrant does—though only for a while—in Henry James’s The Bostonians. ↩
Both Briggs’s and Purkiss’s books, though they have excellent indexes, lack a full bibliography, and (especially in Witches and Neighbors) the notes are condensed and abbreviated in a way that makes it extremely hard to find source material. I hope this is not a coming trend in scholarly publishing. ↩