Joining them

Conrad Russell

  • Goodwin Wharton by J. Kent Clark
    Oxford, 408 pp, £15.00, November 1984, ISBN 0 19 212234 7
  • Witchcraft and Religion by Christina Larner
    Blackwell, 184 pp, October 1984, ISBN 0 631 13447 6
  • Lordship to Patronage: Scotland 1603-1745 by Rosalind Mitchison
    Arnold, 198 pp, £5.95, November 1983, ISBN 0 7131 6313 5

Goodwin Wharton is a fascinating and amusing figure, but he is sui generis: the same things which make his flirtations with the occult such amusing reading also make it difficult to compare his doings with those of anyone else. He is a figure of the same chronological vintage as Sir Isaac Newton, dabbling in alchemy and gravity by turns, and he exhibits a perhaps comparable mixture (though in very different proportions) of the open-minded and the credulous. Coming as he does right on the edge of the Enlightenment, he does not provide the opportunity for any easy comparison of English and Scottish attitudes to the occult: the gulf between 1590 and 1690 is so deep that Anglo-Scottish differences are liable to become engulfed in it. Nevertheless, though Goodwin Wharton does not provide the material for a comparison, Christina Lamer knew enough about English witchcraft research to have attempted many of the necessary comparisons herself. Her magnum opus, Enemies of God, has been in print for some time. What we have here is a collection of occasional pieces left behind by her tragic death at the age of 49. It would be unjust to review such pieces as if they were finished work, but they do show that she was attempting a genuinely comparative study of witchcraft in Europe.

Like Professor Mitchison, Dr Larner saw Scotland in 1600 as having more in common with the continent of Europe than it did with its big southern neighbour, and she suggested that Scottish witchcraft cases had more in common with Continental than with English cases. This is true both for the content and for the scale of the prosecutions. Scotland, unlike England, took seriously the notion of the pact with the devil, and searched for witches by means of a ‘brodder’, whose task was to find the witch’s mark. Moreover, the scale of the witchcraft phenomenon in Scotland was much greater than in England. Dr Larner had a true scholar’s caution about numbers of executions, which she believed to be permanently unknowable. The guesses she hazarded suggested a balance of some five hundred executions in England to a thousand in Scotland. When it is remembered how much larger the English population was than the Scottish, the difference in scale appears formidable. She was entitled to dismiss English witchcraft cases as ‘a faint ripple from a Continental epicentre’.

Dr Larner was unhappy with attempts to explain the difference. She was suspicious of ‘stress’ explanations of witchcraft cases, and rightly doubtful of the Thomas-Macfarlane thesis of the disappearance of a good-neighbourly ethic. This disappearance, like the rise of the middle classes, has been credited to so many periods that it cannot be right for them all. I read a piece, many years ago, which dated it to the replacement of slums by Council houses in the East End. Nevertheless, though Dr Larner’s doubts about ‘stress’ explanations of witchcraft are worth taking seriously, it is worth setting her material beside some of Professor Mitchison’s material on shortage of food in Scotland in the 1690s. It is not a self-evidently absurd hypothesis that the wave of witchcraft prosecutions in Europe marks the Continent’s narrow avoidance of a major Malthusian crisis, and it seems to be true that witchcraft prosecutions accompany a rapid rise in population, and that cases often involve the refusal to give food. It is surely not fanciful to hear the resentment of the hungry for the well-fed behind the words: ‘aroint thee witch, the rump-fed runyon cries.’

This collection is full of other stimulating, and often provocative, suggestions. The essay on ‘was witch-hunting woman-hunting?’ crosses swords with much fashionable feminist research in the United States. Dr Larner suggested that ‘the pursuit of witches was no more a persecution of women than the prosecution of killers and maimers was a persecution of men. The parallel is not exact, but it is not absurd.’ This point calls for thought: there is undoubtedly a genuine element of misogyny in some witchcraft prosecutions, yet some feminist work on this subject risks making the prosecution of male witches inexplicable. Other social historians will surely welcome Dr Larner’s doubts about the process of abstracting witchcraft statistics from the criminal records in which they are embedded: no reader of Professor Cockburn’s edition of Home Circuit Assize indictments is likely to credit witchcraft with the sort of comparative importance it appears to have in works devoted only to that subject.

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