Witchcraft can be seen as an area of criminal law, a manifestation of religious belief or secular power, a sign of social stress, a display of sexual prejudice and fear, a temporary and inexplicable mania, or a nasty and squalid manifestation of cruelty. Some of these approaches are unrewarding because they deflect the critical intellect; some can lead to historical understanding. It is the achievement of Dr Larner, in one of the finest books to have been written on Scottish history in recent years, to have analysed the distasteful topic of the witchcraft craze in Scotland, which ran roughly from 1590 to the 1670s, to have set it in its European context and to have applied to it concepts from sociology, not so much to diagnose its causation as to set out the pressures which may have played a part.
Witchcraft is important because its existence was a major part of religious belief. It was also significant as an unusual sector of criminal law, for in Scotland as in continental Europe the crime of the witch lay not in any particular act of malice but in simply being a witch. Since confession was the surest proof of this, all types of pressure on the accused to confess were appropriate. Because Western Europe had lost the traditions of the early Church, in which the powers of the devil were severely limited, the confessions were expected to cover wildly improbable acts. Victims were pressed to confess to sexual intercourse with the devil, and some, when asked to describe him, might state that he looked like their husbands, presumably because such witches had no experience of intercourse with anyone else. This pathetic detail shows up the obscenity of the basic concept. Dr Larner does not explain how Calvinism, with its stress on the omnipotence of God, could find an effective role for the devil and his servant the witch, and allow their works to be so powerful. There seems to have been an infusion of Manichean ideas into the structures of theologians who ought to have known better. Within the Spanish Inquisition they did know better.
Witchcraft was a crime both to the church courts and to the state. Not all the trials in Scotland can be traced, because of ambiguities and confusions in the structure of justice in the 17th century and for some time after. In 1597, the Privy Council had laid down that its commission was necessary for any trial of a witch, and in the 1660s it forbade the torturing of suspects for confessions. Yet the last trial of all, at Dornoch in the 1720s, seems to have been illegally conducted without proper commission, and there were probably other deviations from legalism. The ill-formed nature of Scottish law and its judicial system makes a tally of total cases impossible, and there are further uncertainties about the outcome of many trials known to have occurred. One result of Dr Larner’s work is revision downwards, in terms of probability, of the number of executions: she puts the total at a little over a thousand where previous estimates had lain between three and four thousand.But the pattern of local concentration – witchcraft trials tended to recur in the same places – meant that ‘there were periods in 1649 and 1661 when no mature woman in Fife or East Lothian can have felt free from the fear of execution.’ Sharp-tongued women who made enemies by vicious remarks were at real risk in rural communities, and might be denounced even by close relatives, anxious to save themselves from accusation of complicity.
The story of witchcraft in Scotland has its own special interest. The ‘craze’ was a short one, coinciding with the late wave of the general European scare. Norman Cohn has established that the existence of a witch scare in the early 14th century is an invention of historians. Witchcraft, in theory and in suppression, was a growth at the end of the 14th century, died down in the early 16th century to return in the 1560s in a panic which lasted well into the 17th century. Witch-hunting could be a fashion which spread from one country to another. England received only a faint ripple of the European wave, but Scotland took in the full surge belatedly. The outbreak of cases in 1629, which made for nearly two hundred trials, seems to have been the reflection of an intense spasm in Germany, but later peaks in Scotland, 1649 and 1661-2, and the early outbreak of the 1590s, seem to have been produced by native political pressures.
Dr Larner examines critically the various theories that have been put forward as explanation. Dr Margaret Murray’s belief that witchcraft was a pre-Christian fertility religion has already been debunked. It could never have been taken seriously by anyone who looked carefully at the dishonesty of her numerical arguments. Marxist opinion that it was a symptom of the transition from feudalism to capitalism is shown to have little bearing anywhere but in England. Dr Larner stresses that, as a crime, witchcraft existed because the dominant group in power defined the offence, worked the mechanism of prosecution and labelled the victims. Witchcraft has therefore always to be seen in the context of the location of power. She accepts from Delumeau the idea that the scare was a response to the new level of religious concern. By the 1590s, Reformation and Counter-Reformation had set up churches which claimed active and believing participation from all. Personal religion, as now conceived, made possible, at least to non-predestinarian thought, the personal destruction of salvation. The later part of the European witch craze, surely not accidentally, overlaps the period when the concept of crime was changing. From being seen as an offence simply against others, which might not even have involved intent, and for which compensation could be made, it became a specific breach of rule, an offence against the society which had made the rule and required specific retribution. In Scotland it also coincides with the time when the criminal law was beginning to recognise women as potential criminals. Before the 17th century women could not even be used as witnesses: they existed in the eyes of the law merely as adjuncts to some male. It is with changes such as these, the revolution in religious responsibility and the new identity of crime and criminals, as well as times of political or religious stress, that Dr Larner associates the witch hunt.
There is no correlation of witchcraft cases with dearth, trade recessions, plague or typhus epidemics. The world of the 17th century was sufficiently accustomed to these for no supernatural agency to be called upon as explanation. It was personal disaster, death or disease of man or stock, local stress, personal oddity or nuisance value, which would evoke accusations. Witchcraft could not become rampant until personal religion had become ‘political’ – that is, until each individual was required actively to promote God’s will. It could not survive the advent of secular ideologies. That is the basic thesis here.
Can one really accept the secularisation argument for the Scotland of the 1670s when the hunt died down? By that date legal scepticism was being expressed, not over the basic concept of witchcraft, but with such frequency over the particulars of the practices alleged, that it not only made for the failure of almost all prosecutions but suggests a deeper scepticism. This is particularly the case with Mackenzie of Rosehaugh. Under his direction, the central court instituted and maintained control over trials, so that, though accusations were still coming in, they were being picked apart by lawyers. The men who embodied local power gradually gave up this expression of it, since it was proving costly, arduous and ineffective, but there is no reason to think their beliefs had changed or to see a secularisation of society in general. The Church, particularly at the parish level, made the same demands for active co-operation, and held to its discipline. Secularisation came in only with the grudging acceptance of toleration in the 18th century.
There is one other way, not raised by Dr Larner, in which Scottish Calvinism put stress on its adherents. One of the prime roles of religion is the reconciling of man with death – the easing of dying by appropriate ritual, the comforting of the mourners by further rites. In Scotland all this was abolished by the Reformation. The dying might have divine intimations of assured salvation to cling to, but nothing else, and he might not have these, in which case it was the minister’s duty to point out that he was damned. Last unction, prayers for the dead, even the parade and pomp of funerals, were either banned or divorced from religion. Men would still come, in large numbers, to see a corpse into the ground, but the Church resolutely refused to offer this a religious role. Religion had become personal and important, but its consolatory function had gone. There could be drama in death-bed scenes, but only at the human level. We have no method of measuring the scale of this dislocation or deprivation, but it may have had a part to play in this story.
If it is the function of Dr Larner to insert an element of rationality and explanation into the obscurity of 17th-century Scotland, it is the achievement of the 13 authors of The Enlightenment in National Context to show the limitations of reason within this movement. The needs of the social class within which the movement took place, and of the state within which they lived, put firm preconceptions into their reasoning. So it was entirely consonant with enlightened thought that serfdom should continue in Bohemia, or in the coal works of Scotland, and slavery in America. Enlightenment was the possession of élite society, and had to conform to the basic needs and privileges of that society. So in Scotland it was politically conformist: Scottish thinkers recognised the advantages of Union with England and tried to work out a role for patriotism in this new dimension. Enlightenment came thus to stress the theme of the development of civic virtue and the promotion of social welfare and economic expansion. By contrast, in France welfare was within the domain of a powerful and sometimes repressive Church, and virtue came to be seen as attainable by a state educational system. Virtue, at least in the writings of Rousseau, was incompatible with economic development. ‘The cultural atmosphere,’ says Norman Hampson of Versailles and Paris, was ‘removed from the practical business of earning a living’. In other words, French Enlightenment hung on the skirts of the aristocracy. A further corruption that afflicted enlightened thought in France was the nationalist fervour produced by revolution and war, though one suspects that even before 1789 there was, in the minds of many writers, a belief that only those who could express themselves in good French could be truly enlightened.
This volume of essays sets up many contrasts within the movement. It shows how closely enlightened thought was tied to religion in the Netherlands, and how, in Sweden, it was almost smothered by it. Yet even in Sweden, where, as Tore Frängsmyr points out, ‘it never formed a truly coherent current of ideas’ and had to operate in a society determined to suppress any opinion casting doubt on current interpretations of the Bible, it led to important scientific achievements.
It does not surprise the writers of these essays that the economic settings of the different countries should drastically affect important lines of thinking. ‘Ideological attitudes,’ says Mikulas Teich, summing up, came from ‘the unequal impact of unequally expanding capitalism on a global scale’. We do not get much further with ideas of such simplicity, and this whole approach ignores the legacy of different church structures and different relationships between church and state. Where the Church kept a tight hold on expression, independent thought was very limited. The solvent effects of reason were a source of fear to established religion, even more than the manifestations of diabolic power in the 17th century.
Reading these two books in close succession leaves one in a state of astonishment. No amount of reference to reformist policies, élitist domination, aristocratic-bourgeois pressure, the discovery of the hollow nature of Jesuit ascendancy, the growth of liberalism within the Churches, can explain the remarkably swift movement of the human mind from the beliefs displayed by the governing elements in society in the 17th-century witch hunt to the cool attempts of 18th-century thinkers to relate civil institutions to economic development.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.