Brutish Babies

David Wootton

  • Shaman of Oberstdorf: Chonrad Stoeckhlin and the Phantoms of the Night by Wolfgang Behringer, translated by H.C.Erik Midelfort
    Virginia, 203 pp, £14.50, September 1998, ISBN 0 8139 1853 7
  • Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe by Stuart Clark
    Oxford, 845 pp, £25.00, October 1999, ISBN 0 19 820001 3
  • Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England by Alan Macfarlane
    Routledge, 368 pp, £55.00, April 1999, ISBN 0 415 19611 6
  • The Bewitching of Anne Gunter: A Horrible and True Story of Football, Witchcraft, Murder and the King of England by James Sharpe
    Profile, 256 pp, £16.99, November 1999, ISBN 1 86197 048 X

There are people who believe themselves to be witches. One can find them without difficulty on the Internet, and on a recent canal trip I was surprised to pass a whole series of narrow-boats (Black Cat, Sorceress) apparently inhabited by practising witches. The modern scholarly literature on the history of witch beliefs and witch trials, however, first took shape in opposition to Margaret Murray’s The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921), which claimed that Renaissance witches were worshippers of pagan gods. It has therefore been resolutely agnostic about the existence of actual witches in the period of the great witch-hunt. Even Deborah Willis, who reads the confessions of English witches with close attention, maintains only that ‘they suggest, if not a shared set of practices, at least a shared fantasy life.’

During the Renaissance almost everyone agreed that witchcraft worked. Moreover, being thought to be a witch could have significant practical advantages, at least in England, where those prosecuted had usually been believed by their neighbours to be witches for some years before they finally came to trial, and had in the meantime been treated with due respect. It would be surprising if no one had thought witchcraft worth practising. However, modern studies of Renaissance witchcraft were written in opposition not only to Margaret Murray, but also under the influence of Evans-Pritchard’s Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande (1937). The Azande of the Sudan believed witchcraft to be pervasive, indeed held it to be the prime cause of death, yet Evans-Pritchard could find no evidence of any ‘self-conscious’ witches among them. The question ‘Were there people who believed themselves to be witches?’ has thus long been excluded from consideration. But it seems that this self-denying ordinance is becoming increasingly hard to sustain: James Sharpe’s Bewitching of Anne Gunter includes the story of Elizabeth Stile, executed in 1579, told, for what is I think the first time in modern scholarly literature, as if she believed herself to be a witch.

The modern history of the witch-hunt begins with a series of books published nearly thirty years ago by Hugh Trevor-Roper, Alan Macfarlane, Keith Thomas and Erik Midelfort. Until very recently, however, it was the history of trials on the Continent alone that seemed a lively subject, and in 1996 Diane Purkiss could still properly complain of ‘the torpor of English witchcraft studies’. It was as if scholars were mesmerised by Thomas, who appeared to have studied all the surviving printed records, and asked all the appropriate questions. But now the study of the witch-hunt has become truly vigorous, both in England and on the Continent, the last five years have seen almost as many books as the previous 25. In Britain, there are undergraduate modules, special subjects and entire MAs devoted to a subject that had no academic standing 30 years ago. Before 1969, the trials of witches were of interest only to magicians and antiquarians; now they are more intensively studied than Puritanism or the politics of the Civil War.

The subject has obvious attractions. Every aspect of society was reflected in the witches’ trials, so that they can be studied from very different viewpoints: from those of early modern legislators (Bostridge), lawyers (Behringer), theologians and scientists (Clark), as well as from those of both accusers and accused. Because of the nature of the sources, the trials have provided some of the best examples of ‘microhistory’ or ‘the new narrative’. This, pioneered in French by Le Roi Ladurie (Montaillou, 1975), and in English by Natalie Zemon Davis (The Return of Martin Guerre, 1983) and Robert Darnton (The Great Cat Massacre, 1984), involves giving a detailed description of events in the lives of ordinary people and is almost always based on court records – A Trial of Witches is a good, The Bewitching of Anne Gunter a fine, and Shaman of Oberstdorf a superb example of the genre. At the same time, there were enough trials to invite statistical analysis. We know, for example, that in early modern England cows were held to be the victims of witchcraft ten times more often than chickens.

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Other books referred to in the writing of this piece:

Malevolent Nurture: Witch-Hunting and Maternal Power in Early Modern England by Deborah Willis (Cornell, 264 pp., £13.50, 1995, 0 8014 8194 5)
The Witch in History by Diane Purkiss (Routledge, 296 pp., £15.99, 1996, 0 415 08762 7)
Witchcraft and Its Transformations, c.1650-c.1750 by Ian Bostridge (Oxford, 274 pp., £40, 1997, 0 19 820653 4)
A Trial of Witches: A 17th-Century Witchcraft Prosecution, edited by Gilbert Reis and Ivan Bunn (Routledge, 276 pp., £14.99, 1997, 0 415 17109 1)
Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe, edited by Jonathan Barry, Marianne Hester and Gareth Roberts (Cambridge, 368 pp., £40 and £15.95, 1996, 0 521 55224 9)
Instruments of Darkness: Witchcraft of England 1550-1750 by James Sharpe (Penguin, 384 pp., £9.99, 1997, 0 14 013065 9)
Witches and Neighbours: The Social and Cultural Context of European Witchcraft by Robin Briggs (Fontana, 457 pp., £8.99, 1997, 0 00 686209 8)
Witchcraft Persecutions in Bavaria by Wolgang Behringer, translated by J.C. Grayson and David Lederer (Cambridge, 476 pp., £50, 1997, 0 521 48258 5)
Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England by Elizabeth Reis (Cornell, 212 pp., £32.50, 1997, 0 8014 2834 3)