Witchcraft Roundup


  • James Sharpe. Witchcraft in Early Modern England, Longman, 2001.
  • P G Maxwell-Stuart. Witchcraft in Europe and the New World, 1400-1800.Palgrave, 2000.
  • Robert W Thurston. Witch, Wicca, Mother Goose. Longman, 2001. 
  • Stuart Clark (ed.). Languages of Witchcraft: Narrative, Ideology and Meaning in Early Modern Culture. Macmillan Press, 2001
  • Marion Gibson (editor) Early Modern Witches: Witchcraft Cases in Contemporary Writing. Routledge, 2000.
  • Lawrence Normand and Gareth Roberts (eds.) Witchcraft in Early Modern Scotland: James VI's Demonology and the North Berwick Witches. University of Exeter Press, 2000.
Here we review some of the additions to the literature of witchcraft published in the last couple of years. The books by Sharpe and Maxwell Stuart are short introductions aimed at sixth formers, undergraduates and others new to the witchcraft beliefs.

Sharpe examines the various historical problems arising from the rise and fall of witchcraft prosecutions in England. He takes a revisionist position, arguing that there was less difference between English and Continental witchcraft accusations than is often supposed, and that with certain exceptions there were no systematic top-driven witch hunts. Witchcraft accusations arose at the level of the people, and were in some way connected with the disputes and tensions within face-to-face communities.

He also notes that the decline of witchcraft was not a direct consequence of the rise of Newtonian science. Science and the supernatural cohabited for a significant period Sharpe reviews the major theories that have been proposed to account for the prosecutions, but there are no final answers here, only a series of questions for further study. In particular he argues that the unique role of the familiar in English witchcraft needs a much more detailed historical investigation. The text is illustrated with extracts from original documents and a set of plates. The latter are going to pose problems for the publishers as the last three plates are blank, apparently on purpose. Customers, like yours truly, are likely to think they have an imperfect copy and send it back.

Maxwell-Stuart's book is a very short (114 pp) chronological introduction to the history of witchcraft in European societies, placing it within the context of the general magical world view of the medieval and early modern world. He argues that it was the growing crisis following the Black Death which led to growing fears of witchcraft. The religious divisions and the increased religious rigorism of the both the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. then the religious wars which followed from this, led to an atmosphere of anxiety and apocalyptic speculation, which fuelled the witchcraft persecutions of the 16th and 17th centuries. M-S also argues that many of the interpretations of accused witches as the socially marginal which have been proposed by students of the English scene do not readily apply to the continental situation. He also argues that witchcraft was not seen as an exclusively female phenomena. Both these writers note that witchcraft beliefs, among the elite as well as the "common folk" did not die out totally with the end of the state trials.

The longer study by Robert Thurston, a historian whose previous works have included a study of Stalin's purges, follows a chronological pattern, tracing the rise and fall of witch beliefs from roughly 700-1700. Thurston argues that close study of the particulars of individual cases is vital to understand the rise of witchcraft. Perhaps instead of asking why did witchcraft persecutions take place at certain times and places, we should also ask why they did not take at other times. The highlight of the persecutions was in a very limited period c.1580-1630. Thurston argues that we cannot speak of some vast transcontinental witch hunt, rather they are separate local hunts. These most often were concentrated in places where the central authorities were weak, in particular where there was an absence of professional courts of appeal. Thurston rejects a whole raft of simplistic explanations for witchcraft trials, rather he sees them as resulting from the confluence of a whole range of factors, where elite belief in the "total conspiracy" gelled with local concerns and social tensions. In a topical note he sees similar factors operating in constructing contemporary witch figures such as paedophiles and terrorists, who seen as agents of total evil posing an ever present danger.

The essays edited by Stuart Clark address questions of how we can read the documents that speak to us of witchcraft. They concentrate much more than many studies on the actual experiences of 'the bewitched' and 'witches' and what these can tell us about the world in which they lived. Many contributors stress the necessity of approaching this testimony from the beliefs of the period rather our own preconceptions. This study of texts suggests ways we can approach modern stories of extraordinary experiences without either being seduced into the magical realm or reacting with an uncomprehending rejection. The contributions of Marion Gibson, Malcolm Gaskell, Diane Purkiss, Maria Tausiet and Katherine Hodgkin are of particular relevance to modern concerns. Marion Gibson argues that we cannot assume any part of the witchcraft stories reflect 'what really happened'.

Mundane as well as supernatural motifs may well be aspects of the revising of memory, informed by folk beliefs and conventions, and ideas of what really happened. Diane Purkiss explores how witchcraft and fairy stories (which in the Scottish material she quotes are greatly distinguished) can allow discussion of even more forbidden topics such as incest. Maria Tausiet explores how witchcraft beliefs and accusations could provide alibis for infanticide both intentional and unintentional (there have been cases in modern times where ghost stories have provided such alibis). Katherine Hodgkin studies how extraordinary personal experiences can be given different explanations, either as witchcraft, madness or religious revelation. Malcolm Gaskell also explores this eyewitness testimony in great detail, making the important connections between this visionary material and that studied by modern psychologists and psychical researchers.

One cannot help feeling that a sharing of ideas and perceptions between those studying early modern and contemporary visions and beliefs would be of value to both parties. (The story of Susan Swapper's night visitors on page 220 reads just like a modern abduction story, strangers come into the room at night and threaten to take her, calls on her husband to hold her and prevent her taking. He looks up, sees nothing and goes back to sleep).

For a better understanding of the witch hunts, some readers might wish to look at some of the literature of the period. Marion Gibson presents, with short, introductions, 16 original pamphlets describing English witchcraft cases from the period 1566-1621. Illuminating, but by no means easy, as they are transcribed using the original language, spelling and punctuation. I suspect any one trying to read them would do best to do so out loud.

The work by Normand and Roberts concentrates on just one case, that of the North Berwick witches, who it was claimed had tried to shipwreck King James VI and his bride. The book includes a modern spelling rendition of James' own Demonlogie, the long account in News from Scotland along with original court documents. These are rendered into modern spelling, and glosses are provided of Scots and other unfamiliar words, which makes this rather more accessible than the pamphlets in Gibson. - Reviewed by Peter Rogerson. First online publication July 2002.

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