Halloween is a good time to start debunking some of the myths about witchcraft.
30 October 2010
Witchcraft attracts attention, especially at this time of year; everyone "knows" something about it. As a historian, I'm interested to see my subject, the past, being put to all kinds of uses in the present. Here are some ideas about witch-hunting that are distinctly dodgy.
It's sometimes suggested that witch-hunting was a more or less conscious male device for repressing women. In fact, although there is a relationship between women and witch-hunting, it's a complex one. Witch-hunters didn't target women as such, they targeted witches – and about 25% of witches were men. Witch-hunting certainly functioned as an encouragement to conform to patriarchal values, but witch-hunting wasn't a cynical male conspiracy.
So what about the "wise women", the midwives and healers? In fact, midwives were hardly ever accused of witchcraft. Traditional, magical healers (men as often as women) were sometimes prosecuted, but only if they were seen to have misused their powers, harming instead of helping. Healers sometimes even encouraged witch-hunting, helping clients to identify the person who had bewitched them.
It's also often said that witches were accused for profit. Usually the authorities themselves are said to have profited, but sometimes it's neighbours who coveted the alleged witch's property. In truth, while some courts did confiscate the accused's goods, many did not, and most witches were too poor to have possessions worth coveting anyway. This idea fails to take witchcraft itself seriously. People tend to think that witchcraft is not (and was not) real, so they conclude that witchcraft accusations were "really" about something other than witchcraft. The idea of accusations for money is readily grasped because we, today, take money seriously.
Another idea worth debunking is the "swimming test". The theory goes that witches were detected by dropping them in water: the guilty floated and were executed, while the innocent sank (and drowned). In fact, ropes were tied to suspects to pull them out – and the swimming test itself was rare.
I'm sometimes told that witches practised a pagan religion that had gone underground with the coming of Christianity. This idea was popularised in the 1920s and had some scholarly credibility until about 1975, but has been recognised as a myth ever since. Most witches were executed in the 16th and 17th centuries (about 50,000 of them – not nine million, by the way). There were still survivals from paganism (a few traditional charms had pre-Christian origins), but witches and witch-hunters alike were Christians.
Many of these myths are attractive because they enable people to sympathise with the victims of witch-hunting. However, we historians wish to extend the same understanding to all the people we study – witch-hunters as well as witches. There's little evidence that witch-hunters were considered wicked; many were considered pious. And although "wickedness" may be a plausible description of an activity, it cannot explain causation. When someone asks why someone did what they did, historians don't reply: "Because they were wicked"; instead we look for the real causes of their deeds. The moral certainties that lead people to break off ties of human kinship with their enemies for the greater good can be seen in action now, as much as then. Thus we learn that witches were people much like us – and so were witch-hunters.