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Response to Review no. 16

I found this a generous, kind and sympathetic review of my book. If I take up any of the points Ronald Hutton makes, it is in the hope of letting still more discussion on witchcraft ensue – throwing more into the charmed pot – rather than with the aim of wishing him ill. Indeed, we have now paid each other so many compliments that early modern villagers might well be alarmed for us both. Since our largest differences arise over modern witchcraft and over the place of this book in the tradition of academic histories of witchcraft, it is these points which I choose to discuss, but these are not the main point of the book itself. I would prefer to talk about Bennet Lane or Anne Bodenham or The Tempest than to read what follows, but unfortunately I think that what I have to say about them is probably dependent on my queer notions about methodology, so I hope to go on trying to clear a path to the more interesting material through the undergrowth of theory.

In only one place does Ronald Hutton mention errors. He is quite right about the mistake about Frazer, though at first I refused to believe that I’d really said what I know to be untrue. It’s there, and I apologise for it. I’m less convinced by his argument that the myths I discuss have been disintegrating since the 1970s, and that modern witches now accept that their history is invented. It’s true that many now accept that Gardner did a lot of inventing, and it’s also true that the will to believe in the hoariest and oldest myths of origin is stronger in the US than here, and perhaps strongest of all among US feminist witches. However, this is the group my chapter is primarily addressing, simply because it’s the group in paganism most likely to read a feminist book on witchcraft. It’s also the group I’m anxious to convert or reform; my own strayed flock, as it were. Many of those who appear to reject one myth of origin immediately substitute another for it: Gardner may have been a faker, but not my granny/my coven/my grail scholarship/my Great Rite. There are greater and lesser degrees of invention, but even the most careful scholarship cannot evade its own contemporaneity, and this applies to me as well as to Caitlin Matthews. A very tentative suggestion: Ronald Hutton probably underestimates the extent to which the pagans and witches he encounters are aware of his own publications on the topic of pagan history, and the way this inflects what they are willing to say to him. He is frequently cited by pagans in the electronic world as a locus of scepticism about the soi- disant, history of paganism, so it is unlikely that fam- trads (or those who think they are) would expect a sympathetic hearing from him, or seek one.

Hutton argues that the materials I discuss are ‘mainstreamed’, or at least not identified in terms of the different traditions from which they come. It’s quite true that I don’t emphasise this much. In my own grasshopper researches, I formed the impression that modern witches themselves have a tendency (common to other religious groups) to overstate their differences, exacerbated by a scholarly tendency to atomise and to be precise. At times, one was reminded of the friars in The Name of the Rose, quarrelling over whether Jesus owned a purse. There are even differences about differences. The UK pagan community is not agreed about the extent to which it has been influenced by the American writers I discuss; while many are eager to acknowledge the influence of both Starhawk and Adler on their beliefs and practices, others are reluctant to admit that two Americans, neither initiate into a coven with a long pedigree, could have such an impact. Yet Starhawk is perhaps the single most dominant and influential figure amongst young, politically committed pagans in the UK today. Her books are also very often the first books encountered by those looking into paganism for the first time. Brooke and Budapest have had less impact in UK paganism, but perhaps more in UK radical feminism, including its pagan manifestations, which are generally outside the mainstream of initiated pagans. All these remarks are impressionistic, no real survey having been conducted; I suspect the resolution of these questions lies in the future, when more people have come out of the broom closet.

To me, and for my (feminist) purposes, there is not an enormous amount of difference between (say) Caitlin Matthews on the Lady of the Lake and Starhawk or Brooke on the Goddess; both are producing abstractions of the feminine, connected with nature, connected with a remote, legendary past, connected with the maternal, figured in prose which consciously strains after literary effect, and ultimately deeply and worryingly essentialist. It was these common aspects of pagan figurations of the goddess – or female – supernatural figure that I wished to talk about, precisely because they are influential both in and outside pagan circles, in feminist theological circles, and especially in literary circles. The drawback of being one of the first academics to devote much space to this topic is that I could not discuss paganism from every possible point of view. I chose to discuss it from a sceptical feminist point of view, but nobody hopes more devoutly than I do that this will soon be supplemented by other studies from other perspectives, including committed pagan perspectives.

The least agreeable section of the review concerns the chapter of my book in which I discuss theoretical approaches to witchcraft in the context of a cultural analysis of English witchcraft studies. This is the only point at which I wondered if Ronald Hutton had really heard what I had to say. Very briefly, my main point is that historians of witchcraft have a problem with belief; ontologically, the supernatural cannot exist if history is to retain its power as a causal explanation, but this then makes it impotent to deal with mentalities where the supernatural is central. Gender is incidental to this, acting as metaphorical architecture because of the conflation, common to all enlightenment discourses, of belief with femininity and scepticism with the masculine.

Rather than engaging with this argument, Hutton is over- generous in giving me the benefit of bad luck, implicitly rendering my argument obsolete owing to the publication of studies of witchcraft by Robin Briggs and Jim Sharpe. His generosity in likening my work to that of these far more experienced scholars is greatly appreciated, and yet I don’t find his picture of the current state of play altogether convincing: that the expectation of work by Briggs, Sharpe, and Stuart Clark explains the sclerosis of English witchcraft studies. This conjures up (so to speak) an unlikely picture of feminist historians waiting for men to speak before speaking themselves. My own guess is that feminists have held back because they were reluctant to be identified with a topic which has become synonymous with the very worst excesses of radical feminist history, and likewise reluctant to lay into their radical feminist sisters with sufficient venom to correct the record. Since one of the publisher’s readers of my own book urged that it would only be taken seriously if all the negative comments about radical feminists were removed, I can sympathise with these fears.

But the problems with English witchcraft studies do not consist merely of an eerie silence and an acceptance of Thomas and Macfarlane’s explanations; they also comprise an eerie silence on gender issues, and an equally deafening quiet about the recent theoretical developments in anthropology, social history, textual studies, psychoanalysis and gender theory which have been allowed to animate Continental histories of witchcraft, including some produced by British academics, but which have not been allowed a foothold in British witchcraft studies. The result is that the ontological problem of witchcraft studies remains unaddressed. I do not think this silence has been broken by Briggs and Sharpe; it remains to be seen whether Clark’s work will alter the picture. Despite the many admirable virtues of Briggs and Sharpe’s books, aptly enumerated here by Ronald Hutton, the strictures above apply just as much to them as they do to Thomas; articles by Sharpe, which trailed his approach in his new book, are discussed in The Witch in History and castigated for their lack of knowledge about gender theory, as Hutton rightly notes.

I am not suggesting that these works are faulty because not feminist; I am suggesting that refutation would be more welcome, and perhaps more honest, than silence. It seems to me arrogant to ignore an explanatory matrix for no reason other than that you haven’t bothered to look at it properly, or (more charitably) to keep your readers in the dark about why you found it unsatisfactory. Neither Briggs nor Sharpe address theory other than briefly in their books; both address feminism, but only in its Daly-Hester form. Sharpe’s short and inadequate review of psychoanalysis, for instance, exemplifies pretty clearly the ‘is-it-useful’ school of historians-reading-theory stigmatised in The Witch in History ; he then goes on to ignore the unconscious in the rest of the book. Neither Sharpe’s book nor Briggs’s is theorised in the sense of making its own starting-points clear. Most oddly (to me) neither appears to have decided on an appropriate method of reading texts. Both seem content to hit upon the interpretation by default; that is, by a relatively uncritical and unexamined reliance on commonsense, a faculty not notably useful when interpreting materials that to us are the reverse of both common and sensible. Neither canvasses differing modern interpretations of maternity or femininity, not even early modern ones, yet both use the terms freely. Only Briggs refers to the possible impact of any text on popular early modern understandings of gender, and he doesn’t offer any readings, preferring to assert that proverbial wisdom, later reinforced by chapbooks and almanacs created a climate of fear and aggression towards women (p.284). This makes exactly the kind of huge and unsustainable assumptions about early modern reading practices of which I complain: texts equal mentalities.

Having said all that, Briggs is far more cautious than Sharpe about single hypotheses and Enlightenment explanations, and he is also a far more sensitive reader of the texts he discusses, extracting more complex and nuanced meanings from them. However, he obviously has no interest in thinking aloud about why this might be so, even though his book is more wide- minded than Sharpe’s and more aware of the tentacular penetration of the past by the present. By contrast, Sharpe actually reinstates the notion that Enlightenment science dispels the demons from men’s minds, a notion so William of Baskervilleish that one can only smile at it. Sharpe has plenty of other virtues (commonsense, solidity, comprehensiveness, and a genuine indignation on behalf of early modern people), but theoretical sophistication (which might legitimately include a weariness with theory) is not conspicuous among them. Even anthropology gets short shrift, and if he has dismissed Cixous on Toril Moi’s say-so, he does not see fit to tell us why.

Hutton invents a marvellously funny excuse for Sharpe’s failure to engage with Cixous or Moi on Cixous: there is an ongoing debate and historians cannot weigh in until it is over. This should safeguard historians against reading any feminist theory forever: I only hope Hutton does not communicate his idea to my students. As to why there is no hope of agreement this side of doomsday, the reason is that feminism is a political as well as a critical movement; one might as well expect Tories to agree on Europe, or pagans on their history. Hutton’s excuse may be a code for ‘I am unable to wade through enough of this boring and unreadable stuff to pronounce on it; life’s too short’, which is what most historians have said in camera to me, and if so it is a version of the utilitarian response. I wonder, however, how universally applicable his advice might be; what if the boot were on the other foot and literary critics were to take this approach to historical work? Should I avoid tackling English Civil War political history on the same grounds; might Christopher Hill, Jonathan Clark and Mark Kishlansky reach agreement soon, so that I can get on with my book on Milton? If they do not, what am I to do? Would historians be happy if I relied on the work of Samuel Gardiner, because until the current debate is over that must still be the authority, supplementing him by refuting Antonia Fraser in a few sentences because she is the only historian I have heard of? Somehow I suspect they would criticise me pretty sharply…

I am really writing a book on the Civil War, so I am genuinely anxious to know. I recently attended an international conference of reasonable repute in which some of the participants took almost the approach outlined above. One began a paper on Herrick by announcing that the Civil War was caused by the rise of the middle classes. This was the old historicism in full cry. Another began by drawing a dramatic generalisation about absolutism from a single text. This was the new historicism in fuller cry. Ronald Hutton’s review is generous because it does not mention the dread words ‘new historicism’, nor accuse me of doing pseudohistory. Many historians, faced with some rude words about their own discipline, would have been tempted to respond with an entirely justified tu quoque. Some historians have felt and expressed great unease about the historical pronouncements made by literary critics on the basis of a week’s work on whichever secondary source came first to hand. I share their feelings: I have lost count of the literary critical readings of witchcraft I have encountered based on one or two decontextualised nonliterary texts, read to death. With his usual acuity Hutton emphasises the main plank of my stand against the massed ranks of literary historicists when he talks of my attempt to show that the stage has its own dynamics and protocols rather than acting as a straightforward mirror of society. If I have drawn attention to this – and in doing so improved on some of my more egregiously idle colleagues in English departments – it is because of the example set by historians: the omnivorous Keith Thomas, Stuart Clark, Lyndal Roper, Laura Gowing, Miranda Chaytor, and Ronald Hutton himself. I hope I can go on learning from them.