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Response to Review of The Witch: A History of Fear From Ancient Times to the Present

I am grateful to Reviews in History for the right of reply, and to Dr de Blécourt for his review, not least because he is generally a severe critic, and the mauling he has given me is by his standards quite restrained. In responding to it, I am hampered to some extent by his characteristic throwaway style, by which he frequently condemns me for lapses, such as my failure to attach special significance to 14th-century Piedmont trials, or to recognise the dubious provenance of medieval group trials, without explaining his point or arguing his case. None the less, in broad terms his arguments are susceptible to debate.

He suggests that I treat the records of European observers of extra-European peoples as contemporaneous with the early modern or earlier past, and equates the studies of anthropologists with novels or films. I think the first point wrong and the second absurd. I emphasise throughout the dynamic nature of extra-European societies – never employing the concept of ‘contemporary ancestors’ – and use both original source material and specific scholarly studies to show how witch beliefs and witch hunting in those societies changed over time. I certainly don’t go into much detail on the ‘knock-on effects’ of European beliefs concerning witchcraft on peoples regularly encountered by Europeans only from the 19th-century, because I have found little evidence of those effects; though I cite those which seem plausible. De Blécourt cherry-picks a few isolated instances of native customs and beliefs with apparent European parallels, among a mass which have no such parallels, and suggests that they were the result of cultural contamination and not coincidence. There is however no proof of it, and when he declares that these may ‘perhaps stand for hundreds of other cases’, I regard this as wild speculation. To answer two more of his accusations, I never argue that anthropological research should substitute for an understanding of European history, and I deal directly with the problem that a ‘global context’ may decontextualize local utterances.

De Blécourt then declares that my five chosen global characteristics for a witch are ‘historically inaccurate’ because I do not give a pact with the devil ‘absolute priority’ in them, to fit the Continental European norm. In fact the demonic pact fits neatly into my fourth characteristic of a witch worldwide, that such a person is inherently evil and/or works in alliance with superhuman powers of evil. I go on to explain that early modern Europe was, however, unique in the world in extending this trait into the adoption of a fully-formed satanic anti-religion. De Blecourt also faults me for neglecting the figure of the ‘profiteering (male) witch’ from one area of north-western Europe, while admitting that it would not fit my definition of witches, as humans who cause harm by uncanny means. I would suggest that it would thereby not fit most people’s definition of a witch either.

I agree that I give little thought to processes of distribution, acculturation and ‘borrowing’, in the early modern context, as they are not my concern. On the other hand, I certainly do consider the manner in which the new construct of the satanic witch was adopted piecemeal or incompletely as it spread to different areas, at the end of my sixth chapter. De Blécourt faults me, as he has faulted predecessors of mine, for suggesting that older folk beliefs in night-flying spirits or friendly spirits who aid humans in trouble might well (my emphasis) have inspired features of early modern images of witchcraft. There is indeed little direct evidence of a such a transference, but where the beliefs concerned are held consecutively in a region, it seems reasonable to suggest that it might have occurred. To term it ‘at best unsubstantiated and at worst plainly wrong’, without doing anything to demonstrate the latter charge, is simply blustering. I do not neglect the difference between elite and popular beliefs, though like many I think it formerly overstated, and I actually reinforce the elite concept of the witch as a member of a satanic religion as the paramount factor in the burgeoning of the early modern trials. Nor do I side-line torture as a motivation for confessions by those accused; I merely acknowledge (as many have before me) that we cannot ascribe all such confessions, including some of the most detailed and vivid, to use or fear of it. 

So I come to de Blécourt’s discussion of what he calls my ‘least convincing’ chapter, that which seeks an explanation of the often-noted English peculiarity of believing that witches were served by demons in the form of pet animal ‘familiars’. He claims that the solution was ‘staring me in the face’: that ‘a rare item of local folklore … became reinterpreted as a personal devil in the course of the 16th century’. Well yes, but the real question that I was addressing, and which he ignores, is why this happened, and why alone in England? I could not wholly answer it, but I could put it in context, by showing that a limited number of specific peoples found in very widely dispersed parts of the world, in accounts produced by various different nationalities of European visitors, and in some cases from the 17th century onward, also believed that witches had demonic animal familiars. I showed that these took various forms, all of which were found in early modern Europe, but in different places and to different degrees. My evidence for this is indeed ‘highly fragmentary’, but so is the current data. I also showed that from an early time Christians had conceived of demons in animal form, and that this idea was built into the model of the satanic witch. Finally, I gathered the evidence for Britain and showed that the Scots and English developed the idea in distinct ways. So, the global, the European and the British contexts all had similarities when dealing with the witch-animal relationship, of a patchwork of strongly marked local traditions. I do think this helps us understand the English one better, as reflecting a wider pattern.

Finally I stand accused of opposing the contextualization of European witchcraft in social relationships, and of not engaging properly with the early modern European witch figure. I am certainly not guilty of the former charge, never denying that political, social, economic and gender structures determined the form of witch trials in particular areas. What I suggest instead is that the main propelling force behind the early modern trials was an intellectual one, the new concept of witchcraft as a satanic crusade, which blended (patchily) with different local cultures and societies. As for the second accusation, I make plain my belief that we have now had sufficient good research into early modern witch trials, covering most of Europe, to provide a convincing composite picture. I sum up that picture, and my book is devoted to explaining how it came to be, by looking at the wider contexts in which it is set. What de Blécourt really wants is for me to ignore those contexts and stick to the early modern material in the way in which he and most scholars of the trials have done. Before now some historians have found the roots of the early modern witch trials in ancient belief (especially Roman), shamanism, medieval traditions of night-roving spirits, or medieval reactions to ceremonial magic, or made anthropological comparisons. De Blécourt has been vehemently opposed to these approaches, especially in the work of his personal bête noire, Carlo Ginzburg, and I am not surprised that he is unhappy when I examine them all, and extend them, finding some merit in each.

His methodology in this review has been to comb through my book, looking for things which he can denounce, and ignoring not only areas of possible agreement but most of the actual content- by his own admission, ‘entire chapters’. As I have said, he is simply this sort of critic, and I do not feel personally badly treated. However, there is a broader and more important context for his reaction. I wrote the book partly as a balance to the tendency of most experts in early modern witch beliefs and trials to concentrate on them wholly in early modern terms and ignore wider and deeper frames of reference. De Blécourt’s reaction is a very good example of the disquiet felt by some of them at the suggestion that they might, should they wish, take a broader view.