London, Routledge, 1996, ISBN: 9780415087612; 304pp.; Price: £70.00
University of Bristol
Date accessed: 3 December, 2023
The dust-jacket of this book defines Diane Purkiss as a Lecturer in English; within its pages she prefers to describe herself as a feminist literary critic. It is a potent combination, and has resulted in a thoroughly individual and very important book. Its preoccupation is with the manner in which images of English witches have been formed and manipulated during two distinct periods of history, that of Elizabeth and the early Stuarts, and the late twentieth century. In tackling the job, the first half of Dr Purkiss's identity has given her an instinctual love of texts and of language, reflected in her own exuberant and often very funny use of words. The other half has reinforced both an attachment to current critical fashions and ideologies and a style which might be politely described as pugnacious, although I suspect that she herself might prefer the expression 'feisty'. A reader is given little option other than to applaud or to fight back; this one, perhaps unsurprisingly, is going to do both.
The book opens with a firework display of destructive polemic, in three bursts. The first attacks radical feminist views of early modern witchcraft, the second the views taken by modern witches, and the third the treatment of the subject by English historians. Of these the first is the most effective, because the target is most compact and Dr Purkiss is writing with real understanding of the issues. She is not primarily concerned to demonstrate, as other academics have done before, that the radical feminist notion of the Witch Hunt is wildly unhistorical, but to show how and why it evolved and to argue against its message in feminist terms.
The result is devastating, and the more so because of Dr Purkiss's genius for aphorism. The myth of 'The Burning Times' is shown to have evolved as part of the feminist concern with domestic and sexual violence during the 1970s. It is damned for reducing the victims of the Hunt to suffering bodies, never allowed to speak for themselves, for destroying the historical specificity of both the Hunt and the Nazi Holocaust with which the myth associates it, and for portraying women as merely the helpless victims of patriarchy. The writers with whom she takes issue are the major figures of the genre- Mary Daly, Andrea Dworkin, and Starhawk- and although the first two have hardly been immune from feminist criticism since the 1980s, their stature in itself enhances the importance of the intellectual demolition carried out in these pages. My only reservation concerning it is a difference of emphasis, that she tends to view the feminist community in its own terms, as a seamlessly international one, whereas I am more inclined to perceive the myth of The Burning Times as a specifically American discourse, rooted in the culture of the modern United States. This does nothing, however, to vitiate her comments.
The treatment of modern pagan witchcraft, by contrast. suffers from the fundamental weakness that Diane Purkiss does not understand the phenomenon with which she is finding fault. She constructs an image of it which it is itself a myth, a mashing together of three different genuine entities. One is American feminist witchcraft, based upon the idea that the witch figure and its divine complement, the Goddess, can be evoked by any woman bent upon personal liberation. The second is Wicca, a mystery religion developed in England and based upon a rigorous process of training and initiation and a cosmos polarized between equal female and male forces. The third is hedge witchcraft, the modern version of cunning folk, featured here in its commercialized form of individual practitioners offering occult services for money. The sources from which she creates this confusion are a themselves a medley, of influential writers (like Starhawk), authors who have had no impact in Britain (such as Elisabeth Brooke), advertisements, and conversations with individual witches who are quite rightly kept anonymous but who are also left completely unlocated within the complex society of present-day witchcraft. All this material is vaguely considered to be normative.
The problems with the result include straightforward errors; Sir James Frazer was an opponent, not a proponent, of the idea of ancient matriarchy, and relatively few modern witches worship a Mother Goddess. Gerald Gardner, the publicist (and perhaps creator) of Wicca, did not fail to acknowledge the contributions of his pupil Doreen Valiente because of gender bias, but for the simple reason that not until after his death did Valiente wish her identity as a witch to be known; the distortion of the facts here itself suggests a hint of such bias. When these misunderstandings are cleared away, Dr Purkiss proves to be most effective once again on her home ground, when revealing the woolliness, nostalgia, and impracticality of the thought of American feminist witches and the supercharging of the same qualities by crass commercialism. The creation myth of Wicca is efficiently knocked to pieces; but then it has been disintegrating amongst Wiccans themselves ever since the 1970s. The joie de vivre of the chapter makes it another marvellous read, and this reader only wishes that it had been based upon better information.
The section upon academic treatment of the Hunt suffers from a similar lack of instinctive understanding, combined with sheer bad luck. As Dr Purkiss notes, professional study of witch trials has apparently languished in English universities since the celebrated socio-economic analyses of Keith Thomas and Alan Macfarlane in the early 1970s. What she apparently did not realise at the time of writing was that this is largely because for about ten years historians have been awaiting the completion of major research projects in different areas of the field, by Robin Briggs, James Sharpe, and Stuart Clark. Since she completed her book, two of these have reached publication and the third has been submitted. All have in common a rejection of the functionalism of their predecessors, an emphasis on the need to reconstruct holistically the mental world of the participants in the trials, and a perception of the enhanced importance of folklore studies and psychology in the interpretation of the Hunt. These are exactly the approaches taken by Diane Purkiss herself. Such a pattern demonstrates vividly how much scholars work within common intellectual atmospheres at given moments, while weakening Dr Purkiss's claim that her feminism provides her with a dramatically different perspective.
This said, to some extent the claim stands up. She is novel and convincing in her demonstration that the sceptical writers upon witchcraft in the early modern period were if anything even more misogynist than the demonologists. There is truth and justice in her assault upon the neglect by most English historians of recent theorisations of childbirth, maternity and the body by feminist writers. The obvious defence against the latter, however, is that the writers concerned are locked in an ongoing debate, and that scholars not expert in the issues at stake would like to see it resolved before they employ the latest contributions to it as worthwhile theoretical constructions; the formulations favoured by Dr Purkiss, notably those of Helene Cixous, have themselves since been challenged as misleading by other feminists.
Likewise, she is accurate in her criticisms of the sceptical and rationalist discourse which has prevailed among historians of the Witch Hunt ever since the Enlightenment. What she seems not to appreciate is the context of that discourse, at least until the mid-twentieth century; that it was the product not of a smug cultural hegemony but of liberals terrified of the potential for irrational violence in human society. It was certainly blinkered and sexist, but it was applied to a specific purpose, of hammering home the folly and pointlessness of the Witch Hunt until there was absolutely no danger that it could break out again. We certainly need to move beyond it now- and for thirty years scholars have been doing so- but it should be granted some virtues in its time.
A similar blindness to context weakens the force of Dr Purkiss's comments upon Margaret Murray's characterization of the Witch Hunt as the destruction of a surviving pagan religion. She accuses the historians who attacked it in the 1970s of savaging a soft target with motivations of gender prejudice, with the assertion that the faults of the Murray thesis had been agreed upon by experts ever since it was first aired in 1921. What she plainly does not realise is that Margaret Murray's books only became best-sellers during the 1950s and 1960s. During that time they not only made a huge impact upon the general public and a host of popular writers, but their main argument was repeated by leading historians such as Christopher Hill, Sir Stephen Runciman, and Sir George Clark, as well as archaeologists, folklorists and pioneers of oral history. The intensity of the attack in the '70s derived from the realisation that fifty years of criticism within the small body of experts upon the subject had apparently been unavailing, and that the Murray thesis had to be stopped once and for all.
After all this sustained finding of fault with others, the natural reaction of a reviewer is to feel that whatever Diane Purkiss now has to say upon her own account, it had better be damned good. The delightful discovery which follows is that it actually is so. First, she uses trial records to reconstruct the experience of encounters with a presumed witch from the point of view of successive female witnesses. The result is to draw us, convincingly, into a symbolic world in which the witch-figure operates as antihousewife, antimother, and antimidwife, a screen onto which are projected a set of specifically female fears and worries. Then she links beliefs about witches and their familiars to prevailing theories concerning the nature of the human body, and of the female body in particular. At a time when medical opinion had long held that bodies flowed with substances which threatened to get out of hand, a woman was seen as especially leaky and permeable, and a witch as effectively boundless and so dangerously intrusive. This insight is illustrated repeatedly from popular sayings and customs. An especially effective case-study takes its starting point from the contemporary medical belief that a mother's milk was the blood which had nourished the foetus, and which after birth was purified through the heart before being pumped into the breasts. Within this system of thought, the suckling of the animal familiar with blood, generally from a teat concealed in the groin, was the use of a polluted organ in a polluted place, a nurturing with poison of an entity created to do evil.
The final part of this central section is devoted to considering the defences provided by accused witches, and displaying the range of very different strategies which they adopted. Some actively sought an identity as users of good magic, others created counter-tales about themselves using materials provided by the accusers, and yet others created their own materials. Virtually all struggled hard to reassert control over the meaning of their lives. Looking at the mass of information which Dr Purkiss has assembled to illustrate this point, one of the most striking aspects of it is that it is derived from accounts of trials in which the defendant was found guilty; her analysis of it helps us to understand what must have gone on in the (naturally much more sketchily recorded) majority of witchcraft cases, in which the defence was successful
In this fashion, Diane Purkiss provides a set of genuinely new and valuable perceptions of the subject, accessible to her as a feminist writer. She proceeds in the final third of the book to pull off the same trick, but this time with a heavier emphasis upon her skill as a textual critic, by analysing the representations of witches in Elizabethan and early Stuart drama. The present reviewer was quite prepared to be overawed by her sparkling reinterpretation of the famous set of canonical texts, although it must be admitted that here she is most firmly upon her home ground and he is furthest from his own. A historian's range is, however, quite wide enough to assess the worth of her comments upon the relationship of the stage with wider culture, and these again seem to be both accurate and important.
More than anybody before, she brings home not merely the diversity of early modern opinion concerning witches, but the sheer variety of channels through which it could be mediated- parents, neighbours, sermons, ballads, pamphlets, learned literature, and plays. She is also a pioneer in the way in which she emphasises how complex that relationship between drama and the complex matrix of wider culture actually was. The stage was very far from being a mirror for society; rather, it was a world with a dynamic of its own and an equivalent variety of ideas. For one thing, trials of witches (at least in the Home Counties) and plays about witches did not follow the same trajectory; the former had passed their peak and were in decline when the latter were most fashionable. For another, stage representations did not depend upon stories from trials, or the beliefs in which they were rooted. Not only did they draw upon alternative sources, notably the classics and the handy trove of material made by the sceptic Reginald Scot, but produced witch-figures far more flamboyant, more theatrical, and more essentially ridiculous; and in the process may actually have helped to foster scepticism about witchcraft in metropolitan (and thus national) culture.
Not even a review with as generous a word-limit as this can do real justice to the mass of insights, suggestions, and provocations provided by so rich and combative a work. In its author's eyes, it appears to function mainly as a battering- ram, driven first against the errors of contemporary feminist mythology and then against those of a male-centred academic historiography which is itself based in patriarchal culture. It is to congratulate rather than to diminish her that this reviewer sees it more as an important and unanticipated addition to a set of innovative new publications by English scholars upon early modern beliefs and trials concerning witchcraft; not so much a stone hurled into a stagnant pond, as part of a wave of exciting research, in a subject which seems finally to be coming of age.
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.