Saturday, November 21, 2009

Salem in Social, Cultural, and Religious Context: An Analysis of The Devil's Dominion by Richard Godbeer

When the first colonists began to leave England for North America in the early seventeenth century, they carried a certain subset of beliefs and assumptions with them across the Atlantic which derived culturally from England and religiously from the Calvinist influenced doctrines of Puritanism. In his work The Devil’s Dominion: Magic and Religion in Early New England, Richard Godbeer examines the complex worldview of these early Puritan settlers and describes their mental and physical realities as far less homogeneous than is often explicated. Although the separation between the elites and the laity was a much smaller gap in Puritan New England than in Europe, many distinctions existed that provided context for their convoluted interpretations of magic, counter-magic, and witchcraft. Godbeer examines the origins of the Salem witchcraft trials of 1692 through the historical framework of late seventeenth century New England - specifically, the similarities and differences between European and colonial witchcraft beliefs; the impact of occult counter-magic and folk healing on the witchcraft trials; and the historical circumstances contributing to a cultural climate that allowed witchcraft trials to proliferate.

Throughout The Devil’s Dominion, Godbeer describes the nature of magic and occult phenomena, and embedded within this account is an inherent comparison of colonial beliefs and their European counterparts. Despite the distance across the Atlantic, the Puritan cultural and religious links with England were never completely severed during the seventeenth century. From 1620 to 1692, New England provides us with an excellent historical laboratory in which to observe both the continuity of witchcraft beliefs as they traveled from England to North America and the quintessentially Puritan version which arose organically amidst the political and religious turmoil of the last quarter of the seventeenth century. The most apparent similarity between Puritan and English witchcraft was the emphasis placed on the witches’ interaction with the devil. Indeed, this was the salient feature of most Protestant interpretations of the crime. Before the accused could be held responsible for the crime of witchcraft, it was incumbent upon the prosecution to prove that the witch had dealings with Satan (153-155). Also like Europe, this explanation of witchcraft as a diabolical heresy pertained primarily to the elite, and in New England the elite class was composed of clergymen.

This elite integration of the devil into the idea of witchcraft was itself an indefinite process. How did one even define the devil? As in Europe, the ministerial fixation on Satan did not exactly accord with the preoccupation with practical magic and counter-magic among the Puritan laity. Satan was not simply evil personified but could also be envisioned as a non-anthropomorphized force or power in the world, manifested most dangerously through the actions of people (87). This apperception of Satan extended to broader dimensions than just the context of witchcraft. For example, demonological rhetoric was employed to attack Native Americans, who represented the great heathen Other (192). The racial, religious, and cultural differences between Puritans and Native Americans were obviously vast, and these differences were often highlighted in ways that portrayed these Native Americans as diabolical. In the demonology of witchcraft, the devil often offered the accused wealth in exchange for her services, and any trade between settlers and Native Americans may have been interpreted in diabolical terms.

Enemies from within the Christian fold were not immune from this line of attack either. The odd piety of the Quakers, who shook uncontrollably as they prayed, easily lent credibility to the Puritan belief that they were possessed by the devil. Their behavior likely seemed little different from those who writhed in contortions under the supposed spell of the devil (194). When the assaults fell within the political sphere, the colonists were not averse to using diabolical language to denounce their enemies. The term “adversary,” for example, was applied to Edmund Andros, the wildly unpopular Anglican ruler of the short-lived Dominion of New England, which deferred, perhaps unconsciously, to the original etymology of the word “Satan” (187). Andros was later demonized alongside Native Americans, with whom he was accused of conspiring against the New Englanders (188). This language of diabolical association would later be applied toward witchcraft in Salem.

The social distance between the laity and the clergy was far smaller in New England than Europe, distinctions were far less entrenched, and interaction between them was more common. As Godbeer mentions, the family, the town meeting, and the church provided the cohesive structures that bound society together. The latter two furnished direct contact between elites and the laity (3). Given this more integrated social structure, why did such a brutal witch hunt occur in Salem in 1692? For one thing, women were excluded from the town meetings (4). The social solidarity that collective decision-making supplied to the male colonists not only may have rendered these women outsiders in their own communities but may also have removed any power they had over their own political and social destinies. The harshness and ruggedness of existence in colonial New England already ensured that women heavily participated in the communal work of a village, but the elite cultural and religious assumptions of female weakness exposed women to a paradoxical existence: they did not participate in the civic or political processes but were fully expected to ascribe to its rules (118). Beyond the level of household, women had social contact with men only in church, and Godbeer contends that their religious conviction left them vulnerable to spiritual crises such as those that rocked late seventeenth century New England (114). Godbeer also reports that seventy-nine percent of all witches and eighty-four percent of all demoniacs in New England were women (68 and 114). By many accounts, this was a greater preponderance than in Europe.

There were significant differences between European and New Englander cultures of magic, counter-magic and witchcraft. According to Godbeer, unlike Europe, folk healers seem to have been at greater risk of being accused of witchcraft in New England (66). Godbeer does not detail specific reasons for this difference, though it may have been due to the fact that no folk tradition of lay medical practitioners existed in New England. The line between magical and non-magical healing was a fine one, and practitioners of folk medicine were often either ignorant of the fact that their work was under suspicion or maintained that it was in no way diabolical (66-68). In any case, the ends may have justified the means in the arena of folk healing, and the merits of the medicine—whether a natural or supernatural antidote—seemed to hinge on its results. In New England there may have been a paradoxical increase in the Puritan use of magic and counter-magic due to the decline of the legal prosecution of witches from the early 1660s to the late 1680s. By taking spiritual matters into their own hands, these Puritans may have inadvertently created the very social conditions that condemned many of them for this use (177-8).

Pluralism, both religious and cultural, also produced different results in New England than in Europe. According to some scholars, pluralism led to greater tolerance in Europe, especially following the Peace of Westphalia, whereas pluralism disrupted the fragile existence to which Puritan New Englanders clung. After the Protestant Reformation began, Catholics and Protestants fought bitterly with one another in Europe, but after generations of living side-by-side, a mutual, if begrudging, respect emerged. Puritan settlers left England for North America, in part, because they desired religious freedom for themselves apart from other Christian sects. The presence of Native Americans, French Catholics to the north, Dutch to the south, and an influx of secular merchants and non-Congregationalist Protestants throughout the late seventeenth century upended their perceived homogeneous environment.

Though its themes come to a head with the Salem witchcraft trials of 1692, The Devil’s Dominion is more concerned with the cultural and political climate of New England in the decades leading up to this event. Godbeer is at his most erudite when synthesizing the cultural, political, and religious trends and explicating how they coalesced and contributed to the trials. Historically, he asserts that the years from the founding of Plymouth colony in 1620 to around 1675 were relatively peaceful. This peace was disrupted by a series of events that shattered the Puritan world. King Philip’s War (1675-6), a brutal conflict with the Wampanoag tribe and a following small-pox epidemic, decimated the New Englander population (182-3). During the next decade, the revocation of the Massachusetts Charter and imposition of the Anglican-controlled Dominion of New England (1686-9) eliminated self-rule among the Puritan colonies and for a short time returned them to the very political conditions they sought to escape in England (184). In 1690 hostilities with Native Americans renewed, this time with French support, and shortly thereafter, the new colony charter granted religious toleration to Anglicans, Quakers, and other Protestant denominations, breaking the Puritan monopoly on religious authority in New England. Richard Godbeer convincingly argues that these events, amidst the cultural climate I have detailed above, generated suitable conditions for the witchcraft trials at Salem to flourish.

The Salem witchcraft trials, though violent, were ephemeral compared to the sustained witch craze of early modern Europe. The trials reached very high up the social ladder into relatives of the very people prosecuting the cases and, unlike the more natural progression of events in Europe, the ministerial authorities made a conscious decision to halt the trials. The very act of uncovering a witch undermined the self-proclaimed godliness of these Puritan authorities because the methods for discovering a witch had much in common with the counter-magic for which the laity was accused—trial by water, hot iron, scalding water, or other ordeals (160-1). If supernatural knowledge was required to a investigate magic, it defeated the purpose of the trials in the first place and exposed the clergy to charges of hypocrisy (220-222). Like England, Puritan elites and commoners never came to a consensus regarding the nature of witchcraft, but unlike England, the common ideas were never truly assimilated into the legal process. Ministers seemed to be at a loss to interpret counter-magic as anything other than witchcraft. Godbeer’s sophisticated treatment of the events leading up to the Salem witch trials masterfully contextualizes the cultural, political, and religious circumstances of late seventeenth century New England and their bearings on Puritan ideas of witchcraft.

Friday, November 20, 2009

A Short Hiatus from Bloggerdom and Some Things to Come

I'm currently in the home stretch of my first semester as a graduate student in history, which, as you can imagine, is why I've been away from the blogging world over the past couple of weeks. In fact, not counting the revised papers on witchcraft I posted here, I haven't done much of anything original since late September. Obviously, I've got a lot to do, so I probably won't post again until the semester is over around the third week of December, but I thought I'd give a quick preview of some things I intend to get up here on the site before the end of 2009.

Firstly, I have several book reviews I've written over the past few months and a few from over a year ago that I would like to post. I don't really do book reviews too often, but it's something that academic historians do for shorter works in journals, so I'd like to get some up here. I recently read a really fascinating work for my witchcraft class called The Devil's Dominion, about the existence of magic and its integration into religion in Puritan New England in the seventeenth century. It really put he events in Salem in political, religious, and cultural context and really breaks down some stereotypes about not only the ultra-rigidity of Puritan religious beliefs but also the myth of the strict homogeneity of their colonies. I know, it's one more post on witchcraft, but since it has to do with Puritan New England, I can loosely tie it to Thanksgiving. I'll post it soon. Some other books, history (though most is not terribly current) and otherwise, that I'll review soon include a a biography of Alexander the Great, an examination of the military explanation for the fall of the Roman Empire, some of the works of Arnold Toynbee, a few works on the history of astrology and magic, as well as some Jungian stuff. Like many other things I post here, these will mostly be revised versions of things I have written for myself in the past.

Secondly, I have two pretty big papers coming up and once the semester is over and I've gotten back professor comments and made the necessary adjustments I'd like to post them here. The shorter paper I am writing compares Giordano Bruno and Domenico Scandella, two victims of the Inquisition in Italy in the late sixteenth century. By examining their respective cosmologies and heresies, I hope to draw some conclusions about the similarities and differences between elite and common conceptions of the cosmos at a time when a multitude of contradictory ideas proliferated. Scandella, a literate Friulian miller, was a man on the margins of society. He was exposed to cultural diversity and pluralism in his profession, benefited intellectually from the rise of the printed word, and performed an integral function within his peasant community though he was often alienated from it for his unorthodox ideas. Bruno was a peripatetic scholar who never resided in one location longer than a few years, and consequently, he was often a mistrusted figure in his adoptive lands. He advocated Hermetic and Neoplatonic philosophy, and his early acceptance of the Copernican heliocentric theory, though it had little to do with his eventual trial and execution, has earned him a place in the history of science. For these reasons, among others, both figures aroused the suspicions of the Inquisition. By positioning these two historical personages in the philosophical, religious, and socio-cultural settings of late sixteenth century Europe, I seek to better understand why their cosmologies were so offensive to the Church and why both were condemned for heresy. I also hope to submit this paper to a graduate student academic conference at North Carolina State. The longer paper is also a comparative paper, and I've written about the topic many other times, so I won't go into too much detail. In short, I'm comparing Andrew Dickson White - a late nineteenth century historian and president of Cornell University who wrote an extremely influential work on the history of science and theology, in which he argued that they have historically been enemies - with modern historian of science David C. Lindberg, who represents the modern school of thought that neither warfare nor harmony accurately depicts their relationship. Both these papers exemplify my general interests in history and I'll post them later in December.

Finally, I'm coming up on the one year anniversary of this bog's inaugural post, which is in the first week of January next year. This blog started, in part, due to the fact that I made it my new Year's Resolution at the end of 2008 to write more and I decided a blog would be the best testing ground for that commitment. I think the results have been pretty good though I am going to far well short of my one hundred post goal. I intend to write at least one post reflecting on my year of blogging and what I'd like to accomplish in the world of writing in the coming year. With my first semester of grad school almost behind me, I also want to write a bit on how that process has changed me, what I've learned, and how I have interpreted the lessons of graduate school. I don't necessarily want to write so much about history, but what higher education means to me and how this type of schooling is, in most ways, entirely different from all other education I've received up to now in my life. So, for the future, you can look forward (I hope) to some book reviews and some actual normal blog posts that have to do more with my life and less to do with my increasingly abstract thoughts. Enjoy!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Skepticism, Science, and Superstition: The Decline of Witchcraft Trials in the Seventeenth Century

The height of the witch craze in Europe occurred between roughly 1560 and 1630, but the decline and eventual disappearance of witchcraft trials transpired in a much more disjointed fashion chronologically and geographically. Several historiographical explanations exist to account for this demise, and emergent cultural and intellectual trends throughout the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries provide a context through which to understand these changes. The rise of the mechanistic world view of Descartes, Newton, and others posed a problem for witchcraft because prevailing natural interpretations of previously unexplainable events established a schema into which witchcraft could not easily be assimilated. Greater religious toleration and the acceptance of religious pluralism in many places allowed diverse beliefs to coexist within the same social milieu and thus fears of witchcraft diminished. However, it should also be noted that although the trials themselves ceased, a general belief in witchcraft, especially among commoners, did not. This points to a gradual shift of the import that the notion and term “witch” carried in popular consciousness. The category and terminology surrounding the idea of the witch lost a great deal of cultural cachet during the seventeenth century among the elites in charge of its prosecution and devolved into broader associations with superstition. I intend to critique four historians’ approaches to the problem of witch trial decline and the growing gap between the elite opinion regarding witchcraft “superstitions” and the commoner continuation of belief largely devoid of its legal implications.

In his analysis of the decline of witchcraft, Brian Levack asserts that new legal safeguards and procedures regarding the prosecution of witches accompanied the edification and centralization of the nation-state. In keeping with his overarching thesis that the centralization of authority actually contributed to a decrease in witch trails and helped to restrain more zealous local authorities, Levack argues that new legal protections beginning in the early seventeenth century made it more difficult for authorities to prosecute for witchcraft. He cites four major changes contributing to a decline of witch trials: greater judicial centralization, limited or forbidden use of torture, greater necessity of evidence for conviction, and better legal defense allocated to those accused of witchcraft. According to the new judicial world view, far fewer people were actually capable of being witches. Skepticism grew among elites, but at first this skepticism did not extend to a belief in the authenticity of witchcraft. Rather, it entailed judicially specific skepticism of the efficacy of torture to extract true confessions and to greater doubt concerning the adequacy of evidence presented in the majority of trials. Even while authorities in the early seventeenth century grew more skeptical of the presence of a vast conspiracy of witches, its reality as a crime remained.

This new skepticism was accompanied by a redefining of the term “witch” to narrow its meaning and grant it less power. Johann Weyer, for example, distinguished witchcraft from “magicians, evil-doers, enchanters, and poisoners” all of whom might be charged with witchcraft by less discerning prosecutors. He explained witchcraft as a natural phenomenon and, through textual exegesis and linguistic analysis, claimed that the Biblical witch from the heavily quoted Exodus 22:18 did not directly correlate to those accused of witchcraft in the early modern era. Similarly, John Webster argued over a century later that witches were better classified as “Deceivers, Cheaters, Counteners, and Imposters” and that natural explanations could be employed to explain the persistence of these beliefs. A greater emphasis on natural explanations to describe seemingly supernatural events coincided with this growing skepticism. During the seventeenth century, the intellectual outlook of European elites inclined toward more empirical, materialistic, and scientific visions of the universe, and this has historically been regarded a common justification for the decline of witchcraft trials. There are two problems with this approach. One is that, according to Levack, the rise of this world view came several decades after the worst of the witchcraft prosecutions had already subsided. The other is that, within the time frame of the decline, the “scientific” world view embraced far more natural philosophies than simply the materialistic. Neoplatonism, for example, still exerted a great deal of intellectual influence as late as the mid-seventeenth century, and it much more readily accommodated occult and esoteric ideas. Only the mechanistic weltanschauung would not incorporate witchcraft, and according to Levack, it had not yet ascended to prominence.

Levack acknowledges the problem of chronology and does not specify precisely when the trials came to an end, leaving a very broad time frame for decline—beginning in some places as early as 1600 and not in others until the 1670s. This implies not only that new scientific and philosophical ideas diffused at different rates in different regions but also that the abatement of the importance of witchcraft as a categorical notion depended largely on cultural factors in specific regions. In the case of England, for example, Marion Gibson contends that controversy surrounding particular witchcraft trials caused a hesitance to prosecute on the part of the judiciary. Gibson refers to J.A. Sharpe and recounts a more precise chronology than Levack, tracking skepticism via the decline of witchcraft pamphlets through the 1620s and 1630s. The Wonderfull Discoverie of Elizabeth Sawyer, published in 1621, was the last until 1643. However, Gibson claims that the reduction of pamphlets led to a decrease in witch trials though it seems just as likely that declining elite interest in witchcraft hastened the demise of the pamphlet. From the chronological information provided, the two appear to have ebbed simultaneously. In either case, witchcraft simply did not hold the cultural or judicial currency for prosecutors it once possessed.

Owen Davies answers some of Gibson’s lingering questions in his acknowledgment of the fact that witchcraft declined at different rates in different geographical areas for distinct reasons. For Davies, the growing cultural divides between rural and urban spaces most greatly affected long term witchcraft trends. Particularly, the lack of an agricultural lifestyle in urban settings and different levels of contact with livestock may have had an impact on the subsiding trials. Davies attests to the utilitarian nature of the peasant version of witchcraft, noting that nearly half of all witchcraft cases in rural Surrey involved livestock and humans as opposed to less than a third in the comparable urban setting of Southwark, implying that rural accusations still revolved around the hexing or cursing of animals. However, this seems to be a broad assumption because Davies never defines the degree to which urban environs differed from their rural counterparts before the Industrial Revolution. A complete dichotomization of rural and urban settings had not yet occurred in the seventeenth century, and it would not be until industrialization that a substantial divorce arose.

The more convincing aspect of Davies’ argument is his contention that the constant flux of people in and out of cities comprised the greatest difference between rural and urban landscapes: families lived for generations in rural peasant communities whereas cities had a higher turnover rate of inhabitants. This lack of communal cohesiveness made it far more difficult for the type of internal feuds that oftentimes typified witch hunts. The idea that witchcraft ran in families lacked cultural significance in cities where multigenerational contact and continuity was not often the norm.

Davies is also very careful to note, as Levack and Gibson imply, that the decline in witchcraft prosecution does not necessarily indicate an absence of witchcraft belief. He notes numerous accounts of common witchcraft belief throughout nineteenth century England and in France, in one particular incident, as late as 1968. Of course, by this time the trials had long since subsided, and these existed as folk explanations of unusual activities devoid of illicit meaning. This pertains to physical objects as well. Horseshoes, for example, once held specific significance for witchcraft deterrence, but later seem to have dissolved into general superstitious belief. By the time dangerous witchcraft beliefs came to be regarded as innocuous superstitions by the elites, witchcraft prosecutions waned. Later elite contempt for the explanatory power of witchcraft likely contributed to the Enlightenment view of witchcraft as a simple superstition since this was the most immediate and contemporary form of belief educated elites encountered among common people.

Given that the concern for witchcraft diminished in the legal sphere throughout the Enlightenment, why was there a continued acceptance of witchcraft among commoners? It is possible that we see a return to pre-trial era modes of discourse about witchcraft, and the meaning that this term carried may have reverted back to "illusions and phantasms." While it may not have contributed directly to the decline in witchcraft trials, the “disenchantment” of the world throughout the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries almost certainly contributed to a decline in the acceptance of witchcraft among the educated elite. Among the commoners, Marijke Gijswijt-Hofstra concurs with Davies and surmises that a more stable domestic life and a less precarious agricultural system affected witchcraft beliefs because misfortune no longer required a supernatural explanation. This was reserved for “personal” justification of events—beneficent experiences were attributed to God, whereas maleficent ones could still be blamed on witches. However, as the witch hunts decline, this had little bearing on “impersonal” explanations of the mechanistic, material universe.

In conclusion, it was largely the elite perception of witchcraft that underwent a substantial change throughout the seventeenth century. Peasant understanding of its nature continued as it had for generations while a growing skepticism, informed by new ways of thinking about the natural world, issued from elites. This change was gradual and not until science ceased to encompass occult ideas did a marked decline occur. In a sense, just as elites made the crime of witchcraft more serious in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, they also made it less serious throughout the mid to late seventeenth. The shifting zeitgeist of the time period is reflected in the morphing terminology used to define and describe witchcraft, in the greater legal protection afforded to the accused, in the waning of pamphlet publications in England, and in increasing distinctions between rural and urban life. For these reasons, among others, witchcraft trials decreased throughout the seventeenth century.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Gender as a Causal Factor for Witchcraft within the Orbit of Early Modern Class Structure

Was gender a causal factor in the witch hunts? The question of causality is in some ways binary, and historians have aligned themselves affirming gender as a causal factor or denying it; but few historians are monocausal, and their answers to this question are far more cautious and nuanced. While this is a straightforward question, it has no simple answers. In posing the question at all, historians implicitly state the obvious: that the majority of those accused of witchcraft were female. If femaleness was a causal factor, how do we explain the fact that there were witches to be found among men? Conversely, if femininity was not a causal factor, why were so many witches women? Is class as important as gender, and if so, does class encompass gender? Certainly, from the raw data alone, the association between gender and witchcraft can be demonstrated, but correlation is not always causation, and we must examine the relationship between gender and the process of accusing a witch, especially the degree to which one informs the other, before we can understand causation. By scrutinizing the historiographical notion of gender as a causal factor, I intend to demonstrate that masculinity and femininity are both integrally important to understanding witchcraft, but only under certain social conditions within the larger configuration of class.

In his landmark work Europe’s Inner Demons, Norman Cohn integrates common and elite ideas of gender and convincingly argues that the archetype of a witch as a woman cut across class boundaries. However, according to Cohn, the reason that elites perpetuated this stereotype was because it was already so instilled in the peasant mentality that identifying women rather than men was expected. The problem with this argument lies in the fact that Cohn never explicitly states whether he regards class or gender as more important. Clearly, for the accused, femininity would be a great hindrance whether it conformed to the ideas of the peasant community or the elites in charge of prosecution.The question we must ask is which informed the other? Were the majority of witches women because elites were already persecuting mostly women or were women being persecuted by elites because the lower classes expected this? This is a very difficult question to answer. On the one hand, Cohn is at least partially incorrect when he asserts that an elite prosecutor, for whom the conspiratorial and subversive acts of witches were of the utmost importance, was equally likely to deem a male or female a witch. Misogynistic elements permeate the Malleus Maleficarum and other witch hunting manuals, and educated authorities were armed with a tradition of medical knowledge, religious beliefs, and cultural assumptions that denigrated women as lesser than men in most ways. On the other hand, as elites became more involved with trials, their ideology of misogyny surely corroborated and reinforced already held beliefs. If the average peasant had already come to the conclusion that a witch was more likely to be female than male, he did so concurrently with authorities. It is unclear the degree to which class informed ideas about gender primarily because both upper and lower classes seem to have held similar ideas in the first place.

Perhaps we should rephrase our original question. Undoubtedly, gender is a contributing factor in understanding witchcraft, so we might instead ask how gender affected witchcraft and whether other forces overwhelmed it. Christina Larner judiciously answers the question of feminine causality in both affirming and dissenting terms. She claims that gender was a causal factor as evidenced by the fact that women made up the vast preponderance of witches but that it was not a direct or even the most important factor because they were persecuted for being witches, not women. In Larner’s own terminology, determining who was a witch was “sex-related” but not “sex-specific” though she reminds us that early modern peasants and elites usually had women in mind. Larner explicitly states, in “Who Were the Witches?” that witch-hunting was woman-hunting or at least the hunting “of women who [did] not fulfill the male view of how women ought to conduct themselves.” However, she seems to answer the titular question of her essay “Was Witch-Hunting Woman-Hunting?” in the negative or at least renders the question moot, since the former incorporated the latter. All roses are flowers but not all flowers are roses. For Larner, women-hunting was always conducted under the auspices of witch-hunting.

Just as witch-hunting subsumes women-hunting, so too can class act as categorical architecture within which to position gender as a causal factor. Diane Purkiss asserts that the theory that witch-hunting was entirely the result of patriarchal dominance over women has been overblown by radical feminists of the twentieth century in their efforts to imbue their contemporary ideological struggles with historical antecedents. Purkiss maintains that most witches were executed not because they were women but because they were among the weakest of the lower classes. True, early in the witch hunts, upper class women such as Dame Alice Kytler had been accused and when witch hunts became particularly pervasive in one locale, persecutions tended to stride higher up the social ladder, but by and large, these were exceptions. Most women accused of witchcraft were very poor. It is no coincidence that in his encounter with witches, the devil often promised women monetary rewards and financial gain. And, in regards to the relationship between class and gender, it is telling that women accused of witchcraft were often not poor of their own accord but simply because they were married to poor men . Their poverty was a result of their class not their gender.

Class, it must be noted, was more than merely the separation between the elite authorities and the peasants. Social distinction existed within peasant communities and the relative lack of midwife accusations is another piece of evidence to support the notion that witch-hunting was women-hunting only within the confines of the lowest stratum of the peasant class. Jane Davidson has proffered ample evidence that women who were involved in healing practices were not culled from their communities as witches based on gender or occupation but, as upstanding citizens, they were largely immune from persecutions and even participated in the legal prosecution of witches. Cohn believed—perhaps understandably given the earliness of his contributions to modern witchcraft historiography—that midwives figured into the category of the accused, but Purkiss, Briggs, and Davidson, among others, have dismantled the myth that midwives were ever regularly accused of witchcraft. They have also attacked the idea that the witchcraze was an attempt by masculine medical authorities to keep women out of the profession of healing. Davidson denounces this theory by providing the example of Johann Weyer, an educated elite physician, who actually chided less educated (lower class?) physicians for resorting to witchcraft as an explanation for their medical mysteries. Nevertheless, to be fair, Weyer was a noted skeptic of witchcraft to begin with. This relationship in itself can be taken as evidence that class distinction, even among the elites, was important in regards to witchcraft accusation. Larner subscribes to the theory of masculine medical dominance in part, observing that in Scotland, laws were passed limiting the authority of midwives in medical matters, but she is careful to note that the major change in the status of midwives did not take place until well after the major witch hunts were over.

During the height of the witch hunts, midwives actually colluded with the authorities and aided in the search for the witch’s mark on the body of the accused at the behest of the male prosecutors whose Christian sensibilities prohibited them from doing so. By their very participation, midwives seem to contravene the idea that with-hunting was women-hunting, although, as Clive Holmes has argued, these women may have been purposefully reinforcing their conformity to the legal process by participating as witnesses. In either case, their social standing saved them and their gender did not condemn them.

The difference between gender and class may best be examined through the lens of the legal system. Larner claims that legal responsibility shifted from men to women during the early modern era. Whereas women were once the legal responsibility of their fathers and husbands, the new Protestant ethic of personal accountability made women more susceptible to direct attacks in court. E.J. Kent contends that the legal system worked better for males, and they tended to utilize the courts more often to resolve their disagreements. The male sphere of influence, even among lower classes, was much broader than females because their economic sphere extended beyond the household. For example, as Holmes documents, witnesses in witchcraft cases dealing with property were more likely to be men whereas those dealing with personal illness or death were more likely to be women. He also argues that, in spite of the fact that women participated in the process of identifying a witch, witch-hunting can certainly still be construed as woman-hunting because males were in control of this process the entire time. Arguably, it was mostly elite, wealthy men in charge of this process; lower class males simply used the system to their advantage.

Without a doubt, gender played a substantial role in the witch trials of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In fact, it may have played the most important role, but gender seems to have exerted itself as a direct causal factor primarily within the environs of the peasant class from which most witches were to be found. Elite and peasant conceptions of a witch may have been poles apart in most ways, but both tended to agree that a witch was more likely to be female. Historians have often remarked that elite prosecutors of witches developed their own feedback loop of expectation from witch confessions that reinforced already held beliefs. Some modern historians seem to have developed a feedback loop of their own, claiming that witch- hunting was woman-hunting because so many witches were women while simultaneously asserting that so many witches were women because women conformed to the feminine stereotype of a witch. Misogyny was a reality in early modern Europe, as was poverty. If gender were the sole or even most important causal factor, we would expect to see far more elite women being persecuted as witches. As a “sex-related” but not “sex-specific” crime, witchcraft corresponded to culturally inculcated archetypes of the non-virtuous woman, but encompassed a broad enough subset of crimes to include males as well. The fact that the vast majority of these men and women emerged from the peasant class goes a long way towards explaining the incorporation of ideas about gender within ideas about class.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Integrating the Process of Inversion into the Process of Othering in the Context of the Early Modern Witch Hunts*

*This essay is something of a synthesis of the previous two papers (and posts) on the degree to which witchcraft can be viewed (in terms of social anthropology) as inversion or othering. By inversion I mean, in the context of the witch hunts, that witches were "inverted" and regarded as exactly the opposite of whatever the accusers considered the prime example of perfection in their society. In early modern Europe, this tended to be some version of the "virtuous Christian, made more complicated by the fact that Protestantism and all its variations complicated that view after 1517. By "othering", I mean that accusers were defining witches against oneself and highlighting those aspects of an individual that most differentiated them from their accusers. The idea of the "other" has been a concept in psychology and philosophy for several centuries but was given its most modern (or postmodern) meaning by Edward Said, who applied it to peoples of the periphery - geographical, cultural, religious, etc. I have attempted to retain some of his definition. This essay is very postmodernist, even though I don't particularly consider myself a postmodern historian. Still, the terminology gives me a vocabulary to elucidate ideas that I otherwise would not have.

The issue of how to situate a person accused of witchcraft within the larger political, religious, and social structures of the early modern period constitutes one of the most important questions in witchcraft historiography. Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, these social structures were in the continuous process of defining and redefining themselves. Even the concept of “witch” was ambiguous and carried different connotations for people depending on their social distinction, religious affiliation, or national identity. What embodied a witch for an elite ecclesiastical authority was not always the same for a local peasant, but two elites of different religious persuasions or from disparate geographic locales did not always agree on definitions either.

Amidst these chaotic social conditions that so characterized the early modern period, many scholars have sought to understand the meaning of a witch in terms of the degree to which she either conformed to or diverged from social norms as recognized by both her socio-economic peers and superiors. Scholars have viewed the witch’s relationship with society in varying gradations of complexity as an inversion of social norms or as a convenient way for marginalized peoples to be “othered” by elites or commoners in their attempts to affirm a specific social, religious, or political identity. However, inversion corresponds to schemas far too binary and simplistic to yield knowledge about the diverse ways in which these marginalized peoples were regarded. The less dualistic notion of “the other” represents a more fruitful theoretical account of this multifaceted relationship. Rather than viewing the relationship of the witch to society as one of pure opposition, the concept of the other allows historians to determine how social groups distinguished witches by identifying the feature or features that set them apart from the in-group. It is my intent to recast inversion not as separate from othering but as an extreme version of the process and situate inversion within the greater dynamic process of defining the ideal Christian against the other.

How does one define the idiom of inversion? In the terminology of Stuart Clark, inversion is a reversal of the most exalted ideals of a given social structure or the construction of an oppositional model to the prevailing institutions. Clark has attempted to understand the relationship between the witch and society as an inverted one, in which the witch personified precisely the opposite of what was understood to comprise the ideal Christian. This binary relationship denoted the witch as a particularly odious and dangerous enemy of society. While this can be a useful conceptual framework in which to situate the idea of witchcraft, it does not take into account the convoluted manner in which early modern peoples defined a witch. The idea of a “good” and “bad” witch amounts to a value judgment that simply did not accord with the worldview. Certainly, as Christians, they subscribed to the notions of absolute good and evil, represented by Christ and Satan, but the functional nature of a witch, who had the power to both to cause and prevent harm, was also acknowledged by early modern commoners. All magic derived from Satan; therefore, even practically beneficial magic was evil because the process, not the result, determined its morality. This idea would later prove highly influential among witch hunters who, unlike the commoners they were persecuting, believed that all acts of magic emanated from Satan.

As several scholars have illustrated, most peasants did not equate witchcraft with Satan until the intervention of authorities, and these authorities only gradually came to accept this as an integral part of witchcraft theory. According to H.C. Erik Midelfort, seventy-five to one hundred years passed from the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum until the concept of the devil’s sabbat was integrated into the elite accusation of witchcraft in the Holy Roman Empire, and even after this time, some secular officials maintained the original distinctions of harmless magic and maleficia. For example, Alison Rowlands has described that officials in Rothenburg ob der Tauber may never have fully conflated witchcraft with other forms of magic and regarded the general problem with superstition as a greater threat than the specific problem of witchcraft. Lutheran skepticism of the active power of the devil, in this instance, may have significantly diminished the reality of the witch as other elites understood it, and condemned the more credulous commoners whose utilitarian exploitation of magic savored of heresy. Similarly, Joyce Miller argues that as late as the seventeenth century, Scottish courts tried “charmers” differently than they tried witches and the principal disparity was the lack of the demonic element in the former. However, the variation between Scotland and Rothenburg was that in Scotland, witches were punished more severely than charmers, whereas in Rothenburg, their persecution was less harsh. Christina Larner has pointed to the fact that the pact with the devil did not figure prominently in English witchcraft trials or laws in the mid-sixteenth century and that the Witchcraft Acts of 1542 and 1563 actually curbed its spread. These discrepancies can be attributed to religious and political idiosyncrasies of their respective regions and countries. The inclusion of Satan—who represents the most obvious inverted symbol of the Christian ideal—seems particularly important if we are to regard the relationship between the witch and society as an inversion. His absence, at least in these instances, makes othering a more viable option.

Gender also plays an important role in understanding the relationship between inversion and the other. The sexual dichotomy of male and female obviously provides the perfect context for inversion, and medically speaking, male elites often defined women as inverted men. Appropriate early modern gender roles were often confirmed by the process of accusation and confession itself. Some women seem to have intentionally asserted their identity as ideal Christian women by adopting submissive positions during interrogations and reinforcing their roles in society. However, as both Diane Purkiss and Christina Larner have explicated, this inversion did not extend to the social realm since it was extremely common for women to accuse other women of witchcraft. If othering requires degrees of similarity between accuser and accused, this type of witchcraft allegation epitomizes that process. For Purkiss, class and gender conflicts converge in these examples, and marginal women faced double jeopardy: inversion of the male perception of an ideal woman by authorities and othering in the context of the typical housewife or mother by her female peers. Given that women sometimes made accusations independently to settle personal scores and sometimes colluded with authorities, inversion and othering are further appended. Purkiss, however, is often imprecise with her terminology and seems to use “other” and “inversion” almost interchangeably. For example, while describing the typical responsibilities of a housewife, Purkiss uses language very similar to Stuart Clark when she depicts the inverted housewife as causing “utter disorder,” but then portrays the anti-housewife, a dual concept, as “her own dark Other who causes pollution where there should be order”. While she begins with inversion, her ideational structure reconciles with othering more effectively. Purkiss can certainly be forgiven for this muddled apprehension since the foremost problem in situating the witch within this tortuous cultural landscape is the relationship between the witch and her political, social, and religious positions. And perhaps, by combining the idea of othering with inversion, Purkiss is allowing the other to subsume the more simplistic nature of inversion.

In the inversion thesis, witches represent people who counter the ideal of the model Christian. In fact, they signify the exact opposite. How do we, perhaps imitating Purkiss, situate this within the concept of the other? The difference between inversion and otherness can be understood as degrees of complexity, but far from being separate representations, inversion seems to be a simplified subset of otherness. If inversion is a binary reflection of oppositional models of the perfect society or the perfect individual, we must take care to define not only the “inverted side” of the spectrum but the “ideal side” as well. The notion of witches as inverted Christians is confounded by the kinetic nature of political and religious social structures of the early modern period. What do we place opposite the inverted witch? The Reformation created various versions of the “ideal” Christian, and within both the Catholic and Protestant traditions, the “perfect Christian” would come to encompass different things. Protestants recognized the direct relationship between a Christian and God as an important component of faith, and they deemphasized the need for an intermediary between an individual and God, seeking to demonstrate that faith alone (sola fide) was necessary for salvation. Catholics, regarding the institution of the Church as that intermediary, denounced Protestants for this assertion. The relationship between the Christian and the Church can be interpreted as “inverted” in that Protestants and Catholics came to opposite conclusions concerning the power of the Church but, despite their differences, these Christian traditions still retained enough similarities to require more than simple inversion. According to Jean Delumeau, Protestants were not simply rebelling against Catholics or the institution of the Church, but both Catholics and Protestants were attempting, in their own ways, to reverse the trend of spiritual crises and decadence perceived in early modern spiritual life. A rededication to Christianity, by definition, included a repudiation of all non-Christian elements, perhaps witchcraft foremost among them.

Protestant and Catholics, amidst the backdrop of this Reformation and Counter-Reformation religious strife, could highlight their differences as evidence of “the other” more readily due to their general congruity. Since othering seeks to accentuate seemingly minor differences, the majority sameness between these distinct groups provides a context within which the ideal Christian can be situated. Clearly, the Protestant Reformation, Catholic Counter-Reformation, and proliferation of diverse sects within the Protestant world complicates the idea of the witch as an inverted Christian, since the definition of the ideal Christian loses all meaning when applied across religious and social groups.

There is historical precedent for this type of in-group/out-group fracturing, and the importance for early modern witchcraft persecutions may lie in an examination of the evolution of divergent sects within in-groups. Briefly, an in-group may be defined as a cohesive community with similar values and loyal members subscribing to them. An out-group conforms to different values that do not correspond to one’s in-group. Note that this does not necessarily presage an inverse relationship, as many in-groups differ from perceived out-groups only slightly, leading to a greater capacity for othering instead of inverting. To use a biological analogy, as in-groups drift and differentiate, speciation occurs and two out-groups with a common ancestor appear. Both Norman Cohn and Elaine Pagels have examined how this process transpires, and both have demonstrated that events in antiquity and the Middle Ages, at least in part, provided a template for later witch hunters to use in their persecution of witches.

It is perhaps ironic that Cohn, writing in the 1960s-70s, argued for continuity between the ancient world and the early modern witch hunts since his writings have been interpreted as a reaction to and a critique of Margaret Murray’s own theories of continuity. Cohn himself has undergone criticism for the fact that he has relied too heavily on elite sources at the expense of the peasants on which these sources comment. However, Cohn does not argue for a direct, continuous link between ancient persecutions of Christians and later medieval and early modern persecutions of witches. What he has stressed is that the pattern of these persecutions is similar enough to suggest common motives of social and political control. According to Cohn, long before these elite authorities were condemning commoners as practitioners of witchcraft, Romans were using virtually the same tactics. Specifically, Cohn has maintained that the early modern harassment of witches mirrors the ancient Roman condemnation of Christians, and just as the Romans accused Christians of crimes they surely did not commit, early modern elites were in turn charging witches with crimes that had no bearing on their actual behavior. This extreme singling out of one portion of society implies the existence of a cohesive and powerful in-group banding together against a weaker out-group. Cohn also detects a precedent for the persecution of witches not only in the ancient Roman persecution of Christians but in the treatment of more recently emerged sects of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries—the Waldensians and Cathars.

The Waldensians were a sect of Christians originating in Germany and known for their piety and asceticism. Cohn writes that they remained unadulterated by non-Christian influences and that they were eventually charged with heresy because of their sympathetic view that Satan and his demons, which were expelled unjustly from heaven, would eventually be granted eternal salvation. Since the central authorities rejected the charge of devil-worship and instead emphasized their refusal to follow papal authority, the Waldensians clearly fit the model of an othering. What is even more interesting is the fact that Conrad of Marburg, who first circulated the accusation of devil-worship, seems to have had the intention of inverting them by ascribing to them a reversal of Christian in-group values. But what resulted was an othering since the Waldensians never deviated entirely from the Christian norm—they simply had the misfortune of being denied papal approval to preach. The rise in mendicant groups throughout the twelfth century prompted the papacy to limit their power at the Lateran Council of Rome in 1179 and forbade any new ones from forming at the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215. Here again, inversion is situated within the wider process of othering.

The Cathars provide perhaps a greater challenge to incorporating inversion into othering, since their views were admittedly dualistic. And unlike the Waldensians, the Cathars were influenced by non-Chrisitian ideas, most notably from the Gnostic and Manichaean traditions. The Cathars believed in two deities: a creator of the spiritual realm (whom they identified with God) and a separate creator of the material realm (whom they identified with the God of the Old Testament and equated with Satan). Christian orthodoxy had assimilated dualism of good and evil into its doctrine, but since God had created Satan, evil was always subservient to good. In the radical dualism of the Cathars, good and evil were equalized and locked in eternal combat.

The nature of the Cathars’ beliefs provides a great template for Clark’s inversion thesis, but again we see a greater degree of othering than inverting. Whether people in the twelfth century believed the tales that the Waldensians or Cathars were engaged in devil worship is not the issue, and certainly Cohn believes the best evidence against this is that it is not mentioned in contemporary sources. What is at issue is the method of Cathar persecution, and the underlying motives behind it relate more to the expansion of French royal authority into the Languedoc region of southern France and the territorial expansion of northern French noblemen than to their supposed inversion of Christian traditions. Indeed, their disdain for the material world marked them as paragons of the Christian ideals of poverty, purity, and chastity—the very ideals they criticized the Church for not upholding. As we shall see, the contentious issue of state-control informs a great deal of modern historians’ understanding of the nature of persecutions. In short, Waldensians and Cathars began as internal threats which authorities attempted to stigmatize with inversion and evolved into out-groups distinct enough from Christianity, as far as the authorities were concerned, that they were othered.

There are earlier templates for this pattern as well. Elaine Pagels delves even further into ancient history in order to discover the nature of the other, and in her quest for the origins of Satan, she attempts to understand the development of a singular adversary, as opposed to multiple satans, within the milieu of the culturally diverse eastern Mediterranean. The Jews, who originally defined themselves as one cohesive group, witnessed a great deal of fracturing in the few centuries before Christ. Traditionally, Jews identified themselves in ethnic, political, and religious terms and clearly demarcated themselves from all “others” or the ha goyim. Among in-groups, Jews developed very distinct rituals to foster collective cohesion and distinguished themselves from non-Jews through practices such as circumcision and keeping kosher dietary laws. Greater contact with non-Jewish peoples following the inauguration of the Hellenistic era contributed on the one hand to greater solidarity among Jews in order to separate them from non-Jews but paradoxically more sectarianism as various Jewish groups assimilated ideas of other peoples.

Where “us” and “them” were once clearly defined, the propagation of these sects within Judaism—Essenes, Pharisees, Sadducees—did not go so far as to create new out-groups, but rather produced in-groups within the greater in-group. At first glance, the Jews seem to have had a well-grounded conceptual framework to deal with exactly this. Rather than one singular evil embodied in Satan, they employed multiple satans or “adversaries” not consigned to one particular figure, and in the role of adversary, satans could actually be beneficial if they stood in opposition of one embarking on the wrong path or if they were employed through the will of God. The latter is exemplified by the story of Job, and here, the satan is clearly obedient to God. Why did the Jews not assign satans directly to those they wished to other? Undoubtedly, Jews clashed with one another over their sectarian differences, but identification with Israel took precedent over these squabbles in a way that Christians would not later emulate during their struggles with heterodoxy. Pagels may be insinuating that one of the most significant breaks between Jews and Christians in the first century was that for Jews the ethnic in-group still surpassed the ideological differences of its sects, whereas for Christians, ascription to the teachings of Christ, especially after the Gospel spread to the Gentiles, broke all ethnic barriers. Christians, following the Essenes, possessed a dichotomized mental architecture incorporating a singular Satan to whom enemies could be consigned. And as Christianity came to consist of more and more Gentiles after around 100 CE, what may once have been regarded as another Jewish sect, or in-group, soon developed an identity of its own, and came to view Jews as a new out-group ripe for othering.

Following the functional anthropological approach to witchcraft, Stuart Clark specifies that on a sociological level, the hunting of witches bonded a community against a common internal threat. This certainly seems to be applicable to the Waldensians and Cathars as internal threats to Christianity and the Essenes, Sadducees, and Pharisees as, at least originally, internal threats to Judaism. The Waldensians and Cathars may be regarded as internal threats to Christianity who differentiated themselves enough to be considered out-groups. Inversion breaks down when these internal threats become external out-groups, as these aforementioned sects appear to have done as they had more and more contact with authorities. Since othering appears when in-groups must accentuate minor differences, and charges of devil-worship did not succeed in convincing the authorities, the elites were required to rely on the heretical deviance of both sects. Inversion works better when employed to describe the social dynamics within an entire in-group, such as a peasant community, versus an out-group, such as another religious sect, ethnic group, or nationality. Clark’s inversion thesis is accompanied by the concept of misrule, a sort of “disorderly behavior” that exists to strengthen a social structure by subtly making a mockery of it. In the case of a peasant community, Clark implies that since witchcraft took on such horrific dimensions, the social structure of early modern Europe must have been especially entrenched and rigid. This implication is supported by Wolfgang Behringer who avers that the ruling elites solidified their power during the social and economic tensions resulting from the climatic changes wrought by the Little Ice Age. These elites were largely insulated from food shortages and inflation rampant in the lower classes and were even able to profit from this disorder. On the other hand, as many historians have vociferously argued, the degree to which authority was centralized in early modern Europe is open to question and certainly some places were more centralized than others. For example, the Holy Roman Empire, made up of an amalgamation of principalities—some Protestant, some Catholic—was not centralized politically or religiously during the height of the witch hunts. Behringer and Clark both suggest, however, that the lack of state-control over territory pales in comparison to the socio-economic control these elites exerted over the lower classes.

Finally, perhaps the most befitting area of study for a direct comparison and synthesis of otherness and inversion lies in the nascent nation-state and the emergent identity of people as belonging to particular cultural/ethnic groups. The imprecision of national borders and the fact that numerous populations resided in geographic locations that did not correspond to their own ethnic, cultural, or religious identities exacerbated the problem of witchcraft and contributed to the othering of people who lived, quite literally, on the physical margins of society. And it is surely no coincidence that borderlands between nations and regions where separate cultures, ethnic groups, and religions cohabitated often witnessed the most widespread persecutions. Particularly, the borders between Scotland and England; between France and the Holy Roman Empire in Franche-Comté, Alsace, and Lorraine; and the Basque region of the Pyrenees between France and Spain provide excellent case studies for the process of othering and the further subtending of inversion. It is also no coincidence that these were regions that either spawned the most celebrated and revered demonologists or allowed them to flourish: James VI hailed from Scotland, Heinrich Kramer was from Alsace, Nicolas Rémy from Lorraine, and Pierre de Lancre prospered in the town of Labourd in the Basque country.

We have already noted the marked lack of obvious inversion in the Scottish witch trials: there was no devil-worship, no pact with the devil, no eating of babies, and very few sexual orgies or other prototypical Continental witch ideals. Larner advocates the importance of the centralization of political control in Scotland as both a reason for heightened persecution of witches as criminals of the state and for the lack of demonological elements as a necessity. The capital offense of witchcraft in Scotland had become a crimen exceptum, or a crime that suspended the traditional procedural protection of the plaintiff in the interest of protecting the state from its enemies. Witchcraft, which had once been a solitary offense, came to be a crime against the state, and the “godly kingdom” of Scotland affirmed its national character by ferreting out those that did not fit this mold. Larner considers Scotland a prime example of early modern state-building, and Scotland’s self-identification with devout Christian principles, coupled with its adoption of some aspects of Roman law, allowed for especially efficient judicial prosecution of witches. Conversely, Brian Levack, though he acknowledges the importance of the growth of the Scottish state, alleges that it was precisely that legal and administrative infrastructure that allowed Scottish officials to rein in some of the more zealous local officials. In either case, as far as the average Scottish commoner was concerned, it likely did not matter where the persecutions originated and the records certainly indicate that, even though torture may have been less prominent in Scotland, the existence of witches was not.

In a very real sense, the German lands of the Holy Roman Empire were all borderlands. Local princes exerted almost complete control over their principalities independent of the authority of the emperor. Protestants and Catholics lived side-by-side in a much more integrated way than in many other places in Europe, and as we have seen, between Protestants and Catholics, othering was supremely important. William Monter has theorized, like Levack, that decentralized authority led to the most atrocious witch hunts. However, unlike Scotland, which had a central authority to control these outbreaks, the Holy Roman Empire’s lack of centralization contributed to one of the most brutal witch hunts in all of Europe. After the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, Catholicism and Protestantism become more ensconced in the areas where they were proscribed, and the purposeful creation of a more religiously homogeneous society generated conditions that made it more difficult to point out witches since the state had supposedly succeeded in forcing religious conformity, thus negating much of the power of othering. Perhaps it is no coincidence that major witch hunts in the Holy Roman Empire, and across Europe, began to decline in the latter half of the seventeenth century.

It has not been my intention to argue that inversion did not exist in the conceptualization of the crime of witchcraft in the early modern era—merely that it provides only a starting point from which to understand the more intricate relationships between the witch and the social, religious and political arrangements of the day. Inversion is obviously a useful construct, but its definitive categories do not easily accommodate non-binary modes of discourse or take into account the evolutionary nature of early modern mentalités. What may start out as inversion within an in-group can morph into a more variegated othering as in-groups transform into new out-groups. Because of these labyrinthine correlations, it is incumbent upon the historian to restructure his frame of reference to incorporate inversion into the broader system of othering.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Witch and the Self: Imposed and Self-Actualized Identity in Early Modern Witchcraft

Before authorities could prosecute a witch, they first had to identify a witch. With the early modern proliferation of witch hunting manuals, elite categorization of witches relied on an increasingly standardized vision of the crime of heretical and maleficent magic. A witch’s status, however, was not entirely prescribed on high by an ecclesiastical authority; rather, witches were often actively engaged in determining and defining their own identities. The early modern era witnessed a burgeoning of new social taxonomies that had few antecedents in pre-modern times. During the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, Protestants and Catholics pursued divergent paths in terms of their relationship with God, Church, and Scripture. This had major repercussions on their respective approaches to witchcraft. Similarly, witches, especially those who regarded themselves as such, cultivated identities establishing witchcraft as a skill or discipline in a self-affirming rather than self-denying way. Finally, more and more cohesive countries in this age of proto-nationalism developed identities for themselves that informed their perspectives on witchcraft, delineating not only physical and geographical but also social and cultural boundaries. By examining the growing importance of selfhood—either imposed by authorities or self-determined and actualized by the witch—within the context of larger politico-religious identity structures, a more compelling definition of the witch emerges.

The Protestant Reformation was undoubtedly one of the greatest social shifts of the early modern era. The ways in which Protestants and Catholics began to define one another—and themselves against one another—had a marked impression on their respective and increasingly selective definitions of witchcraft. Stuart Clark argues that the two faiths did not come to separate conclusions regarding the existence or nature of witchcraft but that each sought to accentuate particular aspects of witchcraft and downplay others. This discriminating method of identification followed a pattern that underscores Clark’s overarching thesis of inversion. Protestants recognized the individual as the integral mediator between man and God through faith. A personal relationship with and individual commitment to God developed into important tenets of the new Protestant creed. Consequently, when identifying the crimes of a witch, Protestants prosecutors tended to emphasize the witch’s pact with the devil as the most serious crime because it stood in stark opposition to the pact Protestants forged with God through faith alone. Rituals, traditions, and Church hierarchy distinguished the Catholic faith, and Catholic prosecutors usually stressed the sabbat, an inversion of the Catholic Mass, as the most heinous witchcraft act. Peasants and lay people, for whom witchcraft had been a largely pragmatic concern, were required to readjust their methods of dealing with witchcraft after ecclesiastical authorities conflated counteractive magic with the maleficent variety. The prescription for neutralizing the effects of witchcraft followed predictably identifiable patterns: Catholics employed rituals such as making the sign of the cross, performing exorcisms, or exploiting the power of saints’ relics, while Protestants utilized simple faith, prayer, and personal communion with God to ward off the influence of witches. In short, the different ways in which Protestants and Catholics dealt with witchcraft highlighted and served to identify their own doctrinal differences, and witches supplied a convenient Other against which selfhood, and the basic ideology of their faith, could be defined.

It is important to note that these are inversions that occurred within the Protestant fold. Clark recognizes two modes in which Christians demonstrated belief in the early modern period: 1) “church-type” Christianity, which included Catholicism, and after institutionalized reform under Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli, mainstream Protestantism; and 2) “sect-type” Christianity, which existed within Protestantism but asserted its independence from any institutionalized control. The quintessential “sect-type” religion of mid-sixteenth century Reformation Europe was the Anabaptist denomination, which was open to attack from Catholic as well as established Protestant Churches. Anabaptists, for example, were persuaded by neither the hierarchy of the Catholic Church nor the systematized Protestantism of Luther, Calvin, or Zwingli (or Henry VIII for that matter) and instead identified themselves against the “demonic” rites of infant baptism and transubstantiation. According to Gary Waite in “Anabaptists and the Devil”, the radical sect viewed such ritualistic behavior as little more than demonic illusions and magical unrealities. Since the infant had not chosen to have faith in Christ, a trademark of Protestant belief, the holy baptismal water had no power at all and the belief that it did was equivalent to belief in magic. Similarly, the idea that the bread and wine of the Eucharist physically changed into the flesh and blood of Christ was little different, in the eyes of the Anabaptist, from necromancy or the transformative powers assigned to witchcraft. Alison Rowlands observes that, as far as Lutherans were concerned, it was superstition (which encompassed witchcraft) that constituted the primary concern. However, for the persecutors, both Protestant and Catholic, this self-identification mattered little. As Waite aptly notes, witches and Anabaptists were often prosecuted as heretical in the same court by the same judges in the course of a single week.

Thus far, this examination has only to pertained to how various religious groups identified themselves vis-a-vis witchcraft, but what of the self-identification of witches? How does one, now or in the early modern period, define what a witch actually is when it appears to be all things to all people or a convenient category in which to place one's enemies? Diane Purkiss contends that for many witches, this identification was self-affirming rather than self-negating. Through self-identification, witches not only became self-actualized by exerting power in one of the few arenas open to them, but also rehabilitated and redefined the meaning of witchcraft within their own communities. Since it was relatively easy for authorities to legally usurp power from these marginal peoples, co-opting the definition of a witch and defining themselves in this way served to empower peasant women in some small way. However, just as religious groups reaffirmed their own particular religious practices and self-identified by denoting their binary oppositions in witchcraft, members of the lay populace constructed oppositional models as well based on more familiar dichotomies. Much as it was the inversion of the Christian religion that provided the persecutory impetus of the elites, it was the inversions of the norms of peasant woman, mother, and homemaker that identified her as a witch by her peers.

Inversions of womanhood were steeped in the ancient medical traditions of Western science and being a woman in the early modern period could be defined as not being a man. The Aristotelian notion of “qualities” attributed “hotness/dryness” to men and “coldness/moistness” to women, and the lasciviousness of women was explained by their need to balance these qualities with the heat provided by male semen, thus perpetuating the stereotype of the woman (and witch) as prone to sexual promiscuity. Similarly, applying heat to a bewitched object could “unwitch” it. Motherhood also afforded a well-demarcated category against which one could define a witch, and Purkiss goes so far as to call the witch an inverted or “anti-mother". The life-giving milk from a woman’s breasts was believed, in the same Aristotelian tradition—reaffirmed by such luminaries as Isidore of Seville, Albertus Magnus, and the contemporary medical practitioner Jacques Guillemeau—to be purified blood, and the emanation of blood from the breasts revealed an impure woman. Expressing too much knowledge of an infant or child often engendered suspicion among others in a community. The trope of forbidden knowledge, of course, is common in the Christian tradition, hearkening back to Eve’s plucking the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, itself interpreted as a didactic tale on feminine weakness.

During the lying-in period following childbirth, the home acted as a macrocosm of the new mother who has recently made the interior exterior through the process of giving birth—her emersion from the home after the lying-in period may be construed as a metaphor in itself of her own birth into motherhood. The macrocosm/microcosm relationship, so important to Renaissance philosophy, may be extended to yet another level. The household was the smallest economic unit of early modern society and the nation was the largest, and just as the home’s threshold symbolized the point at which the interior became exterior, so too were a nation’s borderlands the point at which a social and ethnic group’s self-identification encountered the Other. This provided the context for persecutions in borderlands such as Alsace, Lorraine, and Franche-Comté. The proto-nationalism of this period became important for the identification of a nation, at this point a relatively new concept, and the “in-group” was understood to be everything within the geographic as well as cultural boundaries. Due to the Reformation and the Thirty Year’s War, Europeans realigned themselves along new politico-religious contours. Scotland, for example, according to Christina Larner, identified itself as a “godly kingdom” in which opposition to the witch comprised a necessity. Just as people identified themselves through religious and ethnic groups and against witchcraft, so too could selfhood be manifested in national identity.

Selfhood is an important concept that must be integrated into early modern notions of the witch, but we must be careful not to glean too much information from this: Authorities were not the only people with the power to define a witch. The lay populace, especially other women, often incriminated witches—Purkiss is quick to remind us that this contravenes the supposed misogynistic element of witchcraft, but surely gender played a role.Presumably, there were women who identified themselves as witches who escaped persecution, just as there surely were women who did not self-identify as witches yet were consigned to the stake or gallows. Clark’s “sect-type” religion, while neatly opposing “church-type,” does not fit into all binary oppositional models in that, if one is not convinced of the efficacy of a religion to begin with, one will certainly not be convinced of its antithesis or inversion. Scotland, despite being a model of national identity politics, represents an outlier in the witch hunts in that it is a Protestant nation that deemphasizes both the devil’s pact as well as the sabbat. The self is a concept that would not truly materialize until Enlightenment ideas diffused across the social and cultural landscape of Europe over a century after the worst of the witch hunts were over. In the context of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, we may describe it, in part, as purely relational--defined intrinsically by and through involved communities, whether within families, neighborhoods, or religious communities. However, by contextualizing the self within these larger arrangements, the concept emerges of the witch as an identity to be defined and an identity against which to be defined.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Inversion and Convergence in the Formation of the Early Modern Witch Cult: A Construction and Deconstruction of Binary Opposition

Because it's October, and Hallowe'en is just a few weeks away, I think this would be the perfect month to post another series of writings on witchcraft. As many of you may know, I'm mildly obsessed with the history of witchcraft. My graduate writing sample, which has been posted here previously, was a comparison of the legal status of witchcraft and astrology in Western Europe between 1400 and 16oo and I am currently enrolled in a class on the social history of witchcraft in a global setting (primarily the greater Atlantic world). It's been just extraordinary so far, reinforcing the knowledge I had prior to enrollment in this course and clearing away a lot of erroneous information I had on the topic. In general, this class has elucidated for me just how complex witchcraft was and that it doesn't fit into too many molds that we as moderns can foist upon the past. I think I had a common misconception of witches entering this class: that they were simple scapegoats of society, upon whom any problem could be blamed, especially those problems that had no easily identifiable culprit (bad weather, dying crops, etc.); that this was an attempt by oligarchic male authorities to keep women in their socio-economic places; that witchcraft manuals such the Malleus Maleficarum were the most important factor in the identification, prosecution, and execution of a witch, and so on. But at least from what we've read in class, these seem to be the cases in some circumstances, but not in many others. For one thing, most of what I had read prior to this class focused mainly on the elite conceptions of witchcraft at the expense of what common people actually believed. I also, perhaps, focused a but too much on witchcraft as only a crime, when in fact many women (from folk-healers to simple charmers) actually believed themselves to have the power that they were later accused of. In any case, over the next month, leading up to Hallowe'en, I plan on writing five or six posts, based on the writings I've done in this class on various aspects of witchcraft such as the construction of the belief in early modern witch-cults, the structure of witchcraft accusations amidst the backdrop of the Reformation, the concept of inversions and subversions of societal norms versus the scapegoating instinct or "othering," gender as a causal factor, why the witch hunts subsided, and why European ideas jumped the pond to New England. Since these are modified versions of what I wrote in class, they might occasionally not make too much sense without the context. These are largely historiographical writings, critiquing and analyzing historians and their own writings on witchcraft. I'll try to include at least some hyperlinks that clarify where these historians stand on the issues on which they comment. So, here's the first of a few posts on various aspects of witchcraft in world history:

Perhaps the most contentious issue in the historiography of witchcraft is the question of its origins, and it is impossible to discuss these origins without examining the notion of the witch cult in both its elite and peasant conceptions. This dichotomous relationship is key to understanding how the persecutions unfolded. The literate, ecclesiastically and judicially powerful elite, beginning in the late fifteenth century and culminating in the most intense persecutions between 1570 and 1630, envisaged witchcraft primarily as a crime against God and the Church. It began with a pact with the devil, included a subversive sabbat and a denial of the Christian faith, and gave the witches, through the devil, a variety of maleficent magical powers. However, for the average non-literate peasant in late medieval and early modern Europe, the witch inhabited a very different reality. Peasants, among whom the vast majority of witches were to be found, were far more distressed by the practical harm that could befall them if witches succeeded in conducting this magic, and the origins of this power were of little concern compared with the need to stop it. Thematically, Simpson, Midelfort, Clark, Pócs and Ginzburg emphasize the importance of these oppositional models in constructing a dynamic view of the relationship between a witch and society. For some, it is a merger of these schemas that produced a cohesive premise upon which elites and peasants could agree. For others, it is the differentiation and edification of these binary oppositions that constitute the raison d’être for persecutions in the consciousness of both elite and peasant classes.

This begs several questions. When persecutions started from below and were initiated by peasant communities, how important was the witches’ sabbat at all in identifying and demonizing a witch? Conversely, when the elite authorities were at the helm, how did peasants respond to the idea of a sabbat? Did they respond at all? Each scholar comes to distinct conclusions. I will argue that the structuralist theory of binary opposition—demonstrated especially by the peasant/elite, social/antisocial, order/disorder, and Christian/un-Christian dichotomies—serves as a mold for understanding the subversive and antagonistic models in which witches were situated. In considering this oppositional nature of the witch, the aforementioned scholars have constructed the idea of the witch by defining and delineating these oppositions or by deconstructing and merging them entirely.

The dichotomy of peasant versus elite conceptions of witchcraft and the existence of a witch cult is best evinced by the sabbat. Sabbats included promiscuous and indiscriminant copulation with other witches and the devil himself as well as a wide range of other reprehensible activities regarded as perversions of the Christian faith. The sabbat, along with the pact with the devil, formed the backbone of the heretical harassment that defined authoritarian witch hunting in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. However, according to H.C. Erik Midelfort, most peasants in the German lands of the Holy Roman Empire, where the largest witch persecutions occurred, had no conception of the sabbat, the pact with the devil, or any other activities designating a witch in the eyes of ecclesiastical authorities. He contends that the lay populace had to be coerced into believing that these were legitimate threats. The peasant population regarded witchcraft as a communal crime since the witch, through acts like crop destruction and weather manipulation, disrupted the shared life of the community. With authoritative input from the elites, witchcraft was oppositionally reconstructed as a solitary offense against God and by association the Church—the better to track down and single out individuals for the crime. In a sense, these authorities made the terrestrial witch phantasmagorical by inserting demonological elements into common witch cult structure. Éva Pócs, by contrast, disagrees and argues that peasants, at least in Hungary, did have a notion of the witches’ sabbat independent of these authorities, though it was decidedly different. Here, if the persecutors had an impact, it was in converting the phantasmagorical, which for the peasant was the “alternate world” of the witches’ sabbat existing in another dimension, into a dangerously real terrestrial occurrence. In both cases, we see oppositional models tuned on their heads in order to merge what were heretofore incompatible visions.

Stuart Clark addresses this chaotic restructuring directly and is the most binary in his construction of the witch cult. He sees the inversion of social norms and the idea of “misrule” or “disorderly behavior” on the part of the witch at the very heart of the witch cult. For Clark, the elite understanding of the sabbat assigned to witches certain ideals diametrically opposed to the Church and Christian faith, and the idea of the witches as demon-worshiping, illicit magic using criminals served to define them as and confine them to the out-group of society. Witch cults were not “bad” because they somehow subverted society but because they supplied an exact reflection in reverse of how a healthy Christian society should function. Thomas Aquinas had centuries earlier addressed the problem of evil in a similar fashion by affirming that evil exists because without it, good would have no reason to assert itself. Clark points to the prefiguring of a witches’ apostasy in the religious example of demons themselves, who in the Christian tradition are fallen angels. And, as an historical example contemporaneous with the height of the witch hunts, he cites James I of England, who remarked that to understand something, one must first understand its opposite. This is not simply a “know-thy-enemy” mentality but an interpretation of the evil of the witch cult as anything diametrically opposed to the supreme good as displayed by the Christian religion, the Church, and the elite secular powers.

Even Margaret Murray, whose scholarship is rightly questioned, emphasized that since witches were accused of causing impotence and destroying crops, this must be an inversion of what were once the opposite rites of a fertility cult. Jacqueline Simpson plays devil’s advocate to an extent and argues that the much maligned Murray, despite her failings as a scholar, attempted to form a middle ground in early twentieth century witchcraft historiography by reconciling the credulous religious viewpoint that the supernatural witch cult was a reality with the skeptical rationalist denial of its existence at all. These uncritical supernaturalists tended to accept the statements and records of prosecutorial authorities at face value. This included the Reverend Montague Summers, an English translator of the Malleus Maleficarum, who by and large believed the very words he was translating represented an accurate account of the witchcraft culture on which it commented. By asserting that witches did engage in religious acts harkening back to an ancient fertility cult but that these acts were not in any way supernatural, Murray attempted to understand this inversion as evidence of a widespread European witch cult dating back to ancient times. Murray contends that the crimes of witches—causing impotence, the destruction of crops, the conjuring of bad weather—were really inversions of their true intention in these fertility cults.

A post-structuralist might ask where this opposition contravenes itself and important questions certainly arise with this model. If Clark’s misrule can be considered a “mockery” or “parody” and necessary to reaffirm the existing social structure, why did witchcraft take on such a heinous form rather than a more benign festival of inversion like Saturnalia in which Roman masters served their slaves? Clark contends that misrule strengthens or subtly protests a social structure; therefore, the power structure in late medieval and early modern Europe must have been especially well established and inflexible. Ginzburg offers a more deconstructionist interpretation of these oppositions and demonstrates a major contradiction in this idea of inversion: it has explanatory power only insofar as the elite viewpoint is concerned because many of those involved in perceived witch cult activities regarded themselves as acting on behalf of Christ. Like Pócs, Ginzburg stresses that it was the elite process of merging extant peasant practices with preconceived notions of the witch cult and sabbat that created a homogeneous prosecutorial classification. For Ginzburg, this amalgamation of ideas is best epitomized by the benandanti, an agricultural fertility cult in Friuli, Italy, who regarded themselves not as an inversion of the social norm but as a weapon on the side of Christianity against the evil forces of witchcraft. It would take the Inquisition to conflate the benandanti’s own concept of a “night battle” with that of the sabbat and thus equate them with the very evil they were attempting to exterminate.

Pócs and Ginzburg, however, fall into Murray’s trap of selective narrative and they both rely too heavily on narrow case studies to demonstrate any pan-European explanation of why witch cults represent either inversions of social norms or conflations of elite and peasant ideas. Pócs’ thesis may be true of Hungary in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries and Ginzburg’s of Friuli during the height of the witch craze, but they both examine only a microcosm of witchcraft beliefs. Clark is more a literary critic than a documentary historian, and his inflexible division of witchcraft into black and white bifurcations obscures and disregards its dynamic complexities. Midelfort is more promising if only because his thesis rests on a study of the geographic locus of the largest persecutions. In any case, the exploration of the meaning of the witch cult in terms of the construction and deconstruction of binary oppositions is a hardy formula for understanding the inversions and mergers of it ever changing nature.