28 November 2012


Lyndal Roper, The Witch in the Western Imagination. University of Virginia Press, 2012.

While it is true that publishers - even those of distinguished university presses - love to exert often flagrant spin on book titles, this one is so egregiously unfaithful to the text as to merit an acrimonious divorce. To be fair, however, a totally truthful 'The Witch in the Imagination of the People of a Small Bit of Southern Germany Between the Late 16th and Early 19th Centuries' might be deemed rather niche even to academics.
But come on! The witch in the Western imagination? One searches these pages in vain for any mention of the Pendle witches, the witchcraft paranoia of mad bad old King James, the possessions of the nuns at Loudun, or the extraordinary and tragic hysteria at Salem. No, here the ‘west’ is remorselessly, shamelessly and often almost risibly, the somewhat limited area around the likes of Augsburg and Wittenburg, and several other similar burgs – on the witchcraft of which, however, if confined to the years between 1570 and 1800, Ms Roper is an undoubted expert.

Major caveat though the above might be to the non-historian of southern Germany, this book does provide some insights into the mindset of both those accused of witchcraft and those who did the accusing, imprisoning, questioning, torturing and executing. If one can extrapolate from this wealth of rather localised minutiae the mindset of others in similar positions throughout the wider western world, then perhaps the book edges towards earning its title.

There is another potential problem for the average reader: the author is a psychoanalyst, quoting Freud with what many might consider an uncomfortable freedom (although she does take issue with him – on occasions so much so that one wonders why she rates him so highly in the first place).

However, gird one’s loins and persist with this book and the serious student of witchcraft might well learn something – although it is doubtful whether the casual reader will actually bother to get past the first intimations of the south-German fixation.

Ironically, though, the most fascinating angle of the book is in the title – the idea that the witch was a creature of the human imagination, both that of the accused and the accuser.

We are told, for example, how although the classic M.O. of the witch was to indulge in wild orgies with the Devil himself – complete with many consistent graphic details, not always obtained under torture – when children came to tell their tales of diabolic seduction their imagination balked at the vocabulary involved. Instead of the adults’ descriptions of huge, rock-hard and icy cold phalluses, the little ones merely described ‘shameful acts’ or a sort of immature rubbing scenario. Shockingly, however, as Roper points out, many children seemed to be describing acts of sexual abuse perpetrated on them, the satanic element being grafted on in the telling – even providing them with the means to bring it into the open.

The children also incorporated all sorts of typical kiddie-stuff into their imaginations about being, or at least consorting with, witches. Standing on dung heaps while renouncing the Virgin Mary, making up nonsense rhymes as ‘spells’, describing having magical powers over fleas and mice are all well within the capabilities of children to imagine. Almost unbelievably from a 21st-century Western perspective, these children were often taken only too seriously. Some were tortured and executed. Many were beaten – although of course children were routinely beaten as part of everyday life then. As Roper says, however: ‘Witches’ children form a grim chapter in the history of witch-hunting. But they also provide one of the few opportunities we have to find out about the mental worlds of children in the past.’

She says eventually the accusers came to realise that such ‘confessions’ were ‘childish imaginings and fantasies’, which in due course metamorphosed into fairy tales to be fed back to children – often very grim fairy tales indeed.

Much of the witchcraft paranoia centred on crones, old women whose bodies were no longer objects of desire, but who still emanated a peculiar, albeit disgusting sort of power that men in particular found horribly fascinating. The decay of the hags’ bodies, with pendulous, leathery breasts and sinewy, sagging flesh, is depicted with a kind of vehement venom by the likes of Albrecht Durer, whose engravings enrich these pages.

Roper makes the point that witchcraft is essentially about envy, manifesting largely when the post-menopausal crones looked jealously at young, ripe and fertile women in a society where the new bride was feted as the epitome of womanhood. Indeed, in artistic depictions of that time and place ‘Envy’ was shown as virtually identical to the iconic witch.

And in rather obvious Freudian terms, the dried up old hag was so jealous of the biological power to nurture found in young women that her malefic attention was frequently turned to destroying cows and turning milk sour.

Of course the profound misogyny behind almost all the witch paranoia – and here there is little problem in extrapolating certainly a Europe-wide syndrome – meant that most of the accused were women. Women’s power and women’s mysteries seemed to gnaw away at male officials’ fears until they lashed out, each accusation being a sort of unholy scratching of a desperate itch. This can be seen most clearly in their treatment of midwives – always suspect because, in intention if not practice, they were concerned with alleviating the agonies of childbirth. Many were accused of infanticide (which may have been a garbled version of their occasional role in carrying out abortions), of sticking pins into the soft skulls of newborns as they emerged from the womb. In some cases the accusers’ imaginations ran riot and they were further accused of eating the babies – cannibalism not only being an alleged characteristic of witches, but also, throughout history, of any hated and feared group. One punishment routinely meted out to midwives accused of witchcraft was having their breasts pulled off with white-hot pincers. This was done in public to add the mental torture of extreme humiliation to the horror. One does not need Freud to perceive the underlying terror and hatred of the most basic female attribute and power.

All such matters are, sadly, common to witch hunts across the – true – West, but as Roper points out, ‘In the second half of the seventeenth century in Augsburg, young men making pacts with the Devil enjoyed something of a vogue’, though all too often it appears there was – according to Roper the Freudian – a pronounced need for authority figures, even perhaps for punishment, on the part of the pact signees. (Interestingly, one might deduce from the evidence of this and other books: men made pacts with the Devil while women had sex with him. Perhaps the women simply couldn’t write their names. It seems rather a stiff price to pay for illiteracy.)

This is a predictably complex and profound book, one that does, in the end, repay a swallowing of annoyance at the silly bombastic title. Roper writes with admirable punch and emphasis, and with robust humour – not always notably characteristics of university publications.

But at over £30 for the hardback, perhaps only those addicted to southern German social history might be tempted to go down the Amazon route [but feel free to do so, using the links below - Ed.]. This is very much a tome for the reference library – but none the worse for that. And you may find your intention just to dip into it goes awry and actually ends when the text does.

In a weird way, besides its mass of minutiae, this ultimate niche-market book has great charm and a warm heart. Congratulations, University of Virginia Press. But about that title… -- Lynn Picknett 

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