24 December 2013


 Julian Goodacre (ed). Scottish Witches and Witch Hunters. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Tracy Borman. Witches: A Tale of Scandal, Sorcery and Seduction. Jonathan Cape, 2013

While the majority of the papers in Goodacre’s anthology are mainly of specialist interest, aimed at students of early modern Scottish history, there are three at least which are of more general interest. In their article contribution ‘Outside in or inside out’, Margaret Dudley and editor Julian Goodacre argue that sleep paralysis and associated phenomena lie at the root of many of both the allegations against witches of the spectral evidence variety, and also of the confessions that many accused witches made.  🔻

They explicitly compare both these sets of narratives with those produced by UFO abductees, but go on to argue that sleep paralysis is not the whole story, rather these narratives involve false memories brought about by the current belief systems by which sleep paralysis is explained, i.e. people re-envision and re-remember these experiences in ways that more closely fit with the prevailing belief systems. They point to the role of authority figures, in the church in the case of witchcraft, and with the various therapists in the case of UFO abductions. Both sets of specialists claim to know what really lies behind these ambiguous experiences. One might add that both tend to interpret these experiences in predominantly negative terms, as being the work of dark others (demons or “glacial” aliens)

One of the features of sleep paralysis experiences, and in hypnogogic experiences in general is a sensation of flying, and distortions of time. The idea of flight and of the secret night adventure lies at the heart of the concerns in two other papers; Emma Wilby’s 'We may shoot them dead at our pleasur(e); Isobel Gowdie, elf arrows and dark shamanism’ and Julian Goodacre’s 'Flying Witches in Scotland'.

Wilby argue that the modern west has constructed a sentimentalised view of shamanism, concerned with healing, the environment and other such politically correct notions. Challenging this she argues that the shamanic traditions contained a dark side, that of the supernatural killing of neighbours and friends. This may involve invisible weapons such as elf shot or a kind of virtual eating-up from within. In the Scottish case, this lodged within a fairy lore tradition in which people, mainly women, join the fairy train, led by the fairy queen, on their secret night journeys. They might actually declare to the community who they have attacked in this way, and those so named often do die. Wilby leaves it open as to whether this is due to suggestion and death by fear, or whether those named are those who already in a state of decline.

Goodacre shows that the methods of flying varied, but were inspired by comparison with birds and bees rather than by modern notions of vehicles. However they rarely envisioned instantaneous travel, as this was considered outside the powers of demons, who did not share in God’s power to suspend natural laws.

Witches are often envisioned as the outsiders living on the margins of the community, and to be mainly recruited from the ranks of the very poor. However, as several papers here show, accusations of witchcraft in early modern Scotland were often made against both the urban middle class and the very elite, such as Janet Lyon, and perhaps these are the examples which most closely mirror modern political show trials, such as those of Stalin. In the case of the Russian purges the accusations of ideological treason, collaboration with the arch-fiend Trotsky and impossible forms of sabotage are barely secularised witchcraft accusations.

It is a pity, but probably inevitable, that in order to follow many of the quotations in this collection, knowledge of early modern Scots is needed.

In some ways Tracy Borman’s book, though clearly aimed at a less academic readership, follows on from the above, for one of its central characters is James VI of Scotland, a man obsessed with witchcraft, plots and conspiracies, the latter two of which were all too real much of the time. When in 1603 he became James I of England, he brought with him Scottish notions of witchcraft.

Traditionally English witchcraft had largely been a matter of inter-communal tension among the poor and “middling sort”, but with James, the focus moved onto the elite, and with Francis Manners, 6th Earl of Rutland, of Belvoir Castle, you couldn’t get more elite. On the 5th March 1620 when his young son and heir Francis, Lord Ros died after a mysterious illness, probably some form of epilepsy or meningitis, the suspicion of witchcraft arose. The suspects were Joan Flower and her daughters Margaret and Phillipa. Joan Flower had once been one of the “middling sort”, a quite senior servant of the Manners family and someone who had a servant of her own, but who had now, as a widow, fallen on hard times and perhaps as a result of this become something of a sharp tempered and embittered old woman, and the two women were considered to be loose women, or as the language of the time put it “strumpet lewds”, presumably being forced into prostitution to help pay the bills.

Though the Manners family seem to have held themselves above the gossip for a time, when their second son George also became ill, the gloves were off and the three women were arrested. Joan dropped dead during the trial proceedings, and the two younger women were, of course, found guilty. At this point, if you were a juryman, you had to find “witches” guilty, failure to do so might engender the wrath of the king.

Unlike most other witchcraft accusations, Tracy Borman, suggests that foul play may have been involved here, at least with the death of the younger boy, but her suspect is not a coterie of village women, but the next to highest in the land, George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, the favourite and perhaps lover of King James. George had married Manners’ daughter Katherine, (getting over her father’s objections by inveigling her under his roof for the night, and thus fatally compromising her reputation if they did not get married). With the kids out of the way Katherine and hence Villiers would inherit Manners estates.

This is an interesting piece of microhistory, which places witchcraft in the cultural and historical context of the period, though, as the author admits, direct sources are often scarce, and inferences from other witchcraft cases and in some cases, such as the accusation that Buckingham murdered the young Manners boy, pure speculation is resorted to. -- Peter Rogerson.

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