20 July 2014


P. G. Maxwell-Stuart. The British Witch: A Biography. Amberley, 2014.

In recent years much of the history of witchcraft has concerned itself with what is often called micro-history, studies of specific outbreaks and individual cases, often used to illuminate specific periods, places or themes, such as the dynamics of inter family or inter community relations.
Others have examined very specific ideas or theories, or taken close readings of particular documents. Often such studies have involved close analysis of archival sources.

Maxwell-Stuart’s takes a quite different tack, that of traditional broad sweep narrative history, across England and Scotland from the thirteenth century to the repeal of the Witchcraft Acts in 1735. Looked at in this broad sweep we can see how witchcraft in many ways reflected the changing nature of the state and law. By and large prior to the Tudor period, witchcraft was only of concern when it involved or was aimed at members of the elite. Rulers of that period were too busy protecting their own backs against their relatives and close circle to bother much about disputes among villagers, unless, as in the Peasants Revolt, these threaten the hegemony of the ruling elite. This changed with the rise of the settled Tudor state, which now sought to control all aspects of life, particularly religion, right down to the village.

As the state consolidated, witchcraft became more serious, for it was seen as treason against God, allying yourself with the dissident forces in the heavenly state, and treason against God and his heavenly state is treason against the King and his earthly state. The folk demons and petty supernatural became political dissidents.

It is surely not a coincidence that the main period of witchcraft trials, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were the centuries of religious disputes and state building in both England-Wales and Scotland, during which the state sought to control the extent and form of religious worship. Can one think of this as a form of ‘domestication’ of the people, and of their incorporation into a uniform body politic?

By 1735 another more or less settled state, the Whig one party state, felt secure enough to withdraw from the private sphere and village disputes and to concern itself almost exclusively with the property rights of the ruling class.

The witchcraft that dominated much of this period consisted of a series of beliefs, encounters with non-authorised ‘other powers’, in Scotland often envisaged as the traditional fairyland, the claims to possess ‘wild talents’ and to use these in non-authorised forms, and as language about which local disputes can be talked about. It was an organic world, where everything had agency and little or nothing happened by chance. If things went wrong someone must be to blame, either you, because you have offended God, or someone else. In that we have not changed as much as we may think we have. Such ideas may have helped regulate conduct: treat your neighbours badly and they might resort to witchcraft, express envy and spite and you might be accused of being a witch.

I should, of course, point out that these are my own reflections on reading this book, and not Maxwell-Stuart’s own opinions, for this book is essentially a narrative and not an analysis, though I think one might get the impression that this author is perhaps the writer on this topic, who is after Montague Summers - a long way after - perhaps most willing to grant some sort of actual reality to witchcraft as a paranormal reality.

He is at pains to point out that the rise of the ‘mechanical philosophy’ was the direct cause of the elite’s growing loss of believe in witchcraft, but there must be connections; the change in world view that allowed the development of a scientific method for example. Throughout the Rstoration period people like Glanville and More argued passionately for continued belief in the existence of witches as a defence against materialism,but it was a losing battle.

I don’t think that it is a coincidence that there were no more executions for witchcraft after the Hanoverian succession, because by definition the nature of witchcraft had changed. The equation that treason against God equals treason against the King was now meaningless. In less than sixty years one king had been beheaded, another brought back on sufferance to avoid further civil war, a third thrown out by the new ruling class, and now a petty German princeling had been plucked out of obscurity to become their puppet king. Opposition to belief in witchcraft became part of the official ideology of the Whig State; it was the believers in witchcraft who might be Tories, Catholics, Jacobites or just stirrers of local disputes, who became the new dissidents. Witchcraft had receded back to folk magic. The ideology of the Whig State will become the exemplar for the more general European enlightenment.

Maxwell-Stuart concludes that the attempt by that ideology to “cajole, drag, educate or mock” everyone into agreement with it had failed and that “as far as the silent majority was concerned, capitulation to the domineering forces was merely apparent”. The same of course is said by racists, sexists, homophobes, UKIPers, Le Pennites and bar room bores of all descriptions. No one in their right mind would pretend that the liberal/social democratic scientific enlightenment is perfect, it is just that a look around the world shows that everything else on offer is immeasurably worse

While this book is a narrative history that doesn’t spring too many surprises, you may be surprised to learn that witches in Scotland were not burned alive at the stake, they were garrotted and their bodies burnt, so that tale of the demented woman warming her hands at the fire that burned her is just a folk myth. – Peter Rogerson.

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