Professor Owen Davies Organized by the Centre for Inquiry UK and the Conway Hall Ethical Society at the Conway Hall on 18 October 2014
The persecution of witches in Europe and America – after the witch trials. Professor Owen Davies, University of Hertfordshire, has written widely on the social history of witchcraft, magic, ghosts, and popular medicine. In this talk he will explore why and how thousands of people, mostly women, were abused and murdered as witches in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Contrary to what many people think, the witch craze of 500 years ago was not a medieval phenomenon, but began in the late 15th century and peaked around 1600.
What was a witch? Who were these people? They were thought to practice harmful magic. Magic itself was diverse, and not all kinds were evil. The word “witch” is of obscure Anglo-Saxon origin, used to describe a person believed to have some sort of divinatory power. At the core of witchcraft was an explanation of misfortune. If your child got sick, or your crops failed, these were not thought to be the result of natural processes or random events: more likely it was thought somebody was to blame.
A literal reading of the New Testament and Revelation (an extraordinary document) led to a belief that the world was going to come to an end, and that there might be signs that this was about to happen. There’s an growing concern in the late Middle Ages that the Apocalypse is nigh, and that the devil is increasing his works in the land. In central Europe around 1450 the Inquisition gets busy chasing down heretical sects, and the new printing technology allows accounts to be published and disseminated, so that fear of witchcraft — heralding the Apocalypse — spreads.
In the 16th century, fear was heightened with the rise of Protestantism, itself seen as an assault on Catholicism. Returning the favour, Protestants thought the pope was the antichrist.
As power was centralized under Henry VIII, the role of prophecy in undermining legitimate rule came under scrutiny, and laws against prophecy were passed. The elite began to think that all magic was harmful. Even supposedly good magic could turn a person away from a true Christian life. In 1542 the first law was passed by Henry VIII, and witch trials were cranking up in Europe. By the time Elizabeth came to power, there was some catching up to do in England.
How do you know who’s a witch? Helpfully, there were images available that showed what witches looked like, and such images were important when a large section of the population was illiterate. A 1560 woodcut showed three witches in league with the devil. They were all elderly women, hunched over, with big chins and pointy noses, conforming to the archetype of witch.
There is a stereotypical witch, and a logic behind who came most under suspicion: a marginalized woman, past childbearing age, who is spiteful and envious since she can no longer have children; she’s single, solitary, or a widow, who begs from door to door and who therefore can be causally linked to almost any misfortune that happens just after she has been sent away from a house.
Up to 50,000 women were murdered as a result of being thought to be engaged in witchcraft. Although many accusations were against elderly women, arising from family feuds, the situation was also often more complex.
In common law in England someone has to bring a case. On the continent a judge could investigate, and apply torture (which was illegal in this country). Mild torture was allowed in Scotland, and there were many more executions in Scotland. The problem with this procedure is that it is self-confirming. Under torture people name others very easily. In one town in Germany 450 people were executed until the wife of one of the judges was accused, which brought the slaughter to a stop.
The laws against witchcraft were repealed in England, and the last case was in 1712. Why the decline of witch trials? It was not down to the progress of science or the Enlightenment or a general rise in rationalism. There are a number of reasons, but it was more about legal process and the increasing examination of evidence. In 1600, if someone said they flew over a house as a result of witchcraft, this was accepted as testimony. In 1680, it was still believed that this was possible but corroboration was needed: who else saw this happen? It was also expensive to go to court, and since many prosecutions failed, this was a waste of money and time.
Although witch trials came to an end, belief in witchcraft didn’t. If the reality of witches was denied, then this undermines the whole supernatural belief system underpinning the Bible. If we deny witches, the thinking went, then we have to deny miracles, so intellectuals were still confused in the 18th century. The elite line was that witches no longer exist, although they once did, because the Bible was still an authority and the Bible states that witches exist. This was not scepticism.
There’s also the small matter of dismissing the fact that 50,000 women had been killed in the previous couple of centuries by people not unlike yourself. Admitting that witches don’t exist pulls the rug from under your intellectual endeavour — there’s a lot at stake.
In 17th-century Europe there was witchcraft without witch trials taking place. Witchcraft accusations were still being made, and witches were being “swum” in water, which was thought to have baptismal qualities, so if the suspected witch sank, that was a good sign that the holy water had “accepted” this person; floating meant you were guilty.
These were sometimes huge public events: 10,000 people came to watch a witch being swum in England (a woodcut shows Colley and the mob ducking Osborne for reputed witchcraft). The authorities were embarrassed by this sort of carry-on, and occasionally intervened to protect individuals from the mob.
In the 19th century, there was the reverse of witch trials, when a suspected witch would bring a prosecution against the accusers.
Vast numbers of Europeans emigrated to the US, and the large amount of misfortune that necessarily goes along with such movements of people meant that there was a huge number of witch accusations in 19th-century America. Even in 1911 a woman was being stoned for being weird and a vegetarian.
In Somerset sleep paralysis is thought to have given rise to the notion of “hag riding” or of being hag ridden during the night.
New witchcraft traditions developed, e.g. hair balls or gastric accretions became the main form of “proof” of witchcraft in the US. Native Americans “sent” hair and feathers into their enemies, and this notion was adopted by Europeans to form a hybrid belief.
In 1916 a Somerset farmer believed that his neighbour had caused his cattle to die as a result of witchcraft, and so he shot him dead, saying:
I have a lot of worry here. He has bewitched my child and my pony. You don’t believe in witchcraft and the Government don’t, but I do.
What is interesting here is how this individual confronted the state. It’s also a very rare instance (the only one?) of a witch shooting in the UK. In contrast, in the US there are lots of guns and a number of shootings of supposed witches.
Civil war in Spain led to an increase of witchcraft accusations, and in the 1950s in a Germany disrupted by war a society for the Protection against Superstition was formed.
Mrs Irene Ray belonged to a travelling community and was accused of witchcraft in the US. One of things that annoyed her neighbours was that she got a large council house. She also had piercing eyes and a pointy chin. In 1937 she was arrested by the sheriff for vagrancy and slung in jail — all because of her community.
Where are we today? The shooting has largely stopped, but are, in the end, more rational? Davies doesn’t think so, and there are still millions across the globe who believe in witchcraft and occult powers. We don’t need witches at the moment, but they could “quite easily come back.”
Alchemy was part of the religious quest for studying God’s universe.
There are similar patterns between witches and scapegoats, which can be seen with the rise of UKIP: immigrants are seen as being responsible for general misfortune; others are getting more than we do (which relies on the fallacy of limited goods needing balance — if something is bad for me, then it must be good for the witch), getting a house or other benefits. In short, it’s the same old story of looking for a reason why we’re not doing so well, looking for someone to blame.
We encourage our children to believe in witches via magical thinking for the first 10 years of their lives, and then we tell them to forget that any of this stuff is real.
Religion continues to provide “evidence” for satanic evil, e.g. the deeply evangelical Christian culture in the US has been adapted to West African culture.
Misogyny and patriarchy played a role in witch trials, fuelled by a literal reading of Bible, which “explained” why so many women were witches: woman was made in image of Eve, who was the weaker sex and famously tempted by the devil, so, therefore, all women are flawed. Because of this failing, the devil goes for those most likely to give in. Having said that, Davies believes that some gender studies go too far in concocting male conspiracies for the global suppression of women.
Round Table Q&A
One of the first questions referred to the popularity of Harry Potter, and Jessica Monteith revealed that it had been banned at her Catholic school (which simply ensured that they all read it anyway). Deborah Hyde thought that Harry Potter appealed to children because they have no status and haven’t done anything with their lives (that applies to some of us older folks as well) — they are not yet special, so need a little fantasy.
Deborah pointed out that there are “respectable” forms of magic — the kind of stuff the pope does — and then silly forms of magic, but she thinks we’ve benefited more from magic than from religion. Keith Thomas contrasted prayer as a supplication to a deity with magic that was a preliminary attempt at doing science to manipulate the universe. In this sense, magic was not top down to an extent but a kind of experimental process.
Owen Davies thinks that magic is integral to understanding religion, and that “people like Richard Dawkins” are stuck in three-stage magic–religion–science: “that’s rubbish!” He doesn’t buy into the idea of moving away from magic and towards science. He’s got a point, but why have a pop at Dawkins? In any case, Dawkins seems to be in good company, since Davies suggested that Keith Thomas was stuck in that model too.