by Mike Jay
[ bookreviews ]
In his classic essay The European Witch Craze of the 16th and 17th Centuries (1967), Hugh Trevor-Roper argued for extreme scepticism on the question of whether folk beliefs about witches, real or imagined, had any power to explain the origins, or the grim persistence, of the early modern witch craze. Since this is precisely the approach that his near-namesake Lyndal Roper pursues in her new book Witch Craze, it's worth recalling what his objections were, and considering how successfully she has overcome them.
First, Trevor-Roper argued, the belief system that drove the witch craze was created not by those accused of witchcraft but by the demonologists who persecuted them. It was figures of ecclesiastical or state authority, or learned men speaking to such authorities, who elaborated the sprawling and intricate cosmology of Sabbaths, witch-salves, blood-drinking, flying on broomsticks and the rest, and who sought to square this night-side of the visible world with biblical sources. The evidence that they drew from witches themselves was, almost without exception, extracted under torture. This evidence may have seemed to them to constitute endlessly repeated proof of a vast conspiracy of witches, but from the vantage point of the present day the more plausible explanation is surely, in Trevor-Roper's words 'a combination of identical questions and intolerable pain'.
The span of the witch craze, too, is clearly demarcated not by the rise and fall of popular belief in witchcraft but by the mechanisms of authority and justice. It began with the Papal Bull against witchcraft of 1484 and its follow-up manual for witch-hunters, the Malleus Maleficarum of Heinrich Krämer and Jakob Sprenger (1486); it was brought to an end some two centuries later when judiciaries decided that it was running out of control, and secular courts were wresting back power from ecclesiastical ones. During this period witch-beliefs and demonologies certainly became common knowledge - not from ingrained traditions of folkloric belief, but from the relentless declamations, confessions, executions and witch-burnings that punctuated public life.
Given these brute facts, it becomes rather more problematic to argue that the witch craze rested on a bedrock of genuinely held beliefs in witches, and particularly that this bedrock included a body of 'real' witches who were persecuted for their beliefs. The problem is most clearly exposed by comparing the persecution of witches with the persecution of Jews. These were, as Trevor-Roper argues, often so close as to be interchangeable. The same people - notably the Inquisition - persecuted and tortured both groups. In both cases, a coherent set of beliefs were articulated: in the case of the Jews, that an ancient racial 'blood feud' led them to steal and murder Christian infants for sacramental use in their ceremonies. For obvious reasons, little of the literature on the Jewish persecutions attempts to argue that there genuinely were groups of Jews committing these acts, or even that there was an undercurrent of such beliefs in the Jewish communities of early modern Europe. Any such confessions, after all, were fabricated under torture in accordance with the beliefs of the judicial authorities. But if it's problematic to search for a 'reality' behind the persecution of Jews, why is searching for the 'reality' behind the identical persecution of witches any different?
Trevor-Roper, writing in the shadow of the Holocaust whose shape he had first discerned in demonising texts like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, was crustily impatient with attempts to sift the 'mental rubbish' and superstitions of late medieval Europe for the traces of genuinely held occult beliefs to which the persecutions and confessions might point. Every culture, he argued, has such superstitions, but not every culture has a witch craze; the cause of Europe's was not belief in witches but social upheval and trauma on a massive scale that led to the persecution of scapegoat groups - witches in some places, Jews in others. Yet, over the last generation, deconstructing, interrogating and unpacking the witch-fantasies of the era has become an academic boom industry. In part this is easy to understand: after all, Sabbath ecstasies, cannibalism and sex with the Devil are a good deal juicier than the fine, region-by-region details of ecclesiastical and judicial structures to which Trevor-Roper's argument inexorably, and unappetisingly, led. The question still remains, though, whether the study of witch-fantasies has any power to explain the witch craze itself.
Lyndal Roper finds no room for Trevor-Roper in her text or even in her fulsome and fascinating bibliography of over 400 secondary sources but, to a far greater exent than in her previous work, she has taken his broad framework of realpolitik on board. A fine opening chapter on the 'baroque landscape' of 17th-century southern Germany is enriched by vivid narratives and archival detail, a texture that informs the entire book. An even better second chapter on the system of interrogation and torture makes many subtle points about the ways in which witches' confessions were assembled, and the levels of collusion between inquisitor and victim. The inquisitors, as she shows, were not simply bloodthirsty sadists, although the dynamics of sadism are unmissable: they were also in many cases pious, genuinely convinced of the reality of witches and profoundly concerned to extract a confession that would save the accused from eternal punishment. The alleged witches, too, were often cooperative, eager to confabulate a narrative that fitted the preconceptions of their torturers and, in some poignant cases, pathetically grateful for their own torture and execution.
But Roper's intention is to use this opening section to frame a thesis about how images of femininity in early modern Germany, particularly those connected to fertility, procreation and nurturing, formed the template for the image of the witch that emerged during the persecutions. Here, too, she offers a wealth of finely-observed and intimate dramas, but the argument to which she harnesses them is less convincing. Young women were drawn into narratives of witchcraft because of the social anxieties and dangers associated with fertility; old women, however, were drawn into similar narratives because of the anxieties associated with the absence of fertility. In the many cases of children accused of witchcraft, she highlights the elements that refer back to her overarching complex of fertility and the feminine body; while she acknowledges that many men were also accused of witchcraft, she does not dwell on the problems for her thesis that this represents. She leaves largely unexamined the more obvious conclusion that women were simply prominent among those on the receiving end of a persecution that had its roots in an all-consuming social breakdown, one that was far more than a breakdown in gender relations. After all, it was Jews who were on the receiving end in other persecutions, essentially for the same reason: that they were a socially marginalised and powerless group. Yet even this broader analysis fails to encompass the whole story: there were also many circumstances in which the powerful were attacked, and many others where men of various social profiles were the victims. While the picture she paints of the roles and perceptions of women in 17th-century Bavaria is lucid and sensitive, her attempt to hitch these perceptions to the motor of the witch trials is less compelling - and even mildly troubling, in that it seems to argue that the feminine in some sense created its own victimhood. Too often the complexities that she discovers in the archives seem to have been panel-beaten into a form that impoverishes rather than enriches them.
This tendency culminates in an imaginative epilogue that takes on the tantalising question of how far the archetype of the witch persisted into the Enlightenment, for example in Goethe's Faust or the Brothers Grimm's folkloric witch-tales such as Hansel and Gretel. If the image of the witch was as profoundly rooted in German culture as Roper argues, we might expect to find the same complex of beliefs emerging unchanged; if it was essentially an artefact of the witch trials and demonological authorities, we would expect it to have disappeared. It has, in fact, essentially disappeared, and her explanation of why the witch was so rapidly absorbed into a self-conscious 'high culture' or 'banished to the nursery' undercuts the rest of her argument: it's essentially Trevor-Roper's functional one of changing demographics and social structures. Like the rest of this well-written book, the material is fascinating, but it seems to have been apprehended while attempting to escape from the argument it has been marshalled to serve.