Enduring myths of hagiography

The Witch in History
March 28, 1997

Witches come in all shapes and sizes: from warty, bearded crones with pointy black hats festooned with cobwebs to svelte seductresses in skin-tight spandex and heavy eye make-up, and they can traditionally turn into hares at will. Somewhere between the hags and the slags are the Old World witches: midwives and herbalists living with cats and friendly spiders, maintaining traditional healing skills in the face of the new sciences, and being burnt at the stake for their trouble. This portrait is what Diane Purkiss calls "a holocaust of one's own": the myth that in the 16th and 17th century thousands of peaceable wise women were tried, tortured, and burnt alive for "witchcraft". It is an enduring myth of the simultaneous origin and destruction of women and women's culture. It motivates radical feminist history, is deployed as a front for political action, and is echoed in women's writing. The witch has been seen as a protofeminist, a suffering body persecuted by patriarchy, a romantic maternal figure, a natural role-model. But it is a myth nonetheless.

Purkiss unravels this myth. She indicates that there is no evidence that the thousands accused and executed for witchcraft were commonly midwives or healers. Many so-called witches had families rather than broods of familiars, lived in villages rather than in isolated cottages, were often accused by other women, were seldom tortured, and if found guilty were hanged rather than burnt.

She examines the witch in Elizabethan and Jacobean law courts and in the theatres. She gives the historians of English witchcraft short shrift, mischievously suggesting that their work might be read as popular histories formulating the witch trope, and offers in their place a subtle engagement with scarce and fragmentary trial texts. Purkiss is fascinating on these testimonies. Witchcraft incidents occurred in the domestic sphere where natural products were acculturated into food or clothes, in dairy work or in spinning, and the witch threatened transformative processes with dirt and disorder. Witchcraft can be read as an hysterical manifestation of the leaky maternal body, threatening physical boundaries and therefore the very definition of the home, upsetting the social order of birth.

This disorder was inscribed on the body of the witch in the form of the witchmark, from which demonic familiars, or, on occasion, Satan himself, would suckle blood. Such a literal reading of the disordered body, often performed by midwives, was a peculiarity of English witch trials. The hunt for diabolical marks was predicated upon the theory that mother's milk was blood purified into milk by maternal love. This milk had precise qualities in determining the identity of a child - hence the fears that unscrupulous nurses might swap children by substituting a child's identity through the quality of breast milk.

Purkiss then turns her attention to the witch in the theatres. These readings crystallise her conclusions that the witch was a construct that combined everything from recusant Catholicism and folklore, current affairs and cultural politics, with the inarticulate testimonies haunting provincial witch trials. Shakespeare confirmed the witch as a sensational spectacle: it had premiered in the law courts and now made it on the stage; but it was a rather too-obvious vehicle for disclosing the humanist condition. Purkiss ruefully admits that we are more interested in witches than the early modern dramatists were.

This contemporary interest is recast in the book's conclusion - a coda on women's fears and fantasies, particularly the responsibilities of feeding a family and the dangers of denying that responsibility and accepting food from outside. This places the witch back in the biology of reproduction and nurture, and of the women's stories that are spun from these experiences. One might further consider the witch as a symptom of maternal anxieties in training children, in weaning them, denying them food, in punishing them. This is an invigorating and challenging book and sets many hares running - and some hares might be witches in disguise.

Nick Groom is lecturer in English, University of Exeter.


The Witch in History: Early Modern and 20th-Century Representations

Author - Diane Purkiss
ISBN - 0 415 08761 9 and 08762 7
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £45.00 and £14.99
Pages - 296

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