Interview with Marion Gibson

Magical literature professor reflects on the influence of witch trials on contemporary US politics, the Harry Potter novels and dealing with requests for exorcisms

February 2, 2023
Source: Exeter University

Marion Gibson is professor of Renaissance and magical literatures at the University of Exeter. Her new book, The Witches of St Osyth, is published by Cambridge University Press.

Where and when were you born?
Newport on the Isle of Wight, in 1970.

How has this shaped you?
The Isle of Wight is a very small island – it’s a special, beautiful place, but it does place limits on you. It wasn’t expected in the 1980s that people from my comprehensive school would go to university, so it was a big step for me to go to Exeter. I’m always aware that it’s a great privilege to have a higher education, or a career in academia, and that inspired me to do lots of work in widening participation, such as talks in schools.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
Hard-working. I was astonished I was allowed to do this – everyone wanted me to read things rather than saying I was silly for being interested in study. For the first time, I felt at home in a group of young people.

Why did you start your research on witchcraft and magic?
In my third year as an undergraduate, one of the options available was called “Renaissance magic”, and I got really interested in the sources we used, particularly early accounts of witch trials. I was fascinated with the stories of people accusing others of witchcraft but also those women who confessed to being witches. I wanted to know why those ordinary people whom we don’t hear from in history were telling these stories.

Why did you focus your latest book on the St Osyth witch trials of 1582, in which two of the 14 women put on trial  were executed?
It was one of those accounts I’d read as an undergraduate, partly written by the magistrate. It was 100 pages long then, but, after many years, I’ve finally been able to tell the full story after more resources were digitised by Essex’s record office, making it is much easier to access documents.

Your book has been praised for reconstructing the thoughts of both accusers and accused, reflecting on how the bleak landscape in their remote location might have affected them. Why did you use this more imaginative method?
It’s all very well to sit in libraries and read accounts about people’s lives, but it’s another thing to walk, quite literally, the paths that they used and try to experience what they felt. I don’t see historical figures as just being examples of a certain theory – why people were accused, for example. We should think about them as individuals. Accusers have their own stories, too – they were anxious and miserable. Writing the book during the pandemic gave me an insight into those fears around illness. We all thought about illness and death and, in retrospect, that was a useful background to think about how early modern people were terrified by plague and other unexplained illnesses.

Why are witches so enduring in popular culture?
Witches embody all our worst fears about other people – that others could have evil intentions towards us or that imagined groups of people are plotting against us. Witches were actually often village healers who may have practised spells – I don’t believe these worked – or they used certain types of folk medicine. Some were midwives. But the “witch” dramatises fears about “the other”. Unfortunately, it’s a great way for articulating hatred and enabling persecution. The gender profile of those accused – 90 per cent were women – also matters and is still important as we still live in society that is misogynistic. High-profile women in America, such as Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton, have recently been likened to witches.

More than 1 million people in the US identify as witches, according to some surveys. Why does this idea resonate more in America than it does in Europe, where witch trials were far more common?
Some people find the witch an empowering figure and have reclaimed it; it might allow them to do something not normally permitted to them. The Salem witch trials of 1692 are also a moment that Americans naturally turn to; it was early in American history, but they made a huge scar on political culture. They prosecuted all these people – some were executed and hundreds imprisoned – then they decided there was nothing in it, they should be pardoned, and families compensated. Americans will always turn to it when they think about injustice and scapegoating; Donald Trump even claimed he was the victim of a witch-hunt.

You’ve studied the terrible human suffering connected to witchcraft, so it is difficult to see how witches are portrayed as light-hearted characters?
I used to when I was quite an earnest young researcher. But I enjoy them now – thanks to J. K. Rowling, a whole generation is now obsessed with witches, which is good for me. You do sometimes wonder if these children’s stories will have any substance but, actually, they often do because witches make you consider issues like injustice, bullying or insiders versus outsiders. These all turn up in the Harry Potter books.

What’s your favourite fictional depiction of a witch?
Robert Eggers’ 2015 horror film, The Witch, set in America, is an exploration of a Puritan family’s encounter with witchcraft in 1630s New England but also covers lot of contemporary issues. I also like Dario Argento’s 1977 film Suspiria.

Have you ever had an encounter with the supernatural?
No, but I’m just as capable as anyone else of being scared on a dark night in a country churchyard. We all have a sense of the creepy, and I think it’s important to hang on to that because those who I write about certainly felt it. People do contact me occasionally and say: “My house is possessed – can you recommend an exorcist?” I usually recommend them to the church, but I do try to respect those people; we all have these fears tucked away in the human mind. Can everyone say they’ve never read a horoscope or decided not to walk under a ladder or made a wish when blowing out candles on a birthday cake?


1991 BA (Hons), English literature, University of Exeter
1992 MA, Shakespeare studies, University of Birmingham
1997 PhD, Exeter
1999-2014 lecturer, senior lecturer and associate professor, English department, Exeter
1999 Reading Witchcraft: Stories of Early English Witches
2006 Possession, Puritanism and Print: Darrell, Harsnett, Shakespeare and the Elizabethan Exorcism Controversy
2007 Witchcraft Myths in American Culture
2013 Imagining the Pagan Past: Gods and Goddesses in Literature and History since the Dark Ages
2014-present professor of Renaissance and magical literatures, Exeter
2016-18 associate dean for education, College of Humanities, Exeter
2017 Rediscovering Renaissance Witchcraft
2018 Witchcraft: The Basics
2022 The Witches of St Osyth


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