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Storm in a cauldron

As witches’ brews go, it’s rather weak tea

Artillery Row

There are now two main ways of reading the phenomenon of early modern witchcraft. One is the dogged academic research of scholars like Peter Maxwell-Stuart, Ronald Hutton and Keith Thomas. The other is an attempt to bend the reality of history to fit a modish exploration of feminine identity and the tyranny of the patriarchy down the ages. I Am Witch: Tales from the Roundhouse, recently staged in Lancaster, falls firmly into the second category.

It does not work as a serious historical analysis

The exhibition sets out its stall early on. It refers to “The Burning Times”, the title of a 1990 Canadian documentary which presented an unapologetically feminist reading of witchcraft in the early modern period and certainly one of the most laughably poor and ahistorical films of its generation. It goes on to state its purpose as explaining “how epigenetically inherited trauma from those times continues to affect us today, and how creativity, ceremony and sisterhood offer all of us a pathway to healing.”

The narrative framework is a familiar one. Witchcraft was an expression of pre-Christian feminine power and mastery of traditional medicine which “celebrate[s] the true power and potential of women.”

 By the 16th century, this power came to be identified as dangerous by the authorities of the Catholic Church which then brought its full weight to bear to extinguish it, seizing on societal and gender tensions and exploiting them to (mis)characterise witchcraft as irreligious and a threat to the desirable social order.

This is a comforting story, however, for feminism and gender studies departments across the land. It imposes the template of modernity on events some 500 years ago, alighting on the hotspots of the oppression of women, the unjust power of the clergy and the desperate desire to erase pagan beliefs and practices. This resulted in mass executions across Europe; one enduring estimate claims the lives of perhaps nine million “witches” were taken, the vast majority of whom were women. This, truly, was a feminine holocaust.

The challenge of this interpretation is that it is, firstly, utterly incomprehending of the mental landscape of early modern Christendom, and, secondly, based on oft-repeated but wildly overestimated numbers of deaths involved in witch hunts.

Of course, there were deaths. Modern scholarship estimates that perhaps 40,000 witches were executed (by a variety of methods) in the 16th and 17th centuries. Scotland and southern Germany were particularly notorious for the enthusiasm for prosecuting these women, though there are famous cases elsewhere such as the Pendle witch trials in Lancashire in 1612 and, of course, the Salem prosecutions in Massachusetts in 1692/3.

I Am Witch, however, organised by the Silver Spoons Collective, “a sisterhood on a mission”, is caught in the snare of its own contradictions. On the one hand, witchcraft was nothing but a façade, a pretext for the brutal oppression of feminine power and learning by a male-led Church. On the other hand, the powers of these so-called witches were absolutely real, expertise in pre-scientific medicine (especially healing), knowledge of midwifery and “the power of sisterhood”.

This undoubtedly evokes righteous anger; exposing the evils of witch trials can be an effective tool for seeking to “support others to heal so that together we may change the power-over and fear-based collective narrative”.

Satan’s influence had to be met with lethal force

The problem is that it does not work as a serious historical analysis. There is no reason to think that contemporary perceptions of witchcraft, as opposed to 21st-century beliefs grafted clumsily onto the historical record, were in any way as disingenuous as this suggests. For the 16th century man and woman, heaven and hell were as real and all-pervasive as the weather. They bounded the most important question humanity, at that time, could face: would they achieve salvation after death?

In this context, the Devil, absolutely central to the notion of witchcraft, was abroad and powerful. His job was to frustrate God. One way in which he did this was by enlisting weak souls to his cause and gifting them nefarious, even infernal, powers. Satan was not the bogeyman, but a force which had to be fought every day. Many people, from the highest clergy to the most ordinary of citizens, went to their deaths in the early modern period for the sake of their religious beliefs. Are we to insult their memories by suggesting that not only were these beliefs false, but that they were not even genuinely held, simply a mask for petty intercommunal rivalries?

Witchcraft was, for contemporaries, a reality of life so totally assumed that the question was hardly raised. The terror of the supernatural sudden and unexplained deaths, the loss of livestock, the failure of harvests meant that Satan’s influence had to be met with lethal force, whether by the hanging or burning of witches. It was a threat within communities which was immediate and deadly; this was not the place for elaborate theories of gender relations and the suppression of the “sacred feminine”.

As an exhortatory exhibition of female solidarity and spirituality, I Am Witch is a rallying cry which paints an evocative origin story, and it will have been enjoyed by many on that basis. But be warned: it is not serious scholarship but rather a modish projection in pursuit of an agenda — and, at its base, junk history. Fine, as the saying goes, if you like that sort of thing.

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