Reading Witchcraft

Marion Gibson. Reading Witchcraft: Stories of Early English Witches. Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1999.

Marion Gibson begins by asking which are the true elements of a story that can be summarised as follows: A young woman out begging meets a peddler and asks to buy some pins, but the peddler would not sell her any, whereupon a black dog appeared to the girl and asked what she wanted to him to do the peddler. "What can you do", asks the girl, so the dogs says he can lame him the peddler. So the girl says "Lame him" and the peddler becomes lame. This is part of the confession of one of the Pendle witches, Alizon Devise as reported in a book The Wonderfull Discovrie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster, by Thomas Potts, a clerk of the court. Did Alizon meet a dog, did she imagine it spoke to her, did she hallucinate it, did Alizon meet the peddler, was she a beggar and so forth?

Gibson argues that what look like simple stories often turn out to be very complex affairs, with multiple authorship, and multiple layers of interpretation. For example, are alleged words spoken by participants in the trials actually the words they used, and if so, are they repeated verbal formulae?

Arc they responding to questions, if so which arid in what circumstances? Or are words being put into their mouths, and if that is so by who, and for what purpose? And how far do these words in some sense represent the gist of what might actually have been said? We must examine the nature and purpose of documents, the readership they were intended for, their polemical and propagandist agenda etc.

In other words, Marion Gibson is arguing that we should approach these historical documents through the sort of lens that a media studies student might analyse modem newspaper and magazine reports or TV broadcasts. This is appropriate because these sorts of pamphlets, broadsheets and court reports were the mass media of their day (see Jim Sharpe's book below), and it was through them that the myth of witchcraft was generated. Behind them we can also detect something of the voice of the community.

While Marion Gibson is primarily concerned with advising historians on how to approach and analyse specific documents, and therefore of necessity her arguments can become rather technical, it is clear that many of her points can be applied to more contemporary supernatural memorates. I have argued this on a number of occasions in the pages of Magonia. Modern UFO 'reports' have the same problem of multiple layers of authorship and interpretation, the putting of 'appropriate' words into peoples mouths, and recounting events in a neatened 'how it should have been' fashion.

This sort of critical 'close reading' tends to be dismissed as 'literary criticism', by those who forget that all such accounts, whether of seventeenth century trials, or modem close encounters are in effect literary narratives, and that attempts to construct a 'science' of UFOs or lake monsters is as fundamentally absurd as a seventeenth century attempt to construct a science of talking dogs and loquacious ferrets. This response today brings the sort of condescending reply that Jerome Clark gave to David Clarke, on the lines of 'my dear young sir, how dare you equate belief in extraterrestrials with folklore and fairies, don't you know that it is a serious scientific hypothesis defended by all sorts of learned astronomers and the like'.

In the seventeenth century the response to critics of witchcraft was just the same. It was a serious subject taken seriously by serious people as an early seventeenth century pamphleteer reminds us: "both princes (yea our owne learned and most judicious King [James I and VII], Philosophers, Poets, Chronologers, Historiographers, and many worthy Writers, have concurred and concluded in this; that divers impious and (atrocious) mischiefes have beene effectuated through the instruments of the Divell, by Permission of God, ... " From the Preface to The Wonderful Discoverie of the Witchcrafts of Margaret and Philip Flower..., 1619.

Well that puts the sceptics in their place then! – Peter Rogerson, from Magonia 71, June 2000


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