The Witch in History: Early Modern and Twentieth-Century Representation.
Gerhild Scholz Williams. Defining Dominion: The Discourses of Magic and Witchcraft in Early Modern France and Germany. (Studies in Medieval and Early Modern Civilization.) Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995. xii + 234 pp. $39.50. ISBN: 0-472-10619-8.
These two interdisciplinary studies, both written from a feminist perspective, provide readings of various texts associated with witchcraft and address broader issues in cultural and gender history. Diane Purkiss's book, which is mainly devoted to witchcraft in England, studies a variety of witchcraft narratives in order to show how individuals from different periods, especially women, have constructed the image of the witch. The book begins with a somewhat ambivalent commentary on twentieth-century "histories" of witchcraft written by radical feminists, modern-day witches, and academic historians, all of whom have used witchcraft to define their own identities. Dr. Purkiss, who describes herself as both a feminist historian and a feminist literary critic, is critical of all three groups. She exposes the flagrant abuses of "empirical" history by modern witches who have fabricated a primeval pagan lineage, and by radical feminist scholars like Mary Daly who have subscribed to "the myth of the Burning Times," which interprets witchcraft trials as part of a broader pattern of male violence against women. At the same time, however, Purkiss welcomes the prospect of a popular, non-academic feminist history that abandons "masculine" empiricism altogether and gives free rein to feminist imagination. Her critique of academic historians, whom she takes to task for their identification with a post-Enlightenment mentality and for a refusal to admit the possibility of supernatural agency, leads to the unwarranted deduction that they are therefore unable to understand the way in which early modern people thought. Historians of European witchcraft will be even more baffled to read that they "assume that stories of witchcraft are based on actual events rather than on other stories" (76).
The book gains more scholarly weight when Purkiss uses selected published depositions from early modern English witchcraft trials to show how some women's stories of witchcraft constituted a fantasy that enabled them "to negotiate the fears and anxieties of housekeeping and motherhood" (93). The witch described in these narratives was essentially an anti-housewife and anti-mother who disrupted food supplies, introduced uncleanliness, and usurped maternal and domestic authority. These are not unfamiliar themes in recent witchcraft historiography, but Purkiss develops them persuasively in her reading of these particular texts. She also shows how many fears and fantasies regarding witchcraft focused on the witch's maternal body, which was a dangerous source of pollution and the source of demonic familiars' nourishment. A chapter on "choosing to be a witch" explores the confessions of witches to show how some of these women (the few for whom any evidence at all is available) used cultural materials to shape their own identities. Purkiss thus joins a growing number of scholars who have begun to assign agency to a group of women more usually treated as victims. The extent to which these women actually "scripted their own stories," however, remains unclear.
The third and most valuable section of the book focuses on dramatic works that dealt with the theme of witchcraft. Purkiss shows how Shakespeare, Jonson, Dekker, Middleton, Marston, Heywood, and Brome drew upon and reshaped materials from elite and popular culture, often in a haphazard manner and for commercial or sensational purposes. She refutes the claim that witch-hunters received many of their ideas about witchcraft from the stage and also suggests, unfortunately without much evidence, that the dramatic presentation of witchcraft may have contributed to the growth of popular skepticism in the latter seventeenth century. The best chapter of all, "The Witch on the Margins of Race," offers an illuminating commentary on the conflation of the European witch, the classical witch and the natives of the recently discovered New World in Shakespeare's The Tempest and Marston's Sophonisba.
The French and German texts that Gerhild Scholz Williams uses to explore the discourses on magic and witchcraft in the early modern period have little in common with Purkiss's English depositions, confessions, and dramatic texts. Professor Williams begins with Jean d'Arras's prose history of the fairy nymph Melusine (1393) and moves from there to the magical works of Paracelsus and the demonologies of Heinrich Kramer, Johann Weyer, Jean Bodin (as translated into German by Johann Fischart), and Pierre de Lancre. Williams claims that these texts provided contemporaries with "structures for the articulation of what was often strange, new, and therefore feared" (7). Her main purpose is to relate the discourse on magic not only to women and witchcraft but also to the discourses of discovery and religious diversity. According to Williams, the interplay of these three discourses determined the limits of orthodoxy and thus the composition of the "Other" in early modern European culture.
The limitations of Williams's methodology become most apparent in her analysis of the discourse of witchcraft, which is based almost entirely on four demonological treatises. However well known and widely circulated these texts may have been, they hardly represented the full spectrum of learned opinion on witchcraft or revealed the complexity of "the witchcraft debate." That debate extends no further in this book than Weyer's criticism of Kramer's Malleus maleficarum and the subsequent attacks on Weyer by Bodin and de Lancre. Only in the last chapter are the skeptical voices of Antonio Salazar, Augustin Lercheimer, and Antonius Praetorius introduced as examples of mere "fissures" in the belief system, while the Malleus is erroneously established as "the gauge for judging orthodoxy in witch beliefs" (135) from 1486 until the late eighteenth century. The Malleus, to be sure, played a crucial role in constructing the portrait of the witch as a woman, and it helped transform learned opinion regarding historical-mythical spirits like Melusine, but it is misleading to assert that this portrait remained virtually unchanged and "officially in force" until the end of the prosecutions. To claim moreover that the definition of the witch in the Malleus "was transferred, sabbath and all, into the New World, wreaking havoc for decades to come" (144) ignores the distinctive character of witch-beliefs as well as the judicial record of witchcraft prosecutions in colonial America, especially in New Spain.
Williams's treatment of the discourses of discovery, which relies mainly on Bodin's discussion of satanic practices in America and de Lancre's comparison of the witches of the Labourd region with the natives of the New World, is regrettably less developed than Purkiss's treatment of the same theme in English dramatic texts. A final chapter on the intersection of the discourses of magic and religious diversity does little more than set forth some rather elementary comparisons. The association or identification of witches with libertines, sectarians, and atheists after the Reformation is certainly not surprising, especially in light of their identification as members of a heretical sect even before the Malleus was written. The conclusion that the majority of women during the witch-hunts, like the natives of the New World, remained excluded from the institutions and discourses that "legitimated power in the context of European culture and politics" (145) does little to advance our understanding of the position of women in early modern society.
BRIAN P. LEVACK University of Texas at Austin
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|Author:||Levack, Brian P.|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1998|
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