Monday, June 20, 2011

Margaret Murray has been completely rejected by everyone ... except for everyone who has not completely rejected Margaret Murray.

"Mary Douglas, writing in 1992, still accepted Margaret Murray's thesis that the people accused of witchcraft in early modern Europe were practitioners of a surviving pagan religion, which had been completely discredited in the 1970s." [Ronald Hutton, 2004]

Strange, isn't it, that Mary Douglas ("the most widely read British social anthropologist of her generation," according to her obituary in the May 18, 2007 Guardian) was unaware of the "complete" discrediting of Margaret Murray?

First of all, Hutton has the year wrong (by nearly a decade). Here is the proper citation for the article in which Mary Douglas "still accepted Margaret Murray's thesis":

Sorcery Accusations Unleashed, by Mary Douglas, Africa 69 (1999), pp. 177-193.

And here is what Douglas says that Ronald Hutton finds so unacceptable:
The Egyptologist and medieval historian Margaret Murray argued in 1921 that witchcraft in Europe should be interpreted as access to supernatural powers claimed by the suppressed pagan religions, and therefore by the Christian Church claimed to be heresy. So the Christians who were charged with witchcraft by ecclesiastical authorities were actually charged with trying to draw on these discredited resources, consulting or behaving as old-time healers, laying on unconsecrated hands, claiming to be visionaries, fortune tellers and exorcists whose lore--Egyptian, zodiacal, or whatever--derived from pre-Christian religions. It was likely, on this argument, that Joan of Arc and Gilles de Raie were rightly accused of witchcraft in that sense. Kaegi (1966) described a close parallel in fifth-century Byzantium.

Other historians remind us that Christianity has always been rough on rival religions. A modern version of Margaret Murray's thesis is offered by Ginzburg (1983) to account for the burning of witches in sixteenth-century Italy. The Catholic Church, highly centralised and thus more distanced from the lowly concerns of its flock, felt threatened by the practitioners of the old religions, who were offering the faithful more immediate help and healing. So the Inquisition prosecuted the religious irregulars for witchcraft and heresy. Had the young Lele priests who were suspended by their superiors wanted to defend their actions historically, they could have found plenty of precedents. But as Catholics they suffered from lack of an accepted demonology. In modern Zaire the Catholic Church is no doubt suffering from religious pluralism. Catholic missionaries are disadvantaged in competition with Protestant Churches and the neo-apostolic movement, Christian denominations which have clearly defined their doctrines concerning demons in a way that accommodates local sorcery beliefs (Ngokwey, personal communication).
It is obvious from the above that Mary Douglas was referring not to the kind of extreme caricatures of Margaret Murray's ideas that haunt the imaginations of the Ronald Huttons and Jacqueline Simpsons of this world, but rather to a much more modest thesis that does not necessarily claim anything more radical than this: the beliefs and practices of those persecuted during the Witch-Hunts of the fifteenth through eighteenth centuries were "derived from pre-Christian religions."

But even that is already too much for Hutton, far too much, and he will have none of it. For he has made it clear that his position is that Margaret Murray must be dishonorably drummed out Academia altogether. It is not enough to criticize aspects of her scholarship, the scholar herself must be personally mocked and vilified. And Mary Douglas makes things worse, much worse, by saying that it isn't so much Murray's thesis that she actually has in mind as Carlo Ginzburg's writings, which Douglas sees as a "modern version of Margaret Murray's thesis." But ... but why would one of the world's most celebrated living historians have put forward a "modern version" of a thesis that had already been "completely discredited"?

Hmmmm. It makes one wonder if anyone else didn't get the memo? "As it turns out" (which, as it turns out, is what Apple Store employees are trained to say instead of "unfortunately" when "it turns out" that your warranty expired before your PowerBook's logic board did) the list of scholars in whose eyes Margaret Murray's ideas are not completely discredited is rather long, and includes, in addition to Mary Douglas and Carlo Ginzburg: Christina Larner, Ruth Martin, Dorothy Watts, Alan Macfarlane, P.G. Maxwell-Stuart, Anne Barstow, George Luck, Emma Wilby, Richard Horsley, Eva Pocs, Lizzie Henderson, and Keith Thomas, just to name a dozen off the top of my head.

But before going any further, let's get clear on what is actually meant by "Margaret Murray's thesis". As it turns out, this phrase can mean one of the two following things:

(1) The "Incomplete Christianization of Europe Thesis" (ICET) claims that the Witch-Hunts were launched as a kind of theologico-military mopping-up operation to eliminate surviving Pagan beliefs and practices still left over from the pre-Christian religions of Europe.

(2) The "Maximal Witch Cult Thesis" (MWCT) claims that an organized religion, constituting a homogenous cult throughout Europe, had survived intact and virtually unchanged since the Stone-Age, and that this was the Pagan religion of the Witches who were persecuted during the Burning Times.

While it is true that Murray herself claimed something more than the ICET, it is also true that she did not claim as much as the MWCT. But it is the MWCT that Hutton, Simpson, and their ilk, consistently attribute to Murray, while dishonestly treating all instances of support for any portion of the ICET as amounting to blind acceptance of the full-blown MWCT.

In follow-up posts I will provide specific citations, along with excerpts and commentary, for each of the twelve scholars mentioned above whose work lends at least partial support to the "Incomplete Christianization of Europe Thesis."

Follow-up posts:

Margaret Murray's Thesis "Contained A Kernel Of Truth" (Carlo Ginzburg)

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