Thursday, March 14, 2013

Julian Goodare Contradicts His Own Data on Witches and Healers

The following is presented not because it is breaking news, but precisely because it is old news. Very old. And stale to boot. There is, sadly, nothing the least bit original or surprising about yet another pontificating academic spreading misinformation about Paganism and Witchcraft in the name of "debunking some myths".

Which brings us to a 2010 Guardian article, The truth about witches and witch-hunters, by the distinguished researcher Julian Goodare (Reader in History at Edinburgh University). In that article, Goodare posed the question: "So what about the 'wise women', the midwives and healers?" To which he provides the following answer:

In fact, midwives were hardly ever accused of witchcraft. Traditional, magical healers (men as often as women) were sometimes prosecuted, but only if they were seen to have misused their powers, harming instead of helping. Healers sometimes even encouraged witch-hunting, helping clients to identify the person who had bewitched them.

Unfortunately for Professor Goodare, his own data flatly contradicts what he has written. According to the information publicly available at the Survey of Scottish Witchcraft website (for which Goodare was the lead researcher), folk healers were actually quite a frequent target of Witchcraft accusations. In those cases where we have some information concerning the specifics of the charges and who the charges were against, almost 1/5 of the accused Witches were folk healers (and it is more than one out of five if we include midwives and practitioners of "white magic"). And half of the known cases involving folk healers did not involve any accusation of using magic to cause harm. Here are the numbers:

876 cases with information about the charges against the individual
141 cases of accusations against folk healers (21%)
74 of the cases against folk healers also involved maleficium (52 %)

For a little more background on where these numbers come from, along with some brief analysis, see this previous post: Benevolent Magic and "The Survey of Scottish Witchcraft."

Also par for the course is the fact that Goodare not only misrepresents the numbers themselves, but he fantastically oversells the quality of the existing data concerning historical Witchcraft. His own website makes it clear that in the large majority (nearly 3/4) of the Witchcraft trials for which we have any records at all there is no real information about what people were actually charged with. Obviously (or at least one would hope it should be obvious) when such basic information is missing one cannot determine, one way or the other, anything about whether such cases involved folk-healing, midwifery, or anything else. But Goodare ignores such concerns and defies the most basic principles of logical reasoning by assuming that cases in which there is no evidence of what Witches were accused of doing can be cited as positive evidence of what Witches were not accused of doing.

You see, simply being named in a Witchcraft accusation (and, as a matter of fact, in a great many cases even the names are missing!) could mean any of a dizzying variety of things. It could mean that one of your neighbors claimed to have seen you literally flying through the air riding on a broomstick. Or it could mean that you were implicated in a plot to poison the King. Or it could mean that you were suspected of using incantations to cure a sick child. Or it could mean that you were accused of helping a neighbor retrieve stolen goods, or of giving your neighbor's cow the evil eye, or of casting a horoscope, or of formally renouncing your Christian baptism. And so forth.

But, to repeat myself, when we do have information about what people were actually charged with, these cases frequently involved folk healing (and this frequency increases the more categories of benevolent magic we add in). And when folk healing, or some other form of benevolent magic, was involved in Witchcraft prosecutions, this did not automatically mean that there was also an accusation of maleficium, even though Goodare, who would know better if he looked more closely at his own data (but I assume that is what graduate students are for?) misrepresents that this was the case. 

Whatever criticisms I may have of Goodare, however, are to a great extent mitigated by the important work he has done in making so much data on the Scottish Witchcraft trials readily available to the public. But when Goodare goes out of his way to contradict that very data, well, he really should be called on it.

[Here is the complete citation of the Survey of Scottish Witchcraft, taken from their "how to cite us" page: Julian Goodare, Lauren Martin, Joyce Miller and Louise Yeoman, 'The Survey of Scottish Witchcraft', (archived January 2003, accessed March 2013).]


Julian Goodare said...

I've just come across this blog post, in which you claim that I 'contradict my own data' in my Guardian article by saying that midwives and healers were 'hardly ever' accused of witchcraft. I don't think I contradict my data, for two reasons.

1. My article was about Europe, whereas my data are for Scotland. Actually I think my statement about midwives and healers applies both to Scotland and to Europe as a whole - but, whether for Scotland or for Europe, the statement isn't based on the 'numbers' in the Survey of Scottish Witchcraft.

2. Both in Scotland and in Europe as a whole, my statement is based on the fact that when we have sufficiently detailed records to be able to see a full picture of the charges against an accused witch, we hardly ever find that those charges relate simply to midwifery or healing and nothing else. Overwhelmingly, the charges include either malefice or the demonic pact or both. This is true even when the suspect manifestly was a midwife or a healer. I'm not suggesting that the charges of malefice or of the demonic pact necessarily contained any truth, of course, but the fact that these charges were made may help to show that midwives and healers weren't accused of witchcraft simply for carrying out midwifery or healing.

So what about the 'numbers'? In Scotland, as you correctly observe, we usually don't have sufficiently detailed records to be able to see a full picture. Detailed records survive only for a minority of cases, which may or may not be typical, depending on the question we want to ask of them. You mention '141 cases of accusations against folk healers' and say that '74 of the cases against folk healers also involved maleficium (52%)'. But both these numbers need to be qualified. You should say 'At least 141 ... At least 74 ...' - which I'm afraid renders the figure of 52% meaningless. I like to think that the Witchcraft Survey is useful, but it's a pity that it can so readily be used to generate misleading statistics. For an analysis of the Witchcraft Survey's statistics (including a discussion of midwives and healers), see Lauren Martin and Joyce Miller, 'Some Findings from the Survey of Scottish Witchcraft', in Julian Goodare, Lauren Martin and Joyce Miller (eds.), Witchcraft and Belief in Early Modern Scotland (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), pp. 51-70. For a discussion of the kinds of questions that the Witchcraft Survey can and can't be used to answer, see Julian Goodare, 'Introduction', in Julian Goodare (ed.), Scottish Witches and Witch-Hunters (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), pp. 1-16.

Finally, you rightly say that 'simply being named in a Witchcraft accusation ... could mean any of a dizzying variety of things', and give a thoughtful if slightly speculative list of possible things that a witchcraft accusation could 'mean'. One of them is 'using incantations to cure a sick child'. Yes, people did that sort of thing in early modern Europe. Usually they were respected for their skills and powers, and they weren't accused of witchcraft. Is that helpful?

Apuleius Platonicus said...

Thank you very much for your reply. I realize that the comments section of a blog is probably not your preferred venue for discussing your research, and I appreciate the fact that you have taken the time to make a thoughtful and substantive response to what I have written.

I think it is very important, before going any further, to emphasize where we agree.

1. Being accused or even convicted as a "Witch" could mean a very wide variety of things.

2. Included among those things are various forms of beneficial magic (including healing, midwifery, and "white magic" generally).

3. Also included among those things is the explicit accusation of using magic to cause harm (maleficium).

Of course where we disagree is in the relative importance of beneficial versus harmful magic when it comes to an overall characterization of Witchcraft qua Witchcraft.

It seems to be your opinion that the persecution of practitioners of beneficial magic played a completely negligible role in the early modern Witch-hunts (both generally speaking and in the case of Scotland in particular). Concomitantly, you also believe that the hunts were primarily concerned with targeting those perceived to be practitioners of harmful magic.

But, now getting back to the data, of those cases in Scotland where we can say something (that is, something based on actual evidence) concerning how to characterize the specific nature of the charges against accused Witches, more than one in five (21%) of these cases involved beneficial magic, while less than half (47%) involved the explicit accusation of using magic to cause harm.

And this brings us all the way back to my original point. You ask in your Guardian piece, "So, what about the 'wise-women' the midwives, the healers?' In answer to that question you claim to have "debunked" the idea that Witch-hunting targeted these kinds of people in any significant way. But the truth is that your own data shows that this was not the case.