Saturday, March 16, 2013

"Witches and other evils": Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud on Witches and Witchcraft

[Preamble: Many modern scholars of historical Witchcraft are committed to perpetuating a somewhat sanitized and rationalized redaction of the Christian theory of diabolical Witchcraft. The classical form of this theory is that Witches are in league with the Devil and committed to the cause of Evil in general and destruction of the Christian faith in particular. The updated version of this same myth, adjusted to be more palatable to modern intellectual sensibilities, maintains the idea that Witches are in fact "inherently evil", in the words of Ronald Hutton, although not necessarily literally in league with Satan, and, very importantly, not in any way at odds with Christendom. An important feature of the traditional Christian approach toward Witches were the urgent and frequent admonishments of churchmen to the common people to stop relying on Witches for a variety of magical services, especially in the areas of healing, divination, and protective (and/or counter) magic. In an impressive Orwellian twist, the modern purveyors of the theory of the inherently evil Witch adamantly deny that Witches were ever valued for their skill in magic, but that they were rather always and universally and unambiguously hated, and, for good measure, that Witches could never have conceivably provided such beneficial services, for they were filled with hatred toward their neighbors just much as their neighbors were filled with hatred toward them. In their Dictionary of English Folklore, Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud demonstrate what happens when proponents of the modern theory of the inherently evil Witch feel compelled to take into account, or at least to acknowledge the existence of, the large body of evidence that directly contradicts this theory. Time and again they are either forced into the most tortuous circular logic, or they are simply left with no choice but to flatly contradict themselves.]

In their A Dictionary of English Folklore (OUP, 2000) Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud (S&R hereafter) have quite a lot to say about Witches. Almost (but not quite) invariably they manage to stick to a position according to which Witches are implicitly assumed to be hated, malevolent workers of malefic magic. This is evident in entry after entry after entry. Below are three examples. (By the way, the full text of the Dictionary is available as a pdf file here:

1. Under the entry for "charm wands" we are told that these objects "were intended as protection against a witch’s evil eye." But if we look at the entry for "evil eye" we find that it is defined as "The belief that certain people can inflict disease or death simply by a glance."  Later in the definition it is simply asserted that "it was generally regarded as witchcraft, consciously used." [emphases added] This is a clear example of circular logic, where the assumption is that Witchcraft = malefic magic, and, therefore, the "evil eye" (being obviously a form of malefic magic) is "generally regarded as witchcraft". This is also an example of singling out Witches and Witchcraft, as opposed to other magical workers. The evil eye can just as easily be associated with people labeled as "sorcerers", "wizards", "black magicians", etc.

2. Under the entry for "holly" we read: "Holly trees were believed to be generally protective against witches and other evils, and were thus planted near churches and houses." [emphasis added]

3. Under the entry for "superstition" we read that among the many "patterns, formulas, and basic principles controlling modern superstitions" is this one: "Evil forces exist and are actively working to harm you; these may be impersonal, or concentrated in humans (witches, ill-wishers) or other beings (devils, fairies)."

Throughout S&R's Dictionary there is a clear pattern of associating Witches with malefic magic. Any one incident such as the three shown above might be overlooked, and focusing too much attention on it could be justifiably dismissed as niggling. But multiplied over and over again this becomes a systematic pattern of apparently intentional misrepresentation.

Keeping in mind this pattern of, often implicitly, insinuating that Witchcraft=malefic magic, let us see what happens when it comes time to explicitly define "Witch" and two closely related terms: "white Witch", and "cunning men/cunning women".

S&R begin their explicit definition of "Witch" by stating, as casually as possible, that: 
"The Old English word ‘witch’ meant ‘one who casts a spell’. Intrinsically neutral, it could be applied to those using magic helpfully."
But for S&R, such an unexpected flash of honesty is safely embedded inside a strategy of obfuscation. Having allowed the cat briefly out of the bag in the name of plausible deniability, S&R  waste no time in reintering the poor creature by adding the qualification that "in most contexts, however, ‘witchcraft’ means using magic to harm humans, farm animals, or property." In other words, Witches are not by definition malevolent workers of malefic magic, but that won't stop us from acting as if they invariably are. It goes without saying that S&R never even hint at which "contexts" are the ones in which we will find Witches "using magic helpfully" as opposed to those in which Witches are discovered "using magic to cause harm." And it would be simply out of the question to ask how it was determined that one of these sets of contexts so greatly outnumbers the other (or even what that might possibly mean, other than nothing).

Under the entry for 'white witch' the plot thickens considerably. Therein we read that
"This term, together with the equivalent 'good witch', or even 'witch' on its own, might be applied in Tudor and Stuart times to people who used healing spells and performed other useful services. Bishop Latimer complains in 1552 that 'A great many of us, when we be in trouble, or sickness, or lose anything, we run hither and thither to witches, or sorcerers, whom we call wise men ... seeking aid and comfort at their hands'. Reginald Scot notes in 1584 that 'At this day, it is indifferent to say in the English tongue, "she is a witch" or "she is a wise-woman"'."[emphasis added]
Once again, such a momentary lapse into telling the truth about the meaning and the history of the word "Witch" must be immediately followed by yet another exercise in trying to force the facts to fit their theory: "This usage seems rare in later folk-speech, where healers were politely called 'blessers', 'charmers', or 'wise women'. Nevertheless, [John] Brand and some other folklorists adopted the term 'white witch', so it is now widely known."

But it turns out that this "rare" usage actually turns up in quite a few sources from the period in question, including a famous satirical/political poem (by arguably the most famous poet of the times, which some have even called The Age of Dryden), at least three plays, at least two medical treatises, and the transcripts multiple Witchcraft trials, as well as many other works written by authors with widely varying views on the subject of Witchcraft (and who often heatedly criticize each other), but who all explicitly concur that Witches do in fact perform many different kinds of beneficial magic, and are often sought out by their neighbors (as well as by those who live far away) for a variety of magical services.

So, while S&R provide two sources to establish this ("rare") usage, they could have easily provided ten times that many, and more. But what evidence do they provide to substantiate the supposed "rareness" itself? Absolutely nothing. They themselves even feel compelled to admit that it only "seems rare". Perhaps it does not seem quite so rare to anyone who bothers to actually start to tally up just how often this usage is encountered.

And what about the claim that it is only due to John Brand that the specific phrase "white Witch" and the associated perception of Witches as workers of beneficial magic are nowadays "widely known"? Well, John Brand had absolutely nothing original to say about "white Witches", as the long list of sources in my earlier post on Beneficent Witchcraft clearly shows. It is a completely arbitrary and unsupported fantasy to claim that the phrase "white Witch" only became "well known" due to Brand's writings. Also, the contention that "white Witch" was not a part of "later folk-speech" actually amounts to an acknowledgement that it was in common usage ealier, and, furthermore, S&R present not one shred of evidence that the phrase somehow vanished from "folk-speech" while managing to remain ubiquitous in the written language.

A final point that can be made about S&R's definition of "white Witch" concerns one of the sources they cite: J.A. Sharpe's Instrument of Darkness: Witchcraft in Early Modern England, (UPenn, 1996). If we go to the cited pages in Sharpe's book we read about the trial in 1605 of Jone Jurdie. One of those called to testify at the trial was Katherin Dolfin, who swore under oath that she had gone to Jurdie "for helpe for her child", and that Jurdie had insisted Dolfin tell no one about this, lest "I [Jurdie] should be thought to be a Witch [for helping a woman with a sick child]." Sharpe's account of the trial is actually pretty lousy. The full transcript can be found in Volume 3 of the Gentleman's Magazine Library (1884) found here:

Finally we must now turn to the definition of "cunning men/cunning women". S&R begin this entry by talking very broadly about "people who were employed by others to practise magical skills on their behalf, and were paid in money or small gifts, thus usefully supplementing the income from their regular occupations." Soon after this, S&R broach the subject of what these magical practitioners were called:
"There were various popular names for them: wizards, conjurers, sorcerers, charmers, wise men/women, cunning men/ women, the latter two being the most widespread. ‘White witch’ was a term more used by outsiders than by practitioners and their clients."
The assertion that "‘White witch’ was a term more used by outsiders than by practitioners and their clients," is simply produced out of thin air. No sources are cited to support this assertion, nor is any other kind of evidence provided for this obviously self-serving claim. If one reads carefully, though, one notes that all of the terms listed, except for "cunning men/cunning women" are asserted to be less "widespread" than those two terms. So S&R are in fact claiming a rather detailed three-fold division of the terms used to refer to those who were sought out as providers of beneficial magical services, all without any justification. The fact is that if S&R were at this point to discuss their sources, they would be completely unable to provide any justification whatsoever, based on the very sources that they themselves are using, for the "insider/outsider" claim concerning the use of "white Witch", for there is not a single contemporaneous source which makes such a distinction in how these labels are applied.

So, according to Simpson and Roud the Old English word for "Witch" (wicca) simply meant someone who could perform magic, or, more specifically, a caster of spells (a reasonable, if overly narrow, way of putting it, considering the fact that the earliest texts that we have in which attempts are made to translate the Old English "wiccan" into Latin often render it as "incantores"). Also according to S&R, from the late 15th through the early 18th centuries (Tudor and Stuart periods), the word "Witch" is found (sometimes modified with "good" or "white", but sometimes on its own) being applied to practitioners of beneficial magic. And, finally, the word "Witch" is in fact another name for a cunning-person, that is, someone who performs a variety of much sought-after beneficial magical practices, such as finding lost or stolen objects, healing, foretelling the future, casting horoscopes, love magic, countering curses, etc. In other words, from pre-Conquest times up through and including the period of the early modern Witch-Hunts, "Witch" did not mean a hated, malevolent worker of malefic magic at all!

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