Sunday, December 15, 2013

A few quick notes on historical Witchcraft

"The Double Star" Louis Falero
If we strictly limit ourselves to the English language, the following five statements about "witches" and "witchcraft" are clearly true:

1. The earliest evidence shows that the pre-Conquest Anglo-Saxon word "wiccecraeft" was explicitly associated both with beneficial magic and with the survival of Heathen beliefs and practices. This is openly acknowledged by Simpson and Roud in their Dictionary of English Folklore.
2. Middle English sources demonstrate that "wicchecreft" continued to be associated with both Heathenry and beneficial magic during the Middle Ages. This is found in such well-known literary sources as Piers Plowman and Le Morte d'Arthur, as well as less well known works.
 3. Early modern English sources, including sources from the times of the Witch-hunts, show that the word "witch", even without any modifiers such as "good", "white", etc, continued to be used to refer to practitioners of beneficial magic. For example, William Shakespeare attests to the fact that "witch" (by itself) was interchangeable with "wise woman" as an appellation for practitioners of divination. Many of these sources directly attest to the "common" or "vulgar" usage of "witch" among "the people" to refer to practitioners of beneficial magic. Only once the most intense period of Witch-hunting was getting under way do the terms "good Witch" and "white Witch" become more prominent in the surviving sources as a means for specifically referring to practitioners of beneficial magic.
4. Trial records from the Scottish Witch-hunts, which comprise the large majority of all Witchcraft trials conducted in the English language, show that accusations of maleficium are documented in only 12% of these trials. If we restrict ourselves to the subset of trials for which we have specific information concerning the charges (less than one-third of the trials), still less than half of these cases involved any documented accusation of maleficium, whereas over 20% of this subset of cases involved documented accusations of beneficial magic.
5. After the end of the Witch-hunts in the English speaking world, the word "witch" continued to be used to refer to people who were sought out for their ability to perform beneficial magic, in a direct and seamless continuity from usage going back to before the Norman Conquest up to the present day.
"A Visit to the Witch" by Edward Frederick Brewtnall, 1882

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