Friday, January 18, 2013

"Of good witches falsly so called."

"That there are such as bee called good Witches, and how they may be knowne."

For many years now, Ronald Hutton has claimed that the English word "Witch" has "traditionally" only been used to refer to individuals who (1) cause harm through magic, (2) are malevolent in their disposition toward others, and (3) are hated by the other members of their communities. According to Hutton, the use of the word "Witch" to refer to practitioners of beneficial magic is a purely modern development.

The problem for Hutton is that there are a great number of sources that directly contradict his theory. These sources incontrovertibly document the fact that, essentially for as long as the English language has existed, the word "Witch" has been used to refer to healers, diviners and other practitioners of beneficial magic who, far from being hated, have been valued and sought after for the good that they do.

Hutton now claims that all such cases in which Witches are referred to as healers, etc, are irrelevant because they are confined to the utterances of "radical, evangelical Protestants" and other "churchmen", whose use of the word "Witch" was wildly divergent from that of "the great bulk of the populace," who only used "Witch" as an epithet for hated, malevolent, evil-doers. This argument is put forward by Hutton in his new article in the latest issue of the Pomegranate journal: Revisionism and Counter-Revisionism in Pagan History.

The thing is, though, that in the sources that Hutton refers to, one never finds the authors putting forward arguments of the form:

A. Those who are commonly referred to as healers, soothsayers and wise-women should instead be referred to as Witches, because they are in fact evil-doers who deceive people into following Satan.

If such arguments could be produced, they would give some validity to Hutton's position. But in every case what we find instead are arguments of the following sort:

B. Those who are commonly referred to as good Witches, because they heal and otherwise appear to do good, are in fact evil-doers who deceive people into following Satan.

Arguments A & B both refer to the same group of people, namely, practitioners of beneficial magic.  And both arguments are concerned with how these people should be named, and how they should not be named. Argument A says "do not call them healers, for they are Witches." While Argument B says "do not call them good Witches, for they are not good." Argument A is purely a figment of Ronald Hutton's imagination, while Argument B is found throughout the entire history of the English tongue.

Therefore these sources completely undermine Hutton's claim, for they provide direct testimony as to the ubiquity in common usage of  "Witch" to refer to those who do good, and, moreover, that those who were called "Witches" by the common people were also referred to by them as "blessers", "healers", "cunning women", etc.

But please, don't take my word for it. Below are the first two pages of Chapter VIII of Richard Bernard's 1627 book, Guide To Jury-Men. That chapter is entitled "That there are such as bee called good Witches, and how they may be knowne." [For much more along these same lines see also Witches: Good, Bad, and Otherwise.]


As in Gods Church there be good and bad; So in this kingdome of Satan, there bee good and bad Witches.

These good or white Witches are commonly called blessers, healers, cunning wisemen, or women (for there are of both sexes) but of this kinde, many men.

These haue a spirit also, as one Ioane Willimot acknowledged, and are in league with the Diuell, as well as the bad and black Witches be. By their spirit they learne, who are bad Witches and where they dwell, who are strucken, forespoken, and bewitched, and by them they learne how those doe, whom they vndertake to amend; for the spirit is sent vnto their patients from them: all which the foresaid Ioane Willsmot acknowledged before Authority in her examination.

The profession of these Witches is, for the most part, to heale and cure such as bee taken, blasted, strucken, forespoken, as they vse to speake, and bewitched: all which cures they doe by their compact with the Deuill.

But though these Witches be almost all healing Witches, and cannot doe to man, or beast any hurt, except they procure some other to doe it, yet we may finde, that some of these sometimes haue the double facultie, both to blesse, and to curse, to hurt, and to heale, as it is probable Balaam had at the least in Balaks imagination, Num. 22.6.

The whole text of Benard's book, along with images of the original publication, can be found at the online Cornell Witchcraft Collection:;cc=witch;rgn=main;view=text;idno=wit140