Tuesday, June 21, 2011

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

Here is the first of several follow-ups to my previous post: Margaret Murray has been completely rejected by everyone ... except for everyone who has not completely rejected Margaret Murray. Most of this post consists of two excerpts from Carlo Ginzburg's groundbreaking studies The Night Battles (1966) and Ecstasies (1989). Following those two excerpts there is a very brief note concerning Ginzburg's accusation that Margaret Murray "cut" and "manipulated" the data to fit her theory.

Here is an excerpt from Carlo Ginzburg's The Night Battles: Witchcraft & Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth & Seventeenth Centuries, first published in Italian in 1966:
According to Murray, the conventicles described by the accused were real, and witchcraft was a very ancient religion, a pre-Christian fertility cult, in which the judges, more or deliberately, chose to see only a diabolical perversion. Although this thesis contained a kernel of truth, it was formulated in a wholly uncritical way; moreover, the reconstruction of the general characteristics of this supposed fertility cult was based on very late trials in which the assimilation of the inquisitorial schema (sabbat, nuptials with the devil, etc) was by now complete. And yet, despite these serious defects, Murray's 'thesis', which was rejected by anthropologists and folkorists when it first appeared, ended by prevailing. what had been lacking then, and the need persists today if I'm not mistaken, was an all-encompassing explanation of popular witchcraft: and the thesis of the English scholar, purified of its most daring affirmations, seemed plausible where it discerned in the orgies of the sabbat the deformation of an ancient fertility rite. In this mitigated form it was reformulated by W.E. Peukert, among others.

And yet it is not so easy to demonstrate that popular witchcraft (as distinct from generic supsertitions, such as love potions, spells, etc., which are not traceable to a precise cult) actually went back to an ancient agricultural fertility cult. One primary objection has already been raised about Murray's work: we cannot rely uncritically on the confessions of the witches without attempting to distinguish in them between what is of inquisitorial provenance and what is of genuinely popular origin. But this is not a fatal objection . . . .

[Then Ginzburg spends a few sentences discussing the work of J. Marx, L. Weiser-Aall and A. Meyer, before moving on to his main point.]

The present research now establishes, in an area such as the Friuli, where Germanic and Slavic traditions came together, the positive existence at a relatively late date (from c. 1570) of a fertility cult whose participants, the benandanti, represented themselves as defenders of harvests and the fertility of fields. On the one hand, this belief is tied to a larger complex of traditions (connected, in turn, with the myth of nocturnal gatherings over which female deities named Perchta, Holda, Diana presided) in an area that extends from Alsace to Hesse and from Bavaria to Switzerland. On the other hand, it is found in an almost identical form in the land which once comprised Livonia (present day Latvia and Estonia). Given this geographic spread it may not be too daring to suggest that in antiquity these beliefs must once have covered much of central Europe. In the span of a century, as we shall see, the benandanti were transformed into witches and their nocturnal gatherings, intended to induce fertility, became the devil's sabbat, with the resulting storms and destruction. We can thus state for a fact that for the Friuli diabolical witchcraft grew out of the deformation of a preceding agrarian cult. Of course it is impossible to extend this conclusion by simple analogy to other parts of Europe; nevertheless, though limited and circumscribed, it may serve as a working hypothesis for future research. At any rate the existence of this complex of beliefs over a large, key area implies, in my opinion, a new approach to the problem of the popular origins of witchcraft.
[pp. xix-xxi, in the 2009 JHU Press edition]

And here is an excerpt from Ginzburg's Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches' Sabbath, first published in Italian in 1989:
In her book The Witch-Cult in Western Europe [Margaret] Murray, an Egyptologist with a keen interest in anthropology in the wake of Frazer, maintained: (1) that the descriptions of the Sabbath contained in witch trials were neither nonsense extorted by the judges, nor accounts of inner experiences of a more or less hallucinatory character, but rather, exact descriptions of rituals that had actually taken place; (2) that these rituals, deformed by the judges' diabolizing interpretation, were in reality connected with a pre-Christian fertility cult, which possibly dated back to pre-history and which has survived in Europe until the modern age . . . .

In my preface to The Night Battles [see Excerpt 1 above] I made a statement to which I still fully subscribe, even though it has earned me ex-officio enrollment in the phantom (but discredited) sect of 'Murrayists': viz., that Murray's thesis, although 'formulated in a totally uncritical manner', contained 'a core of truth'. Clearly this core is not to be sought in the first of the two points which, as we have seen, the thesis comprises. It is symptomatic that, in seeking to validate the reality of the events mentioned in descriptions of the witches' Sabbath, Murray was obliged to neglect the most embarrassing elements -- night flying, animal metamorphosis -- having recourse to cuts which amounted to veritable textual manipulation. Of course we cannot altogether exclude the possibility that in some instances mean and women devoted to magical practices assembled to celebrate rituals that included, e.g., sexual orgies; but virtually none of the descriptions of the Sabbath furnishes any proof of such events. This does not mean that they are lacking in documentary value: they simply document myths and not rituals.

Once again we must ask ourselves: whose beliefs and rituals? As mentioned before, a long tradition, harking back to the Enlightenment polemics against witchcraft trials and still very much alive, has seen in the witches' confessions the projection of the judges' superstitions and obsessions, extorted from the accused by means of torture and psychological pressure. The 'religion of Diana' -- the pre-Christian fertility cult that Murray identified, without probing it more more deeply, in descriptions of the Sabbath -- suggests a different and more complex interpretation.

The 'core of truth' in Murray's thesis is to be found here. More generally it consists in the decision, contrary to all rationalistic reduction, to accept the witches' confession -- as much more illustrious (but, paradoxically, neglected) predecessors had done, beginning with Jakob Grimm.
[pp. 8-9, in the 2004 University of Chicago Press edition]
In the second of the above excerpts, Ginzburg puts forward the following very serious accusation against Murray: in order to make the evidence fit her theory, she "cut" and "manipulated" the available data. Ginzburg here relies on what he deems to be "the exhaustive demonstration of Cohn" (which Ginzburg gives as being found on pp. 111-115 of Norman Cohn's Europe's Inner Demons, although in the 2000 University of Chicago edition the numbering is pp. 155-160). But however "exhaustive" Cohn's "demonstration" may have been, Ginzburg's reliance on it is uncritical (precisely the deadly scholarly sin that Murray is supposedly guilty of with respect to confessions from the Witchcraft trials). Worse still is the fact that Ginzburg has been joined by a small army of other scholars who have all blindly accepted Cohn's "demonstration" without bothering to compare what Cohn says Murray said with what Murray actually said. I will have more to say about this in a follow-up post, but for now I refer the interested reader to Jani Farrell-Roberts' Margaret Murray and the Distinguished Professor Hutton.