Friday, March 15, 2013

Malevolent Magic and "The Survey of Scottish Witchcraft"

In a recent post (link) it was shown that of the 876 Scottish Witchcraft cases for which there is data characterizing the accusations, at least 21% of these cases involved some kind of benevolent magic. (To look at this data directly for yourself, see the Survey of Scottish Witchcraft website, the complete citation for which appears at the bottom of this post.)

Now here's an interesting question: in how many of these same 876 cases were people explicitly accused of malevolent magic? Fortunately, maleficium is one of the main "characterizations" used by the researchers at the Survey of Scottish Witchcraft to categorize the cases in their database.

The answer to this particular $64K question is that a grand total of 414 cases involved accusations of maleficium. This means that of all the 3,413 (or so) documented Witchcraft trials in Scotland only 12% are known to have involved explicit accusations of harmful magic. Just to explain (especially for anyone who has been following these posts on Scottish Witchcraft trials closely) 12% is what you get using the same "logic" that the Survey of Scottish Witchcraft applied to their "analysis" of beneficial magic. That is, 12% is the percentage of all cases in the database, not just those cases where we actually have some information about the nature of the charges. (The "grand total" figure of 3,413 is the number of records returned for a search with all of the filters set to "any".)

But if instead of 3,414, we use the total of 876, based on the (much more reasonable, if I do say so myself) methodology that I suggeted in that previous post, to estimate the frequency with which any given "characterization" occurs (that is, only counting those cases for which sufficient information is present to say something meaningful about such "characterizations"), we still end up with the result that less than half, only 47% (about what Mitt Romney got in the last election), of all Witchcraft cases involved explicit accusations of using magic to cause harm.

Could it be that the folks at the Survey of Scottish Witchcraft are using the Latin term maleficium in some very special way that doesn't include all cases of accusations of harmful magic? I have to wonder, because it is widely assumed among scholars of historical Witchcraft that accusations of maleficium were the norm, even the defining feature, of Witchcraft accusations generally. But there is no entry for maleficium in their glossary, nor is there any explanation of the term in the paper "Survey of Scottish Witchcraft Database Documentation and Description" (where one can find an explanation of their use of the term "white magic", which is also missing from the glossary). However, if we make a very quick and dirty search of the writings of lead researcher Julian Goodare, we immediately find two places where he defines maleficium as either "the use of magic to harm one's neighbors", or, more elaborately, as pertaining to cases in which "it was claimed that witches had inflicted harm by supernatural, i.e., diabolical, means." (See, The Scottish Witch-Hunts in Context, page 161 and 179.) So, no, it does not appear that there is any terminological anomaly here. So the 414 cases in the database that are characterized as involving "malefecium" are the only cases for which there is real evidence of an accused Witch who was explicitly accused of using magic to cause harm to others.

Why, then, do so many scholars not only implicitly assume but explicitly assert that maleficium is the essential defining feature of historical Witchcraft? The list of respected academics who have promoted this unfounded view includes some rather well known names in addition to Julian Goodare's, for example: Wolfgang Behringer, Owen Davies, Jacqueline Simpson, Steve Roud, and Ronald Hutton. Hutton has even gone so far as to concoct what he calls a "global definition of witchcraft", which elevates this false equation of Witchcraft with maleficium to the level of metaphysics. Clearly it is high time for scholars of historical Witchcraft to take a much closer look at the hard data concerning both malevolent and benevolent magic.

[Full citation for The Survey of Scottish Witchcraft: Julian Goodare, Lauren Martin, Joyce Miller and Louise Yeoman, 'The Survey of Scottish Witchcraft', (archived January 2003, accessed March 2013).]