Monday, May 6, 2013

"harnessed for good and evil ends" (Malcolm Gaskill on the ambiguity of Witchcraft)

OK, since I gave Malcolm Gaskill such a hard time in a recent post, in this one I will strive to, as the song says, accentuate the positive. In particular I want to give Gaskill credit for the relatively evenhanded approach he takes to the question of the relationship between Witchcraft and malefic magic (evenhanded, that is, at least when compared to many other prominent scholars of historical Witchcraft, which, admittedly, is setting the bar dismally low).

Here, for example, is a sentence from the second paragraph of the Preface to Gaskill's book about John Stearne and Matthew Hopkins: Witchfinders: A 17th Century English Tragedy:
"In this world, one of the strangest and most pervasive beliefs was that in witchcraft: unseen power, thought by many to be diabolical, harnessed for good and evil ends."
A little later on (pp.1-3), when discussing the case of Elizabeth Clarke, who was the first victim of Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne, Gaskill can't quite seem to make up his mind. First he states that a "wise woman". identified as Goodwife Hovey, would have been deemed a Witch by "parish ministers and ecclesiastic courts", but that among the lay public (or at least in the mind of John Rivet), a woman, like Hovey, who was "famed for her skill in healing and divination" would not be seen as a Witch because that designation was reserved for a "hag who visited disaster upon her enemies."

You see, John Rivet's wife was dying, and Rivet had sought the aid of Goodwife Hovey to save her. Hovey, in turn, had informed Rivet that his wife was the victim of a curse. Upon receiving this news, Rivet, or so the story goes, seized upon the idea that the curse was due to one Elizabeth Clarke, an impoverished, one-legged widow who lived alone. Several members of Clarke's family, including her mother, had previously been denounced and executed as Witches, and because of this, according to Gaskill:
"As a legacy of this shame, it is likely that she [Elizabeth Clarke] had been a marked figure all her life, reviled but perhaps also revered among her watchful neighbors." [emphasis added]
Also in his little book Witchcraft: A Very Short Introduction, Gaskill explicitly acknowledges the historical ambiguity of the appellation "Witch". For example, he not only heads one subsection "Healers and Hags", but he also spends some time discussing the specific cases of two women, Elizabeth Mortlock and Appoline Beher, who were sought after as healers, and who found themselves denounced and convicted of Witchcraft because of their practice of beneficial magic

And in his book Crime and Mentalities in Early Modern England , Gaskill provides us with a very significant primary source attesting to the popular usage of the phrase "white witch" in the late 17th century (this was previously noted in my earlier post "The White Witches Of Our Ancestors"):
"Also in 1694, a dispute came to a head between the Crook and Baron families who shared a house at Overhilton (Lancashire). Henry Baron regularly quarelled with James Crook's wife (she had already received a warrant for his good behaviour), and when one of the Baron's calves died suddenly he accused her of witchcraft. On learning that she refused to appear before a JP, Baron was heard to say 'it was ill liveing near a white witch & ... if one did kill a white witch one could not be hang'd for it'. Soon afterwards, he beat her severely and she died. [Words in quotes are from court records dated 16 March, 1694. See Gaskill 2000 for more on the original source.]
This particular point should not be overstated. Gaskill's acknowledgements concerning the ambiguous nature of Witchcraft have the air of a reluctant, half-hearted concession. Clearly Gaskill does not wish to dwell or or draw too much attention to either the positive magic attributed to Witches, or to the positive attitudes about Witches that inevitably resulted from that positive magic. Nevertheless he feels obligated, as indeed he is, to admit the reality of the association between Witches and beneficial magic.

The bottom line is that whenever we encounter other scholars, such as Ronald Hutton, who categorically deny that the word Witch was used during the time of the Witch-hunts to refer to practitioners of beneficial magic, we can call Malcolm Gaskill as a witness to counter Hutton's misrepresentations of the truth.