Friday, November 22, 2013

Contra Behringer: "Wise Women" and "Witches" Before "Romanticism"

In his book Witches and Witch-Hunts: A Global History, Wolfgang Behringer claims that "Only a few decades" after the last Witch execution in Europe (ca. 1782) "a completely new, post-rationalist interpretation turned up, inspired by Romanticism. Witches were reinterpreted as personifications of popular culture, or even of popular resistance, emphasizing the important role of women. Jacob Grimm (1785-1863), the godfather of language and folklore studies, redefined witches as wise women, bearers of ancient wisdom." [emphases added]

As noted, I have taken the liberty of adding bold emphases to Behringer's words. I have done this in order to draw the reader's attention to the amount of verbal effort expended by Behringer as he obsessively endeavors to crudely beat into the reader's head the false impression that there was something "completely new" about the idea of Witches as "wise women" and "bearers of ancient wisdom."

The problem for Herr Doktor Professor Behringer is that Witches were already referred to as "wise women" for many centuries before Anna Göldi was led out to a public square and beheaded in Switzerland in the year 1782, and even longer before Jacob Grimm published his groundbreaking studies (Grimm hadn't even been born when Göldi was executed).

Behringer's claim is quite clear: Witches were absolutely not thought of, or referred to, as "wise women", nor were they associated with "ancient wisdom", any time before the early 19th century (or, possibly, at the very earliest, the very end of the 18th). Moreover, when Witches were referred to in this way during the 19th century, this was emphatically something "completely new", a radical and discontinuous break with past practices.

Below are several instances that definitively prove Behringer wrong. In each case Witches are either referred to explicitly as "wise woman", or they are explicitly associated with "ancient wisdom".

The two earliest references cited below are dated four centuries before Anna Göldi's execution, and the latest one is dated 76 years before the appearance of Jacob Grimm's first published work. This is just a sample. Many more examples can be found here: Beneficent Witchcraft: One Hundred And Seven Sources.

Wycliffe Bible, 1385
"But there was a man in that citee, whos name was Symount, a witche, that hadde disseyued the folc of Samarie, seiynge, that him silf was sum greet man."

John Trevisa (transl.), 1387, Polychronicon Ranulphi Higden Monachi Cestrensis 
"In þat ilond is sortilege [L sortilegia] and wicchecraft i-vsed. For wommen þere selliþ schipmen wynde, as it were i-closed vnder þre knottes of þrede, so þat þe more wynd he wol haue, he wil vnknette þe mo knottes."

Tyndale Bible, 1526
"And ther was a certayne man called Simon which before tyme in the same cite vsed witche crafte and bewitched the people of Samarie sayinge that he was a man yt coulde do greate thinge."

Holinshed Chronicle, 1527
"But howsoeuer this matter standeth, and whether anie such thing was done at all or not, sure it is that the peo|ple of the said Ile were much giuen to witchcraft and sorcerie (which they learned of the Scots a nation great|lie bent to that horible practise) in somuch that their women would oftentimes sell wind to the mariners, inclosed vnder certeine knots of thred, with this in|iunction, that they which bought the same, should for a great gale vndoo manie, and for the lesse a fewer or smaller number."

Reginald Scot, 1584, Discoverie of Witchcraft
"And at this daie it is indifferent to saie in the English tong; She is a witch; or, She is a wise woman."

G. Gyfford, 1587, A Discourse of the subtill Practises of Devills by Witches and Sorcerers
"many in great distresse have bin releeved and recovered by sending unto such wise men or wise women, when they could not tel what should els become of them, and of all that they had. Shall not men take helpe where they can find it: Why do men go unto Phisicions: Let it be graunted that men finde helpe by Witches."

Henry Holland, 1590,  A Treatise Against Witchcraft
"Most men are wont to seek after these wise men and cunning women, such as they call witches, in sickness, in losses and in all extremities."

William Shakespeare, ca. 1600, The Merry Wives of Windsor
"... let's go dress him [Falstaff] as the witch of Brentford .... "
" ... was't not the wise woman of Brentford?"

Edward Phillips, 1656, The New World of English Words, or, a General Dictionary
"PYTHONESS: a Woman posses'd with a Familiar, or Prophecying Spirit, a Sorceress, or Witch."

Joseph Glanvill, 1667, Sadducismus Triumphatus
"The word Witch signifies originally  a Wise Man, or rather a Wise Woman. The same doth Saga in Latin, and plainly so doth Wizard in English signify a Wise Man, and they are vulgarly called cunning Men or Women."

Samuel Collins, 1671, The Present State of Russia
"These people are much devoted to Witch-craft, and count it an extraordinary piece of learning practiced by the chief Women in the Countrey."

Joseph Addison, 1712, Sir Roger de Coverly and the Gypsies 
"Sir Roger has brought down a cunning man with him, to cure the old woman, and free the country from her charms. So that the character which I go under in part of the neighbourhood, is what they here call a 'white witch'."

London Magazine, or Gentleman's Monthly Intelligencer, December, 1735, Some Account of Merlin and the Figures that attend him, in the new erected Cave at Richmond
"This Britomartis or Britannia is led by a lean elderly Lady whom some stile Glauce, mention'd by Spencer; others Melissa, from Ariosto; and others Mother Shipton, famous in British Story, but her Character and Office are better known, being allowed by all to be a sort of a Witch or Cunning-Woman, and something between Dry-Nurse and Governess to Britomartis, employed by Merlin in the blackest of his Art, viz. as his Priestess or Pope Joan. She is likewise a great Pretender to Science, and Diver into Mysteries."