The Witch In History (Review) -- Chapter I

To: all
From: Jenny
Date: 07 Apr 1998
Time: 12:24:27


Diane Purkiss' _The Witch in History: Early Modern and 20th Century Representations_ is a very good book, examining what the image/word "witch" has meant to Europeans and Americans, at various times. Why a person might choose to label herself a witch, and what she meant by saying that; how witches were portrayed in Elizabethan theatre, and why they were so popular; etc.

It's a good book, as I said. But rather than discussing the whole thing in general, I'd like to focus on the first two chapters, which are worth the price of the book alone. In them, Purkiss discusses what "witch" means to feminists (chapter I) and Neo-Pagans (chapter II), and how these definitions relate to the historical evidence (summary: not well <g>). Since much of Neo-Paganism's mythology about the Burning Times comes from badly researched feminist works (the type Purkiss addresses), both chapters are relevant to us.

Purkiss begins by lambasting "feminist" analysis of the Burning Times. I put "feminist" in quotes because I don't want to equate feminism and bad research. Some feminists, like Purkiss herself, do brilliant research. But there is a significant body of books, like Anne Llewellyn Barstow's _Witchcraze_, which are simply political propaganda masquerading as history. This is the type of "feminist analysis" that Purkiss calls to task.

For long time readers of this section, most of her charges won't be new. She complains about the gross historical errors, the dualism, the stereotyping that I've mentioned. In addition, however, she offers an explanation for some of the biases that appear in these works.

Feminist texts focus, almost exclusively, on the trials that include grievous torture, especially any torture that has a "sexual" overtone, such as Anna Gamperle's (who had her breasts cut off). Cases like the Italian Benandanti (who weren't tortured) are ignored. Doubly ignored, because most Benandanti were men and in "feminist" analysis all Witches are women.

Why? There's the obvious reason that torture trials are more horrifying, and these writers want to evoke horror and outrage, not "objectivity", understanding, or compassion. Torture (and inflated death toll estimate) make the suffering of witches seem that much more important, undermining the claims of some that the Burning Times weren't a very significant incident in Western history.

But Purkiss argues that torture also serves to close the gap between the witches and modern feminists. 16th century women were not 20th century feminists. They thought differently than we do. Their beliefs and faith often seem odd to us. However one thing remains constant: the body. By focusing on physical torture, "feminist" writers erase anything that might create distance between their readers and their subjects.

The unfortunately by-product of focusing on torture, though, is that it erases the witch, too. Everything about these women, their lives, their beliefs, their selves -- is ignored. Only the body matters.

Purkiss' analysis is cutting and insightful, a brief but damning survey of the "feminist" mythology of the Burning Times. Unfortunately her overview of Neo-Paganism, in chapter II, is terribly flawed.