Interpretations #4:  Social History

To: all
From: Jenny
Date: 07 May 1998
Time: 12:41:36


The anthropological interpretation suggested that Witch-hunting was "normal", something that regularly occurred in human societies. The social history interpretation is its direct offspring. It asks the question, "What does this accomplish? People don't do things unless they get something out of it, so what 'positive' results come from Witch-hunting?"

Anthropology theories stay at an abstract, theoretical level (Witchcraft beliefs are an inversion of good behavior). Social history, on the other hand, digs into the details. Rather than trying to find something generic to say about all trials, as the other modes of interpretation do, these theorists look at one specific trial or area, in the greatest depth possible. Then they try to figure out who benefits from this trial, and how.

For example, when you look closely at the trials of England, you'll discover an odd pattern. Witches were usually very poor, and they were almost always accused by people who owned more than them. And, in many cases, the charges of Witchcraft revolved around begging: the Witch asked for help or charity, and the neighbor refused. When a misfortune followed this, the neighbor then turned around and levelled a charge of Witchcraft. Even more interesting, English Witchcraft trials were most common when the country was moving from private charity (the poor ask their neighbors for help) to public charity (the poor receive assistance from the government, not their community).

From this, some historians constructed the "crisis of charity" theory. Early public charity was woefully inadequate, therefore the poor continued to ask their neighbors for aid. Rich neighbors who refused felt guilty. Witchcraft accusations assuaged this guilt: they said that the poor neighbor didn't deserve any help anyways -- she was a vile Witch! The rich neighbor's guilt was "magically" transformed into righteous indignation. They, not the scorned begger, was the true victim. They were the ones being hurt, not the poor widow they drove from their doorstep.

Another example is the study of gender dynamics in the Witch trials of Hungary. Unlike in other parts of Europe, here Witches were frequently noble-women related to some of the most powerful, influential families of Hungary. Historians suggest that these trials were a way for enemies to attack powerful men indirectly. By accusing a sister, cousin, or wife of Witchcraft, political enemies could strike at powerful male nobles they couldn't otherwise touch.

Social history is the current reigning theory in Witchcraft studies. Most scholars focus on details, on single trials and regions, on the explanations that will account for this one lone case.

This method of interpretation has yielded some wonderful, wonderful studies. However it does have one major problem: it doesn't popularize well. All the other modes of interpretation offer one simple explanation for all trials. Witches really existed. Humans always have stereotypes about the Evil Other. People were stupid in the Middle Ages.

Social history offers hundreds of explanations, and they don't reduce no matter how long you boil them. An explanation that works brilliantly in Hungary fails in Germany. Popular history demands sound-bites and universal truths. Many people don't want to hear five billion theories -- they want one straightforward "answer" for why these persecutions occurred. And social history can't produce that. To many, it seems like historians have gotten stuck in minutia. They're focusing so much on the details that they lose sight of the bigger picture.

Therefore while social history is all the rage in academia, many popular historians embrace a different interpretation: the conspiracy theory.