Monday, 6 October 2014

Review: The British Witch - The Biography

I do love a good history book about witchcraft. After finishing reading The British Witch: The Biographythe first thing I can think to say is, "Wow! This certainly is good."

The British Witch is long - 480 pages - but so fascinating I was happy to spend a couple of days doing little else but read it from cover to cover.

Author P. G. Maxwell-Stuart is senior lecturer in history at the University of St Andrews and has done meticulous research into witchcraft trials, the laws on witchcraft and texts written about witches over the centuries.

The book's publisher, Amberley, says on its website:
For over five hundred years witches, male and female, practised magic for harm and good in their communities.
Most witches worked locally, used by their neighbours to cure illness, create love, or gratify personal spite against another. Margaret Lindsay from Northumberland was prosecuted for making men impotent, John Stokes in London for curing fevers, Collas de la Rue on Guernsey for killing people by witchcraft, Florence Newton from County Cork for causing fits, and Isobel Gowdie in Auldearn for a variety of offences including consorting with Satan and fairies. But in the fifteenth century they attacked a succession of English monarchs through enchanted images, and in the sixteenth sought ways to kill James VI of Scotland, too. A succession of Acts of Parliament made much magic criminal and punished offenders severely, until a final Act in 1735 repealed them.

This monumental new history for the first time describes witches, their magic, and the attempts to eradicate them throughout the British Isles, and alters our picture of who those witches were and why people employed them but also tried to suppress them.
What the book is not about is modern pagan witches - but it does take witchcraft seriously.  The author deliberately avoids the tendancy to assume witchcraft never really existed and that all those tried for it were just delusional old women used as scapegoats when natural disasters struck.

Maxwell-Stuart states: "We shall not get anywhere in our attempt to come to terms with and understand magic and witchcraft in the past if we take the facile way out and attribute what we ourselves do not believe or comprehend to the stupidity, malice, or fantasising of those who have left us records of what they believed and did and how it was interpreted."

He writes those words in connection with the case of Janet Boyman from Edinburgh, who was arrested and tried for witchcraft in Scotland in 1572. Janet was consulted when a man fell ill. She asked to view his shirt and took it to a fairy spring on Arthur’s Seat, the peak of hill in the centre of Edinburgh. There she consulted a spirit in the shape of a man: "Janet spoke to this apparition in the name of the Father and the Son, and of King Arthur and Queen Elspeth, asking him ‘either [to] give him his health or else to take him to you and relieve him of his pain’... She then washed Alan’s shirt in the southrunning spring and sent it back wet to Alan’s wife, with specific instructions about its disposal over his body."

That story came out in Janet's interrogation and trial, but as Maxwell-Stuart states: "There is in Janet’s answers to her interrogators and in the court’s record of them something much more interesting than vivid imagination, and since there is no evidence of her having been tortured or subjected to ill treatment – and we are not entitled to assume she must have been, any more than we are entitled nowadays to think that because there is some evidence in some cases of harsh treatment of prisoners by prison guards, all prisoners must therefore be regularly subjected to brutality – we should ask ourselves what it was that Janet was experiencing and deliberately seeking to experience when she went to a fairy location and invoked spirits there."

I found it really refreshing to read a history book that doesn't try to explain away historic witchcraft accounts using modern-day beliefs about witchcraft. People really did believe in the power of magic in the past - and, of course, many still do today.

Views as to what the source of that magic might be has changed over time, as the trials, laws and written material documented in The British Witch shows. In Protestant Britain, witches were usually seen as having made some sort of pact with the Devil - and witchcraft was often also associated with the old faith of Catholicism, rather than the old religions of pre-Christianity.

Janet's case mentioned above is just one of thousands of instances of witchcraft detailed in The British Witch. The book starts its story much earlier, back in the 12th century when rulers were naturally unhappy about anyone using divination to try to tell when the current king might die, and therefore enforced laws against such things. However, as Maxwell-Stuart points out, those laws were written in Latin and the word "witch" wasn't used until later:
Latin uses a wide variety of terms for magical practitioners, terms which tend to suggest the special talent or magical focus either belonging or attributed to the individual concerned, a diversity obscured by the single term ‘witch’. Thus, malefica = ‘female worker of harmful magic’; sortilega = ‘female diviner’; lamia = ‘child eater’; strix = ‘vampire-like person’; venefica = ‘worker of poisonous magic’; sortiaria = ‘female diviner’ (a variant of sortilega). All these terms except lamia have their male counterpart, and so ‘witch’ can be misleading as a translation, especially as it tends to suggest a female as opposed to a male practitioner and emphasises the harmful character of the magician’s practices at the expense of the curative or divinatory.
The book ends after the 18th century repeal of the infamous Witchcraft Act of King James VI and I in England and in Scotland. It shows that despite the law then regarding witches as frauds rather than workers of magic, ordinary people continued to take the law into their own hands to persecute those they believed to be witches.

As I said at the start of this review, The British Witch is a very long book. It is hard to do it justice in a review - even a long review as this has turned out to be. I hope I've shown that this is a book worth buying if you are interested in the history of witchcraft, to put on the shelf alongside other recommended reading such as Professor Ronald Hutton's The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraftand Malcolm Gaskill's Witchcraft: A Very Short Introduction.

P. G. Maxwell-Stuart's previous books include Witchcraft: A History,Poltergeists: A History of Violent Ghostly Phenomenaand Satan: The Biography

Links and previous related posts
The British Witch: The Biography

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