Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Witch Craze (2004): A Review

Witch Craze by Lyndal Roper: A Review

This is a study of the time of the persecution of people as witches in Germany in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in which she tries to understand why it took place then, why it was not geographically universal, and what kinds of fears, fantasies and confessions were apparent at the time. As Lyndal Roper points out any historical explanation should, in part, explain "why the witch hunts were so heavily concentrated in the German speaking lands of the Holy Roman Empire, why so many of the victims were women" (around 80%) with - in Germany "a shocking preponderance of old women", which given the life expectancy of the time, meant over forty. "Global religious persecutions will not work: in Germany, Catholic prince-bishoprics were the most fearsome witch-hunters, but in Catholic Italy, Portugal and Spain, the number of deaths were comparatively small. Calvinist Scotland suffered a very serious witch hunt and Lutheran Sweden had a very late outbreak of witch-hunting in which many children were involved."

There is a stereotypical idea of this period, popularised most strongly by Margaret Murray in her consideration of the witch craze as persecuting a pagan "old religion" which avoids looking at the evidence, and the problems arising from it. Lyndal Roper, in this study, suggests various ways of making sense of the historical record, and understanding the terrors and fantasies erupting in society at the time. As she says, she was surprised because she began the study expecting to look at confessions of sex with the devil, flying to the sabbath, or satanic rituals, and while these facets were there, they did not predominate: "what surprised me most when I began to read the detailed trial records of women who were accused of witchcraft was that they talked not about sex and forbidden desire, but about birth, about breastmilk that dried up, about babies who sickened and died, and about the room where the women spent their 'lying in', the period of six weeks after the birth of a child."

In fact, as she discovered "the fears that surrounded witches were not just about the deaths of infants and the early weeks of motherhood, but featured animals and crops, in short, fertility itself". The society in which these people lived was one at subsistence level, with a precarious economy, and years of poor harvests. "Marriage often had to be postponed, and many could never afford to wed. To be a fertile wife with plenty of children was to be honoured and respected. To be an old woman frequently meant poverty, infirmity, and humiliating dependence on the young." The image of the witch across Europe was remarkably consistent "she was an old woman, and she attacked young children".

During this period, Europe was recovering from "the little 'ice age'", from the late 16th century to the mid 17th, "a combination of perishingly cold winters and wet summers and autumns which brought bad harvests as the grain rotted". Everywhere there was "hunger, disease and death". Apocalyptic visions of a society "under assault from the devil made sense". The peasants had "fears of sick cows, outbreaks of hail, mysterious insects and various diseases". To try to stem the problem of a greater population than food supply, it was now that governments enacted regulations forbidding marriages unless couples could support themselves, and introducing legislation to control marriage.

How could the old woman support herself, in a society where women's status was closely tied to their reproductive capacity? Invariable, the old women acted as midwives, helped the mothers with the infants, and could also milk cows; in these capacities, they were placed in the worst possible place when children died, and milk went off; if men were impotent, it was felt that this came from the baleful presence of the infertile woman. And fears of fertility also come into the pictures of the time, where a common them of the fantasy links the post-menopausal woman with a young man, she sexually desiring him, even though she cannot give him children; there is a terror about failure in fertility, and this is one of the forces driving the persecution, which merges with the fantastic confessions under torture of satanic rites.

Other factors that Lindal Roper discusses are the breakdown of law, how the civic authorities in local communities take the law into their own hands, and where this occurs, witch hunts break out; the fragmentation of the mediaeval unity by the Reformation, where there is a culture of suspicion against heresy, not unlike Stalin's Russia - including the interrogation methods which elicit what the torturers want to hear; and again linked with fertility, and infant death, the idea of the old woman preying on children, wanting to consume them, which we see most clearly in the original version of Hansel and Gretal, although it is still present in later versions.

This is an interesting book, which shows that where a particular nexus of factors came together, it just needed a spark to set witch-hunts alight, and underlying this was a terror of loss of fertility and death, a society in which natural disasters were understood in a pre-scientific way which we can barely begin to understand. Nevertheless, Lyndal Roper helps us to understand that better, and this book is a fine contribution to the study of the witch craze.

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