[This was initially supposed to be a post about the difficulties of reconstructing pre-Christian Slavic religious beliefs, but obviously, my mind wandered, and it should be fairly clear why.]
Studying the history of witchcraft trials in early modern Europe has inevitably put my patience under stress from understandings of those trials in popular culture—encountered every time I have to explain just what I’m studying for my Master’s degree to folks outside of the cozy academic womb. In Canada, the NFB’s The Burning Times (1990) is the main source of information for most. I’m amazed at how often people recommend that documentary to me, perhaps more amazed by how vigorously they defend it when I attempt to point out its errors, and completely dumbfounded that professors in English departments screen it for undergraduate courses. I’ve seen it, I dismissed it, but the damn thing keeps on coming back into my life.
Nothing in The Burning Times was new, it popularized (and still popularizes) misconceptions dating back to the nineteenth century. Jules Michelet’s La Sorciere (1862) already characterized the great witch-hunts of the early modern period as the church’s attempt to suppress a secret cult shared among peasants. Michelet was one of the great romantic historians; La Sorciere one of the more fevered products of the romantic imagination. He wrote it in under a month near the end of his life, and apparently spent even less time researching it. More compelling than most interpretations is that the underground cult was a direct reaction to the burdens of feudalism and repression by the Roman Catholic Church. Peasants therefore turned to a hodgepodge of pre-Christian beliefs but cast them in a mould where Lucifer became the over-arching symbol for rebellion against the status quo.
In the English-speaking world, however, much of the still widely accepted view of witchcraft as a fertility cult emerges from Margaret Murray’s The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921). Murray was an esteemed Egyptologist, later head of the Folklore Society, but her theories on witchcraft were probably her most lasting mark on the popular imagination. Carefully selecting passages from English and Scottish sources, Murray reconstructed an ancient religion shared across Europe, initially propagated by the little folk or fairies, who were actually a race of humans of small stature. There is less to recommend here than Michelet. Obviously, by interpreting witches’ confessions as expressions of lived experiences Murray did break a reading bias exhibited by historians before her, who considered all confessions false and the products of torture, simply giving voice to the inquisitors’ fancies. More recent work by Lyndal Roper and others note that accused witches had agency and took an active part in shaping their confessions. However, Murray’s purely rationalistic bent made her blithely discard any magical elements in confessions in search of the truth behind them, leading to severe distortions of her source material, out-of-context quotations, and a generally shaky methodology. All the festivals, rites, 13-person covens, and the like, have little to no supporting evidence. Murray’s later books on witchcraft took things further, seeing marks of this ancient religion in not only peasants and townsmen accused of witchcraft but high up in the echelons of the elite, where the likes of Joan of Arc and Gilles de Rais voluntarily sacrificed themselves on the stake in ceremonies of agricultural renewal.
At that point, even her scholarly supporters chose to quietly ignore her claims. The Witch-Cult in Western Europe was roundly criticized into the 1930s by historians studying the subject such as C. L’Estrange Ewen, was not even discussed much at all by folklorists. But it sold, and well enough for consistent reprints down into the present day. And thanks to that popularity, for a space Murray became the voice on the history of witchcraft, indeed, was selected to write the entry on the subject in the 1929 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica that re-appeared in later editions until 1969. It’s that encyclopaedia entry, more than her books that solidified her interpretation in the public consciousness, migrating as it did to newspapers, novels, films, television series and documentaries until it became the default long after it was largely discredited in academic circles.
Gerald Gardner no doubt helped the process along. He enthusiastically built a religion around Murray’s findings, “resurrecting” that which never was—with modifications, of course. The Burning Times was partly rooted in Starhawk’s attempt to graft historical legitimacy to a religious movement that was at the time facing widespread dismissal. I can sympathize with this aspect. But unfortunately, the Murrayite interpretation of witchcraft trials on display does more to obscure and silence the voices found in witchcraft confessions than it does to reveal them (as supporters claim). The rich variety of popular demonologies spread across Europe, the embedded community conflicts that led to accusations, the framework of understanding good and evil in the early modern countryside, the fears and anxieties expressed on the parts of accusers and accused, all these important elements found in trial materials—all are discarded in order to fit trials into a set pattern wherein church and state suppress a largely female fertility cult. The past is thus “flattened” and denied social, temporal and geographical complexity.
We are left with an oppressive narrative pattern easily turned towards ideological ends. The temptation is to laugh it off. I think it’s still important to confront this narrative from time to time.