chapter  5
26 Pages

No limit: the body of the witch

The last chapter showed that the witch could represent women’s fantasies, desires and fears, especially about maternity and the household. In this chapter, the figuration of witchcraft itself-the witch’s power over people and things-is shown to have reflected and reproduced a very specific fantasy about the female body in general and the maternal body in particular. When understood in terms of the magic she performs and the power she exerts, the witch is a fantasy-image of the huge, controlling, scattered, polluted, leaky fantasy of the maternal body of the Imaginary.1 However, this body and the acute terror and longing it evokes can only be understood in relation to specific cultural circumstances. In the early modern town or village, there were two specific ways in which that image of the body was socially mediated: first, it represented everything that it was the housewife’s job to exclude from the household, and secondly, it represented the diseased body of early modern medicine. Through that medical system, too, it pointed back to the normal body, always prone to fall into greater abnormality if female. The body in both elite and popular early modern thought was flowing with humours or liquids, resembling a bag full of potentially polluting substances. This idea of the body was shaped by fears that bodies may not be fully confined and kept separate from one another, resulting in problematic contacts and impingements. To the early modern villager or town-dweller, one way to understand those impingements was as witchcraft. Witchcraft was, among other things, a form of power which involved exchanges between bodies, and the counter-magic used to defeat it reflects this understanding.