chapter
104 Pages

WITCHCRAFT, POLITICS AND "GOOD NEIGHBOURHOOD" IN EARLY SEVENTEENTH-CENTURY

RYE*

The European witch, unlike her African or American-Indian counterpart, was a transfigured creature who began her career in the farmyard as an enemy of her neighbour, and ended it in the courts as a public person, an enemy of God and of the godly society. I

In this passage Christina Larner expressed with characteristic lucidity an argument which has been gaining currency among historians. According to this approach, responsibility for the dramatic rise and decline in witchcraft prosecutions in early modern Europe lay primarily with the elites who controlled the courts rather than with the accusers, who were usually of lower status. Judges not only allowed cases to be prosecuted in their courts, but on occasion promoted witch-hunts, and it has been argued that they were motivated by a commitment to reform unchristian beliefs and disorderly behaviour, both aspects of "popular culture". Ideological zeal, whether Protestant or Catholic, provided a means of imposing order and legitimizing new regimes in an era of increasing political centralization. This approach (which I shall call the "social-control model") therefore has the great merit of relating this extraordinary European-wide phenomenon to major processes of historical change, although historians vary in the aspects which they emphasize. 2

32 PAST AND PRESENT NUMBER 133 These theories arc rather more complex than those put forward

twenty years ago by Keith Thomas and Alan Macfarlane in their pioneering works on English witchcraft. 3 Thomas and Macfarlane focused on the reiationship between accuser and accused, and since their studies were only concerned with English cases, which were relatively uncomplicated, they were not prompted to consider in much detail such factors as legal changes and interaction betweer. accusers and judges. Yet to one basic question they both suggested an answer which has not been improved upon by the newer theories. Why did people accuse others of causing harm by supernatural means (maleficium)? This question concerns popular attitudes more than those of the "judicial elites", since, as severa] studies have shown, it was the accusers who were primarily concerned about maleficia, while diabolism was of greater interest to magistrates. Thomas and Macfarlane's argument focused in particular on conflicts over traditional obligations of neighbourliness between those who benefited from economic changes and those who were impoverished by them. A modified version of this thesis is generally accepted, but the issue is regarded as having little significance for theories of social change, since t11e evidence for a shift in popular attitudes in this period is so limited. 4

I would suggest that this exclusion of popular attitudes has been too extreme. Recent studies have shown that causing harm by supernatural means was an issue in witchcraft cases in all countries studied between Russia and white America, whereas diabolism was only of concern in some areas, and at some periods. 5 (fl. 2 CIIIII.! (London, :987). B. 1'. Ll!vack, th" WilCh-fIullI ill Fiar{y Modem Europe (London, 1(87), pro l17-19, 147-1', also cmpha~ize~ the role of ideology among ruling clites. G. Scarr~, whose term "social-control model" has been used in this article, provides a summary of diiTcr"nt approach," in G. Scarfc, Witchcraft and Magic in SixteeTlih alld Sevem<!enlh CelllUlJI i:"ttrope (Basingstoke, 1987) .