e g r e g o r e s

"Graciously bestow upon all men felicity, the summit of which is the knowledge of the Gods." [Julian, Oration to the Mother of the Gods]

The Strange Case of Emma Wilby and the Wise & Cunning Witches of Britain

In her book Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits, Emma Wilby starts out Chapter Two, on Cunning Folk and Witches, by saying this:

“The common people of early modern Britain possessed a wide repertoire of spells and rituals with which they could practise magical self-help, but in those instances where more sophisticated magical knowledge was needed, they turned to a magical practitioner. In contemporary sources these practitioners were referred to under a wonderful variety of generic names: wise man or woman, cunning man or woman, witch (white or black), wizard, sorcerer, conjurer, charmer, magician, wight, nigromancer, necromancer, seer, blesser, dreamer, cantel, soothsayer, fortune-teller, girdle-measurer, enchanter, enchantrix and so on. These generic names, like those used to define categories of spirit, overlapped considerably and were often interchangeable.” [p. 26]

So far, so good. But notice a subtle shift that occurs in the next two sentences:

“At any given time, the term to be used to define a magical practitioner would have depended upon the type of magic they practiced, where they lived, whether they were liked or disliked and whether the person defining them was illiterate or literate, rural or urban, Puritan or Catholic and so on. The same practitioner, for example, could be referred to as a ‘wise man’ by one person, a ‘witch’ by another and a ‘conjurer’ by yet another.”

Wilby has gone from saying that the different terms for magical practitioners “overlap considerably” and are “often interchangeable” to saying that certain of these words do in fact refer to different types of magical practitioners, albeit in a context dependent way. Notice how different these two positions are. First there is the observation that the various terms listed do not uniquely define neatly separable categories, but then this is immediately followed by the claim that, on closer inspection, the terms “witch”, “wise man”, and “conjurer” can be disentangled from each other if we know who is using the terms. That is, even though the same person might be referred to by different terms, this only means (according to Wilby) that different people are using the terms differently. The important thing here is that Wilby intentionally (or so it seems impossible not to conclude) ignores the question of whether or not the same person will refer to the same other person as both a “witch” and a “wise woman” (and perhaps also as a “conjurer”).

Wilby then continues as follows:

“These complexities make it difficult for a historian to settle on a working terminology. Many of these generic names have survived until the present day. ‘Sorcerer’, ‘wizard’, ‘magician’ and ‘witch’, for example, are energetic and numinous terms, but they have been so distorted and embellished by the twentieth-century imagination that, with the exception of the latter, they are now seldom employed by academic historians.”

This is a very strange collection of nearly, but not quite, random statements. What is the relationship between (1) the “complexities” associated with the various terms for magical practitioners during the 16th and 17th centuries, and (2) how “energetic” and/or “numinous” some of these terms might be today? And, moreover, why are we to believe that the degree to which a term is still “energetic” and/or “numinous” is relevant to whether or not such a term is to be “employed by [21st century] academic historians”, especially when the most “energetic” and “numinous” of them all, “witch”, is one of the primary terms still in use???

And why does Wilby make the bizarre statement that terms for magical practitioners became “so distorted and embellished by the twentieth-century imagination”? Are we really to believe that the “eighteenth-century imagination” was dispassionate and objective about these things, so that terms such as “witch” were in use back then in a way that was undistorted and unembellished?

Wilby then proceeds to reveal the true reason for the pathetically tortuous “logic” of the presentation so far:

“Given such difficulties, we shall follow [unnamed] contemporary scholars in the field and employ the following terms. Any individual who practiced magic in a professional capacity, whether for good or ill, will come under the umbrella term of ‘magical practitioner’. Those magical practitioners primarily associated with the practice of maleficient magic will, in the absence of any viable alternative, be termed ‘witches’. Those primarily associated with the use of beneficient magic will be termed ‘cunning folk’ — a title which, although popular in the early modern period, hanot survived into the present day and therefore is not overlaid with modern connotations.”

It is astounding that Wilby asserts the “absense of any viable alternative” for the use of “witch” to refer to practitioners of harmful magic, when she herself in the opening paragraph of the chapter told us that among “the wonderful variety” of contemporary early modern terms for magical practitioners were numbered “white witch” and “black witch”. Moreover, absolutely everyone (starting from today and going back to the dawn of the early modern period) has always unambiguously associated the term “black witch” with those engaged in “the practice of maleficient magic”, and “white witch” with magical practitioners who heal and otherwise are of benefit to others.

The problem for Wilby, and she is perfectly aware of this, is that the terms “witch”, “wise woman” and “cunning woman” (in particular) have been consistently used by speakers of the English language, from the 16th century up to today, as both generic and ambiguous terms for magical practitioners.

Later on in the same chapter, Wilby returns to the issue: “In early modern Britain the term ‘witch’ generally denoted an individual who was seen by others, or perceived by themselves, as being able to employ magical powers to do harm.” [p. 42] That this statement is, in fact, a lie, is immediately demonstrated by Wilby herself several pages later, when Wilby once again joins the issue in a section titled “Cunning Woman or Witch?”

“In a significant minority of records, the presence of a cunning man or woman can be identified with certainty. Bessie Dunlop’s case is a prime example. Bessie was not brought to court because she had performed maleficium, but because a local family had protested that she had falsely accused them of theft. She performed only good magic and her family had fairy connections. Most witch-trial records, however, are not so clear cut, and it is difficult to say with any certainty whether the individual who stood before the bench was a cunning woman or a witch. One of the reasons for this difficulty is the fact that there was a great deal of overlap between the two types of magical practitioner in the period. While historians often make a distinction between cunning folk, who performed good magic, and witches, who performed bad magic, in the early modern period this distinction was often blurred. Although some cunning folk had a reputation for being wholly good, a large proportion of them were considered ambivalent, that is, they could employ their magical powers to both help and harm. Christina Larner describes this dual nature in a Scottish context:

“The healer is a source of hope in the community. But this power is two-edged. If he should fail, demand extortionate and unecomonic returns for his services, or become hostile, then he becomes a source of menace and a focus for anxiety. The refusal of Canon Law to distinguish between black and white magic . . . regardless of whether it is intended to heal or harm, in fact reflects a peasant reality: that the healer can be dangerous.” (Christina Larner, Enemies of God, 1981, pp. 138-139)

[pp. 53-54]

After quoting from Larner, Wilby goes on to cite the 1608 case of Beigis Tod of East Lothian, who was accused of witchcraft on the basis of her reputation for being able to both “on-lay” and “off-take” sickness. Wilby also recounts cases in which people known as healers were approached by those who were willing to pay them to use their powers to cause harm. Sometimes such offers were (reportedly) accepted, while other times they were (reportedly) declined. Wilby also points out that it could be “good for business” for a healer if she or he also had a reputation for being able to “perform maleficium” — for one thing, it helped in collecting the bill! Wilby sums up the situation like this: “Given the ambivalent nature of early modern cunning folk, therefore, when we are presented with trial records describing them performing both good and bad magic, it is difficult to establish with any certainty whether the cited practitioner was a cunning woman or a witch.” [p. 55]

There is a huge problem with Wilby’s neat little disclaimer above: it is always (as opposed to only when “we are presented with trial records describing them performing both good and bad magic”) impossible (as opposed to “difficult”) to establish with any certainty whether a person on trial for witchcraft was exclusively a practitioner of beneficial or harmful magic, or of both. And it is always impossible, assuming one has some passing familiarity with and at least a modicum of respect for the truth, to claim that the word “Witch” has at any time during the last five centuries been used specifically to distinguish practitioners of harmful magic from those who practice beneficial magic.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: