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Category Archives: ronald hutton

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.

"The More Women, The More Witches."

For now at least, this will be the last installment of excerpts from William Perkins’ Discourse of the Damned Art of Witchcraft. To complete the circle, so to speak, this section ends where the section quoted in Part One of this series begins.

I come now to shew who is the practiser hereof, whome the Text principally aimeth at, namely, the Witch, whether man or woman. A Witch is a Magician, who either by open or secret league, wittingly, and willingly, consenteth to use the aide and assistance of the Devil, in the working of Wonders.First, I call the Witch a Magician to shew what kind of person this is: to wit, such a one as doth professe and practise Witchcraft. For a Magician is a professor and a practiser of this art, as may appeare, Act. 8. 9. where Simon a Witch of Samaria is called Magus, or Simon the Magician. Againe, in this generall tearme, I comprehend both sexes or kinds of persons, men and women, excluding neither from beeing Witches.

A point the rather to be remembred, because Moses in this place setting down a Judiciall Law against Witches, useth a word of the feminine gender [mecashephab] which in English properly signifieth, a woman Witch: whereupon some might gather, that women onely were Witches. Howbeit Moses in this word exempteth not the male, but onely useth a notion referring to the female, for good causes; principally for these two.

First, to give us to understand, that the woman beeing the weaker sexe, is sooner intangled by the devils illusions with this damnable art, then the man. And in all ages it is found true by experience, that the devil hath more easily and oftener prevailed with women, then with men. Hence it was, that the Hebrewes of ancient times, used it for a proverb, The more women, the more Witches. His first temptation in the beginning, was with Eve a woman, and since he pursueth his practise accordingly, as making most for his advantage. For where he findeth easiest entrance, and best entertainment, thither will he oftnest resort.

Secondly, to take away all exception of punishment from any party that shall practise this trade, and to shew that weakenesse cannot exempt the Witch from death. For in all reason, if any might alledge infirmity, and plead for favour, it were the woman, who is weaker then the man, But the Lord saith, if any person of either sexe among his people, be found to have entered covenant with Satan, and become a practiser of Sorcery, though it be a woman and the weaker vessell, she shall not escape, she shall not be suffered to live, she must die the death. And though weaknes in other cases, may lessen both the crime and the punishment, yet in this it shall take no place.

The second point in the description, is consent to use the helpe of the devil, either by open or secret league, wittingly and willingly: wherein standeth the very thing, that maketh a Witch to be a Witch: The yielding of consent upon covenant. By which clause, two sort of people are expressely excluded from beeing Witches, First, such as be tainted with phrenzy or madnesse, or are through weaknesse of the braine deluded by the devil. For these, though they may be said after a sort to have society with Satan, or rather he with them, yet they cannot give their consent to use his aide truly, but onely in imagination; with the true Witch it is farre otherwise.

Secondly, all such superstitious persons, men or women, as use Charmes and Inchantment for the effecting of any thing upon a superstitious and erroneous perswasion, that the Charmes have vertue in them to doe such things, not knowing that it is the action of the devil by those meanes; but thinking that God hath put vertue into them, as he hath done into herbes for Physicke. Of such persons we have (no doubt) abundance in this our Land, who though they deale wickedly, and sinne grievously in using Charmes, yet because they intend not to joyne league with the devil, either secretly, or formally, they are not to be counted Witches. Nevertheless, they are to be advertised in the meane time, that their estate is fearefull. For their present ungodly practices have prepared the already to this cursed trade, and may bring them in time to be the ranekest Witches that can be. Wherefore I advise all ignorant persons, that know not God nor the Scriptures, to take heed and beware of this dangerous evil, the use of Charmes. For if they be once convinced in their consciences, and know that God hath given no power to such means, and yet shall use them, assuredly they doe in effect consent to the devil to be helped by him, and thereupon are joyned in confederacy with him in the confidence of their vine hearts, and so are become Witches.

The third and last thing in the description is the end of Witchcraft; The working of wonders. Wonders are wrought three wayes (on hath beene shewed,) either by Divination, or by enchantment, or by Jugling: and to one of three heads all feates and practices of Withcraft are to be referred. Now if any man doubt; whether these be such Witches indeed as have been described let him remember, that besides experience in all ages and countries, we have also sundry examples of them even in Scriptures. In the old Testament we reade of Baiaam, Num. 23. who though he be called a Prophet, because he was so reputed of men, yet indeed he was a notorious Witch, both by profession and practise, and would have shewed his cunning in that kind upon the Israelites, if God had not hindered him against his will. Of the same kind were the Inchanters of Egypt Exod, 7. the Witches of Persia, Dan. 2. and the Pythonisse of Endor, knowne for a renowned Sorcerer over all Israel: and therefore Sauls servants being asked, could presently tel of her, as we read, Sam. 28.

In the new Testament, mention is made of Simon, whose name declared his prosession; his name was Magus; and the text saith, that he used Witchcraft, and bewitched the people of Samaria, calling himselfe a great man; Act. 8. 9. Whence it was that after his death, there was a statue set up in Rome in honour of him in the daies of Claudius Cæsar, with this inscription; Simoni Deo Sancto. And it is not unlike, but Bar-iesus the false Prophet at Paphus, was a man addicted to the practices of Witchcraft, and for that cause was called by a kind of excellencie, Elymas the Magician, Act. 13. 6.8. that is, the great or famous Sorcerer. Lastly, the Pythonisse at Philippi, that gather master much advantage by divining Act. 16. 16. And all these used the helpe of the devil, for the working of wonders.

Of Witches there be two sorts: The bad Witch, and the good Witch: for so they are commonly called. The bad Witch, is he or she that hath consented in league with the devil to use his helpe, for the doing of hurt only as to strike and annoy the bodies of men, women, children, and cattle with diseases, and with death it selfe: so likewise to raise tempests, by sea and by land, & c. This is commonly called the binding Witch.

“The Good Witch Must Also Die”

"But especially the blessing Witch" ("The Good Witch Must Also Die", Part Three)

Here is how William Perkins ends his Discourse of the Damned Art of Witchcraft (this is Part Three of a series; if you are just tuning in, there are links to the first two parts at the bottom of this post):

Everie seducer in the Church, whose practise was to draw men from the true God to the worship of Idols, though it were a mans owne sonne or daughter, wife or friend, by the peremptorie decree and commandment of God, was at no hand to be spared or pitied, but the hand of the witnesse first, and then the hands of all the people must bee upon him, to kill him, Deut. 13.6.9.

If this be so, no Witches convicted ought to escape the sword of the Magistrate; for they are the most notorious seducers of all others. When they be once intangled with the Devils league, they labour to inure their dearest friends and posterity, in their cursed and abominable practises: that they may bee the more easily drawne into the same confederacie, wherewith they themselves are united unto Sathan. I might here alleadge, that they deserve death because many of them be murtherers, but I stand not upon that instance, because I hold in the general that Witches are not to be suffered to lieu, though they doe no hurt either to man or other creatures, and that by vertue of Moses lawe, onely for their leagues sake, whereby they become rebels to God, Idolaters and seducers, as now hath been shewed.

Yet not with standing all that hath been said, many things are brought in defense of them, by such as be their friends and welwillers. First, it is said, that the hurt that is done, comes not from the Witch, but from the devil; he deserves the blame because it is his worke, and she is not to die for his sinne. Answ. Let it be granted, that the Witch is not the author of the evil that is done, yet she is a confederate and partner with the devil in the fact, and so the lawe takes hold on her. See it in a familiar comparison. A company of men conspire together in a robbery, by common consent some stand in open place to espie out the bootie, and to give the watch-word, others are set about the passage, privily to rush upon the man, and to spoyle him of his goods. In this case what saith the law? The Parties that gave the watchword, though they did nothing to the man, yet beeing accessories and abettors to the robbery by consent, they are theeues, and liable to condemnation and execution, as well as the principalls. Even so stands the case with the Witch.

In the working of wonders, and in all mischeivous practises, he or shee is partaker with the devil by consent of covenant: the Witch onely useth the watchword in some charme or otherwise, and doth no more; the devil upon notice given by the Charme, takes his opportunities, and works the mischief. He is the principall agent, but the other yieldeth help, and is rightly liable to punishment. The reason is, because if the devil were not stirred up, and provoked by the Witch, he would never do so much hurt as he doth. He had never appeared in Samuels likenes had he not been sollicited by the Witch of Endor. He would not have caused counterfeit serpents and frogges to appeare in Egypt, but for Jannes and Jambres, and other Inchanters. And in this age there would not in likelihood be so much hurt and hindrance procured unto men, and other creatures by his meanes, but for the instigation of ill disposed persons, that have fellowship and societie with him.

Againe, they object, that Witches convicted either repent, or repent not: If they repent, then God pardoneth their sinne, and why should not the Magistrate as well save their bodies, and let them live, as God doth their soules. If they do not repent, then it is a dangerous thing for the Magistrate to put them to death: for by this meanes he kills the bodie, and casts the soule to hell. Answ. All Witches judicially and lawfully convicted, ought to have space of repentance granted unto them, wherein they may be instructed and exhorted, and then afterward executed. For it is possible for them to be saved by Gods mercie, though they have denied him. Secondly, the Magistrate must execute justice upon malefactors lawfully convicted, whether they repent or not. For God approoveth the just execution of judgment upon men without respect to their repentance: neither must their impenitencie hinder the execution of Justice. When the people of Israel had committed Idolatrie in worshipping the golden calfe, Moses did not expect their repentance, and in the meane while forbeare the punishment, but he and the Levites presently tooke their swords, and slew them, and the Lord approoved their course of proceeding, Exod.32.28. When Zimri an Israelite had committed fornication with Cozbi a Midianitish woman, Phineas in zeale of Gods glorie, executed judgement on the both, without any respect unto their repentáce, Numb.25.8. and is therefore commended, Psa. 106. 30.

Warres are a worthy ordinance of God, and yet no Prince could ever attempt the same lawfully, if every souldier in the field should stay the killing of his enemie, upon expectation of his repentance. And whereas they say, that by executing an impenitent Witch, the Magistrate casteth away the soule; we must know, that the end of execution by the Magistrate is not the damnation of the malefactors soule, but that fin may be punished that others may beware of the like crimes and offences, and that the wicked might be taken away from among Gods people. But some Witches there be that cannot bee convicted of killing any: what shall become of them? Ans. As the killing Witch must die by another law, though he were no Witch; so the healing and harmelesse Witch must die by this Law, though he kill not, onely for covenant made with Sathan.

For this must alwaies be remembred as a conclusion, that by Witches we understand not those onely which kill and torment; but all Diviners, Charmers, Juglers, all Wizzards commonly called wise men and wise women; yea, whosoever doe any thing (knowing what they do) which cannot be effected by nature or art; and in the same number we reckon all good Witches, which do no hurt but good, which do not spoile and destroy, but save and deliver. All these come under this sentence of Moses, because they deny God, and are confederates with Sathan. By the lawes of England the theise is executed for stealing, and we thinke it just and profitable; but it were a thousand times better for the land, if all witches, but especially the blessing Witch might suffer death.

For the theife by his stealing, and the hurtfull Inchanter by charming, bring hinderance and hurt to the bodies and goods of men; but these are the right hand of the Devil, by which he taketh and destroyeth the soules of men. Men doe most commonly hate and spitte at the damnifying Sorcerer, as unworthy to live among them; whereas the other is so deare unto them, that they hold themselves and their country blessed, that have him among them; they flie unto him in necessitie, they depend upon him as their God, and by this meanes thousands are carried away to their finall confusion. Death therefore is the just and deserved portion of the good Witch.


The above text is found on page 652 of the 1618 Cambridge edition of the Collected Works of William Perkins.

“The Good Witch Must Also Die”

"A thousand deaths of right belong to the good Witch." ("The Good Witch Must Also Die", Part Two)

This post is Part Two of the series “A Good Witch Must Also Die”. Scroll down for links to other posts in this series as I get them out.

The following picks up immediately where the previous post left off. It is from Chapter Five of William Perkins’ Discourse of the Damned Art of Witchcraft.

Here observe, that both have a stroke in this action: the bad Witch hurt him, the good healed him; but the truth is, the latter hath done him a thousand times more harme then the former. For the one did only hurt the body, but the devil by meanes of the other, though he have left the body in good plight, yet he hath laid fast hold on the soule, and by curing the body, hath killed that. And the party thus cured, cannot say with David, The Lord is my helper; but the devil is my helper; for by him he is cured.

Of both these kindes of Witches the present Law of Moses must be understood. This point well considered, yieldeth matter both of instruction and practise. Of instruction, in that it shewes the cunning and crafty dealing of Satan, who afflicteth and tormenteth the body for the gaine of the foule. And for that purpose hath so ordered his instruments, that the bad Witch gives the occasion, by annoying the bodie or goods; and the good immediately accomplisheth his desire, by intangling the soule in the bands of errour, ignorance, and false faith. Againe, this sheweth the blindnesse of naturall corruption, specially in ignorant and superstitious people. It is their nature to abhorred hurtfull persons, such as bad Witches be, and to count them execrable; but those that doe them good, they honour and reverence as wise men and women, yea, seeke and sue unto them in times of extremitie, though of al persons in the world, they be most odious: and Satan in them seemes the greatest friend, when he is most like himselfe, and intendeth greatest mischiefe. Let all ignorant persons be advised here of in time, to take heed to themselves, and learne to knowe God and his word, that by light from thence they may better discerne of the subtill practises of Satan and his instruments.

For matter of practise; Hence we learne our dutie, to abhorre the Wizzard, as the most pernicious enemie of our salvation, the most effectuall instrument of destroying our soules, and of building up the devils kingdome: yea, as the greatest enemie to Gods name, worship, and glorie, that is in the world next to Sathan himselfe. Of this sort was Simon Magus, who by doing strange cures and workes, made the people of Samaria to take him for some great man, who wrought by the mighty power of God, whereas he did all by the devil. He therefore beeing a good Witch, did more hurt in seducing the people of God, then Balaam a bad one could with all his curses. And we must remember that the Lord hath set a lawe upon the Witches head, he must not live, and if death be due to any, then a thousand deaths of right belong to the good Witch.

The text above is found on page 638 of the 1618 Cambridge edition of the Collected Works of William Perkins. Here is a direct link to an image of the original of that page, and here is a direct link to the table of contents for the entire work. And here is a link to the full text of Perkins’ Discourse (scanned). Those three links go to pages that are part of the Cornell University Witchcraft Collection.

“The Good Witch Must Also Die”

"The Good Witch Must Also Die", by William Perkins (1558-1602)

William Perkins died in 1602 at the age of 44. He was an influential Calvinist theologian and a leader of the Puritan movement inside the Church of England. Perkins was a prolific writer, and his books sold extremely well not only in England, but throughout the Western world.

The text of the following sermon was included in several editions of Perkins’ Collected Works that appeared after his death. It is part of a longer (55 pages) piece that was published under the full title:

A DISCOURSE OF THE DAMNED ART OF WITCHCRAFT; SO FARRE forth as it is revealed in the Scriptures, and manifest by true experience. FRAMED AND DELIVERED BY M. WILLIAM PERKINS, IN HIS ORDINARIE COURSE of Preaching, and published by THOMAS PICKERING Batchelour of Divinitie, and Minister of Finchingfield in Essex. Printed by CANTRELL LEGGE, Printer to the Universitie of Cambridge. 1618.”

The earliest edition of this title (apparently) was in 1608, also published by Cantrell Legge of Cambridge. The year 1608 is often given as the date of the work itself, although this is six years after the death of the author. Here is a link to the full text at the Cornell University Witchcraft Collection.

Be warned. It is unspeakably evil.

The good Witch is he or shee that by consent in a league with the deuill, doth vse his helpe, for the doing of good onely. This cannot hurt, torment, curse, or kill, but onely heal and cure the hurts inflicted upon men or cattell, by badde Witches. For as they can doe no good, but onely hurt; so this can doe no hurt, but good onely. And this is that order which the deuill hath set in his kingdom, appointing to seuerall persons their seuerall offices and charges. And the good Witch is commonly tearmed the vnbinding Witch.

Now howsoeuer these both be euil, yet of the two, the more horrible & detestable Monster is the good Witch, for look in what place soeuer ther be any bad Witches that hurt onely, there also the deuill hath his good ones, who are better known than the bad, beeing commonly called Wisemen, or Wise-women. These will appear by experience in most places in these countries. For let a mans childe, friend, or cattell be taken with some sore sickness, or strangely tormented with some rare and vnknown disease, the first thing he doth, is to bethink himselfe and inquire after some Wiseman or Wise-woman, & thither he sends and goes for helpe. When he comes, he first tells him the state of the sicke man; the Witch then beeing certified of the disease, prescribeth either Charmes of words to be vsed ouer him, or other such counterfeit meanes, wherein there is no cure, if it come by Witchcraft. Well, the meanes are receiued, applied, and vsed, the sicke partie accordingly recouereth, and the conclusion of all is, the vsual acclamation; Oh happie is the day, that euer I met with such a man or woman to helpe me!

[Taken from Chapter Five, on page 638 of the 1618 Cambridge edition of the Collected Works of William Perkins.]

“The Good Witch Must Also Die”

“In the name of the Father, the Son, King Arthur, and Queen Elspeth.”

The first Witchcraft trial in Scotland for which the “dittay” (indictment) has been preserved largely intact, is that of Janet Boyman in 1572. (Variations on her name are Janet Bowman and Jonet Boyman.) The documentary evidence leaves no room for doubt that this accused Witch was someone sought after for her abilities as a healer.

“Jonet Boyman of Canongate, Edinburgh, accused in 1572 of witchcraft and diabolic incantation, the first Scottish trial for which a detailed indictment has so far been found. Indeed, it is one of the richest accounts hitherto uncovered for both fairy belief and charming, suggesting an intriguing tradition which associated, in some way, the fairies with the legendary King Arthur. At an ‘elrich well’ on the south side of Arthur’s Seat, Jonet uttered incantations and invocations of the ‘evill spreits quhome she callit upon for to come to show and declair’ what would happen to a sick man named Allan Anderson, her patient. She allegedly first conjured ‘ane grit blast’ like a whirlwind, and thereafter appeared the shape of a man who stood on the other side of the well, and interesting hint of liminality. She charged this conjured presence, in the name of the father, the son, King Arthur and Queen Elspeth, to cure Anderson. She then received elaborate instructions about washing the ill man’s shirt, which were communicated to Allan’s wife. That night the patient’s house shook in the midst of a huge, and incomprehensible ruckus involving winds, horses and hammering, apparently because the man’s wife did not follow the instructions to the letter. On the following night the house was plagued by a mighty din again, caused, this time, by a great company of women.”

[Scottish Fairy Belief by Lizanne Henderson and Edward J. Cowan (2001) 127-128.]

For more on Jonet Boymen, also see P.G. Maxwell-Stuart’s Satan’s Conspiracy: Magic and Witchcraft in 16th Century Scotland (2001), pp. 62-66.

Margaret Murray’s Thesis "Contained A Kernel Of Truth" (Carlo Ginzburg)

Here is the first of several follow-ups to my previous post: Margaret Murray has been completely rejected by everyone … except for everyone who has not completely rejected Margaret Murray. Most of this post consists of two excerpts from Carlo Ginzburg’s groundbreaking studies The Night Battles (1966) and Ecstasies (1989). Following those two excerpts there is a very brief note concerning Ginzburg’s accusation that Margaret Murray “cut” and “manipulated” the data to fit her theory.

Here is an excerpt from Carlo Ginzburg’s The Night Battles: Witchcraft & Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth & Seventeenth Centuries, first published in Italian in 1966:

According to Murray, the conventicles described by the accused were real, and witchcraft was a very ancient religion, a pre-Christian fertility cult, in which the judges, more or deliberately, chose to see only a diabolical perversion. Although this thesis contained a kernel of truth, it was formulated in a wholly uncritical way; moreover, the reconstruction of the general characteristics of this supposed fertility cult was based on very late trials in which the assimilation of the inquisitorial schema (sabbat, nuptials with the devil, etc) was by now complete. And yet, despite these serious defects, Murray’s ‘thesis’, which was rejected by anthropologists and folkorists when it first appeared, ended by prevailing. what had been lacking then, and the need persists today if I’m not mistaken, was an all-encompassing explanation of popular witchcraft: and the thesis of the English scholar, purified of its most daring affirmations, seemed plausible where it discerned in the orgies of the sabbat the deformation of an ancient fertility rite. In this mitigated form it was reformulated by W.E. Peukert, among others.

And yet it is not so easy to demonstrate that popular witchcraft (as distinct from generic supsertitions, such as love potions, spells, etc., which are not traceable to a precise cult) actually went back to an ancient agricultural fertility cult. One primary objection has already been raised about Murray’s work: we cannot rely uncritically on the confessions of the witches without attempting to distinguish in them between what is of inquisitorial provenance and what is of genuinely popular origin. But this is not a fatal objection . . . .

[Then Ginzburg spends a few sentences discussing the work of J. Marx, L. Weiser-Aall and A. Meyer, before moving on to his main point.]

The present research now establishes, in an area such as the Friuli, where Germanic and Slavic traditions came together, the positive existence at a relatively late date (from c. 1570) of a fertility cult whose participants, the benandanti, represented themselves as defenders of harvests and the fertility of fields. On the one hand, this belief is tied to a larger complex of traditions (connected, in turn, with the myth of nocturnal gatherings over which female deities named Perchta, Holda, Diana presided) in an area that extends from Alsace to Hesse and from Bavaria to Switzerland. On the other hand, it is found in an almost identical form in the land which once comprised Livonia (present day Latvia and Estonia). Given this geographic spread it may not be too daring to suggest that in antiquity these beliefs must once have covered much of central Europe. In the span of a century, as we shall see, the benandanti were transformed into witches and their nocturnal gatherings, intended to induce fertility, became the devil’s sabbat, with the resulting storms and destruction. We can thus state for a fact that for the Friuli diabolical witchcraft grew out of the deformation of a preceding agrarian cult. Of course it is impossible to extend this conclusion by simple analogy to other parts of Europe; nevertheless, though limited and circumscribed, it may serve as a working hypothesis for future research. At any rate the existence of this complex of beliefs over a large, key area implies, in my opinion, a new approach to the problem of the popular origins of witchcraft.
[pp. xix-xxi, in the 2009 JHU Press edition]

And here is an excerpt from Ginzburg’s Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath, first published in Italian in 1989:

In her book The Witch-Cult in Western Europe [Margaret] Murray, an Egyptologist with a keen interest in anthropology in the wake of Frazer, maintained: (1) that the descriptions of the Sabbath contained in witch trials were neither nonsense extorted by the judges, nor accounts of inner experiences of a more or less hallucinatory character, but rather, exact descriptions of rituals that had actually taken place; (2) that these rituals, deformed by the judges’ diabolizing interpretation, were in reality connected with a pre-Christian fertility cult, which possibly dated back to pre-history and which has survived in Europe until the modern age . . . .

In my preface to The Night Battles [see Excerpt 1 above] I made a statement to which I still fully subscribe, even though it has earned me ex-officio enrollment in the phantom (but discredited) sect of ‘Murrayists’: viz., that Murray’s thesis, although ‘formulated in a totally uncritical manner’, contained ‘a core of truth’. Clearly this core is not to be sought in the first of the two points which, as we have seen, the thesis comprises. It is symptomatic that, in seeking to validate the reality of the events mentioned in descriptions of the witches’ Sabbath, Murray was obliged to neglect the most embarrassing elements — night flying, animal metamorphosis — having recourse to cuts which amounted to veritable textual manipulation. Of course we cannot altogether exclude the possibility that in some instances mean and women devoted to magical practices assembled to celebrate rituals that included, e.g., sexual orgies; but virtually none of the descriptions of the Sabbath furnishes any proof of such events. This does not mean that they are lacking in documentary value: they simply document myths and not rituals.

Once again we must ask ourselves: whose beliefs and rituals? As mentioned before, a long tradition, harking back to the Enlightenment polemics against witchcraft trials and still very much alive, has seen in the witches’ confessions the projection of the judges’ superstitions and obsessions, extorted from the accused by means of torture and psychological pressure. The ‘religion of Diana’ — the pre-Christian fertility cult that Murray identified, without probing it more more deeply, in descriptions of the Sabbath — suggests a different and more complex interpretation.

The ‘core of truth’ in Murray’s thesis is to be found here. More generally it consists in the decision, contrary to all rationalistic reduction, to accept the witches’ confession — as much more illustrious (but, paradoxically, neglected) predecessors had done, beginning with Jakob Grimm.
[pp. 8-9, in the 2004 University of Chicago Press edition]

In the second of the above excerpts, Ginzburg puts forward the following very serious accusation against Murray: in order to make the evidence fit her theory, she “cut” and “manipulated” the available data. Ginzburg here relies on what he deems to be “the exhaustive demonstration of Cohn” (which Ginzburg gives as being found on pp. 111-115 of Norman Cohn’s Europe’s Inner Demons, although in the 2000 University of Chicago edition the numbering is pp. 155-160). But however “exhaustive” Cohn’s “demonstration” may have been, Ginzburg’s reliance on it is uncritical (precisely the deadly scholarly sin that Murray is supposedly guilty of with respect to confessions from the Witchcraft trials). Worse still is the fact that Ginzburg has been joined by a small army of other scholars who have all blindly accepted Cohn’s “demonstration” without bothering to compare what Cohn says Murray said with what Murray actually said. I will have more to say about this in a follow-up post, but for now I refer the interested reader to Jani Farrell-Roberts’ Margaret Murray and the Distinguished Professor Hutton.

>Margaret Murray has been completely rejected by everyone … except for everyone who has not completely rejected Margaret Murray.

>”Mary Douglas, writing in 1992, still accepted Margaret Murray’s thesis that the people accused of witchcraft in early modern Europe were practitioners of a surviving pagan religion, which had been completely discredited in the 1970s.” [Ronald Hutton, 2004]

Strange, isn’t it, that Mary Douglas (“the most widely read British social anthropologist of her generation,” according to her obituary in the May 18, 2007 Guardian) was unaware of the “complete” discrediting of Margaret Murray?

First of all, Hutton has the year wrong (by nearly a decade). Here is the proper citation for the article in which Mary Douglas “still accepted Margaret Murray’s thesis”:

Sorcery Accusations Unleashed, by Mary Douglas, Africa 69 (1999), pp. 177-193.

And here is what Douglas says that Ronald Hutton finds so unacceptable:

The Egyptologist and medieval historian Margaret Murray argued in 1921 that witchcraft in Europe should be interpreted as access to supernatural powers claimed by the suppressed pagan religions, and therefore by the Christian Church claimed to be heresy. So the Christians who were charged with witchcraft by ecclesiastical authorities were actually charged with trying to draw on these discredited resources, consulting or behaving as old-time healers, laying on unconsecrated hands, claiming to be visionaries, fortune tellers and exorcists whose lore–Egyptian, zodiacal, or whatever–derived from pre-Christian religions. It was likely, on this argument, that Joan of Arc and Gilles de Raie were rightly accused of witchcraft in that sense. Kaegi (1966) described a close parallel in fifth-century Byzantium.

Other historians remind us that Christianity has always been rough on rival religions. A modern version of Margaret Murray’s thesis is offered by Ginzburg (1983) to account for the burning of witches in sixteenth-century Italy. The Catholic Church, highly centralised and thus more distanced from the lowly concerns of its flock, felt threatened by the practitioners of the old religions, who were offering the faithful more immediate help and healing. So the Inquisition prosecuted the religious irregulars for witchcraft and heresy. Had the young Lele priests who were suspended by their superiors wanted to defend their actions historically, they could have found plenty of precedents. But as Catholics they suffered from lack of an accepted demonology. In modern Zaire the Catholic Church is no doubt suffering from religious pluralism. Catholic missionaries are disadvantaged in competition with Protestant Churches and the neo-apostolic movement, Christian denominations which have clearly defined their doctrines concerning demons in a way that accommodates local sorcery beliefs (Ngokwey, personal communication).

It is obvious from the above that Mary Douglas was referring not to the kind of extreme caricatures of Margaret Murray’s ideas that haunt the imaginations of the Ronald Huttons and Jacqueline Simpsons of this world, but rather to a much more modest thesis that does not necessarily claim anything more radical than this: the beliefs and practices of those persecuted during the Witch-Hunts of the fifteenth through eighteenth centuries were “derived from pre-Christian religions.”

But even that is already too much for Hutton, far too much, and he will have none of it. For he has made it clear that his position is that Margaret Murray must be dishonorably drummed out Academia altogether. It is not enough to criticize aspects of her scholarship, the scholar herself must be personally mocked and vilified. And Mary Douglas makes things worse, much worse, by saying that it isn’t so much Murray’s thesis that she actually has in mind as Carlo Ginzburg’s writings, which Douglas sees as a “modern version of Margaret Murray’s thesis.” But … but why would one of the world’s most celebrated living historians have put forward a “modern version” of a thesis that had already been “completely discredited”?

Hmmmm. It makes one wonder if anyone else didn’t get the memo? “As it turns out” (which, as it turns out, is what Apple Store employees are trained to say instead of “unfortunately” when “it turns out” that your warranty expired before your PowerBook’s logic board did) the list of scholars in whose eyes Margaret Murray’s ideas are not completely discredited is rather long, and includes, in addition to Mary Douglas and Carlo Ginzburg: Christina Larner, Ruth Martin, Dorothy Watts, Alan Macfarlane, P.G. Maxwell-Stuart, Anne Barstow, George Luck, Emma Wilby, Richard Horsley, Eva Pocs, Lizzie Henderson, and Keith Thomas, just to name a dozen off the top of my head.

But before going any further, let’s get clear on what is actually meant by “Margaret Murray’s thesis”. As it turns out, this phrase can mean one of the two following things:

(1) The “Incomplete Christianization of Europe Thesis” (ICET) claims that the Witch-Hunts were launched as a kind of theologico-military mopping-up operation to eliminate surviving Pagan beliefs and practices still left over from the pre-Christian religions of Europe.

(2) The “Maximal Witch Cult Thesis” (MWCT) claims that an organized religion, constituting a homogenous cult throughout Europe, had survived intact and virtually unchanged since the Stone-Age, and that this was the Pagan religion of the Witches who were persecuted during the Burning Times.

While it is true that Murray herself claimed something more than the ICET, it is also true that she did not claim as much as the MWCT. But it is the MWCT that Hutton, Simpson, and their ilk, consistently attribute to Murray, while dishonestly treating all instances of support for any portion of the ICET as amounting to blind acceptance of the full-blown MWCT.

In follow-up posts I will provide specific citations, along with excerpts and commentary, for each of the twelve scholars mentioned above whose work lends at least partial support to the “Incomplete Christianization of Europe Thesis.”

Follow-up posts:
Margaret Murray’s Thesis “Contained A Kernel Of Truth” (Carlo Ginzburg)

Christina Larner on the Meaning of "Witchcraft"

The two excerpts below are both from Christina Larner’s Enemies of God: The Witch-Hunt in Scotland. For more on Larner see this other recent post: Witchcraft: Black and White in Color. Both excerpts emphasize the historical reality of Witches being associated with beneficial magic, including healing, divination, and love magic.


White witchcraft is concerned with the healing arts, with prophecy, with finding lost objects, with the supply of love potions, and with performance and rituals designed to counter black witchcraft. White witchcraft always involves manipulative sorcery [that is, the use of incantations and/or ritual objects]. Black witchcraft or malefice may or may not involve sorcery, but some indication, whether articulate and precise cursing, gnomic utterance, or scarcely audible mumbling, is usually necessary to establish that the mobilization of powerful ill will has been attempted. [p. 9]

Most societies make this distinction. European Civil Law decreed that white witchcraft, though culpable, was not punishable by death, whereas black witchcraft was [Larner here cites Book IX, Title 18 of the Codex Justinianus, which explicitly exempts from punishment those who use “incantations” either to cure illnesses or to protect crops from hail or flood while condemning to death (often specifying particular means of torture and execution) all enchanters, magicians, Pagan priests, astrologers, soothsayers, etc.]The distinction was eroded by Canon Law and the commentators specializing in demonology in that all supernatural power not emanating from the Church was deemed to be demonic. Those claiming to heal outside the context of the Church must have got their powers from the Devil. The abolition of the distinction did find an echo in peasant experience in that the healer as a person of power was potentially threatening. Power was neutral but could be used to harm as well as to heal, and it became a common feature of European witch-trials that the accused was said to have both laid on and taken off disease. The most extreme position with regard to the conflation of black and white magic may well have been that taken in the Scottish Witchcraft Act of 1563 in which the consulters of witches were said to be worthy of death in same manner as the practitioners. Any acknowledgment of an unofficial source of power was to be supressed. The attitude of a polity towards white witchcraft is an indication of the level of anxiety about non-conformity. England continued to tolerate cunning men and women (who were quite distinct from black witches) throughout the period of the prosecution. Major witch-hunts in Scotland and on the continent on the other hand tended to engulf the healer along with the curser.


Amidst the diversity of beliefs about healing, the factor which stands out most clearly is the figure of the healer herself. It was she who had the power, and this power was strengthened, as it is in modern medicine, by secrecy, impressive procedures, mystery, and arduous performances by the patient. The sufferer was not expected to understand exactly how he was being healed or the purpose of the consultation and the relationship between him and the healer would disssolve. The same held true when the healer was brought in for veterinary purposes. When Robert Hutton’s mother-in-law sent for Bessie Paine to cure a sick cow ‘the said Bessie Paine … caue the Cow to be put throw ane hanck of green yairne speaking some words which the personnes present did not understand and yreftir the Cow was cured.’ Agnes Johnstoun’s accusation against Bessie Graham in 1650 included her response to a request to heal her child. Bessie ‘Tuik the bellt and wettit it’ (a common form of divination) ‘muttering some speiches with greit gauting eftir which she told the said Agnes that the chyld was seik and wald not leive and it provit so and the chyld died presentlie’. [p. 142]

In fact the charm, the failed charm, the favourable prophecy, the unfavourable prophecy, and the curse are close closely connected, and essentially fall from the lips of the same person, the person of power. In seventeenth-century Scotland blessing adn cursing, black and white magic, went hand in hand, and this assumptino was shared by peasant and lawyer alike — and by victim and practitioner. Popular belief and practic reinforced Canon Law rather than Civil Law.

Accusations of healing, such as that cited, were listed alongside accusations of malefice, and Bessie Paine was not only said to have cured. It was alleged that she came to a house in which she had formerly lived (from which we may assume she had been evicted) after the new tenant had moved in, ‘and sitting down upon her knees upon the hearth staene she said “all the witchcraft which I have I leave it here”‘. The new tenant, Robert Sturgeon, as a result of this curse upon his house, was reckoned to have lost within a year and a quarter above thirty cattle dead, ‘and nothing he took in hand did prosper during his possession of that rowme (place).’


"Maleficia Ad Sanandum": Healing By Means of Witchcraft

1. “the Church believed that all magic, including beneficent magic, was the work of the Devil.”

The following is from Brian P. Levack‘s (John E. Green Regents Professor in History, University of Texas, Austin) Introduction to Witchcraft, Healing, and Popular Diseases, which is Volume 5 of the series New Perspectives on Witchcraft, Magic, and Demonology, published in 2001 by Routledge.

One of the traditional functions performed by magicians in all societies, especially those without an organized medical profession, has been healing. The use of magic to treat a variety of ailments has been traditionally one of the most common forms of magic. Healers, often known in early modern Europe as wise women or wise men, did not rely exclusively on magic for the performance of their art. They often employed natural remedies, such as herbs, to nurse a person back to health. In this regard they can be considered as practitioners of folk medicine ….

Healing is by definition a beneficient activity, and when its practice involves magic it could be classified as beneficent or “white” magic. Certainly the neighbors and clients of these healers valued their services and considered them beneficial to the community. Healers who also served as midwives, as many of them did during the early modern period, were also regarded as indispensable guardians of the health of the community ….

Clerical authorities agreed to prosecute healers for witchcraft because the Church believed that all magic, including beneficent magic, was the work of the Devil. Clerics also claimed that those who could cure by magical means could use the same demonic power to cause harm. Mary O’Neil writes about the prosecution of healers and practitioners of love magic by the Roman Inquisition in Modena in the late sixteenth century.

2. “accusations of maleficium were invariably against healers.”

Now lets take a look at what Mary O’Neil (Associate Professor, Italian Renaissance and Reformation, University of Washington) has to say in Magical Healing, Love Magic and the Inquisition in Late Sixteenth-century Modena (to which Brian Levack refers above):

Despite the arguments of Renaissance intellectuals for a ‘reformed and learned natural magic’, mainstream theologians since the Church Fathers had maintained that magical effects were achieved only with the aid of the devil, and were necessarily implicitly diabolical. It was because of this orthodox assumption that magical powers derive only from a pact with the devil (whether implicit or explicit), which in turn implied apostasy from the true faith, that the Inquisition had acquired jurisdiction over cases categorized as superstitious.

In the climate of post-Tridentine reform, the local officies of the Roman Inquisition prosecuted such cases with increased frequency. After an intensive period of heresy trials against Protestants from the 1540s to the 1570s, magical and superstitious offenses came to constitute the major focus of late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century Inquisitorial activity ….

The verbatim trial records reveal a world in which magical remedies were used to deal with the routine hazards of life, especially illness and disease. The major categories of superstitious error prosecuted by the Inquisition were magical healing, love magic and divination, with the largest number of cases directed against healers. Divination techniques were used in a variety of situations, most frequently to find lost and stolen objects including buried treasure, and to identify thieves ….
[pp. 173-174]

Concerning healers, according to O’Neil, “Depositions by witnesses indicate that relationships between healers and their clients could be tense, marked by fear and apprehension.” More specifically: “Many healers were denounced to the Inquisition by their former clients, especially after an unsuccessful cure.” As an illustraion, O’Neil tells the story (from 1599) of Diamante de Bisa, who had been called to treat a sick two-year old girl. Two hours after Diamente bathed the child first in water and then in ashes, the girl died.

Diamante was thus denounced to the Inquisition for ‘having destroyed [guasta] and killed a child’ through witchcraft. Failed cures often resulted in such charges even against healers with solid reputations and loyal clients. In Modena, accusations of maleficium were invariably against healers and bear a certain resemblance to malpractice suits.

But the response of the court to these charges is an instructive one, for the Dominican Inquisitor, Giovanni di Montefalcono, resisted the perception of Diamante as a stregawhich was put forward by the bereaved family.

[pp. 179-180]

So here we have a case of a professional healer accused of Witchcraft by her neighbors. But that “perception” of the accused is “resisted” by the Inquisitor. According to O’Neil, this case typifies the Roman (and also Spanish) Inquisition for “the moderation of its approach to magical crimes.” [p. 174]

In the specific case of Diamante, the popular perception of her as a Strega (Witch) was rejected by the Inquisition as inappropriate in her case. Instead, she was found guilty of the lesser charge of “superstition”. This came after Diamante’s own testimony in which she recounted “numerous successful cures.”

The court resisted her accusers charge of witchcraft, but Diamante’s testimony about her healing methods placed her firmly in the category of ‘superstitious healer’. She was asked to explain the methods she uses …. Her lengthy replies describe cures which used ointments and herbs along with the sign of the cross …. She was guilty in the eyes of the court, but of performing ‘superstitious medications,’ not of maleficium. The vocabulary of witchcraft (striga, malefica, guastare) is introduced in this trial only by witnesses and is passed over by the court, which uses instead the vocabulary of ‘superstition’. Diamante received a standard penance of standing in front of the parish church during Sunday mass, fasting on bread and water on vigils at the Virgin’s feastdays and reciting weekly rosaries for a year.
[p. 181]

At least in Modena there is clear evidence that according to popular beliefs, the ability to heal by itself was considered evidence of Witchcraft. Even in cases that fit the “malpractice” paradigm, many witnesses would present testimony that focused on successful healings performed by the accused. One person who took the stand in 1579 against Maria Mariani, from Villa di Fre, gave just such testimony and justified doing so by stating that “it is commonly said that those who know how to heal also know how to do harm.”

This perception that the power to heal, especially the power to heal the bewitched (maleficati, affaturati or guastati), implied the opposite power to harm was a standard facet of of learned and popular witch beliefs alike. The theological category of maleficia ad sanandum (healing by means of witchcraft) succinctly expresses the same ambivalence, which was, moreover, theoretically required by the implicitly diabolical nature of any magical cure.
[p. 181]

3. Maleficia ad amorem

Another major category of accusations brought before the Inquisition in Modena pertained to love magic. It is well worth quoting O’Neil at length on the subject of Incanti Ad Amorem:

The most extreme penalties handed out by the Modenese Inquisition are to be found not in trials against healers accused of malefium, but in the functionally distinct sphere of love magic. Notwithstanding the difference between causing harm and inducing affection, historians have tended to include these cases in studies of witch trials. This practice has been questioned by one recent scholar; calling for closer attention to the specific acts attributed to and the social roles occupied by persons accused of witchcraft, Richard Horsley [Who Were the Witches?, 1979, scroll down for full citation] has argued that since love magic had a ‘good end’ it should not be dealth with as equivalent to the harm done by maleficium.
Yet the theologians did exactly that. No distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ magic existed in the eyes of the church, for its concern focused on the means employed, not on the moral status of the end pursued in any magical act. Officially classified as maleficia ad amorem, techniques designed to induce passion in another person were particularly objectionable to theological opinion. For in addition to their implicitly (when not explicitly) diabolical source, the express goal of love charms were coercion to sin through the subversion of free will. Interrogations in these trials centered on the question of whether the defendant believed that the devil could force man’s will into sin. Counter Reformation theology was particularly sensitive to attacks on free will associated with predestinarian Protestantism, and was determined to maintain the sinner’s responsibility for his own sins.

Paradoxically, this confessional polemic undermined assumptions of the diabolical efficacy of love magic. The abjurations written for Moranda da Fanano, denounced for incantations and furfanterie in 1600, illustrates this point:

“I swear that I believe with my heart and confess with my mouth that the demon cannot force the will and free choice [volunta e libero arbitrio] of man to do evil, and consequently I abjure and detest that heresy which says and upholds the opposite, of which I have been judged lightly suspect for the superstitions and diabolical experiments performed and taught by me to give passion to others.”

In effect, Moranda’s trial for the superstitious use of love charms turned into a trial for the heretical denial of free will implicit in her actions. Inquisitors in the field, starved for the hard theological issues in which they had been schooled, thus exercised their abilities by detecting the finer heretical implications of what were essentially predoctrinal popular errors. The persons tried on charges of love magic were guilty of various things, from heretical opinions on the freedom of the will to ‘apostasy from Christ to the devil’ for believing that their implicitly diabolical spells would work, but they were not, in the theologians’ eyes, able to do what they attempted and wanted to do. By asserting the impossibility that such incantations could cause a person to sin against his will, even with the aid of the devil, the church effectively assumed a skeptical attitude about the reality and efficacy of love magic.

Popular belief did not reach this sophisticated theological level. While sceptics do turn up in the trial records, they were often disappointed users of love charms whose disillusionment with the results of their experiments followed an initial credulity. Many of the ‘spontaneous denunciations sent from confession’ were made by people who had requested that some love charm be performed on their behalf; they were required to denounce themselves as well as the person who had assisted them. Providers of these services often claimed economic motiation and denied that they in fact believed in what they were doing, but since the Inquisition was concerned above all with the issue of belief, their testimony was clearly self-serving and may not reflect their real attitudes.

Depositions by and about victims of love magic represent the clearest evidence of a general assumption that such procedures were efficacious. The socially inappropriate love affairs in which these people were involved were routinely perceived as the consequences of maleficia ad amorem. From the point of view of the relatives and friends of the socially superior individual, for whom such a misalliance defiend fundamental principles of social hierarchy, this hypothesis served a crucial explanatory function. For those of lower status, love charms conversely held out hopes of a sudden (indeed magical) transformation of their circumstances. Most of the people accused of using such charms in sixteenth century Modena were women; upper-crust names figure prominently in the lists of men magically pursued by their amorously ambitious inferiors.
[pp. 182-183]

It should be pointed out that O’Neil later rejects Richard Horsely’s claim that accusations associated with love magic should be treated separately from other witchcraft accusations. Here is her reasoning:

The idea that one can distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ types of magic, like the proposal to classify love charms as ‘good magic’ of an essentially different order from harmful maleficia, is not supported by sixteenth-century perceptions, whether popular or learned. The difficulty in making such a distinction lies in the fundamental moral ambiguity of all magical operations.
[p. 188]

It must be emphasized that from the Christian perspective (at least that of the sixteenth-century), it is not really accurate to say that all magic is morally “ambiguous”, for the fact is that all magic, or at least any magic that actually worked, was seen, by definition, as automatically diabolical. Therefore anyone capable of, for lack of a better phrase, “real magic”, must have (at the very least) an implicit pact with Satan even if no formal pact had been explicitly entered into. (This view even has a modern parallel, for among some contemporary Pagans there is the saying, attributed to Victor Anderson, that “White Magic is poetry, Black Magic is anything that actually works.”)

One further passage from the section on love magic is also quite interesting:

The people who used love magic were determined to achieve their goals by any means available. If many drew on the power of orthodox ceremonies or called on the assistance of the saints, some went further. Moranda da Fanano was required to ‘abjure, detest and curse’ her hertical use of an oratione ad una stella, and to confirm that ‘it is not licit for faithful Christians to offer prayers to the stars in the manner of pagans.’
[p. 188]

4. Conclusion: Witches, Sorceresses, and Maleficae, Oh My!

In her own Conclusions, Mary O’Neil quotes from the official document Instructio pro formandis processibus in causis strigum, sortilegiorum et maleficiorum (Instructions for trying cases against streghe, sorceresses, and evil-doers), which had been drawn up by the Holy Office in Rome and circulated starting in the 1620s:

when a woman is convicted of or confesses to having performed incantations or maleficia in order to heal or for any other purpose, it does not however necessarily follow that she is a formal strix, since the sortilegio can be performed without formal apostasy to the Demon.

According to Henry Charles Lea (1825-1909) in his Materials Toward a History of Witchcraft, which contains (in Part III, “The Delusion At Its Height”) lengthy extracts from the Instructio along with excerpts from a 1636 commentary by Caesar Carena, the section of the Instructio quoted above continues on like this:

although it is not without suspicion, either light or vehement, according to the character of the sorceries. Therefore when a good judge prosecutes a woman, either confessed of convicted of such sorceries, he must not be ready to believe that she is a formal apostate to the demon, though she may be; but when it comes to torture her he should question her as to whether she has had to do with the demon, in accordance with what is said below about torture. Judges must pay special attention to this, for many are thus deceived, thinking that this kind of sorcery necessarily involves formal apostasy to the demon, when arise the greatest wrongs to women accused of it, for inexperienced or careless judges, misled into this presupposition by reading books on sorcery and witches, leave no way, however undue, untried to extort confessions from women who are induced, by evil and unlawful methods, to confess what they had never thought of.
[p. 958 in the 2004 Kessinger edition]

The Instructio serves to emphasize just how unclear the definition of “Witch” was at the time. Looking over the court records from Modena makes it clear that this lack of clarity holds whether we are talking about the theological definition of “Witch”, or its legal definition, or its popular usage. But one thing that is absolutely clear is that whether we look to the Church, the Law, or “the people”, we find incontrovertible evidence to support what all Pagans, Witches, and genuine historians already know: “Witches heal”.