The Postmodern Interpretation of Witchcraft

Today, the great wave of postmodernist and poststructuralist academic writing, with its epistemological relativism and obfuscating rhetoric, has largely subsided.  It may never disappear, as few things do, and it may have become so thoroughly embedded in certain disciplines as to color them for the foreseeable future.  However, the vogue for “discourses” and “hermeneutics” has largely passed its prime, and disciplines which once felt themselves to be engaged in a life-or-death struggle with the new wave of academics (anthropology, history, e.g.) now seem to be regaining their footing and reclaiming a scientific basis. 

History cannot be written if we do not believe that any one narrative of the past is more “true” than another, or that it is possible, despite the inevitable prejudice and short-sightedness of the human mind, to gain a rough understanding of what actually occurred in history and why.  Of course, this is not an argument against the postmodernists.  Whether or not historians can justify their salaries has no bearing on the truth or falsehood of the postmodernist’s claims.  What it does mean, however, is that there can be no such thing as a truly postmodernist history, for such a history would have no reason to claim its narrative of events was worth reading over any other, or more “true” than any other book on the subject.  And the only reason academic presses churn out books year after year is in the hope, after all, that they contribute to the general store of knowledge in society. 

Despite their apparent contradictions, however, postmodern histories have been written.  This article deals with one such attempt, The Witch in History (1996) by Diane Purkiss.  The work is a perfect representative sample of postmodern history because it (a) is not written by a historian, and (b) does not make use of historical evidence to prove its point (beyond three briefly dissected reports of early modern witch-trials).  Purkiss dismisses the vast body of literature on English witchcraft which preceded her with facile psychological analyses of eminent historians such as Keith Thomas, Alan Macfarlane, and Norman Cohn, whom she accuses of being enthralled to Enlightenment scruples and possibly misogynistic in their treatment of witchcraft.  Keith Thomas’ 800-plus-page masterpiece, Religion and the Decline of Magic, covers the entire early modern period of English history and contains innumerable references to the entire corpus of witch trial records that are available to us.  Purkiss dismisses it not on the grounds of historical fact or interpretation (her three trials are not offered in refutation of Thomas, apart from a snide parenthetical remark which mentions him by name [1]) but rather on the grounds of Thomas’ alleged Enlightenment bias, which is defined as necessarily male and elitist by Purkiss. 

Implied and sometimes explicitly stated throughout the book is the notion that witchcraft might have truly existed, that we cannot discount the role of the supernatural in history, and that the early modern view of magic is no less “true,” necessarily, than our own, for nothing, after all, can be established objectively, if one ascribes to Purkiss’ philosophy.

To refute the limited historical arguments of Purkiss’ work is not hard to do, and Thomas’ magisterial work stands as its own defense.  Besides, Purkiss’ book was written more than a decade ago now and often reads like a period piece of sorts—a mixing of all the fads of the academic culture of the ‘90s which seemed shocking and groundbreaking at the time but now seem thoroughly vapid.  Why, then, should we return to it now?  What use is there is refuting a book that has already been discredited and a fad that has already long since fizzled out?

My answer is essentially that the book’s subject matter, witchcraft, remains a matter of life and death in many parts of the world, and that the old battles of the skeptics and the witch-hunters must be revisited and replayed as long as there are any intellectuals who defend the possibility that witchcraft might really exist.  The mere fact that in the recent past the Academy was host to theories such as those of Purkiss is cause for concern. 

Of course, Purkiss is not a defender of the witch-hunters, simply of their epistemological worldview.  Witchcraft may have existed, village women in the early modern period may have exhibited supernatural powers, she claims, but they should not have been killed for it.  However, it is not much of a stretch to say that to argue that witchcraft and magic exist is to empower those who persecute people in the name of stamping them out. 

Today, a belief in witches persists in many parts of the world, including the United States.  Recent Delaware Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell even felt the need to go on television to insist that she was not a witch, although she dabbled in Wicca as a teenager.  Even in the twenty-first century, it would seem, we Americans need this type of assurance (although I suppose with Michelle Bachmann and Sarah Palin in one place, the Tea Party is starting to look like a “Witch’s Sabbath” in its own right).

Less comically, witchcraft accusations are often the basis of collective violence in Sub-Saharan Africa and Saudi Arabia (where the state still officially recognizes witchcraft as a crime).  The tragic persecution of Albinos in Tanzania and elsewhere, particularly children, is generally tied to witch beliefs.  The body parts of murdered Albinos are often used by witchdoctors for their supposed “magical” properties, as documented by Amnesty International [2], which has led to an underground trade in such gruesome artifacts and the kidnapping and murder of innumerable people.  While the government of Tanzania has cracked down on such violence (often with methods nearly as brutal as that of the criminals [3]), other African nations, such as the Gambia, have wedded the coercive apparatus of the modern state to ancient witch beliefs with deadly results.  In 2009, Amnesty International documented the kidnapping and forced drugging of over 1000 people, most of them elderly women, in a literal government witch-hunt [4].

It is hardly an exaggeration to say that any avowal that witchcraft might exist, whatever its intentions, provides legitimation for this sort of injustice.  The “discourse” that states that Albino body parts make for good magical amulets is not a perfectly acceptable alternative to the “discourse” of scientific Enlightenment, with its naturalistic world-view and emphasis on human rights.  The one is not only deadly but demonstrably false; the other is the only force which allows us to successfully defend the victims of social paranoia and collective delusion.

This is the most important reason for arguing against Purkiss, even at this late date.  The other is that Purkiss’ book, whatever its relative insignificance as a single volume, can be used as a stand-in for a wide-variety of new forces which in the last thirty years or so have challenged history as a discipline and made the task of discovering objective truth in the past much more difficult.  The phenomenon has been dealt with at length elsewhere by a variety of historians: see Richard Evans’ In Defense of History and Eric Hobsbawm’s lecture on “The New Threat to History” [5] for some of the best accounts of the problem. 

We can, however, offer the broad outlines of what took place.  Following the postmodern left’s demolition of the notion of objective truth in the past, various nationalist, chauvinist and identity-group histories have appeared, all benefitting from the general relaxation of empirical standards in history.  History may never be an exact science, but in the past, it was taken for granted that it would be conducted within a certain methodological framework.  After this framework was ridiculed by the postmodernists, it was only a matter of time before Hindu nationalists in India would start removing all mention of the caste system and the cultural achievements of the Mughal rulers from school textbooks, identity groups would begin falsifying the record of history to suit the interests of group members, and so on.  Today, the American Right has caught on in a big way to the advantages of making up history as one pleases: it can be seen offering a steady stream of historical obfuscation and misinformation, all of it in popular texts like Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism which reach a much wider audience than any scholarly histories ever could. 

The new rules of history, with their tendency to dismiss one’s opponents without debate and denigrate one’s colleagues on the basis of spurious personal or political accusations, certainly originated on the Left.  But they have now, predictably, been picked up by the Right as the perfect excuse for self-congratulatory escapism.  They offer a way of cleansing the record of whatever nation, religion, or culture group they seek to apologize for. 

Because Purkiss’ book belongs to the period and the movement which bequeathed to us this enormous historical catastrophe, we are justified in returning to it now and attempting to undo some of the damage it has wrought.

Purkiss is chiefly arguing against those “skeptical narratives which divided modernity from the rural past, and scientific skill from supernatural and providential narrations.”  In other words, she is opposed to the Enlightenment narrative that stresses a growing awareness of scientific fact in the modern world and a displacement of earlier “magical” paradigms.  She claims that “such narratives did great violence to the actual stories told by early modern people” [6].  That is, by denying the truth claims of the villagers who claimed that Mrs. So-and-So had given them the Evil Eye and that Mr. X had turned into a toad and back again (as one freely-given English confession maintained [7]), modern historians who doubt the plausibility of witchcraft and the supernatural are belittling early modern people and their view of the world.  They are offering an elitist version of events which discounts the views of those ordinary people in favor of scientific rationality.  And how arrogant of them, after all, when everyone knows that truth is relative and that there is no such thing as objective fact!  Purkiss everywhere places the word “truth” in question-begging quotation marks, saying for instance that she is not particularly “interested in the ‘truth’ of various figurations of the witch” [8].  Empiricism, and the whole notion of truth itself, she claims, is justly “under attack from both poststructuralist theory and postmodern reality” [9]. 

Purkiss is blissfully unaware of the many inconsistencies into which this position forces her.  She is perfectly happy, for instance, to quote historical facts and statistics when they serve the purpose of her argument.  If she doesn’t believe these facts to be “true,” then how can she use them to buttress her claims?  She describes herself as a feminist historian, yet among her rhetorical enemies are the “radical feminists” of the 1970s, who preceded Purkiss’ more advanced form of feminism, dared to insist on certain “eternal verities” rather than postmodern relativism, and took a hard-line stance against pornography, a position which Purkiss seems to regard as self-evidently absurd.  The chief antagonist here is Barbara Ehrenreich’s Witches, Midwives, and Nurses, a book which offers “clear oppositions” between misogynistic witch-hunters in the Inquisition and innocent healers and midwives, persecuted for their secret feminine knowledge which was threatening to the elites of the time [10].  Ehrenreich’s narrative certainly deserves to be challenged on historical grounds, as Purkiss proceeds to do.  She points to the fact that there was no necessary or statistically significant correlation between midwives and those persecuted for witchcraft.  She also points out that the Spanish Inquisition was actually comparatively lenient in dealing with witchcraft cases [11], though as another historian has pointed out, this was generally because they were so busy persecuting Jews and Moors that they were content to leave the witches to the secular authorities! [12].

These are all legitimate uses of historical evidence and constitute a clear contribution to an ongoing historical debate.  However, why Purkiss should appeal to facts here when she supposedly does not believe they exist is less clear, unless one attributes it to sheer unabashed inconsistency.

Purkiss’ argument ultimately seems to be that the factual accuracy of any historical claim is irrelevant: what matters is the emotional satisfaction it provides.  Feminist historians may, according to her, use the figure of the witch to fill their own emotional needs, but so too do male historians who write on the subject [13].  These, she laments, dominate the field of English witchcraft studies, in which no female scholar has written a major study [14].

Purkiss’ chief objects of scorn are Keith Thomas and Alan Macfarlane, whom she forgivably lumps together as representing the currently orthodox position in English witchcraft studies.  These two worked closely with and influenced one another, and were among the first historians to apply anthropological methods to the study of the past, particularly the work of social anthropologists such as E.E. Evans-Pritchard on the phenomenon of witchcraft.  Less forgivably, Purkiss accuses these historians of having in their work “created a narcissistic myth, which shapes them as skeptical empiricists, confirming their academic identities”[15].  This is the “hidden agenda” [16] of academic work in the field: to portray early modern people as primitive and gullible and thereby elevate the historian to the status of heroic crusader for enlightenment.

Of course, every historian has personal motives for investigating a certain region of the past.   No doubt many historians of witchcraft are drawn to the subject out of compassion for the victims of the persecution and disgust with the bigotry of the time.  To tell the stories of the otherwise forgotten victims of past injustices, to rescue the poor and oppressed from what E.P. Thompson once called “the enormous condescension of posterity,” is one of the most important moral tasks of the historian.  If some historians would like to ease the burden of painstaking research that must go into such endeavors by reminded themselves of the limited sort of heroism to which they can lay claim, this should not surprise or bother us.

However, this is very different from saying that the mere existence of these personal motives nullifies the claim to scientific accuracy of the historian, as Purkiss does.  Not only is she intensely presumptuous in her claim to be able to divine the motives of Thomas and Macfarlane in their writing of history, she also offers absolutely no historical evidence to question their statements.  The mere fact of their being male empiricists is enough in her eyes to make them guilty by association.  Most outrageously, given Keith Thomas’ outspoken feminism, Purkiss implicitly accuses the two historians of misogyny.  She comes up time and again with bizarre statements like this one: “Enlightenment thought… has always offered a way to seize and clutch and penetrate the mystery of the feminine otherness” [17].  We are left with an image of the bookish, near-sighted Keith Thomas as the unforgiving rapist of the early modern period. 

Reginald Scot, the early modern skeptic and opponent of witch-hunting, is portrayed by Purkiss as a hero to Thomas, for he echoed Thomas’ variety of misogyny.  He too doubted the supernatural power of elderly village women and claimed that such women were probably just batty old things rather than witches—that they most likely suffered from mental illness rather than demonic possession.  Purkiss bemoans the fact that Thomas takes a similar view of the women accused of witchcraft.  He portrays them as most often victims of mental illness—poor, maligned, cast out, and victimized by village society—certainly not supernatural entities capable of calling on Satanic powers.  Purkiss, however, finds this view sexist.  “Where [Thomas, Scot, etc.] deny the witch all supernatural power, [they also] deny her all social and cultural power” [18]. 

Of course, the blunt fact of the matter is that most women accused of witchcraft did not have any social or cultural power to start with: it was their powerlessness which left them open to victimization.  To make this point is not sexist any more than it is a form of class discrimination to say that the poor and victimized are indeed poor and victimized.  Thomas describes long-standing village beliefs in the efficacy of verbal cursing, a practice which often became the only means available to poor old people and beggars of exacting revenge on society [19].  The sight of such lonely old folk muttering anathemas under their breath played on social fears: it was no great leap from this to the notion that such people must be witches and that they ought to be persecuted.  Thomas also systematically documents the motives of those men and women who freely confessed to acts of witchcraft rather than being forced to do so under torture.  All of them were incredibly poor, and all profoundly disaffected and alienated from the society around them.  Many poor folk were simply drawn to the Devil by the promise of measly material rewards (one woman claimed to have sold her soul to the Devil for two and sixpence [20]).  For all such individuals, the Devil had a sort of “subjective reality.”  He was a way of personifying their own evil thoughts and feelings of worthlessness, of giving their execration of society tangible form [21]. 

The examples offered by Thomas are copious enough and do not need repeating, especially since Purkiss shows no sign of actually doubting Thomas’ research on any point.  All of this adds up to a very weak and unconvincing argument on Purkiss’ part.  I wonder if Keith Thomas was ever even made aware of the bizarre scouring his personal life and motivations received in this book—it did not, to my knowledge, provoke much scholarly reaction or interest when it appeared.  Richard Evans makes use of it, in his In Defense of History, as a representative sample of postmodernist balderdash, but other than that, the book was hardly taken seriously.

Of course, I can hear Purkiss’ objections now were she to read this article.  One sentence of her book leapt out at me as I was researching this article and struck a note with my guilty conscience: “Historians of witchcraft,” she writes, “often set themselves up via the ritual slaughter of a rival academic who has allowed herself to become indivisible from witch-beliefs” [22]. 

Of course, Purkiss has herself become indivisible from witch-beliefs.  And though I’m hardly a rival academic to anyone, I can easily imagine the sort of pseudo-psychological dissection Purkiss would give my foregoing article. She would no doubt see me as another would-be Enlightenment hero trying to combat “feminine” irrationality.

Every closed system of thought has its own means of turning any criticism against itself.  Just as Stalinists were once in the habit of accusing their critics of being motivated exclusively by class prejudice, postmodern relativists are able to absorb all criticism because they make no effort to refute it—they simply claim to divine the hidden sexist or racist agenda of the critic and thereby render everything she says irrelevant and senseless. 

The essence of a closed system of thought is that it can neither be proven nor refuted: such is the case with relativism.  It thrives on circular logic and turns all possible refutations back in upon themselves.  We cannot hope to ever argue relativism out of existence, because ultimately, we cannot prove that our knowledge of the world is accurate.  We could simply be imaginary critters in the solipsistic brain of some demon who has thought us into existence—who knows? 

What we do know is that Enlightenment rationality offers a way of ordering our experiences in a way that is useful.  It is also capable of changing and reshaping the worldview it provides in response to new information.  Relativism and other closed systems of thought can do no such thing, by definition. 

We also know that to undo the work of Enlightenment rationality, and to reopen the door to the possibility of the truth of witchcraft and supernatural power, is to play a dangerous game.  Open that door too far, and one lets in a host of unwanted reminders of the past: the witch-doctors and Inquisitors, the torturers and kidnappers: in a word, all those tormenters of the innocent, poor, and socially maligned who in the West we take to be a relic of the past.  We should take the time to remember that they still exist to this day wherever a widespread belief in the reality of witchcraft persists.



[1] Diane Purkiss, The Witch in History (Routledge 1996), 95.




[5] E.J. Hobsbawm, “The New Threat to History,” The New York Review of Books. December 16, 1993.

[6] Purkiss, 3

[7] Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (Weidenfield and Nicholson, 1971), 517.

[8] Purkiss, 10

[9] ibid, 61.

[10] ibid, 8.

[11] ibid.

[12] H.R. Trevor-Roper, “The European Witch-Craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, ” in Religion, the Reformation and Social Change (Macmillan, 1967), 111.

[13] Purkiss, 10

[14] ibid, 59.

[15] ibid, 60.

[16] ibid, 61.

[17] ibid, 63.

[18] ibid, 66.

[19] Thomas, 509.

[20] ibid, 520-21.

[21] ibid.

[22] Purkiss, 62.

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