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The Pleasures of Her Text by Alice Bach


Alice Bach, the editor of Union Seminary Quarterly Review, is the author of more than twenty books for children and young adults. Two of her novels have been named NYTimes Best Book of the Year. Since returning to school in 1985, she has written a series of mystery novels about a pair of high-school girls solving crimes with computers, as well as a novel, He Will Not Walk With Me (Delacorte, 1987). Moses’ Ark: Stories from the Bible (Delacorte Press, 1989), written with J. Cheryl Exum, was a Best Book of 1989 of the American Library Association. She and Professor Exum have written a second volume Miriam’s Well: Stories about Women in the Bible to be published by Delacorte in 1991. A doctoral student in biblical studies at Union, her research involves literary strategies for reading biblical and pseudepigraphic texts. The Pleasures of Her Text, Feminist Readings of Biblical and Historical Texts was published in 1990 by Trinity Press International. This book was prepared for Religion-Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.


Chapter 7: "The Devils Are Come Down Upon Us": Myth, History and the Witch as Scapegoat, by Martha J. Reineke


Martha J. Reineke is assistant professor of religion in the Department of Philosophy and Religion, is also director of women’s studies at the University of Northern Iowa. Her essay in Union Seminary Quarterly Review is part of a larger work, Life Sentences: Reflections on Women, Violence, and the Sacred. Other recent works that form background to this larger work include "Life Sentences: Kristeva and the Limits of Modernity," Soundings LXXI, no. 4, 439-461; and "This is My Body: Reflections on Abjection, Anorexia, and Medieval Women Mystics," in The Body as Social Text, ed. Catherine R. Burroughs and Jeffrey Ehrenreich (1990).

If our ancestors had thought in the same mode as do today’s masters, they would never have put an end to the witch trials.
Rene Girard1

How do I examine women’s history as a feminist? In a recent article, Adrienne Rich reminds us that history is more than tales of our finest hours. History is forged in a struggle for consciousness waged against the forces of amnesia. Rich tells us that, when a feminist breaks silence with history, she does more than invoke women from the past, for feminist history is history "charged with meaning." Charged by history to know the past in order to make choices for the future, each feminist is asked also to recover the lost memories of women, but only in ways that do not perpetuate the structures of history-making that first relegated women to invisibility.2 Rich’s words echo those of Phyllis Trible who suggests that a feminist "interprets stories of outrage on behalf of their female victims in order to recover a neglected history, to remember a past that the present embodies, and to pray that these terrors shall not come to pass again. In telling sad stories, a feminist seeks to redeem the time."3 She recounts the past in memoriam.

In this essay, my own efforts to take the charge of history to heart focus on the witch hunts, 1450-1750. Notwithstanding recent scholarly efforts to redress Reformation historians’ prior neglect of the witch hunts, I want to claim that current analyses, attentive as they are to tracing the demographic, economic, and sociological factors of the witch hunts in evermore sophisticated ways, are inadequate to the goals of feminist scholarship. My complaint focuses on the portrait of an extrinsic relation of religion to witch hunting offered by most recent scholarship and on the scholarly treatment of the violence that attended witch hunting. The people who accused women of witchcraft, who put them on trial, tortured, banished, or executed them, explained their reasons by appeal to religious beliefs, but those beliefs, according to many current theories, were but external trappings for other social, political, and economic agendas. Chosen for its efficacy and by historical accident, religion accompanied the witch hunts but did not form or define them. Moreover, while wisely avoiding a detailed analysis of the violence that attended the witch hunts which might verge on voyeurism, current scholarship has met their violence with virtual silence. Neither the torture of the accused nor the violent deaths of the convicted have been explained adequately. Because these analyses of witch hunting bypass the issue of the intrinsic relation of religion to those hunts and do not engage in a systematic attention to the violence of those hunts, they are seriously flawed. Specifically, because they misread the dynamics of persecution, these analyses leave the persecutors unchallenged, perpetuating the victimization of the women charged and convicted by those persecutors. Despite their attention to detail and evidence, current scholarly analyses share an amnesia which I now believe we ignore at our peril.

The issue of amnesia is particularly acute for feminist scholars of religion who study the witch craze. Lest we become forgetful of the diverse resources that found our work and utilize only a narrow range of disciplinary perspectives, I offer this essay as a cautionary tale to those who find themselves, as I have found myself, captivated by current trends in witch craze scholarship. Our attraction is understandable: in the interests of identifying with women accused of witchcraft and making their victimization visible, we are wary of explanations that might mute these women’s voices further. On behalf of the victims of the witch hunts, we distance ourselves from the voices of their accusers, for we fear that if we make reflections on the accusers’ mythic discourse of demonology the linchpin of our analyses, we risk offering accounts of the craze that overlook the victims. Reducing the range of our inquiry, we do not extend an appreciation for myth, prominent in much of our work, to our reflections on Reformation demonology. Not surprisingly, we then make common cause with those social scientists who, in dismissing demonology or "translating" it in terms of a political ideology, also seem to give voice to the victims of witch hunting by silencing their accusers.

I will argue that, when feminist scholars in religious studies engage in selective inquiries about the witch craze that bypass mythic discourse, we seriously underestimate the resources of our discipline at a point where they are most crucial for our work in memoriam on behalf of our foresisters. To speak adequately of the witch craze, to remember all that we must remember if we are to free our foresisters from a history of victimization, we must treat myth as essential to the witch craze and its violence.

In order to establish my argument I will summarize current theories of the witch craze. Then, appealing to the work of Rene Girard, I will challenge the adequacy of these scholarly explanations and point to a need to refocus current strategies of analysis in order to be more responsive to the charge of feminist history.

The Witch in Historical Perspective

Over three hundred years that span 1450 to 1750, women throughout Europe and in the American colonies were accused of witchcraft, tried, convicted, and executed.4 Witches — persons who practiced magical arts, sorcery, and healing — had always been part of the European cultural landscape, but it was not until the fifteenth century that prosecution of them began to reach panic proportions. Prior to that time, legal charges were brought against individuals only if their sorcery caused personal or property damages. Recent scholarship cites a variety of factors that contributed to the development of a witch craze. These factors locate women accused of witchcraft at points of flux in the society where changes in the legal system, in marriage patterns, in the economy, and in the dominant social ethic and gender ideology were most dramatic and unsettling.

Christina Larnercites a changed legal system as an essential precondition of the witch craze. Interpersonal, restorative justice was in transition in the sixteenth century to a system of retributive justice Where formerly an individual took the initiative to bring charges of sorcery against a neighbor who had harmed him or his family and also assumed the risk of reverse charges should the case be proved frivolous or unsound, now centralized systems came into existence which functioned on the premise that the whole society was the potential victim of witchcraft. For example, in Scotland, statutes against witchcraft, formerly linked with sexual and religious offenses, were abstracted from their traditional ecclesiastical context. The Scottish Witchcraft Act of 1563, like that of the Holy Roman Empire in 1532 (Constitutio Criminalis Carolina) made witchcraft a civil offense.5 As centralized and secularized processes of control replaced the mode of individual prosecution of neighbor against neighbor, religious beliefs functioned in service to a secular system.

According to Erik Midelfort, preconditions for the witch craze in southwestern Germany during the latter half of the sixteenth century were founded similarly in a new legal possibility: the inquisitorial trial.6 Traditional functions of an accuser were taken over by the court. A single panel included as one body the accuser, the prosecutor, and the judge. The skill of the examiners resulted in increasing numbers of charges, trials, and convictions.7 Only two items of proof were needed to find a person guilty. First, three independent denunciations had to be offered. Under torture, women were called to denounce other women. Since the denunciations had to be made independently, that three different persons would name the same suspects tended to limit suspects to two groups: women notorious in the community for eccentric or unusual behavior or well-known women (e.g., midwives, wives of village innkeepers or well-known merchants).8 The second item of proof was a devil’s mark, a sign of one’s relationship to the devil. A devil’s mark was any spot on the body that was insensitive to pricking with a pin or needle or which failed to bleed if pricked. Women suspected of witchcraft were stripped and searched for devil’s marks. In some areas of Europe, professional prickers made an occupation of the search for these marks.9 This new legal system set in motion a remarkably efficient machinery for witch hunting.

Why did witch hunters, in utilizing this new legal system, find their victims almost exclusively among women?10 Midelfort offers two explanations. First, women were believed to be prone to the devil’s seduction. They were both more lustful and weaker than men. Thus, women as a group were vulnerable to the suspicions of witchcraft.11 Second, a change in marriage patterns in the sixteenth century created widespread social instability and uncertainty. An excess of women of marriageable age, a high number of spinsters and widows, and a late age for marriage increased women’s vulnerability in a society beset by social unrest.12

The specific rationale for the late marriage pattern is traced to the high standard of living in Western Europe. Late marriage brought about wealth, because one could conserve resources over many years; wealth, or the insistence on it, brought about late marriage. The standard of wealth was property, and in the sixteenth century men had to wait for land to become available, generally until their father’s deaths. The stem-family pattern, according to which the eldest son inherited his father’s property, contributed to the economic incentive for late marriage.13

The changed marriage pattern threatened patriarchal control and caused a fundamental disturbance in the family unit.14 When efforts were made to consolidate patriarchal control, unmarried women were viewed increasingly with suspicion. Moreover, on a practical level, unmarried women were outside the key institution — the family — that would offer them protection. Widows and spinsters number high among the initial victims of witchcraft charges. Once in court, the sophisticated process of condemnation, founded on the principle of three independent denunciations, would extend as well to less-suspect members of the society.

For Carol Karlsen, historian of the witch hunts in New England, that women accused of witchcraft were women who threatened the economic order is of decisive significance. Daughters of families without sons, mothers of only female children, and women with no children predominated among the women charged with witchcraft. Women in these categories "were aberrations in an inheritance system designed to keep property in the hands of men."15 In New England, women without male heirs comprised sixty-four percent of the females prosecuted for witchcraft, seventy-six percent of those found guilty, and eighty-nine percent of those executed.16

Like Midelfort, Karlsen traces tension in the social order to the intersection of familial and economic pressures. The new European marriage pattern occurred in New England in the late seventeenth century. Moreover, at that late date, changes in the family unit coincided with disruptions associated with the society’s transition from a land based to a mercantile economy. Sons who wanted their inheritance, but faced a shortage of land, experienced frustration and resentment. So also did the religious and landed elites and a newly risen, religiously diverse mercantile elite who competed with each other. Because the basic economic unit in the late seventeenth century was the family, to whom one owed respect, not complaints, and because there were few institutional avenues available to all alike to deal with economic conflict, witch hunting, Karlsen argues, became the vehicle of stress release. That frustration and resentment was then visited on the witch who, in Puritan belief, had come to symbolize all that was disorderly and evil in the society. The Salem witch trials were the clearest indication that in an economic war, competitors vied for control by using women as pawns in their struggle. Accusers tended to come from the old farm economy and those accused of witchcraft from the new mercantile economy that was threatening the old order.17

In addition to familial and economic disruptions to the social order, insecurities about social mores contributed to a climate of suspicion conducive to witch hunting. Villages and developing towns throughout Europe were experiencing a transition from a communal ethic to an ethic of individualism: a tradition of mutual help was being challenged by a new economic order.18 That change exacted its highest cost from those persons who had depended most on the older order of charity: widows, the poor, the elderly. In transition from old to new ethic, residents of a community were more likely to resent a neighbor’s appeal for help, yet to feel guilty about their refusal of help. Notably, the accuser in the witch trial was nearly always more prosperous than the accused. Moreover, the poorest of the poor generally escaped charges of witchcraft. Instead, the borderline case — the moderately-poor woman who felt she ought to receive her neighbor’s help but whose overtures were rejected — was most likely to be linked to witchcraft.19 With the decline of a social ethic, which had been firmly articulated by the church in previous times, the individual bore sole responsibility for adjudicating the parameters of charity. Not until the state, in the next century, made charity the province of a government bureaucracy would a social ethic be articulated clearly again. In the transition period, the guilt feelings of an individual uncertain about his or her responsibility to a neighbor became "fertile ground" for witchcraft accusations. Misfortunes might be a witch’s retaliation against her neighbor.20

John Demos argues that this scenario is particularly applicable to witch hunting among the Puritans in New England. Although the Puritans brought with them to the New World the traditional ethic of Christian charity, court records of struggles over land, money, and inheritances demonstrate that these fragile communities were fed increasingly on an ethic of individualism. Marginalized women, at greater risk in communities populated by people maneuvering for "personal advantage," bore the brunt of communal insecurity about the new ways.21

Insecurity about new social mores characterizes another factor contributing to the witch hunts: new gender ideologies offered by the Church created unrest similar to that unrest associated with the new ethic of individualism. Both Karlsen and Larnernote the ambiguous status of women during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in respect to expectations for their gender. On the one hand, the preReformation view that women, morally inferior to men, were weak-willed and susceptible both to lusts of the flesh and to enticements to greed, still functioned. On the other hand, and more explicitly, voices of the Reformation espoused a new gender ideology: women, granted a greater autonomy and capacity for virtuous behavior, were responsible for the state of their souls.22 These twin religious ideologies of gender, appropriated by the state, had major consequences in women’s lives. On the basis of the pre-Reformation theology that still formed the background to cultural perceptions of women, the witch hunters could justify a position that made witch hunting synonymous with woman hunting. On the basis of Reformation theology, the witch hunters could make women responsible, as pre-Reformation governments had not, for the crime of witchcraft.

Prior to the Scottish Witchcraft Act, women were invisible in the courts. Their behavior was the responsibility of their husbands and fathers and the punishment for any crimes they had committed was that thought appropriate for children, whipping.23 With the Witchcraft Act in force, the state began to explore the parameters of women’s responsibility for their own behavior.

Indeed, Larnerargues that the contrasting theologies of gender were introduced into the court in order for the state to educate women to their new roles.24 Women who misjudged the limits of their responsibility and saw a license for equality in the Reformation’s affirmation of their capacity for responsible behavior were instructed by the witch trials to the error of their views. The witchcraft trials were therefore pedagogical: by means of the trials, lines of appropriate female behavior were drawn, and overly independent women had the new theory of female responsibility turned back on themselves.

Karlsen’s study of accusations of witchcraft directed against radical Puritan women, such as Ann Hutchinson and Mary Dyer, who believed that the mandate for spiritual equality before God justified equality in the church, closely parallels Larner’s. Basing their views on the notion that gender arrangements were not only divinely ordained by God but mandated by nature, the Puritan male leadership strove to disabuse women such as Hutchinson and Dyer of their views.25 That women accused of witchcraft were linked with the crimes of bearing illegitimate children, having abortions, or committing infanticide26 served to confirm, for that leadership, witches’ sinful interference with divinely ordained gender roles. So also did imagery associated with witches — they hatched, bred, or suckled either heretical ideas and/or actual monsters — exemplify the Puritan male leadership’s view of witches’ sinful challenge of divine mandate.27 Unmarried women, childless women, midwives, and women in business — all aberrations in the divinely ordained system that defined women by their role in procreation — were particularly vulnerable to charges of witchcraft.

Again, like Larner, Karlsen traces the preoccupation with gender roles in colonial New England to the ambiguity of those roles in Puritan society. As was the case in Scotland, Puritan views of gender maintained an implicit reference to the pre-Reformation suspicions about women while externally advocating a more optimistic portrait of women. Karlsen argues that the witch trials ensued during the time in which both views were still held. The trials were, in some ways, the very occasion for adjudicating the truth about women.28 The witch was the negative model by which the virtuous Puritan woman was defined. She set off in stark relief the values of Puritan society and the borders of its moral and cultural universe.29

The Witch as Scapegoat

For each scholar of the witch hunts, contributing factors, such as those discussed above, form the background for analyses of essential aspects of the craze. The figure of the scapegoat appears in three typologies that frame the witch craze: the witch as scapegoat served the ideological interests of the ruling-class, or she was chosen to bear the brunt of the fears of the peasant class, or, standing at the juncture of popular and learned cultures, needed by each, she was the one torn apart in their struggles with each other. For none of these typologies was religious belief — myth and practice — central to the witch craze. Religious discourse was located at the periphery; other factors constituted the core dynamic of witch hunting.

Erik Midelfort’s work is representative of those which locate the impetus for the witch craze at the low end of European society. Arguing that, even at its worst moments, the churches in southwestern Germany — both Catholic and Protestant — supported the craze only ambivalently, Midelfort claims that the witch primarily served the needs of peasant culture. The call for witch hunting issued from popular pressures: the peasant majority needed to locate scapegoats for the pain and suffering of plague, famine, or other disasters. His model example is Balingen in Wurttemberg where, in response to the town’s devastation by fire in 1672, the search for a scapegoat led the townspeople to take matters into their own hands and stone a suspected witch when the Oberrat (the Superior Council in Stuttgart) would not act.30

Contrasting with Midelfort’s "bottom-up" theory of witch hunting is Christina Larner’s work. Representative of "top-down" theories of the craze, Larner’s analysis indicates that witch hunting was a ruling-class activity aimed at social control.31 Specifically, witches were pawns in the struggle between secular and church authorities for control of the Scottish countryside. In a game of "who is the godliest of them all" the church and state struggled for authority,32 tossing the bodies of witches between them and blurring the lines between sin and crime.

Larner’s thesis echoes those of Peter Brown and R. I. Moore. Brown argues that "sorcery beliefs may be used like radio-active traces in an X-ray: where they assemble we have a hint of pockets of uncertainty and competition in a society increasingly committed to a vested hierarchy in church and state."33 Moore, who focuses on the development of a persecuting society in the Middle Ages, claims that European society defined itself and established its borders by engaging in persecution of Jews and lepers.34 Larner’s analysis extends Brown and Moore’s theses to the Reformation: it was not the masses who found a voice for their protests against societal uncertainties and cruelties in the courts; rather, it was the courts who found their voice and reason for existing in hunting the masses for witches.

Larner notes that, in the battle for control of the geographical, cultural, and moral borders of Scotland, the state increasingly had the upper hand. Indeed, while it was possible to prosecute a witch under the old machinery of the church, that witch prosecution in Scotland was "conducted throughout under those parts of the machinery of social control which were entirely new" is notable. The statute of 1563 centralized the administration of the Witchcraft Act and extended the authority of the Privy Council in witchcraft cases.35 The new machinery, once in place, moved only slowly at first. In 1583 the General Assembly of the Church complained to the King that incest, adultery, and witchcraft were not being punished. In 1591, however, the Privy Council rocketed into action and appointed commissions to examine witches. The Privy Council’s license to hunt witches lasted until 1597, when the relegated powers were restored to the King (James VI) and witch hunting entered into a period of decline.36 Despite the efforts of the church to proceed with witchhunting, it was not until the 1620s that the Privy Council interested itself in witchcraft cases again, as part of a general reassertion of its authority.37 There was a brief lull in the 1630s, a time of plague and famine.38 But witch hunting entered into a new panic phase in the 1640s, a period which coincided with tension between church and state over their respective boundaries. Again, as in 1583, the General Assembly of the church chastised Parliament for its inaction against witches. The Privy Council established commissions to hunt witches, and witch hunting moved forward on a rising tide until the witch hunting machinery of the state ground to a halt under Cromwell.39

Crucial to Larner’s thesis that witch hunting was a ruling class activity among institutions competing for social control is her analysis of the role landowners played in the witch hunts. Landowners, rather than ministers, requested most of the commissions and conducted most of the witch trials.40 Clergy participated in this structure in two ancillary ways. First, the Kirk session functioned as a policing force for local landowners. Appointed and paid by the landowners, the ministers — though nominally of the landed class themselves — stood midway in social structure as a mediating force between landowners and peasants.41 Second, the ministers facilitated preliminary searches for witches and served as witnesses at their trials.42 But in each case, the power lay with the landowners and not with the church. Thus, the rise and fall of witch hunting in Scotland is traced by Larner, first, to the structure of centralized authority — the Privy Council-and to its inclination in any particular time to prosecute witches and, second, to the authority of the landowners who, through commissions, carried out the work of the Privy Council.43 These two groups — council and landowners — hunted witches in order to establish and reinforce their jurisdiction over the countryside. By contrast, the moral and religious fervor which the church directed against witches expressed itself in ways that, though visible, were largely inefficacious. Religion may have accompanied witch hunting, but other social and economic agendas defined it.

Larner’s discussion of the dynamics of power played out between the Privy Council, the landowners, and the church offers intriguing prospects for understanding the integration of theologies of gender in the discourse of the witch trials. Suggested by her work is the possibility that, in their struggle to be the primary institution of social control, both the church and the state exploited the ambiguity about gender roles expressed in the differences between pine-Reformation and Reformation theologies. The power of the church and state to impose a particular ideology on women was not just the power to impose that ideology on women’s minds. Rather, they forced women to embody the ruling ideology. Applied to the witch trials, the metaphor of "writing the body" well describes this power: in the course of the craze, an underlying fifteenth century text — engraved on women’s bodies in terms of lust, weakness and greed — was covered over with a new sixteenth century text, that of responsibility and adulthood. Throughout the craze, old and new texts were inscribed and reinscribed on women’s bodies as church and state vied to scratch out a final and definitive sentence that would confirm their sovereign control over the society. Through torture and trial, ideological conformity, which allowed female responsibility only within the context of a patriarchal system of female submission, was engraved on women’s very bodies.

Representative of a centrist position, falling between theories advanced by Midelfort and Larner, is Joseph Klaits’ work. Klaits argues that interpretive frameworks that emphasize the role of popular pressures in the witch craze and those that highlight the interests of the educated elites in the craze are not mutually exclusive. Klaits blends interpretive models and suggests that witch hunting impulses both "trickled down from the society’s leaders" and "rose upward on a tide of popular anxieties."44 The witch, as scapegoat, served both groups.

For Klaits, the decisive factor in the witch craze, from the side of the educated and politically powerful, was an atmosphere of spiritual reform. That the masses of Europe were being Christianized for the first time is demonstrated by the preoccupation of the clergy with the values and habits of the peasant folk in the countryside.45 As religious evangelism became increasingly preoccupied with issues of sexuality, the witch appeared as the figure of deviant sexuality on whom evangelistic fervor focused.

Klaits’ thesis is influenced by the work of Richard Kieckhefer. Kieckhefer, whose work focuses on preconditions of the witch craze established during the late medieval period, has argued that a conjunction of popular belief in sorcery with a demonology created by a learned culture laid a foundation for the worst excesses of witch hunting. The superimposing of the language of diabolism on that of sorcery "added fuel to an already blazing fire."46 Specifically, because charges of diabolism embellished charges of sorcery, the discourse of the elite was directly responsible for the craze of spiraling accusations and increasingly harsh punishments. Sorcery — the weapon of the socially powerless when illness, love affairs, quarrels, and communal inhospitality placed them at odds with their neighbors — was elevated in diabolism. Diabolism was used by the devil and his legions in the battle for the souls and bodies of an entire people. Where the sorcery called for reparations — the lifting of curses, the return of "borrowed" property, reciprocal apologies and protestations of forgiveness — diabolism summoned forth all the powers of the state to do battle with evil. At stake was not the harmony of a single community or clan, but the survival of human society itself.

Moreover, if, at first, demonology served primarily to "translate" popular belief into the language of the educated, it was not without its own popular appeal. With a theory of demonology in place and a legal system prepared to bring all its powers to bear against the devil, when demonological theory "trickled down" to the masses, after gestating among the elite in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the zeal to exterminate devil-worshipers knew no limits. Beliefs in sorcery and in demonological witchcraft mingled to form one virulent world view. With their fears joined, popular and learned cultures required and hunted down a virtually endless supply of victims.47

Extending Kieckhefer’s analysis of the links between popular sorcery and demonological theory, Klaits attributes the reformers’ preoccupation with issues of deviant sexuality — as expressed in their demonological theory — to the association of sexuality with the core of human identity. The decisive proof of successful inculcation of Christian values and habits required by the reformers issued upon one’s ability to demonstrate one’s liberation from the wiles of Satan, specifically one’s freedom from the perverse sexuality of Satan’s servants.48 Moreover, because the reformers believed that women were weak and particularly prone to the devil’s seduction, clerical suspicions rested more and more on them, feeding an increasingly virulent hatred of women among the clergy.49

At the same time as spiritual reform was advancing across the countryside, the ordinary masses upon whom the clergy turned their attention had their own problems. Social unrest created great insecurities. The search for scapegoats came to rest upon lonely, poor women who "touched the subconscious anxieties of the villagers who saw in their isolation the worst fears they had for themselves."50 Fed by the misogynistic suspicions of the reformers, these frustrations precipitated the witch craze.

Thus, for Klaits, witch hunting served a dual purpose. For the masses it focused anxieties, provided an explanation for their miseries, and "took the people’s minds off their troubles."51 For the clerical elite, it served to validate the authority structure of society and to give vent to their misogynistic feelings about women. Moreover, because an "unanticipated side effect" of legal reform was the creation of a judicial apparatus conducive to witch hunting, both the masses and the elites found their search for scapegoats efficaciously channeled.52 With their fears and hopes joined in the courts, the clergy and lay peasantry could accomplish their objectives: the witch trials both publicly demonstrated the truth of the reformers’ vision and power — bringing the battle with the devil to a decisive conclusion — and provided the cathartic release the masses had been seeking.

Klaits can be applauded for attempting to honor the complexity of the witch craze by meshing "top-down" and "bottom-up" interpretive frameworks into a single theory of reciprocal influence and for wanting to accord to religion a more central role in the witch craze than have Midelfort and Larner. Nevertheless, his own efforts remain marred by oversimplifications. When Klaits identifies the religious reformers as the vehicle by which the sentiments of the masses and the machinery of a judicial elite were brought together in one place, with explosive results, he misreads key factors in that sequence of events. First, mitigating Klaits’ notion of misogyny as the driving ideological force behind the witch hunts are Larner and Karlsen’s demonstrations that misogyny characterized the dominant, pine-Reformation ideology of gender, but not that of the Reformation. Second, notwithstanding the fact that the Reformation did Christianize the European countryside, Klaits errs in imputing vast power to the church. Because Klaits fails to integrate the rise of the nation state into his portrait of the Reformation, he ascribes to the clergy more power than they actually had. He makes religion central to the witch hunts, but only because he oversimplifies the notion of religious power, reducing it to clerical politics and mistakenly designating the clerical vision as the dominant ideology. If religion did have a decisive impact on witch hunting, it cannot be for the reasons Klaits cites.

If Klaits overestimates the power of the church, he underestimates the power — ideological and practical — of the courts. Larner’s analysis of the conflict between the lay courts and the clergy suggests that Klaits’ vision of the role of the courts in the witch hunts is naive. Hem thesis is both more specific in its documentation and more comprehensive in its scope than Klaits’: witch hunting was not the "unanticipated side effect" of the new judicial system but was, in fact, integral to the development of that system.

Finally, even if we amend Klaits’ portrait of the elite to include judicial as well as clerical elites, his portrait of the peasant masses remains problematic. If Klaits’ interpretive framework is to stand, we need to know not only the discourse of the elite which trickled down to the masses, but also the discourse of the masses which rose up as a tide toward the elite. Klaits identifies the frustrations of the masses without giving those frustrations voice. Cited only as "primordial fears," the anxieties of the peasant folk remain amorphous.53 If the language of fear expressed by the peasants was more than or other than the language of the elite that had trickled down to them, Klaits must show us this language, but he does not. Thus, in a variety of ways, Klaits fails to meet his own challenge to honor the complex dynamics of witch hunting by setting them in a single, integrative framework.

The Witch in Mythic Perspective

Current analyses of the witch craze, reflecting broader trends in historical scholarship dealing with religion, make a laudable advance over earlier treatments. None, in discussing the religious backdrop to the craze, argue that belief in witchcraft was a superstition held by the masses of which they were finally freed by the great wisdom of eighteenth-century humanism. Not only have scholars realized that such an interpretation betrays a kind of ethnocentrism that distorts our understanding of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but, more to the point, research on the witch craze has shown that the witch craze ended with beliefs about demonology still intact among both the educated elite and the peasant masses. According to recent scholarship, witch hunting did not end because persons ceased to believe in witches. Instead, state and church machinery needed to hunt witches fell into disarray, no longer able to discriminate reliably between real witches and those falsely accused.54 Nor did the state and church need to use this machinery. The eighteenth century would see each utilize different strategies of legitimation. Moreover, the eighteenth century saw the resolution of earlier ambiguities about gender roles. Freed from the borderline status women had had in the flux of pine-Reformation and Reformation times, women were secured within the walls of a newly-created domestic sphere. Confined safely in that moral preserve,55 women in the eighteenth century did not pose a substantive threat to the social order, and reason to suspect them of witchcraft declined dramatically.

Despite their advances over earlier scholarship, I wonder whether the analyses I have summarized here have replaced earlier theories about religious superstition with understandings of the mole of religion in the witch craze that are substantively more adequate than those which preceded them. I want to argue that the strength and weakness of each theory hinges on the adequacy of each theory’s notion of the witch as scapegoat.

The common thread linking the typologies of the witchcraft craze that I have summarized is the figure of the scapegoat. According to Midelfort, a changing court system played into the hands of those bent on finding a scapegoat for various natural and social disasters. For Larner, the witch, a scapegoat for various natural and social disasters, played into the hands of a political institution bent on legitimating itself. Finally, opting for a centrist position, Klaits locates the scapegoat at the juncture of new institutional structures where peasant anxieties were channeled into mass panic.

For the most part, each account does advance our understanding of the witch craze. Moreover, I believe that, of the lot, Larner, who invests most in an ideological interpretation of witch hunting, offers the most persuasive analysis. After all, Midelfort and Klaits must see the court’s change to the inquisitorial trial, so advantageous to the prosecution of witches, as serendipitous. How convenient that, just when the peasants and/or the clergy needed a scapegoat, court procedure changed to accommodate them. By contrast, Larner describes a straightforward convergence which acknowledges the changing political forces of Europe: that the court changed is precisely why witches were hunted. Witches were what the court generated in the state’s process of self-legitimation.

Despite my appreciation of current research, the theories cited here remain problematic. The category of the scapegoat, I argue, does eventually betray the adequacy of these accounts to the phenomenon of witch hunting. In seeking to understand the scapegoat phenomenon, current research does, for the most part, reduce these women to anonymous cogs in the machinery of a persecuting society.56 So also does it reduce religious language about witches to a coded language of politics and protest. Neither tack does justice to the scapegoat. Instead, these modes of analysis continue to participate in an historical amnesia that perpetuates the victimization of the women condemned as witches and leaves their persecutors unchallenged. They are inadequate to the goals of feminist scholarship.

In my efforts to take the charge of feminist history to heart, I want to demonstrate this thesis by appeal to Rene Girard’s The Scapegoat. Notwithstanding two qualifications — The Scapegoat’s relevance for my thesis is based on extrapolations, and Girard’s paradigmatic scapegoat is not the witch of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries but the Jew persecuted for causing the plague in the fourteenth century — I seek to demonstrate that Girard’s work does speak to feminists in significant ways, advancing the goals of our scholarship.

With Girard’s study in mind, let’s consider one possible record of a witch trial and execution, written by an accuser, which states that a woman was executed because she caused the plague."57 From our current vantage point as feminist scholars, we make two judgments about such a record of an historical event: we are sure that the woman did not cause the plague and we believe she really was executed. On what basis do we confidently and blithely disregard an account of a day that recorded the execution of a woman for witchcraft? The author/accuser says both that the woman caused the plague and that she was executed. Why do we want to split in two a text that records an execution, affirming one half and denying the other? Apparently, the frame of contemporary analysis is one in which we feel that we must either do such violence to the text or let the text continue to do violence to the victim of persecution, thereby affirming the accuser’s charge and justifying his murderous actions.58 Our intentions are honorable, but we may not achieve our aims. Why? With Girard, I suggest that, in our current efforts to vindicate the woman accused of witchcraft, we also deny her access to a truth that is crucial to condemning her persecutor: the persecutor’s own belief in the witch’s guilt. That belief can not be challenged if we, on behalf of the victim, rend the unity of the persecutor’s text. Instead, we must go back inside the text, inside the mind of the persecutor, there to break the pattern of violence from the inside.

We advance the cause of the innocent victims of persecution only if we ourselves set out on the trail of persecution that the prosecutors were too naive to cover.59 Because the traces of that truthful trail are left in the mythic language that the persecutors used to justify their acts, ideological analyses which bypass that language or replace it with codes of political and ideological intrigue may make sense of the witchcraft craze, but only at the price of leaving the victims of witchcraft craze where their persecutors left them — unvindicated — and the way of persecution still open for future use.

When we ask of a woman accused of witchcraft, "Was she who her accuser said she was?" and, by appeal to analyses such as those reviewed in this essay, gather evidence, put her on trial again, and pronounce her innocent, we play a strange game with truth. We say that the accuser, speaking as he did about demons, diabolic contagion, and the witch’s pact, was unaware of what he was doing: he was frustrated by changing marriage patterns, confused by economic instability, angered by plague and famine, and embattled over claims to political turf. Angered, frustrated, confused, and embattled, he picked out an innocent woman and killed her. What we do not say in all of this language is that this man was a persecutor. The reason we do not say this is that the language of witch persecution had only one home: sacred myth.60 If we alter the language of witch persecution, severing it from its roots in myth in order to render its meaning in other terms, we will never unpack the meaning of the word "scapegoat."

That epithet "scapegoat," which so often characterizes our gut-level reaction to the witch craze, needs more careful analysis if it is to become a well-grounded claim. Ungrounded, the category of scapegoat is highly vulnerable to expropriation to the interests of ideological analysis, where its meaning, impoverished and malnourished, will always be under threat of complete extinction. To properly ground the notion of the scapegoat we must locate its place within a persecutory structure and locate the roots of that structure in the sacred. Only then may it be possible to overthrow the persecutor rather than to overthrow only the persecutor’s texts, as has current witch craze scholarship.61

What then is the structure of persecution? Girard cites four stereotypes of persecution. In referring to these characteristics as stereotypes, he leads us away from the pejorative connotations which attend the use of that word. He reminds us that a "stereotype" is a metal cast used in printing that enables the unvarying and fixed reproduction of an original image or pattern. Hence, stereotypes of persecution are persecutory patterns advanced by the type in fixed and unvaried reproduction across cultures and centuries.

The first stereotype of persecution locates it only in times of crisis. Plague, famine, floods, institutional collapse, all qualify as crises. Such crises announce the obliteration or collapse of hierarchical or functional differences between persons.62 Violence attends this eclipse of culture: persons at both ends of the social scale — kings and women or children — are the most vulnerable to violence. Sexual and religious crimes abound: rape, incest, bestiality. Ultimately, a small number of persons are determined to be extremely harmful to the whole of the society.63

A second stereotypic accusation is needed to bridge the gap between this very small group, sometimes a sole individual, and the social body. What is at stake is order: of the community and even the cosmos.64 How could one small group or individual carry the powers that could destroy a much larger whole? Images of contagion provide the answer and fuel the stereotype: the individual’s capacity to cause illness or to use poison augments his or her powers to destroy and closes the gap between the individual and the society as a whole.65

The crowd’s choice of victims points to the third stereotype: the victim is generally characterized by a lack of difference from his or her accusers.66 This stereotype seems at first counter-intuitive. Aren’t persons persecuted because they are different — a Jew is not Christian, a woman is not a man, a spinster is not married? Certainly, the many feminists who have understood the problem of woman’s oppression in terms of her role as the "Other," utilizing a typology of "dualism," have identified the "woman-problem" as an issue of difference. But Girard’s claim is not as surprising as it might seem. He offers the example of the physically disabled person. Disability is disturbing to others, not because of its difference, but because of its impression of disturbing dynamism.67 Life goes on, in difference, giving the lie to the exclusive truth of our own lives. What bothers heterosexuals, ethnic and religious majorities, and the able-bodied about those who are different — gays and lesbians, ethnic and religious minorities, the disabled — is the potential they see in those persons "for the system to differ from its own difference, in other words not to be different at all, to cease to exist as a system."68 The relativity, fragility, and mortality of one’s own small world is put into relief by the one who is different. Different persons are reproached not for their difference, but for being not as different as expected, and in the end for differing not at all.69

In failing to respect "real" differences, those who are "not-different-enough" incur others’ anger and bring down upon themselves the fourth stereotype of persecution: the violence that would defend difference by inscribing that difference on the bodies of the indifferent and, in so doing, would create the expiatory sacrifice which could return the whole community to order. Torture and death complete the persecutory structure.70

Two stories highlight Girard’s analysis of these stereotypes of persecution. In one story a Jewish woman is depicted contemplating two pigs to whom she has just given birth. In another story, a woman has intercourse with a dog and gives birth to six puppies. Her tribe banishes her and she is forced to hunt for her own food. The first story is from a 1575 German text describing the Jewish proclivity for witchcraft. The second is from a myth of the Dogrib people. Each story bears the marks of the stereotypes of persecution. The background for each, explicit in the former and implicit in the latter, is crisis. The women flaunt cultural distinctions, engaging in bestiality. Because they are women, they bear essential victim marks. Moreover, they fail to differ as they should from others, inviting the scapegoat mechanism. That lack of difference is implicit in the former story of the Jewish woman71 and explicit in the Dogrib myth, which tells us that the puppy children are really human, having the ability to remove their fur coats at will and reenter the world of human society.72

With these examples, we begin to see that lines separating history and myth are arbitrary in stories of persecution.73 The structure of persecution is indifferent to such categorical distinctions, for the Dogrib and the author of the 1575 German text are telling the same story. Yet we want to read them differently. We want to deny the mythic meaning of the story from Germany and translate its meaning, following rules of witchcraft interpretation represented by scholars such as Midelfort, Klaits, and Larner.

Why do we refuse myth? For those who are not scholars of religion, that question is easily answered. We live in a society that has a highly impoverished view of myth. That myths found and shape a people’s common life — their memories, their hopes and dreams, their fears, their ultimate concerns — is virtually forgotten. But, how do we, scholars of religion, answer this question? The hermeneutics of our discipline allows a far greater appreciation of myth. We know that the standard of truth in myth is not empirical correctness, but its life-founding potential: a myth is true if persons live by it and find their hopes, fears, memories, and values carried forth by it. Thus, for scholars of religion, the question of myth-refusal in analyses of witch persecution is not so easily answered. In the earnestness of our quest to recover the memories of the victims of the witch craze, have we shied from an embrace of myth that would bring us too close to the accuser? Is that why we have forgotten the lessons of our discipline? Perhaps another of Girard’s stories will jolt our memory:

Harvests are bad, the cows give birth to dead calves; no one is on good terms with anyone else. Clearly, it is the cripple who is the cause. He arrived one morning, no one knows from where, and made himself at home. He married the most obvious heiress in the village and had two children by her. All sorts of things seemed to take place in their house. The stranger was suspected of having killed his wife’s former husband, who disappeared under mysterious circumstances and was rather too quickly replaced by the newcomer. One day the village had had enough. They took their pitchforks and forced the disturbing character to clear out.74

Girard places his tale in the Christian middle ages: it is a tale of persecution if ever there was one. But others may recognize another, much older story, the myth of Oedipus. Again the lines between myth and history blur.

What can we make of Girard’s play with the boundaries of myth and history? His comments suggest that scholars of the witch hunts need to grant to the stories of the witches the respect ethnologists grant the Dogrib.75 We need to listen to those stories the way we listen to the myth of Oedipus. To listen to them in that way is to understand persecution in a way that only myth preserves because only myth carries forth the stereotypic structures of persecution intact. Only myth reveals persecution as the dark lining of religious beliefs and practices. Only myth holds together in one frame, for better or worse, both violence and the sacred.

To really listen to a witch’s story is to return to the rite of sacrifice of the scapegoat.76 But when we think of the ceremony, the priest, and the expiation of sins, we must go farther with our reflection on the scapegoat than does current scholarship. If we are to enter the mythic world of the witch craze, we have to enter a persecutory structure in which the victim — the chosen scapegoat — was not only responsible for public disasters but also was capable of restoring, symbolizing, and even incarnating order.77 We have to honor the power of the victim to do what scapegoats do.78

But that we will not allow. We may, in attempting to enter the sixteenth-century mind, suspend our disbelief and see that, for her accuser, the witch was responsible for public disasters in some mythic, larger-than-life sense. However, we balk at giving to the witch the power her persecutor gave her. We cannot see that, so great a power did the witch have that, for her accuser, extraordinary measures were required to capture and channel it for the good. We do not understand that, in accord with that belief, her accuser had to torture a woman accused of witchcraft in order to gain her confession, which was the required "proof" of her power, and that he had to execute her in order to demonstrate that those powers had been successfully foiled. Not understanding, we fail to listen to the accuser’s tale of violence and overlook the clues he gives us about the place to which he has taken his victim. Not heeding his words, we leave the scapegoat where her accuser has left her — unvindicated — and do not seize the opportunity to wrest from his hands the key that would unlock the persecutory structure so that the scapegoat could be freed.

Our resistance to according to the scapegoat the power her persecutor granted her, nowhere more evident than in recent scholarship’s silence and puzzlement before the violence which announced the witch’s power and marked the struggle against it, highlights our incapacity to read the mythic elements of the witch craze. Challenged by the need to integrate accounts of violence into its theoretical perspectives on the witch craze and denied the old "superstition" argument by its advocacy of non-ethnocentric analyses, current scholarship uses two strategies in order to make sense of torture and execution. Neither strategy acknowledges adequately the mythic home of the persecutory structure.

Scholarship informed by the first strategy documents the elements of persecution — descriptions of torture and transcripts of confessions — recorded by the witches’ accusers. Observations count as explanations. Thus, Larner, Midelfort, and Klaits dutifully record the importance of the witch’s confession for the accusers and those accusers’ stated opinion that torture alone would free the witch from her enslavement to the devil. Repeatedly, each scholar also notes the persecutors’ oft-stated claim that the witches told the truth under torture. Midelfort highlights it.79 Trevor-Roper documents it, observing that the accusers’ confidence in the mechanism of torture to extract the truth from the accused outlived their confidence in the existence of witches.80 Klaits also comments about the "genuine concern" the accusers had for the accused. He underlines the sense of integrity he reads in their statements: they truly believed in the guilt of the women they prosecuted and were absolutely confident that those women, confessing under torture, told the truth.81

The inadequacy of this strategy of analysis to the violence of the witch hunts becomes apparent when we note the surprise of the historians before their recorded observations. Midelfort is not the only one to be confounded by the persecutors’ repeated claims that the witches told the truth under torture. Others seem equally bemused.82 The absolute confidence of the accusers in the truthfulness of the accused appears irrational to the contemporary mind. For us, that witchcraft suspects would lie under torture to save their lives is as comprehensible as it was apparently incomprehensible to the accusers of their day. Seeking to better explain the beliefs they have observed in the accounts of the witch hunters, scholars turn to a second strategy.

Observing no rationale in the external discourse of the witch persecutors, they appeal to masters of unstated discourse: the psychologists. Aware that they are testing the limits of their methodologies, each is circumspect in his or her conclusions. Noting that her views are "just speculation," Larner muses about the "psychological cleansing effect on a community" of the witnessed execution of witches.83 She also describes the witch’s confession as "the triumph of the state in the battle for minds." Confession demonstrated the accused’s sentience: correct ideological commitment (to the state) was accompanying ideological re-education (in the interrogation and trial).84 In a similar vein, Klaits compares the interrogators of witches with the interrogators in the Stalinist purge trials. He suggests that, immersed in an ideology and committed to a higher good, each looked to confession as a necessary step in "ideological reeducation."85 Further, comparing the judicial application of torture in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries with the use of the lie detector in today’s judicial system, Klaits suggests that, in each case, absolute confidence in the ability of the machinery to extract the truth leads to the willing confession of the accused. In the earlier time, accusers believed the women they tortured were telling the truth because the women themselves came to believe they had been rightfully accused. Providing a contemporary parallel is the case of Peter Reilly, a Connecticut teenager who was accused of murdering his mother in 1973. Repeatedly interrogated by lie detector, Reilly came to believe in his guilt. He confessed to the murder, even though subsequent investigations established his innocence. Such "brainwashing" or "thought reform," according to Klaits, whether located in the witch hunts or in contemporary judicial practices, appeals to the same "psychological dynamics."86

While not wholly disavowing these explanations, I suggest that the theorists considered here would do well to entertain a greater variety of explanations. An appeal to psychology may once again entail a distorted "translation" of the witch hunting dynamic. Is Peter Reilly’s lie detector ordeal the closest parallel to the witch’s ordeal by torture on the rack? Our study of the persecutory structure of myth suggests not. The witch’s closest kin is not Reilly, but the sacrificial victim of an earlier time. The key dynamic of her ordeal is not "brainwashing," but "ritual." And the end to be achieved is not psychological catharsis or successful thought reform, but the expiation of sin and the restoration of cosmic order.87

This mythic model accounts best for an accuser’s confidence in the truthfulness of his victim’s confession. How could he believe that the witch had real power, that all initiative came from her, that she alone was responsible for the cure as she was for the sickness in the society?88 Proper neither to political ideology nor to psychological thought control, the logic of his discourse expressed the sacred and appealed to a pattern of causality proper to it: expiatory powers had to cross the threshold of death, and only that which was transcendent and supernatural could cross that line. The witch had to be made to appeal to powers beyond herself if, at her death, those powers were to live on after her. The woman accused of witchcraft had to be tortured and killed because only those actions followed the trail of death and summoned the transcendent powers of good to do battle with the powers of evil, so that sin could be vanquished and godly order reign again.89

Our resistance as scholars to a mythic reading of the witch craze is well-intentioned. We think that if we acknowledge any power in the women charged as witches — which in myth we must acknowledge — they will cease to be victims unjustly accused. We think that if we listen to their stories as their persecutors did, even for a moment, we will bloody our own hands. But Girard’s work has led me to consider a different possibility. If we resist the mythic reading of the witch craze, the persecutors cease to be persecutors. If the persecutors were not persecutors, then the women whose innocence we wish to proclaim were not victims. We must read the tales of persecution through the eyes of the persecutors because in their eyes alone lies the full structure of persecution undisguised.

We will not save the victims of the witch craze by snatching them from the grip of history to put them on trial again and to declare them the innocent victims of economic unrest, political change, or psychological manipulation. Rather we will save them by putting their persecutors on trial. Such a trial will be as much or more the task of the theologian as of the historian or sociologist, for the primary texts of human sacrifice are religious texts whose myths plumb the human spirit at its innermost depths. To truly challenge the persecutors we must challenge them there, on their own turf. Only then will we be able to name the myth that has fueled their violence and to free the victims from the place of their incarceration. Only then will we know enough about the persecutor — his motives and his weapons — to condemn him. We must turn to myth if we are to grasp the persecutory structure at its roots and break its power.

If we are to protect victims of scapegoating we must examine why the religions of the West and, in particular, Christianity, have been religions of sacrifice. We must find out why humans live by myths of persecution, and we must seek alternate myths to live by that can account for crisis, anomie, and angst in human life without need for the expiatory sacrifice. Vigilance is required to protect victims: past and potential. But we practice vigilance on behalf of victims only by turning toward the persecutors and the myths by which they live, seeking them out wherever they may be. Ironically, faithfulness to history is possible only if we embrace myth.

Can we do this? The forces of amnesia which make it impossible for us to read the mythic elements in our own past history are very strong. Indeed, Girard’s further examples of our confusion before the arbitrary distinctions between myth and history must give us pause. Girard notes that, in the middle ages, physicians first resisted the notion that the plague could be spread through physical contact with the disease. They opposed quarantines of plague victims. Did they harbor naive superstitions about the workings of disease? Were they stubbornly clinging to current theories of the plague because they had some ideological investment in the status quo? No; Girard applauds their enlightenment. The theory of contagion smacked too much of a persecutor’s prejudice not to be suspect. The physicians saw in the contagion theory of the plague the structure of persecution. For the idea of contagion to be accepted by physicians it had to be freed from the persecutory structure. That time awaited the nineteenth century.90

With this example, the lines between myth and history blur once again. The physicians, we would say, misjudged the parameters of myth. They made a mistake. But are mistakes always made in the same direction? Consider the witch trials. In a movement directly opposed to that taken by the physicians who viewed the new theory of the plague as part of a persecutory myth, and sought real causes elsewhere, we deny to the witch craze its mythic elements, confident in the truths offered by the social sciences. Both we and the medieval physicians have denied myth in order to make room for truth. The medieval physicians got it backwards. Have we?

My confidence in the adequacy of the discourse of the social sciences to the phenomenon of witch hunting has been profoundly challenged by Girard, who writes that, "if our ancestors had thought in the same mode as do today’s masters, they would never have put an end to the witch trials."91 Challenged by his vision, I believe increasingly that, only if feminist scholars look at the mythic investment humans have in the scapegoat, will we be able to come to terms with the terrors of persecution and recount our foresisters’ stories in memoriam.

Even so, when we work to redeem the past on behalf of a future freed from terror, we must wonder whether, in our own time, if humans have not lost the capacity to create scapegoats, we may have lost the capacity to recognize that a scapegoat who has no expiatory powers is no scapegoat. Unless we can confront that problem directly, and take its lessons to heart, the risk of new witch hunts remains high, for we continue to live in a society that searches for scapegoats and lives by the scapegoat myth, even as its capacity to recognize myth fades from memory.92 The tragedy of this cultural amnesia may be not only that our society can recognize everyone’s scapegoats but its own.93 The tragedy may be also that, no longer at home in a mythic universe, yet still in need of scapegoats, those who live in the modern age, more than those of the past, may seek them in evermore virulent ways.

 

 

NOTES:

1. The quote in the title is attributed to Cotton Mather in 1693. as cited in John Putnam Demos, Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982) 313. The epigraph is from Rene Girard, The Scapegoat, trans. Yvonne Freccero (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986) 99.

2. Adrienne Rich, "Resisting Amnesia: History and Personal Life," in Blood, Bread, and Poetry: Selected Prose 1979-1985 (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1986) 146.

3. Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984) 3.

4. The total number of executions will never be known because many records have been lost or destroyed and surviving records do not always list names. Some merely record that "many witches were executed." While estimates vary widely, low estimates range from 100,000 to 500,000 victims. The exact figures are of little consequence. As Christina Larner notes, "the conspicuousness of witch hunting is not modified by precise figures, and there is a sense in which failure to be appalled by the hunt on the grounds that we know that on a particular day we are talking of twenty-seven witches rather than two hundred would be a distortion of its own." In Christina Larner, Enemies of God: The Witch-Hunt in Scotland (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981) 16.

5. Larner 193.

6. H. C. Erik Midelfort, Witch Hunting in Southwestern Germany, 1562-1684 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1972) 67.

7. Midelfort 104-6.

8. Midelfort 187-88.

9. Joseph Klaits, Servants of Satan: The Age of the Witch Hunts (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985) 56-57.

10. The majority of victims were women. Of the twenty percent of victims who were male, most were charged with additional crimes (e.g., heresy) and not exclusively with witchcraft, or they were relatives of women accused of witchcraft and were guilty by "contagion" or association (Larner 91-94; Midelfort 95; Demos 60-62). Demos devotes one chapter (36-56) to the case of John Godfrey who, as an exception to the general rule, was accused of being a witch for reasons similar to those cited in the cases of females accused of witchcraft. Godfrey’s life was characterized by extreme rootlessness: no parents, no spouse, no children, no property. Demos speculates that homosexuality may have been a factor in his persecution.

11. Midelfort 182.

12. Midelfort 184.

13. John Hajnal, "European Marriage Patterns in Perspective," in Population in History, eds. D. V. Glass & D. E. C. Eversley (Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company, 1965) 101-147.

14. Midelfort 184.

15. Carol F. Karlsen, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1987) 101.

16. Karlsen 102.

17. Karlsen 214-18.

18. Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic and Alan Macfarlane, Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England, as cited in Klaits 87-94.

19. Klaits 90.

20. Klaits 91.

21. Demos 298-300.

22. Larner 101.

23. Larner 102.

24. Larner 102.

25. Karlsen 120-25.

26. Karlsen 141.

27. Karlsen 14-4.

28. Karlsen 154-55.

29. Karlsen 181.

30. Midelfort 190.

31. Larner 64.

32. Larner 73.

33. As cited in R. I. Moore, The Formation of a Persecuting Society: Power and Deviance in Western Europe, 950-1250 (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987) 141.

34. Moore 146-48.

35. Larner 58.

36. Larner 71.

37. Larner 72.

38. Interestingly, Larner finds the lull inexplicable; others, noting that plague and famine years often alternated with witch hunting years and that the latter provided a scapegoat mechanism for the tragedies of the former, would find the lull quite explicable (Demos 386, Midelfort 70-73).

39. Larner 73-75.

40. Larner 40.

41. Larner 56.

42. Larner 106-7.

43. Larner 88.

44. Klaits 150.

45. Klaits 60.

46. Richard Kieckhefer, European Witch Trials: Their Foundations in Popular and Learned Culture, 1300-1500 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976) 105.

47. Kieckhefer 73-92.

48. Klaits 76-77.

49. Klaits 72.

50. Klaits 102.

51. Klaits 103.

52. Klaits 132, 176.

53. Klaits 176.

54. Midelfort 196; Larner 73-75.

55. Karlsen 180-81, 255-56.

56. Some aspects of Karlsen and Larner’s work are an exception to this rule. More than the other scholars mentioned, they affirm the engagement of women accused of witchcraft in the struggles to determine their fates, countering their anonymity and object-status. Each notes that some women assumed the role of witch as a strategy of aggression in a social context in which they were powerless otherwise. Because a poor, peasant woman, angered and frustrated by her lot in life, could, in acts of sorcery against her neighbor, recoup on wrongs done to her, the trials were a forum for women’s discontent (Larner 94-96; Karlsen 244). Even so, because both Karlsen and Larner must locate the women accused of witchcraft on an ideological grid in which men defined and used women for their own political, economic, and social aims, Karlsen and Larner’s efforts to identify with the women they study, in the end, do serve only to reinscribe the women accused of witchcraft as anonymous "cogs" in the machinery of a persecuting society.

57. That Girard begins his exploration (Guard 4) of the scapegoat with an analysis of texts that record the execution of a scapegoat is most suggestive to my own thesis. The adequacy of current analyses of witchcraft persecution is precisely a question of the adequacy of scholars’ interpretations of the documents generated by the accusers which record the witch craze. The text with which I begin my reflections is an imaginary one that captures the essence of a typical complaint against women accused of witchcraft and parallels, in a different century, a fourteenth-century text of Guillaume de Machaut cited by Girard. In that account, a number of Jews were executed because they caused the plague.

58. Girard 8.

59. Girard 8.

60. Girard 38.

61. Girard 10.

62. Girard 12-13.

63. Girard 15.

64. Girard 15.

65. Girard 16.

66. Girard 22.

67. Girard 21.

68. Girard 21.

69. Girard 22.

70. Girard 45-57.

71. The third stereotype of persecution — the lack clack of difference of the victim from his or her accusers — identifies an important element in anti-Semitism. The dynamics of anti-Jewish prejudice, stemming from the first century of the Christian era, as recorded un the New Testament, are highlighted by this typology. The differentiation of Christianity, as a separate religion, from Judaism, was very much an intra-familial debate: Judaism and Christianity were two children, born of the same parent: pre-rabbinic religion (see Rosemary Radford Ruether, Faith and Fratricide: The Theological Roots of Anti-Semitism [New York: The Seabury Press, 1974] 62). 62). Thus, in the story of the Jewish woman cited here, the dynamics of her persecution are traced, not to her "alienness," but to her lack of difference from those who would secure the boundaries of their altogether fragile world at her expense.

72. Girard 48-49.

73. Girard 47.

74. Girard 29.

75. Girard 53, 96.

76. Girard 40.

77. Girard 42.

78. Girard 44.

79. Midelfort 142.

80. H. R. Trevor-Roper, "The European Witch-Craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries," in The European Witch-Craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries and Other Essays (New York: Harper & Row, 1967) 1) 122.

81. Klaits 150.

82. Midelfort 142; Trevor-Roper 121; Klaits 149.

83. Larner 115.

84. Larner 184.

85. Klaits 84.

86. Klaits 155-58.

87. Girard 55. Note: Supporting this analysis is Larner’s own observation (Larner 113) that witch executions were preceded by a day or days of fasting and sermons. Prior to the modern era and the ascendance of medical discourse, fasting was meaningful within the context of religious discourse. That, apart from her brief observations, Larner has remained silent about the meaning of fasting suggests that she may have recognized the inadequacy of her mode of analysis to this phenomenon. Were she to have integrated fasting into her theory — witch hunting was the instrument of ideological education of a state bent on legitimating itself — she might have said that "a hungry stomach is a stomach attentive to the state’s message." By contrast to that impoverished analysis, in the context of Christian myth, for centuries, communal fasting had united a people before God. Partaking of a ritual of communal penitence and invoking divine power, in fasting, a people made themselves vulnerable before God in order that, through suffering and loss, they might induce God’s blessings. Fasting thus served the drama of the witch execution by preparing people for the sacrificial act that would banish evil and return God’s people to their covenant with God.

88. Girard 43.

89. Girard 44, 9.4.

90. Girard 19.

91. Girard 99.

92. Girard 50.

93. Girard 41.

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