Briggs' _Witches and Neighbors_ Discussion (March 1998)


Review of _Witches and Neighbors_ Discussion/ March 1998


Query from J.H. Raichyk 23 Mar 1998

Hi...I've been wondering if it is impolitic to comment on scholarly book reviews. Otherwise, why have there been no suspicions raised about Briggs' _Witches_?

As one who grew up hearing the 'clicks' that indicated the presence of another of society's built-in put-downs of women, I can't help wonder how this book could still be blithely praised...

>>He contends that the witch hunts were not imposed by the ruling classes...<<

This comment just begs to be re-analysed...the fact that the peasants are engaged in a desperate struggle for survival, while the elite sit back and *manage* the trials...He even admits that the trials ..tended eventually to collapse...<<

And then there are the comments about not all witches being women, followed by numbers that show 80% were...surely this is an indication of misogyny being ignored.

<<..the real mark of a witch was a bad attitude. The quarrelsome, spiteful individual...>> How often have women who objected to being treated badly been labeled as having a bad attitude?

Because the authors/reviewers are ranking academics should not preclude a bit of skepticism about their conclusions. After all, that's why we need Women's History in the first place. We clearly need more of it.


From Max Dashu 24 March 1998

>I've been wondering if it is impolitic to comment on scholarly book >reviews. Otherwise, why have there been no suspicions raised about Briggs' >_Witches_?<

I have been wondering the same thing. What is the policy on responses to reviews? I not have seen the book yet, but several reviews suggest to me that the book does not examine the *evolution* of witch-hunting, which was historically driven by church and state elites as against the peasantry.

From Sue J. Harris 24 Mar 1998

Very well said! I've been thinking myself about the fact that we are suppose to just accept everything they "think" as gospel

From Pamela McVay 24 Mar 1998

All right, then, here's a reply to Dr. Raichyk's critique of the review of _Witches and Neighbors_. And thanks for introducing an early modern topic!

I haven't read _Witches and Neighbors_ yet, but I intend to soon. (Has Dr. Raichyk had a chance to read it yet?) I'm reluctant to criticize it based on the review, or to announce any "suspicions" about the reviewer or the book without reading it. Yet I agree that any argument down playing the role of misogyny in the witch crazes seems counter-intuitive; it does seem like a stretch to argue that misogyny isn't central to the witch hunts. It would take a lot to persuade me that it wasn't.

On the other hand, an anthropological analysis of the witch hunts is long overdue, and I'm not sure from the review that Briggs actually discounts misogyny as an important component of witch hunts. It seems he focuses more on the marginality and isolation of accused witches, both of which are well-documented in other studies, and both of which were more common for women.

I am also unsure about what Dr. Raichyk finds suspicious--does Raichyk doubt Briggs'
statement that witchcraft accusations were usually made by peasants, or that authorities were less tolerant of accusations against elites? Would Raichyk be more comfortable with old analyses that suggested the entire witch craze was manufactured by elites and that peasants had no role in it except as victims? Or with the even older literature that used to argue over whether Protestant or Catholic societies more fostered the kind of superstition and paranoia that led to witch hunts? It seems to me Professor Briggs' book may mark a major conceptual advance in the study of the witch hunts in early modern Europe. But I won't know until I've read the book.

From J.H. Raichyk 25 Mar 1998

>>I am also unsure about what Dr. Raichyk finds suspicious... >>Would Raichyk be more comfortable with old analyses...<<

My experience suggests that there are identifiable interactions between psychology and economics. The fears of the peasants, in economic circumstances that the elite caused and/or perpetuated, are as predictable as the aberrations that hostages undergo.

The fact that the authorities were quite capable of quashing an outbreak when it threatened 'the masters' says that the elite were heartless, cynical and self-serving at the very least. So the fine points of their legalities simply betray the distance they maintained between themselves and the rest of humanity.

And the fact that the origins of the accusations were the peasant class is a redundant discovery.

What I find interesting is the possibility that we are busy in this (US) society manufacturing the same economics...the two-tier economic structure with the top 1% holding 45% of the wealth and the bottom 80% sharing the last 8%. It will be interesting to see how this plays out now that we have a background of research that would allow us to make predictions.

From Pamela McVay 30 Mar 1998

Forgive me for quoting nearly all of Dr. Raichyk's last statements in this reply to them. You raise several points that I think should be of interest to the list. First, you say:

***[Ed. Note: There will be some ellipses, omitting of some redundancy and if anyone misses the point, please see the full discussion on the H-Women Message logs for March, 1998 at]***

>>The fact that the authorities were quite capable of quashing an outbreak... >>So the fine points of their legalities simply betray the >>distance they maintained...<<

Are you arguing here that it's the responsibility of historians and reviewers to put special emphasis on the evils and hypocrisies of elites? Or that in the context of H-Women, we should emphasize such broader matters because of the general nature of the list? The second is, I think, a worthwhile point. Most early modern historians take for granted, I think, that elites considered poor people, poor peasants, and small artisans inferior and relatively unimportant and acted accordingly. It wouldn't necessarily occur to us to emphasize the point in discussing what a book or article said that was new or significant. Perhaps reviewers for H-Women should think more broadly than just the literature of the area we study when writing reviews.

Dr. Raichyk says something else that I don't quite understand: <<And the fact that the origins of the accusations were the <<peasant class is a redundant discovery.>>

Why is this a relevant comment? My understanding is that the Briggs book is meant as a synthesis. Naturally it would be employing the discoveries of earlier research.

Finally, you make an intriguing connection between the 16th and 17th centuries and our own time and place:

<< What I find interesting...we are busy in this (US) society <<manufacturing the same economics....It will be interesting to see <<how this plays out...<<

If I might engage with the point, I would need more details to accept the witch hunts as a possible model for twentieth century behavior. I'm just not persuaded the analogy is a good one. Early modern elites had a lot less actual power than modern US elites do as a result of near-instantaneous communication, credit flow, and complex webs of local, state, and federal government institutions. Our government, which is relatively easily manipulated by the wealthy, can do us a lot of damage a lot more quickly and easily than governments and elites could during the age of the witch hunts. I'm also not persuaded of the suggestion that you made earlier, that witch hunts are really a peasant response to intolerable conditions created by elites. I don't think there's any way to blame European elites for all the troubles of 16th and 17th century peasants and small artisans. Inflation, a small, small ice age, and the willing and eager participation of hundreds of thousands of poor and middling men in ideological warfare and looting also contributed. I also don't think witch hunting is the result of cynical manipulation. Most early modern people, including the nobility, believed in good and bad magic, and in witches. In a society where everyone believes in witches, "witches" are going to get persecuted.

From J.H. Raichyk 01 April 1998

My comment: <<And the fact that the origins of the accusations were the peasant class..<< led Pamela McVay to ask... <<Why is this a relevant comment?,,,the Briggs book is meant as a synthesis....<<

The redundancy is not in quoting earlier historical research but in focussing on phenomena caused by economics as if they were the source of the trials rather than a consequence themselves. According to the review..."Briggs thinks the answer can be found in the mental worlds of early modern villagers. He contends that the witch hunts were not imposed by the ruling classes, but generated by the tensions and conflicts of peasants engaged in a desperate struggle for survival..."

Briggs' book was not a synthesis but a challenge to the current interpretations..."Briggs offers his readers a striking propositions: most efforts to understand the "witch craze" which frightened and fascinated early modern Europe have been misdirected."

Pamela also missed the time frame of my suggestion that we, because of our current economic imbalances, might see more behavior in the future similar to witch trials. That's the early twenty-first century rather than the twentieth. And we are seeing more frequent signs of possible backlash against feminists and marginal groups than 15-20 years ago.

as for the elite's control of the masses in present day society being more sure and swift than in 'early modern' times, it should also be pointed out that the discontented masses also have very sure and swift means to effect misery. That's the phenomenon of terrorism we've been witnessing.

Witches then were simply discontented people who didn't or wouldn't fit into their neighbors' prejudices and pecking orders. When times were bad enough, fear and dissonance lead to trouble. Who would be the witches in the future? Could there be solidarity among the discontented to recoil against the elite? Is there a way out? Who will be deluded? Who will be responsible?

As women are now just emerging from second-class status, I would think women historians would be more sensitive to issues of dominance and injustice and I've always been delighted to watch women point out the 'clicks' as they used to call them.

From Candace Savage 02 April 1998

Elspeth Whitney put Robin Briggs in context in her article "The Witch "She"/ the Historian "He:" Gender and the Historiography of the European Witch Hunts," _Journal of Women's History_7 (fall, 1995):77-101. She notes the studied refusal of "mainstream" historians of the witch trials to incorporate a systematic consideration of gender into their work. In the case of Briggs, she also mentions his overt hostility towards what he characterizes as the errors of feminist interpretations--an opinion that he expresses freely in _Witches and Neighbors_. Yet Briggs does not appear to be well versed in recent feminist scholarship. For example, Deborah Willis and Diane Purkiss (both of whom have published important studies on witchcraft in 1996) are not referenced in his book. Presumably these scholars are outside his conversational loop.

I'm not a specialist in this area and I don't know how Briggs' orientation has informed/deformed his analysis. I'd love to see some discussion from people who have read the book and/or know the field. Alternatively, are there other reviews of the book that someone can recommend?

From Pamela McVay 02 April 1998

Thanks to Dr.Raichyk for clarifying her earlier post in response to my questions. Here I think we have arrived at the source of my confusion: genuine disagreement about cause and effect. I asked why she thought as aspect of Briggs' book (which I'm still not sure whether you've read, Dr. Raichyk? I haven't) was necessarily redundant. She replied:

<<The redundancy is not in quoting earlier historical research.... <<According to the review...Witches then were simply discontented people...Who would be the witches in the future?<<

I completely disagree with this characterization of early modern witches in Europe. It is, so far as I know, an accurate depiction of the accused in the famous Salem trials in Massachusetts, who I understand nearly all insisted they weren't witches. It isn't a good description of witches, or witch hunting throughout Europe, where: 1)many of the accused believed themselves to have magic powers, and had been practicing them for years. 2)accused witches certainly *did* want to find their ways into local pecking orders and communities. At least, that's what the studies I've read (Brian Levack's article on "The Great Witch Hunt" in Brady, Oberman and Tracy, Eds. _The Handbook of Early Modern Europe_is the most recent summary of the state of the literature I've gone over) have said.

Also, I didn't miss>>the time frame of my suggestions...that's the early twenty-first century...>> That was starkly implicit in your post --sorry if I didn't acknowledge it openly. ...In what era, after all, have elites *not* abused power? In what eras have the poor not been a great deal poorer than the rich? Precious few...and yet the phenomenon of witch hunting is limited to quite a narrow span of time. I suppose we could expand the argument to take in the persecution of Jews and of heretics, but then I think we just wander into the realm of discussing all forms of badness as if they were identical. Just because we have anxieties over the future doesn't necessarily mean we have to project those anxieties onto the pat, or presume that something that happened in the past will happen again.

In short, while I share Dr. Raichyk's concerns about the future, I'm not at all willing to make the past a road map of what must be coming up ahead. And I'm not pessimistic as she is. She sees more backlash against women's rights in the last ten to fifteen years. I study the 17th century and am grateful to live now. I also remember what it was like to be a schoolgirl fifteen years ago, and the girls I see face fewer obstacles that I did.