The Modern Histories of Witchcraft

Pumpkins have been carved. Costumes are being donned. Scary films are being watched from behind cushions and hands. Yes, Halloween is upon us once again, so we decided to delve into the past to find out more about the fascinating history of witchcraft. We’re joined (virtually!) by Dr Will Pooley, a social and cultural historian who gives us some interesting (and at times gruesome) insights. Read on, if you dare…

Trigger warning: the following interview contains mentions of violence and abuse.

Hi Will, thanks for joining us for this Halloween special. To many people, the word ‘research’ conjures up images of labs, safety goggles and petri dishes (all of which are important, of course!), but your area of research is quite different altogether and rather niche – can you tell us a bit more about it?

It’s true, I don’t spend a lot of time in a laboratory! My research is on modern histories of witchcraft. I focus on France, and on criminal trial records and newspaper accounts that deal with cases where people really did fear witches.

I’m certainly not the first person to notice these cases, but what I’ve been trying to do is get up close and personal with modern sorcery. Rather than just reading newspaper accounts – which often get things muddled up – I’ve spent a lot of time in regional archives taking advantage of the expertise and help of archivists who have worked to preserve the witness statements, medical reports, and other documents from nineteenth- and twentieth-century trials. I want to know what ordinary people thought and believed about witches, and the harms they believed that witchcraft caused.

That sounds fascinating! What do you think it is about witchcraft that people find so intriguing and has led to witch ‘stereotypes’ being so solidly linked to Halloween?

My colleague here at Bristol, Professor Ronald Hutton, recently wrote a wonderful book called The Witch: A History of Fear from Ancient Times to the Present which really delves into why it is that so many societies around the world share a concept of the witch: a malevolent living human being who causes harm through supernatural means. One of the things I take from Professor Hutton’s work, as well as the equally brilliant book by Diane Purkiss, The Witch in History, is that the stereotypes we have of ‘the witch’ do have a history.

A lot of people in Europe and North America will immediately picture similar images in their mind’s eye when you mention a witch: probably a woman, old, ugly, with a pointy nose, pointy hat, cat, broomstick, and cauldron. Of course, that is a cartoon image, but one of the things that the very long history of witchcraft around the world confirms is that witches have been thought of in many ways. Many societies have feared female witches, but others, such as early-modern Iceland, believed most witches were men. In some periods and regions, including the Democratic Republic of Congo today, it is children whose witchcraft has been most feared.

As for the link with Halloween, I have to confess I am no expert! What I would say is that while the connection between Halloween and the spirits of the dead is a longstanding one in western Christianity, witchcraft has – as far as I know – not been as intimately connected with Halloween. In my own research, I find that witches and witchcraft aren’t really tied to Halloween specifically. In fact, conflicts over witchcraft were probably more likely to bubble over during Carnival and other celebrations, when spirits were running high, and the wine, beer, or cider had been flowing!

Many people will have heard of seventeenth-century cases, such as the Salem witch trials in North America or the Pendle witches in Lancashire, but they may not be as familiar with the more recent history of witchcraft on which your research is focussed – what was it about this particular time period that sparked your curiosity?

I do find that a lot of people – even a lot of historians – are surprised when I say that I work on ‘modern witchcraft’, and that I mean fear of malevolent witches in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries in France.

In fact, a range of researchers have been working on this for many years. The historical field has really been led by Professor Owen Davies, who has written about a range of British, French, American and global examples. But as far back as the 1950s, the anthropologist Marcelle Bouteiller showed that fear of witches was very much still alive in France.

I’ve always been drawn to the mysterious and the supernatural, and I originally wanted to do my PhD on this topic. I’m glad I didn’t (great advice from my supervisor Professor David Hopkin!) because there is far too much material for a PhD. In fact, I know of close to 1,000 criminal trials or police investigations into cases involving witchcraft in France between 1790 and 1940, and there must have been a great deal more. Perhaps these cases are not as prevalent as during the most intense periods of witch-hunting in the early modern period, but they aren’t that rare! There are some villages and towns in western France where it seems as if there were witchcraft cases every few years in the nineteenth century…

Old French postcard caricaturing rural life, showing man with arm outstretched and three women looking fearful. Text reads 'Le grand sorcier' (The great witch).
This image of ’The Great Witch’ was one of many black and white postcards, often hand colourised, which caricatured rural life and were produced by printers around France. This one was made by Dugas et companie in Nantes.

How did perceptions of witches change following the decriminalisation of witchcraft in France?

So, witchcraft was effectively decriminalised in France in 1682, and definitively excluded from the new penal code in 1791. After that point, there were no grounds to prosecute people suspected of harmful magic for that magic alone.

How did this change perceptions of witches? Well I’ll give two contradictory answers the truth is probably somewhere between the two!

The first is that it didn’t change perceptions that much. Many witches continued to be suspected of the same misdeeds: they caused illnesses in humans and animals, especially afflicting young infants, pregnant and breastfeeding women, and dairy cows. The stereotypes of the witch remained stable in many ways, too. Normandy had been a region of male witchcraft in the early modern trials and continued to be so in the nineteenth century. In fact, so many of the cases I have found are from Normandy and the west of France – where witches were also predominantly thought to be men – that male witches dominate my research, much to many people’s surprise. But other regions with fewer cases, such as the Occitan-speaking regions of southern France, preserved the patterns of female witchcraft they had displayed during the witch trials.

On the other hand, there are really important changes in how witches were perceived and dealt with. I’ll mention just three. First, the Catholic Church generally tried to distance itself from questions of witchcraft. That didn’t stop some local priests from getting involved in witchcraft disputes, but the general effect it had on perceptions of witches was dramatic. Where the early modern trials were often focused on uncovering evidence of a pact with Satan, the modern cases have lost this drive. The Devil does not feature in most of them at all.

Drawing from Gaston Vuillier's Sorciers et magicieans de la Corrèze depicting an anti-witchcraft ritual
Although the Catholic Church renounced responsibility for dealing with suspected witches, many of the rituals used by people who feared witches drew on Catholic rites, as in this image from Gaston Vuillier’s ‘Sorciers et magiciens de la Corrèze’.

The second change in perception is connected to French colonialism and imperialism. From the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries there was a progressive racialisation of thinking about ‘witchcraft’. Journalists and researchers did not find it convenient to dwell on the ‘superstitions’ of the French population, and preferred to associate belief in witchcraft with the colonised populations of north and central Africa, the Caribbean, Madagascar, and Indo-China. One of the most depressing examples concerns Hégésippe Jean Légitimus (1868-1944). As a representative of Guadeloupe, Légitimus was only the second black man elected to the French National Assembly, and the first in over a hundred years. But his time in Paris was dogged by tabloid coverage of accusations of ‘witchcraft’ in Guadeloupe directed against Légitimus and other socialists.

The final thing to say about new perceptions is just how easily witchcraft in France – as elsewhere across the globe – adapts to new situations and problems. In addition to bewitched cows, French men and women complained of enchanted automobiles and bicycles. They described feelings of bewitchment in terms of electricity, images seen at the cinema, and in the language of up-to-date psychiatric and medical theories, such as neurasthenia. It’s very easy to slip into the same language that newspapers at the time used to describe people who feared witches, which assumes that these people lived in rural areas. But the truth is, there were witchcraft disputes in all of the large cities, and even rural witchcraft cases often involved individuals who worked in nearby industrial centres, in mines, or factories.

What is the most common misconception people have about the history of witches and witchcraft?

The biggest mistake people make is to think that the history of witchcraft is over! The ways that we – including historians! – talk about the early modern trials as a ‘craze’ or a ‘panic’ imply that our ancestors briefly lost their reason, before cooler heads restored order. There’s actually a lot of work by historians now that questions this story of the progressive rationalisation and secularisation of criminal justice and elite culture.

It’s not the area I research myself, but I think one good way to put this story of progress into perspective is to ask: how many countries today have laws against witchcraft? Violent persecution of witches today is such a great problem that the United Nations Human Rights Committee and UNICEF have both been working on measures to combat the harms justified by fear of witches. Closer to home, the Metropolitan Police in London have a special unit devoted to cases of child abuse connected to spiritual beliefs.

I think it’s really important to be careful about the continuing racialisation of these harms in the media and by the authorities. UN agencies focus their attention on cases in sub-Saharan Africa, and a lot of the coverage of the cases in the UK has concerned immigrants, as in the terrible child abuse case in Haringey at the turn of the millennium. But from what I know of contemporary French cases, it would be hasty to assume that witchcraft disputes in Europe today are limited to immigrant groups. In Brive-la-Gaillarde in 2016, for instance, an old woman was badly assaulted by her family members for witchcraft. Many people who do know something about ‘modern witchcraft’ will assume that I research Wiccans and other modern pagans. But I’m more focused on the fact that, sadly, fear of witches and violence connected to sorcery have not gone away in Europe even today, although the scale may have greatly decreased.

Why is your research specifically – and arts and humanities research more generally – so important?

I’ve been very influenced by other historians who argue that history performs a similar function for society as literature does: it allows us to imagine how different things could be. And the advantage that history has over literature in this respect is that we know this is not just an imaginative possibility: I research events and processes that really did take place. The past contains vast and varied different ways of organising societies and culture.

It might seem that the topic of my research is something of a depressing one to choose from this point of view. Who wants to update their sense of progress by discovering that belief in witches has continued to cause serious harms into the present day in Europe? But I would say that we do have responsibilities to come to terms with that, and to adapt our own self-understanding to recognise that – perhaps – fear of witches runs so deep in our culture, or even in some more fundamental layer of the human mind, that it cannot simply be educated away in science lessons or religious studies. A suitably scary thought for Halloween?

But I don’t think it has to be understood in a purely negative light. Conflicts, and especially the most violent ones, glow in the darkness of our knowledge of the past. It’s much easier to find evidence, for example, where fears of witches led to tragic results. And that isn’t always what happened. It’s harder work, but I am very interested by cases where tensions were defused through the interventions of clergy, or healers, or local officials, or community leaders of some kind.

I know many historians are uneasy about learning ‘lessons’ from the past, but I do think it’s worth thinking about how some communities and authorities have succeeded not in eradicating the fear of witches, but in mitigating and alleviating the harms these fears can cause.

You know people for whom witchcraft is a real force in the world, even if you do not realise it. The problem is not how to persuade them they are wrong about this, but how to prevent a situation in which a belief like this could cause harm. I still have some faith in arts and humanities research to address real problems like this!