Witchcraft Continued: Popular Magic in Modern Europe

By Willem De Blécourt; Owen Davies | Go to book overview
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3
The witch and the detective: mid-Victorian
stories and beliefs

Susan Hoyle

Why did the witchcraft-beliefs of the English non-urban working class go into decline during the course of the nineteenth century?1 I want to argue that it is the kind of story that believers and non-believers told that eventually made science and rationality (narrated here by forensic witnesses) more attractive than magic (narrated here by witchcraft-believers). Thus the decline in witchcraft-belief was not due to an increasing respect for the claims of science and a matching retreat from irrationality, but to a falling off in the acceptability of the traditional witchcraft narrative, and an attendant rise in the acceptability of a forensic narrative based on the demonstration of detective skills in particular the skills of policemen, doctors and lawyers. My analysis can be seen as just part of a tale that others have been telling, others much longer in the field than I, and in different corners.2 They have shown that the essentially Whig story of the triumph of rationality over superstition does not account for what historians find in the record. Despite being presented with the evidence of decades of scientific advance and even revelling in those advances, people persist in believing ‘weird things’, however ‘weirdness’ is defined.3

I am not arguing that all that changed over this period was the popularity of this or that kind of story. Real changes can be traced for example the profound shift in the status of the ‘expert’ in the eyes of the court and of the public in the courtroom.4 My point is that such changes can be traced and largely explained through the changes in the stories the courts heard: as the contrasting styles of the various witnesses’ narratives examined below illustrate well. Nor am I claiming that the social and economic background of my storytellers is irrelevant or unproblematic. Rather I am saying that the influence of those factors is more readily discernible through narratological lenses than through an analysis of content that seeks to divorce it from matters of style. By ‘narrative’, I mean both the ‘how’ and ‘what’ of the stories which victims and witnesses told about their experiences and allegations of witchcraft. Much recent narratology is concerned with distinguishing

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