Academic journal article Folklore

"By the Strength of Fancie": Witchcraft and the Early Modern Imagination

Academic journal article Folklore

"By the Strength of Fancie": Witchcraft and the Early Modern Imagination

Article excerpt


The elite theories of witchcraft in early modern Europe rested on the elaborate imaginary constructs of scholastic theologians, with their implications about a cosmic struggle between good and evil. These were reinforced by a range of popular beliefs and practices, and by the iconography of such artists as Bosch, Grien and Cranach. The imaginary world of witchcraft always tended towards a Manichean dualism that commanded widespread popular support, but aroused doubts among the elites. The fears on which it played, of sterility and dearth, bad mothers, and death, gave it an extraordinary imaginative appeal, which also helps to explain its reappearance in modern literature.


The obvious first step in response to the flattering invitation to deliver the Katharine Briggs Lecture was to re-read Pale Hecate's Team, and be reminded what a sensitive and shrewd scholar that much-loved folklorist was. The book was published in 1962, at a time when few historians knew anything about witchcraft, and much of what had been written was wildly misleading. Katharine Briggs displayed astonishingly good judgement in avoiding the numerous mantraps around the subject; had she been revising the book today there is much that she might have wished to add, but virtually nothing in the text that she would have needed to delete or amend. It is also a book of great charm, which displays her deep knowledge and love of sixteenth-century and seventeenth-century literature, the subject in which she obtained her doctorate from Oxford. What it does rather curiously lack is any systematic treatment of the folklore of witchcraft, for this is usually invoked only to explain aspects of the literary sources. So I hope that may be a sufficient excuse for me to adopt a similarly oblique approach.

One of the deftest performances in Pale Hecate's Team is that which politely dismisses the eccentric speculations of Margaret Murray (Briggs 1962, 2-8). The admirable recent work by Jacqueline Simpson, Juliette Wood and Caroline Oates has shown how little Murray's witchcraft theories had to do with The Folklore Society, although it does look as if they may have created a kind of collective embarrassment such that the whole subject was sidelined (Simpson 1994, 89-96; Oates and Wood 1998). Recent numbers of Folklore show how much this has changed, with contributions from those already mentioned, and from such leading experts as Ronald Hutton, Owen Davies and William de Blecourt. This is an area in which I believe that folklore specialists can be a great help to historians; it is not quite so clear to me what goods my tribe can offer in exchange, beyond a range of printed and archival sources for folk beliefs in the past. A mere anthology would be an unworthy offering, however, so I have chosen to explore a theme. Perhaps I should say themes, because the early modern imagination cannot be reduced to a single strand, any more than the imaginary and imaginative aspects of witchcraft belief can be.

"By the Strength of Fancie"

"By the strength of fancie" is a phrase taken from a deeply hostile commentary on the first wave of Matthew Hopkins trials at Chelmsford in July 1645, by Arthur Wilson, steward of the Puritan Earl of Warwick. There were several reasons for borrowing this citation from the first chapter of Pale Hecate's Team, where Katharine Briggs herself used it to demonstrate that even Puritans could be sceptical about witchcraft charges (Briggs 1962, 13). In brief, I think that Arthur Wilson's comments, which I shall cite a little later, give us a keen insight into early modern ideas both on witchcraft and on the imagination; they also underline the point that any treatment of witchcraft must be incomplete without a serious attempt to incorporate fantasy. When writing my own general book about witchcraft it hardly seemed necessary to belabour Margaret Murray afresh, so the one strong point I made was that her theory was desperately, leaden-footedly, literal-minded, quite ignoring the power of fantasy. …

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