Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Marriage or a Career?: Witchcraft as an Alternative in Seventeenth-Century Venice

Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Marriage or a Career?: Witchcraft as an Alternative in Seventeenth-Century Venice

Article excerpt

Despite significant changes in the historiography of European witchcraft, the figure of the witch seems to remain the inevitable center of such studies. It is, after all, for his, or most often, her "witchly" qualities that the person, initially and subsequently, is made visible. All other aspects of the individual's life drop from the historical record as she becomes a piece of data. Absorbed into the documents only because of witchly deeds, real or imagined, the accused is isolated from a personal context. The text upon which the historian depends presents a one-dimensional picture, if a picture at all. The defendant is more likely to become a number, with some court shorthand as to personal characteristics. Only occasionally is a subject troublesome enough to leave an atypical trail in the records. Just as multiple trials over a period of time allowed Carlo Ginzburg to draw a three dimensional Menocchio,(1) two recalcitrant and recidivist women in seventeenth century Venice permit a similarly rounded depiction.

The trials of these two half-sisters suggest that the witch's hat was one of many, taken off and put on at will, signifying a vocational choice rather than a permanently assumed role. Moreover, what emerges is that the witch is an identity constructed, not even by contemporaries, but by subsequent historians. In the last two decades, general surveys of European witchcraft, based on printed sources preselected for their shock value,(2) have been superseded by sympathetic and non-sensational statistical and archival studies of particular, local trials.(3) Nonetheless, with the witch a given, elements of volition are still lost; the role of personal choice remains elusive. While the terms "agency" and "empowerment" already threaten to become abused in the nineties, it may be useful to view those accused of witchcraft as active agents in their own destinies rather than passive victims of either social ills or their own marginal belief systems. This can be accomplished if the noun "witch" is retired and this classification considered not nominative, but adjectival, describing an act rather than a person.

The element of volition can be restored to witchcraft studies using the same records which the new historiography employs: the records of the Roman Inquisition. The Inquisition isolated the individual and treated him or her as a solitary integer, not as part of a social unit. Its painstaking trials can sometimes provide insights into the role that those practices labelled "witchcraft" played in the context of a suspect's life and can correct for the historian's neglect of motivation. While the plural of anecdote is not data, gingerly reconstructed biography catches the individual who otherwise falls through the statistical grid. A career option rather than a fate or destiny, witchcraft may be considered as having a place alongside labor and family studies, rather than being an exotic territory or aberrant growth on the social body.

Many current, local, statistical studies have isolated women accused as witches, considering them a discrete group rather than integrating them laterally with other working women. The survival strategies open to women, marriage among them, also included witchcraft. The Inquisition documents offer an alternative vertical axis to the inevitable dominance of marriage, a horizontal shaft which runs through practically all other documentary trails.(4) In assessments of the choices or lack of choices open to women, that witchcraft may have been a real option, manipulated with varying degrees of skill by various women, merits consideration.(5)

This tale of two sisters(6) demonstrates that the type of witchcraft chosen and the success with which it was pursued were parallel with other decisions made by or for the two women. Witchcraft practice was an extension of their composite life-pattern. The success with which it was pursued could help determine the desirability of other vocational options. …

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