'Evil people': a late eighteenth-century Dutch
witch doctor and his clients
Willem de Blécourt
As a part of the increasing interest in 'popular' culture, historians have become more conscious of the presence of witchcraft after the witch trials. Most of the time their attention, however, is restricted to simply indicating witchcraft occurrences. For newcomers in the field a methodological trap also looms. The name of that trap is 'superstition' and its character is an often undeclared but determining element in the history of witchcraft studies. The self-educated Dutch folklorist, Tiesing, writing in 1913, tackled the problem openly: 'people did not consider as superstition everything they do now, because they were firmly convinced of things and events…and that which is considered as conclusive, is no superstition for those who believe it'. This practical and relativising remark did not take root. The civilising offensive, in which Tiesing participated himself, overgrew it. 'Who in witches and ghosts believes, is of his mind bereaved,' a schoolteacher rhymed in 1949, and his opinion met with increasing approval. In Drenthe, as in other provinces of the Netherlands, it was the local elite, consisting of schoolteachers, physicians and ministers, who joined in battle against 'superstition' or 'misbelief'. They constituted an echelon of the Society for the Public Welfare, who had already held a competition in 1798 to eradicate the 'prejudices about Divinations, as well as those about Charming of Devils, Witchcrafts and Hauntings'.1
In this chapter I want to not just proceed beyond the witch trials, but also beyond superstition. For witchcraft should not just be considered as an idea, but also as an action. Using a local case study I will chart the complex of expressions and actions concerning witchcraft and, through the reconstruction of the social, economical and political backgrounds of those involved, relate it to various contemporary contexts. I am furthermore interested in the channels of communication through which the reports about witchcraft have been transmitted. I want to stress at the start that generalising statements and conclusions will only be possible after a synchronic and diachronic comparison between several studies have been conducted in a similar manner.