Witchcraft Continued: Popular Magic in Modern Europe

By Willem De Blécourt; Owen Davies | Go to book overview

1
A case of witchcraft assault in early
nineteenth-century England as ostensive action

Stephen Mitchell

In his provocatively entitled Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture, anthropologist Marvin Harris suggests a one-dimensional explanation for the witch-hunts of early modern Europe, an all-encompassing theory of class warfare manipulated by elite culture, in effect, ‘the magic bullet of society’s privileged and powerful classes’. Of course, the case for the marriage of anthropology and history as a means of unravelling such mysteries as the European witch-hunts has been – and was already being in the early 1970s – made by a number of scholars, and usually, although not always, brought to this question a measure of subtle and helpful insights. Confidence was high that the lessons derived from fieldwork in living traditions of witchcraft might shed light on the seemingly irretrievable historical situation of early modern Europe. Throughout much of this century, functionalist interpretations of witchcraft in non-western contexts, for example, held that concepts of witchcraft are also theories of causation – and if there is causation, then there are agents of causation, and if there are agents of causation, then such agents can be identified. This view of witchcraft as a logical cultural construct was classically formulated by Evans-Pritchard in his study of Zande witchcraft,1 in a conscious refutation of the views promoted by Lévy-Bruhl that regarded magic as unintelligible to logical thought.2 Following Evans-Pritchard’s monograph, several main trends in the anthropological interpretation of witchcraft accusations evolved, neatly categorized by Max Marwick as: (1) an outlet for repressed hostility, frustration, and anxiety; (2) the means for reaffirming social norms; (3) an index of social tension in society; and (4) a measure of tense personal relationships between accuser and accused.3 While helpful, these four categories can and have been expanded and altered depending on the type of approach taken.4 Following decades of study at the structural level of society, a more dynamic, incident-specific interpretive framework emerged in the 1960s. This approach is most closely associated with Victor Turner and did much to refine, and even revolutionize the anthropologist’s understanding of witchcraft,5 although not without criticism.6

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