Witchcraft Continued: Popular Magic in Modern Europe

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

5
Boiling chickens and burning cats: witchcraft
in the western Netherlands, 1850–1925

Willem de Blécourt

Towards the end of the nineteenth century The Hague newspapers reported that in a village between Gouda and Rotterdam a child was bewitched. The parents consulted an unwitcher who advised that they boil a live black chicken. This would draw the witch to the house of the bewitched. That evening, as the spell was enacted, it so happened that an old woman walked by. She was pulled inside and forced to unwitch the child, that is to say, to bless it. At the time this was certainly not an extraordinary account. Neither did it concern a ‘single narrow-minded individual’. To the horror of the newspaper editors the whole village population participated in the ‘witchcraft story’ and this even ‘in the centre of our fatherland’.1 Yet today’s historians pay attention to this and other cases of witchcraft in inverse proportion to the zeal with which such ‘superstition’ was combated at the time. In the historiography of the western Netherlands one searches in vain for discussion on witchcraft in this period.2 The end of the nineteenth century is rather associated with a renewal of industrialization and improving communications than with witchcraft. This can at least partly be ascribed to the concept of culture that is current among historians who deal with this period. This concept is barely coloured by anthropology and therefore offers hardly any room for what has come to be called the history of everyday life.3

In this chapter I will apply an anthropological perspective. This way I will show what thinking and acting in terms of witchcraft, in short the witchcraft discourse, implied for the way people dealt with space and to a lesser extent with time, as well as for what they thought about the body. This analysis is embedded in an discussion about the bewitched, the people they suspected of bewitchments, and the people they called in to help them. The prevention of witchcraft will figure, too. It should also be clear from the outset that I do not consider manifestations of witchcraft as ‘remains of magical thinking’ mixed up with Christian elements, and which would be labelled as ‘emotional’ in contrast to ‘rational’ or ‘sober-minded’.4 Witchcraft, I will argue here, has its own logic that is neither more nor less rational than

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