The English Historical Review/Volume 37/The Witch-Cult in Western Europe. A Study in Anthropology. By Margaret Alice Murray

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The Witch-Cult in Western Europe. A Study in Anthropology. By Margaret Alice Murray. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1921.)

There is no task for the historian so difficult as really to re-think the thoughts of the past, especially when these thoughts assume a form which modern knowledge discredits. Few, indeed, are the historians capable of such a task, and among these few we certainly place Miss Murray. It is true that her book is a monument of compressed information, sound scholarship, and solid learning. It is more than this. She never loses herself in details, nor forgets in following out its ramifications the main object of her work. There is nothing of the kind, so far as we know, in English on the study of the ideas of the distant past; and the work has been so thoroughly carried out that it is not likely to be superseded. It is, indeed, pleasant to meet with a piece of work so comprehensive in scope, and so rich and varied in its treatment of the subject of witch-cult in western Europe and notably in England.

As Mr. Lea in his account of the persecution of the Albigenses was able to show that the anti-social views of this sect warranted the authorities in putting it down, so Miss Murray demonstrates that the dangers arising from the witch-cult constituted just as grave a menace to the framework of society. This is, indeed, the most novel feature in her deeply illuminating book. Under 'operative witchcraft' she classes charms and spells, and rightly has little to say about it. She concentrates all her attention on ritual witchcraft, which she calls the Dianic cult. We all know that Mithraism constituted a serious rival to Christianity, and we all are aware that the church took over the birthday of Mithra as the birthday of Jesus Christ. The old persisted in the new, and this lesson Miss Murray enforces in unexpected ways. Mingled with the Christianity of the middle ages much of the old paganism remained. The witch-cult persisted, and with its persistence rites for rain-making and for causing or blasting fertility survived. Inevitably Dianists sought to encourage fertility among themselves, and to restrain it among their enemies. The church denounced the witches for their share in the destruction of fertility. In 1488 Innocent VIII held that witches 'blight the marriage bed, destroy the births of women and the increase of cattle; they blast the corn on the ground, the grapes of the vineyard, the fruits of the trees, the grass and herbs of the field'.[1] To a Dutchman like Adrian VI it was inevitable that he should denounce witches 'as a Sect deviating from the Catholic Faith, denying their Baptism, and showing Contempt of the Ecclesiastical Sacraments, treading Crosses under their Feet, and, taking the Devil for their Lord, destroyed the Fruits of the Earth by their Enchantments, Sorceries, and Superstitions'. The evidence the author produces, and above all her masterly interpretation of it, go far to justify the decrees of both popes.

Miss Murray is successful in showing that the Dianist cult owned adherents from Italy to New England during the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries. She laments that the cases in the New World have not been published in full, but the material for the Salem Witches case has been carefully collected by Mr. G. L. Burr in 1914, and, indeed, this author is referred to in her fine bibliography. Some of the instances brought forward by Miss Murray are extraordinarily interesting. The fifth earl of Bothwell attempted to murder the king in 1591. It is plain that men feared Bothwell because he was the chief of the witches, and therefore was in possession of magical powers. Indeed, some regarded this arch-Dianist as divine. Miss Murray traces Dianist influence at the court of Charles VII of France. During his reign the Marshal de Retz suffered death as a wizard.

Miss Murray boldly applies her theory to the case of Joan of Arc. She believes—and adduces evidence for her belief—that Joan was put to death as a witch, and that the conduct of her associates during her military career sustains the fact that she belonged to the Dianic cult, not to the Christian. It is not without significance that nine years after her death her commander, Gilles de Rais, was tried on the same charge and condemned to the same fate. Anatole France grasps the fact that behind Joan of Arc lay some hidden force, and this force the author identifies with Dianism.

The questions asked [Miss Murray concludes] by the judges at Joan's trial show that they were well aware of an underlying organization of which they stood in some dread. The judges were ecclesiastics, and the accusation against the prisoner was on points of Christian faith and doctrine and ecclesiastical observance. It was the first great trial of strength between the old and the new religions, and the political conditions gave the victory to the new, which was triumphant accordingly. 'We have caught her now', said the Bishop of Beauvais, and she was burned without even the formality of handing her over to the secular authorities. After the execution, the judges and counsellors who had sat in judgement on Joan received letters of indemnity from the Great Council; the Chancellor of England sent letters to the Emperor, to the kings and princes of Christendom, to all the nobles and towns of France, explaining that King Henry and his Counsellors had put Joan to death through zeal for the Christian Faith; and the University of Paris sent similar letters to the Pope, the Emperor, and the College of Cardinals. Such action can hardly be explained had Joan been an ordinary heretic or an ordinary political prisoner. But if she were in the eyes of the great mass of the population not merely a religious leader but actually the incarnate God, then it was only natural for the authorities, who had compassed her death, to shelter themselves behind the bulwark of their zeal for the Christian religion, and to explain to the heads of that religion their reasons for the execution. On the other hand, the belief that Joan was God Incarnate will account, as nothing else can, for the extraordinary supineness of the French, who never lifted a finger to ransom or rescue Joan from the hands of either the Burgundians or the English. As God himself or his voluntary substitute she was doomed to suffer as the sacrifice for the people, and no one of those people could attempt to save her.

On the whole, we are in agreement with the views Miss Murray expresses. She uses, we think, needlessly offensive expressions about the Christian religion. As we ponder her evidence a doubt suggests itself. Is she not unduly anxious to interpret late medieval evidence as implying more continuity with a remote past than there really is?

Robert H. Murray.


  1. Summis desiderantes (Wikisource contributor note)

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