The Witch-Cult in Western Europe/Book reviews/Church Quarterly Review

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Comparative Religion.

The Witch-Cult in Western Europe. A Study in Anthropology.
By M. A. Murray. (Clarendon Press. 1921.) 16s. net.

The two main characteristics which are likely to impress themselves upon the reader of this extremely interesting book are its learning and its confidence. The witch-cult of which Miss Murray writes is ‘the religious beliefs and ritual of the people known in late mediaeval times as “witches.”’ She claims that ‘the evidence proves that underlying the Christian religion was a cult practised by many classes of the community, chiefly, however, by the more ignorant or those in the less thickly inhabited parts of the country. It can be traced back to pre-Christian times, and appears to be the ancient religion of Western Europe.’ She gives it the name of the ‘Dianic cult,’ from Diana, the feminine counterpart of a god who ‘is found in Italy (where he was called Janus or Dianus), in Southern France and in the English Midlands,’ and who appears as a man with two faces. It is always a little disconcerting to be told at the outset that a case has been proved, and it is apt to raise uneasy doubts in a student’s mind as to the writer’s acquaintance with the nature of proof if his own limited opportunities of investigation have chiefly impressed him with the difficulty of arriving at more or less probable inferences. But Miss Murray has no such unworthy timidity. We read again: ‘It is now a commonplace of anthropology that the tales of fairies and elves preserve the traditions of a dwarf race which once inhabited Northern and Western Europe.’ . . . ‘As the conqueror always regards the religion of the conquered as superior to his own in the arts of evil magic, the dwarf race obtained the reputation of wizards and magicians, and their god was identified by the conquerors with the Principle of Evil.’ At the risk of seeming to be merely sceptical we are conscious of desiderating several not unimportant qualifications in regard to both these statements.

The discussion of the evidence derived from the statements of witches as to the forms in which the devil presented himself to them would require another volume instead of a review. The list of the names of the witches given in Appendix III extends to more than twenty pages, and Miss Murray’s collection of extracts and instances must have cost years of search. There are certain incidental features to which it may be permissible to call attention. Thus Elizabeth Sawyer, the witch of Edmonton, in 1621 says ‘he the Divell taught me this prayer, sanctibecetur nomen tuum, Amen.’ Andro Man at Aberdeen in 1597 says that the devil ‘is rasit be the speaking of the word Benedicite.’ In an alleged meeting with the devil by those engaged in a treasonable conspiracy for the destruction of James VI of Scotland in 1590 ‘his hienes name was pronunceit in Latine,’ while the devil is represented as speaking French, and is regarded by Miss Murray as being Francis Stewart, Earl of Bothwell, nephew of Queen Mary’s husband. The Somersetshire witches in 1664, as they were carried through the air to their meetings, used these words as they passed: ‘Thout, tout a tout, tout, throughout and about. And when they go out from their Meetings, they say Rentum, Tormentum.’ At Aix, in 1610, ‘the Magicians and those that can reade, sing certaine Psalmes as they doe in Church, especially Laudate Dominum de Coelis. Confitemini Domino quoniam bonus, and the Canticle Benedicite, transferring all to the praise of Lucifer and the Divels.’ In the ceremony of laying the devil after he had been raised by the use of the word Benedicite, according to Andro Man’s evidence, the word Maikpeblis was used. Sometimes, e.g. in the Basses-Pyrénées in 1609, an invocation has a Latin beginning and a vernacular ending. In Guernsey, in 1563, a man-witch claimed to make cows give blood instead of milk by saying ‘Butyrum de armento.’ Elizabeth Francis, a witch tried at Chelmsford in 1566, said that ‘when she wolde wyl him [her familiar] to do any thinge for her, she wolde say her Paternoster in Laten.’ (The familiar in this case was ‘a whyte spotted Catte’: it was called ‘Sathan,’ and kept in a basket.) All the instances quoted come from a period and, with one exception, from quarters where Latin made an impression on the hearers because it had become, or was becoming, unfamiliar. But there is another point. Miss Murray’s list of witches, as we have said, is long, though it gives the names, of course, of only a small proportion of those against whom charges were made in the course of centuries. But her practice, no doubt a necessary one, of repetition under different headings, has concealed from her, as it seems to the reviewer, how relatively slight is the body of evidence upon which her far-reaching conclusions are based. It may be regarded as antecedently probable that in certain parts of England and Scotland survivals of rites and practices associated with what may loosely be called ‘Nature Worship’ will be found down to comparatively modern times, and the Vitae Sanctorum Hiberniae provides a starting-point for an inquiry which would not prove fruitless in regard to Ireland. And it may well be true that ‘pseudo-science has prevented the unbiassed examination’ of this as of other material. But it is equally possible for the scientific student to become obsessed with an idea: thus anthropology has often been in danger of being made ridiculous by a failure to remember that observation and interpretation are distinct operations. ‘It would seem,’ Miss Murray tells us, ‘that the witches, like the adorers of animal gods in earlier times, attempted to become one with their god or sacred animal by taking on his form.’ It may be a correct interpretation, though we do not think that it is, but two preliminary questions have to be asked. How far do the cases open to observation suffice for any conclusion at all? What inference would an unprejudiced observer draw? It requires far more than isolated, even if parallel, instances to prove a continuous cultus, a definite organization, an established ritual. Again, an inference to be valid must be based on a consideration of all the facts; thus Miss Murray’s suggestion in regard to the Christian names of the witches as evidence would need to be supported by an examination of the distribution of Christian names in England and Scotland, and their relative frequency and any possible or probable causes—an examination for which in the greater part of the period with which she actually deals there is ample material. But of the influence of the dominant idea there can scarcely be found a more startling example than her treatment of Joan of Arc and Gilles de Rais. As to this we are content to ask, would any impartial historical student who read Appendix IV, with the evidence there stated and selected by Miss Murray herself, arrive at her conclusion that Joan ‘was put to death as a witch, and the conduct of her associates during her military career, as well as the evidence at her trial, bear out the fact that she belonged to the ancient religion, not to the Christian’?

The evidence, sometimes barely printable, collected by Miss Murray, would, so far as it goes, support a suggestion of a standard of moral conduct often associated with one of the lower rather than one of the higher religions. It is a curious fact that a fairly wide study of legal records of the main English districts with which she deals in the same period, while certainly not indicating the prevalence of a high moral standard, is wholly opposed to any theory of promiscuity, however motived.

We hope that in any future edition Miss Murray will see her way to withdraw a sentence on p. 179, as a scientist, if not as a woman, for it will not bear investigation, and by its offensiveness mars the general tone of her work.

This work was published before January 1, 1923 and it is anonymous or pseudonymous due to unknown authorship. It is in the public domain in the United States as well as countries and areas where the copyright terms of anonymous or pseudonymous works are 95 years or less since publication.