Support the news

'The Enemy Within,' by John Demos (excerpt)

Prologue

June 1582. In the English town of Chelmsford, half a dozen elderly matrons carefully undress a sawyer's wife named Alice Glasscock and begin a search of her body for "the marks of a witch." In due course they discover several "spots...well sucked"-so they presume-by Satan's imps. This is part of a formal investigation that will lead to Glasscock's trial, conviction, and execution.

September 1623. In the small south German village of Marchtal, a group of farmers and their families interrupt their harvest dance to forbid the approach of a woman named Usula Götz. "Begone! Begone," they shout together, "you shitty witch!" Branded thus, and under threat of torture, Götz will eventually confess to all sorts of "devilish" designs against persons, cattle, crops.

Autumn 1656. In New Haven, in the British colony of Connecticut, a woman named Elizabeth Godman knocks at the door of her neighbor Goodwife Thorp and asks to buy some chickens. Thorp replies curtly, "We have none to sell," whereupon Godman turns away muttering what sounds like a threat. The next day, when several of Thorp's chickens are found dead, she will charge Godman with using "evil means" against them.

May 1692. In Salem, Massachusetts (also a British colony), seven mostly teenage girls thrash wildly about on a courtroom floor, alongside a bewildered witch suspect named Martha Carrier. "There is a black man whispering in her ear!" shrieks one of the girls. A second wails, "She bites me, and tells me she would cut my throat!" while others in the group endure "most intolerable outcries and agonies...of affliction." Carrier's will be one of twenty lives lost to America's most famous witch hunt.

Alice Glasscock. Ursula Götz. Elizabeth Godman. Martha Carrier. All were caught in the snare of real events; all were players in a vast drama spanning key centuries in the history of what we now call "Western civilization." The idea of witchcraft has been part of that history as far back as the records allow us to see. Thousands of people like Götz, Glasscock, Godman and Carrier have been pursued, harassed, injured and killed because of it.

The reality behind the idea is another matter. That some attempts were made to practice witchcraft, and that certain individuals (at least a few) were willing to cast themselves as witches, seems beyond doubt. Where the idea was so prevalent and powerful, a portion of those it touched would, almost inevitable, decide to embrace it. There is great difficulty, however, in identifying such "actual" witches and their specific doings now. For the evidence we have is heavily filtered, coming (as it invariably has) from those who sought to oppose and suppress witchcraft: judges, inquisitors of various types, clergymen and theologians, or simply the countless ordinary folks who feared its use against them.

These distinctions frame a book-any book-on witchcraft history. The focus in what follows is the idea of witchcraft, as it melded with emotions about witchcraft. Again: it is the idea, the emotion, the actions-not the actual practice-that we, from several centuries on, can directly scrutinize. As a result, this is-first and last-a history of witch-hunting.

But witch-hunting is itself a large subject, hardly confined to any single part of the world. In fact, it rises virtually to the level of a cross-cultural universal; witches of one sort or another are, or previously have been, "hunted" just about everywhere-in Asia, in Africa, in Australia, and among native peoples all across the Americas. This book cannot, and does not, reach so far; its boundaries are those of the pre-modern, and modern, West.

There are other boundaries to flag, and additional subject areas that lie beyond reach. Witch-hunting, large as it is, belongs to a still more capacious terrain that also includes racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism, as well as pogroms, lynchings, genocide, and ethnic cleansing. To such patently downside matters, witch-hunting bears an obvious similarity-and even perhaps some dynamic connection. But one crucial element divides them. While the goal for all is separation from a despised "other," witch-hunting alone finds the other within its own ranks. The Jew, the black, and the ethnic opposite exist, in some fundamental sense, "on the outside"; the point of actions against them is to enforce difference and distance, and sometimes to eliminate them altogether. The witch, by contrast, is discovered (and "discovery" is key to the process) inside the host community; typically he or she is a former member in good standing of that community who has chosen not only to reject but also to subvert it. Thus, the idea of witchcraft holds at its center the theme of betrayal. Thus, too, witch-hunting has an intensely countersubversive, anti-conspiratorial tone. Always and everywhere, its goal is to root out the hidden enemy within.

Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from "THE ENEMY WITHIN: 2,000 Years of Witch-hunting in the Western World" by John Demos. Copyright © John Demos, 2008.

Back to "A History of Witch-Hunts"

+Join the discussion
TwitterfacebookEmail

Support the news