H-NET BOOK REVIEW
Published by H-Albion@h-net.msu.edu (February, 2000)
Marion Gibson. Reading Witchcraft: Stories of Early English Witches. New
York: Routledge, 1999. ix + 242 pp. Bibliography and index. $24.99
(paper), ISBN 0-415-20646-4.
Reviewed for H-Albion by Anna Bayman and Clive
Holmes , Faculty of Modern History, University
Writing Witchcraft: witches and pamphleteers
Is it appropriate that a study of witchcraft should be written backwards?
Marion Gibson's analysis of the surviving Elizabethan and Jacobean
witchcraft pamphlets consists of five chapters. The final one deals with
the mix of poetry, godly exhortation, and scholarly disquisition that
preface these pamphlets. It is preceded by a discussion of the
differences in the crafting and presentation of the stories that they
tell. These two chapters are grouped in a section, entitled 'Pamphlets'.
The first three chapters also form a section, 'Records', which evaluates
the standing of these texts for the purposes of historical reconstruction.
What information can historians -- of witchcraft beliefs, or of judicial
procedure; of economic polarisation and social tension, or of gender
roles -- distil from these pamphlets? The second section, it seems, should
logically precede the first. And, while both sections contain some
persuasive arguments and effective criticism, the analysis developed in
the second part of the book is certainly the more sensitive and
Dr Gibson's book develops recent cross-disciplinary work that has blurred
the distinctions between literature and record, and the methodologies used
to approach them. Her close literary reading of the texts, emphasising
style, structure and narrative convention, produces some compelling
insights. Her demonstration (pp. 31-2) of the sophisticated defensive
strategies that underpin Margery Sammon's apparently artless 'confession'
is a splendid example of the interpretative power of her methodology. Her
analysis (pp. 120-1) of the fragmented and multi-vocal quality of The
most strange and admirable discoverie despite its reassuring pretence of
straightforward, objective reportage, or her discussion (pp. 150-3) of
the role of a boisterous humour in some of the texts, are equally fine.
Her final chapter, analysing the prefaces, is the most sustained
demonstration of the effectiveness of her technique. Gibson shows how
these, as 'frame stories', engage with the main bodies of the texts, how
they shape any readings of them, and how careful interrogation of the
prefatory material may reveal authorial preoccupations or a scheme for the
Yet even this admirable discussion is vitiated by a diffidence in one key
aspect. It occurs when Gibson confronts the question of the changes in the
preface genre in the course of her period. She argues that the prefaces
'firm up': witchcraft is no longer treated as merely one example among
many of human sinfulness; it has become a unique form of crime, and
writers have to employ an extensive bibliography, and an appropriately
specific scientific discourse. This is an interesting suggestion, but why
does the shift occur? Gibson muses (p. 171) that she 'cannot help
wondering about the direct or indirect influence of the demonological
debates which had taken place' at the turn of the century, but, having
tossed out this suggestion, argues it no further. No attempt is made to
test the hypothesis by a serious engagement with the treatises of
Harsnett, or Darrell, or to delineate the ways in which their debate
inflected upon the witchcraft pamphlets. The question of changing format
or emphasis is more problematic in other sections of the book. So in
chapter 3, on Accusations, Gibson suggests that the testimony retailed in
the early pamphlets displays the classic Thomas-Macfarlane denial
narrative -- I rejected the witch's request; she cursed me; I suffered.
But later pamphlet-reproduced accusations stress that the witch's
malevolence is fuelled by her desire to revenge other kinds of insults, or
is simply motiveless. The effect is to enhance the impression of the
witch's malignity, but is this the motive for the change? Gibson remarks
(p. 94) that this distribution "might suggest patterning by narration
rather than necessarily a change in reality, or it might suggest different
constructions of witchcraft in different places." These interesting
suggestions are not developed, nor is there any indication of how they
might be pursued - in local judicial records, for instance; in practical
treatises like Bernard's Guide to Grand Jurymen.
Dr Gibson is often illuminating in her delineation of the shifting
conventions employed within the pamphlets, but her explanations of these
are, however, often partial or ambiguous. The problem here stems from her
refusal to stray far beyond the confines of the narrow class of pamphlets
and to examine other bodies of evidence relevant to the mattes that she
wishes to discuss. While this is most obvious when changes in the
substance or rhetorical conventions of the pamphlets are the issue, it can
also occur in passages of more static structural analysis. It seems odd,
in chapter two, to compare pamphlet accounts of the shape of the witch
trial with Cockburn's account of general criminal procedure to test the
reliability of the former. Use of the Star Chamber records in cases that
turn on malicious prosecution, and which therefore describe the procedure
in cases of witchcraft, would provide a far better basis of comparison.
In some of the longeurs of this book -- the "sustained nit-picking" [her
own phrase (p. 18)] at the pamphlets; the sniping at the errors of
Notestein or Thomas -- the reader longs for Gibson to elevate her gaze and
attempt to answer some of the intriguing questions that develop from her
research. This would require a far fuller survey of the other classes of
documents that intersect with the pamphlets and provide the fullest
context for understanding them. Dr Gibson is suspicious of historians
"over-hasty and careless readers; insufficiently explicit and often naive
in their conceptual assumptions," but she is a historian. Despite some
dalliance with the modish conceptual language of post-modernism she
rejects the solipsism affected by more committed practitioners. Gibson
believes trials happened; that witches were hanged; and, most
particularly, that the pamphlets on which she focuses were produced. The
pamphlets are, with all the difficulties of interpretation, historical
data, and meanings "not always the obvious ones" can be teased from them.
And this raises perhaps the two most troubling failures in the book.
The first concerns another aspect of the necessary contextualisation of
the material. Dr Gibson's study is based on a small run of pamphlets, but
she never discusses pamphleteering in the sixteenth and early seventeenth
centuries. Neither the market forces nor the literary culture that
impinged upon the pamphleteers are analysed in any sustained way. They are
glanced at throughout the book. Her nice discovery that one of the
pamphlets is based upon a play by Greene should locate the work in a
literary culture of borrowing and interconnection, often in association
with mockery and playfulness, that had a profound effect on the stylistic,
structural and tonal elements of many pamphlets, including several of
those relating to witchcraft. Again, seeking to explain the demise of the
witchcraft pamphlet (a key issue that remains problematic throughout the
work) she adduces an interesting theory that relies on the location of
their decline in a market context. But there is no attempt beyond this
suggestion to analyse the circumstances of the pamphlets' production.
Finally, Dr Gibson fails to recognise the force of her own epistemological
position. If the texts constitute historical entities, if the
representations and stereotypes are real events even as they conceal or
distort other real events, then their narratives need to be considered as
more than obstacles to be navigated, understood only to be peeled away.
The texts must be used to investigate how narrative conventions functioned
to influence the behaviour of those involved, and how stereotypes
themselves were fluid, influenced by and influencing the cultures that
produced them. The tenuous search for a real witchcraft behind the
representation, without considering the representation itself, weakens the
analysis in the first section of the book. That Gibson's best analysis is
of the arts of the pamphlets where she does not expect to find or tease
out a record of real events -- the preface -- is perhaps no coincidence.
Here, in the final chapter, are the most insightful observations in the
book about possible contemporary perceptions of witchcraft, though this
chapter like the others still lacks a discussion of the reciprocal and
complex relationships between witch-beliefs, witch-narratives, and the
means by which these were communicated.
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