It Rhymes With “Witches”

Many of us may automatically think of a specific word when reading the above title, most likely because we associate certain connotations with the phrase. These connotations arise as a result of others’ use of it when describing someone, or something. However, this collective use of the phrase still allows for the individual’s subjective interpretation of what’s implied. Perhaps one person thought of a completely different thing than you when first reading it. Yet, it seems as if most of us associate this phrase with a specific meaning—I’ll leave it to you to figure it out.

But what does the subjective nature of this phrase have to do with witchcraft—besides for the word “witches?” As we discussed in class, the hype over the witch trials of the 17th and 18th centuries seemed to completely contradict the idea of enlightened thinking—or the use of human reason to derive truth from reality. I think it’s interesting that these witch trials occurred during this period because, in a way, these events reveal the “faults” of total faith in enlightened thinking: we, as human beings, are innately interpretive individuals and we use our own assumptions in our processes of interpretation. We only see what we are inclined to see. Even our general human “reason” is made up of individual assumptions. I believe that these witch trials were less about narrow-mindedness and more about the implications of subjective interpretation when used to establish a single meaning. We can see the dangers of imposing objective laws (i.e. death, punishment) on subjective ideas (i.e. religion) in trials like that of Mary Poole.

According to the allegation, titled “Mary Poole, Theft > Grand larceny, 13th December 1699,” Poole was a gypsy woman, indicted for stealing seven pounds ten shillings from a man named Richard Walburton. Walburton alleged she had persuaded him with her “Canting dialect” to cross her hand with silver. She then continued, through various tricks, to “juggle the money out of his hands.” What’s interesting is that she used slightly common sense to figure out where he put his money—she watched him place it in his pocket. She then told him that a treasure was buried under his house and when he went to look, she made her getaway. Sounds no different than a common thief or pick-pocket. But what makes it witchcraft? “What even IS witchcraft?” is my question! We spent so much time asking whether or not it existed that, to me, it seems we didn’t really decide on what it meant. How can we possibly know if something exists unless we know what it is? Well, there goes my own desire to classify it.

We can see through the “evidence” of this trial that others weren’t totally in agreement on what it meant either, highlighting the subjectivity of their interpretations. Other evidence used against Poole included a separate gentleman’s account that she had also stolen money from him, leaving him in a type of stupor. Finally, there was a third gentleman who claimed that, seven years before, he had passed Poole on his horse and she challenged him, saying she would soon overtake his fast pace. He hit her with his whip and kept riding. As he did so, his horse fell to the ground and Poole was able to overtake him—it must be witchcraft! Well, whatever it was, it was enough to convince the jury of her guilt, as Poole was convicted.

What does this allegation suggest people believed about witchcraft? Obviously they believed that it existed, but it seems as if there was no set definition of it. Instead, there was an abundance of various and subjective accounts. The crime of witchcraft could incorporate any number of occurrences that were unexplainable through other modes of “scientific” reason. Thus, they created their own reasoning to identify what it was that puzzled them. Not only did they try to understand the unexplainable, but they also used these objective laws for their own subjective purposes. Through their address on Hutchinson, Ankarloo and Clarke hint at the implications of using objective punishment to enforce subjective ideas:

“Hutchinson was the epitome of the moderate, progressive humanitarian Whig outlooks…While Hobbes and Voltaire reduced everything to fraud, he judiciously made allowance for self-deception, hysteria, social pressure and labeling: people could easily be talked into believing they were witches…thus the witch [is] the victim of malice and deserving compassion” (Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, 206).

Obviously Hutchinson’s opinion is slightly more modern, and perhaps my own is simply a product of his. But it’s hard to overlook the subjective nature of this stigmatization. Because the idea of witchcraft was so ill-defined (or not understandable), it allowed for the extreme bending of classification. One could be labeled a witch for something completely different than another person. There seemed to be no one action or belief that classified you as such. It was simply the deviation from the norm—AGAIN. Thus, when people used subjective experience as evidence, it’s easy to see how trials like these got out of hand.

We can see the power of subjectivity once again in Burr’s The Narrative of Witchcraft Cases. I feel it perfectly embodies the ideas of not only attempting to represent reality, but the implications that subjective representation has on both individuals and society. When describing the account of Joseph Rings, a self-proclaimed victim of witchcraft, Burr relays his account in vivid description and yet, his detail (or evidence) is not enough to counter the reader’s own interpretation. Burr writes how:

“This poor man would be visited with unknown shapes…which would force him away with them, unto unknown Places…presenting him with all the Delectable Things, persons, and places that he could imagine. But he refusing to subscribe, the business would end with dreadful Shapes, Noises and Screeches,” (236).

These occurrences sound like something out of a dream—a representation of reality. Yes, it’s described vividly, but the account is also left vague enough that the reader can imagine his or her own ideas of these “shapes, noises or screeches.” As a result, the account becomes more affective, playing off each of our own fears and desires. I just don’t understand why all of these subjective interpretations had to result in one idea: witchcraft. You’d think that since subjectivity allows for multiple perspectives, there would be more depth to the decisions made during these trials. Yet many people were targeted at the hands of those able to make the decisions—not unlike today. Many were forced to admit to something they did not do, or at least weren’t sure that they did, highlighting the faults of superstition. This transfer of guilt was enough to poison the soul, in the eyes of those living in the 18th century.

What’s even more interesting is our need to make public these kinds of private confessions. Perhaps we need them to stand for something: to represent a public idea that will attempt to govern our private reality. Poor John Proctor was forced to suffer over this abstraction— “I have given you my soul, leave me my name!” He cannot control the connotations surrounding his name once he is denounced for witchcraft. Thus, I’d encourage him to ask himself, what’s in a name? Subjectivity, that’s what. Calm down.

Sources:

Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.0, 30 October 2013), December 1699, trial of Mary Poole (t16991213a-2). http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?id=t16991213a-2&div=t16991213a-2&terms=witch|witchcraft#highlight

Ankarloo, Bengt, and Stuart Clark. Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. Vol. 5. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1999. (read p. 197 to the bottom of p. 206.)

Burr, George Lincoln. Narrative of the Witchcraft Cases, 1648-1706,. New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1914. (p. 12-15, 229-237)

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One thought on “It Rhymes With “Witches”

  1. Great job exploring the hysteria surrounding witchcraft and calling into question exactly how one gets classified as a witch.

    Grade: S

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