The next set of posts will be very much like those for Diane Purkiss’ book, The Witch in History. Witches & Neighbors is a collection of essays written by Robin Briggs that explores the social and cultural context in early modern Europe that contributed to “witch craze”. Much like Purkiss, Briggs asserts that any witches of the time were constructed out of the personal fears rooted in issues such as food production and money, and that people pushed the responsibility for any misfortune into the hands of witches and ill will in order to cope with the hardships. Sometimes it is easier to explain away mistakes or a streak of bad luck as someone out to harm you rather than just truly bad luck or personal faults.
While Purkiss’ essays focused mainly on how women helped construct the witch, Briggs’ focus is more broad, looking at how all of society helped to create the witch. Her overall argument is that witches fell out of vogue so to speak, because our social structures changed to be less nuclear and our power structures changed. As she talks about later in the book, many trials only happened after years and years of neighborly conflicts concerning talks about “unnatural power” congealed into a solid accusation. Again, the witch in Briggs’ findings is not one who is opposite to the church, but opposite to the people, to the local society in which the witch lived. In the same way that we gossip and spread rumors about people we do not like, who are outsiders, or who have injured us in some way, so did the people of early modern Europe and Puritan New England. It just so happens that the derogatory terms we use to describe those people have changed. We no longer go on witch hunts, we slut-shame.
Briggs, much like Purkiss, also points out the deep-rooted problems in most witch scholarship, specifically that of the “Burning Times” myth, and that witch hunts were born out of the patriarchy trying to control women. The first is never called such, but she does make note throughout the book of how the myth has impacted modern thought, but has almost no base in actual fact. For the second, she recognizes how gender roles and expectations played a role in the creation of witches, but argues that more than anything it was a joint effort on the parts of the village citizens, rather than the hierarchal elite trying to tighten their control on women who they most likely never interacted with.
Myths of the Perfect Witch:
In this first essay, Briggs works to push through misconceptions of the witch and to paint a better picture of the actual witches of the time, a “person motivated by ill-will and spite who lacked the proper sense of neighborhood and community”(23). While it was believed that any witch had to make a pact with the Devil to receive any sort of power or ability, the wrongs caused by said witch often stuck to the realm of sickness, misfortune, or problems with the animals. Also, based on the confessions of witches, the decadence that came at sabbats was mainly in the food and dancing, but everything had a sickly feel to it. The naked, orgiastic sabbats are products of people’s imaginations that have been grown out of proportion throughout time. Briggs digs deeper into this later on in the book. (It is of note that those who came from stricter religious backgrounds had deeper seated views about the types of debauchery that witches got up to, such as the Puritans.)
Indeed, the various accounts of the sabbats seem more like inverted village dances and festivals rather than anything supremely steeped in dark magic. Briggs hypothesizes that these accounts were an attempt to “express their resentments through a fantasy life” in order to gain more control over their lives. This fantasy realm where the confessed witches actually had a covenant with the Devil gave them the power to turn their neighbors lives upside down and perhaps a modicum of control over their own. The fear and respect that came with being a suspected witch could make day-to-day life easier, until suspicions turned to formal accusations of course.
All in all, the “perfect witch” is a figure tied to dreams and realities. The witch of early modern Europe was created for the hardships of the times and dreams of being better off than one’s neighbors. Due to certain texts and accounts being more well-known than others, we have built the witch into something more devious, dangerous, and sexualized.