The Witch in the Western Imagination

By Lyndal Roper. 2012. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press. 240 pages. ISBN: 978-0-8139-3297-2 (hard cover).


Reviewed by Willem de Blécourt

[Review length: 1073 words • Review posted on May 24, 2017]


The Oxford Regius Professor of History, Lyndal Roper, wrote two previous books on witchcraft: Oedipus and the Devil: Witchcraft, Sexuality and Religion in Early Modern Europe (London/New York 1994), in which especially the last two chapters engage with witches; and her main publication on the subject, Witch Craze: Terror and Fantasy in Baroque Germany (New Haven/London 2004). Notwithstanding the titular references to Western and Europe, the author primarily writes about southern Germany. Her scholarly influence extends far beyond witchcraft studies. Why then is the response to her work by German witchcraft scholars so limited and unenthusiastic? The main reason for their reticence is her psychoanalytic approach, less her recourse to Freud than to Melanie Klein. Perhaps the fault also lies with Roper's German colleagues and their reluctance to espouse new theories. In as much as Roper's earlier work has not established her as an authority on witchcraft and its persecution, at least in the English-speaking world, her third book on the topic should certainly do so. Grown out of series of lectures, it assembles material not contained in Witch Craze; it led the author to engage with witch images, a challenge in itself for a non-art-historian. The Witch in the Western Imagination can best be characterized, however, as a collection of different witchcraft representations, varying from a discussion of sabbat images (chapter 1), to an essay on envy (chapter 4), and from a display of rural theatricals (chapter 5) to an analysis of children's games (chapter 6) and finally to the unraveling of the actions of a student who had signed a pact with the devil (chapter 7). All this displays the wide reach and variety of Roper's interest, yet there is a danger of neglecting local witchcraft.

A deep reading of this book suggests other possible reasons than her reliance on psychoanalysis to explain why the reception of her work is so limited among those with intimate knowledge of her area and subject. There is the general delusion, of thinking that witchcraft can be studied through the use of trial sources, but more importantly, there is Roper's refusal to consider witchcraft as a discourse. She puts it bluntly: “discourse analysis of witchcraft has limited and distorted our understanding of the emotional compulsion of the figure of the witch” (8). But witchcraft is far from a “series of inversions,” and exploring why witches were considered such a threat by some people demands an intimate look at religion, here sadly missing. The pictorial material chosen here is too limited, as it relates more to issues of demonology and morality than to witchcraft. The use of an emotional approach to the history of witchcraft would be more persuasive had one of the most basic emotions been discussed, namely shame, which was felt whenever someone was taken for a witch. Roper skirts the issue when she notes, “In the female world of gossip, reputation was all; to fail to fight an insult to one’s honor was to lose one’s good name,” and notices that an exclusion “from the society of upright, honorable women” was precisely the fate of the “witch” under discussion (124). To be robbed of honor was to experience shame, and any analysis of insults and gossip necessitates a consideration of witchcraft discourse.

Witchcraft historians, Roper contends, should focus on “practices rather than discourses” (157) without considering that practice could have been driven by discourse. Why would someone sign a pact and carry it around when he had not been told that he would profit from it? Does Roper really believe that “witches” practiced their craft, even if only by just wishing evil (112)? Wherever one looks, the prime aspect of witchcraft is always discursive, and ignoring this results in serious misunderstandings. This also applies when attempts are made to ascribe emotions to the processes of witchcraft accusations. Like gossip, accusations were first and foremost talk, they drew a conversation into the (or at least a) witchcraft discourse. In my view, the use of any present-day approaches, psychoanalysis included, applies an extra layer of discourse to historical events that are already ruled by other discourses. Envy, the main emotion analyzed in The Witch in the Western Imagination, was an ascribed emotion; other people said that witches acted out of envy, if indeed it is opportune to consider envy foremost as an emotion and not as a sin. Roper's claim that “The witch, after all, is an embodiment of envy” (91), is over-stated. Witchcraft does not equal envy, as there are many depictions of Invidia that have nothing to do with witches, and there are images of witches associated with quite different sins, such as avarice or lust.

Roper's insights into the travels of a teenage student (5), her emphasis of humor in demonology (38-40), and indeed her (repeated) designation of witches as “perverted mothers” (134) render The Witch in the Western Imagination brilliant in places. This also, however, reveals a lack of specialist insight. Roper writes, for instance, about witches visiting wine-cellars: “Such themes drew on the idea of Schlaraffenland, or the land of Cockaigne” (97), without recognizing it as an old witchcraft motif that had little to do with the flying roasts of Cockaigne. Or when she states: “So far as I know, the idea of a school occurs nowhere in writing about the Devil and witches” (137), she is unaware that “school” was a central element in the sabbat concept, as both “synagoge” (an earlier fifteenth-century term for the witches' assembly) and the Italian “cursus” can, and in all likelihood did, mean “school.” The idea was that witches, like heretics, had to learn their craft. Moreover, the notion of school could easily have evoked questions about the schooling of children who were playing around with the notion of a witches' school. Or take another instance: children who were talking about mice, fleas, and lice afford, according to Roper, “insights into a child's imagination on the cusp of the Enlightenment.” The little animals reflected fears and can thus provide an instance of Freudian speculation, which substitutes them for the children's parents (144). Alas, no imagination is necessary here, since the children simply adhered to (a part of) the local witchcraft discourse, which featured vermin as the product of witchcraft.

If this book presents a challenge to other witchcraft scholars, as the blurb would have it, it should be, I am afraid, to examine it critically and to challenge some of Roper's findings.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.