Malcolm Gaskill on witchcraft, gender-politics and being shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize 2022
The Wolfson History Prize revealed its shortlist for 2022 in April, showcasing the best historical non-fiction titles from the previous year including Malcom Gaskill’s The Ruin of All Witches, a dark, fascinating, real-life tale of witch-hunting in colonial New England. A leading expert in the history of witchcraft, Gaskill is Emeritus Professor of Early Modern History at the University of East Anglia and the author of Witchfinders: A Seventeenth-Century English Tragedy and Between Two Worlds: How the English Became Americans. We chat to him about the Wolfson History Prize, the gender-politics of his new book and what we can learn from witch-hunting today.
How do you feel about being shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize for The Ruin of All Witches?
I’m absolutely delighted – it really was a great surprise. There’s been so much going on in the build up to it, so it’s been incredibly exciting. I’m very honoured and grateful.
You bring 17th Century New England to life in the book, but in your introduction, you are careful to distinguish the book as a historical reconstruction, not a novel. How do you construct a narrative and build a world while being careful not to embellish the facts?
Most of my career has been spent writing academic history, which is sort of removed from the stories, and with witchcraft I thought it was important to explain how witchcraft accusations developed over time. Accusing someone was not a kind of sudden knee-jerk reaction to misfortune, not being able to understand things and so on; instead they often simmer away. And so, for that I felt it really needed a timeline, it needed a narrative that went over months and in fact in this story, years. So, when you get to the moment when somebody is accused you understand the hinterland to it; you understand how they got to that position, because the people who are accused of witchcraft have their reputations gradually eroded over time until the moment that everybody feels bold enough to step forward and point the finger. I was very keen to tell the story with a beginning, middle and an end, and to use the evidence such as we have in such a way that it would really place the reader there in Springfield, in the 1650s, so that you kind of experience what they’re experiencing. So, in terms of embellishment, I think that a lot of historians nowadays are keen to reconstruct historical worlds for their readers but yeah, sure, without actually making anything up. The records in Springfield are actually very good, and so quite a lot of the picturesque, if you like, was drawn from other New England sources. Weather would be a good example; if you know what the weather is like somewhere further down the Connecticut valley, you can be certain that that’s what it was like in Springfield as well because it’s only twenty miles down the road. You can draw on all those techniques to draw up a novelistic picture of this story without inventing anything. I think that there is a line which historians shouldn’t cross, but it’s important to try to communicate the meaning of a story and to do that a certain amount of licence can be taken as long as there are other sources to draw on that allow you to build up that context.
What sparked your interest in researching and writing about witchcraft?
It goes back to when I was a student, so more than thirty years ago now. I was kind of interested in two things as a student; I was interested in the history of crime and I was interested in the history of popular beliefs and those things really come together with witchcraft because, of course, witchcraft is a popular belief, but it was also criminalised in the 16th and 17th centuries. Really you can best understand witchcraft in the period by thinking about it in those two ways, particularly how those two ways come together, because in a witchcraft trial you’ve got the beliefs of the witness being presented as testimony, and you’ve got the law, which must be satisfied by the evidence. When those two things flow together you either get a conviction or, more often than not you get an acquittal. So that’s how I started off. In my summer holidays I lived in Kent, as that’s where I grew up, so I started doing Kent in the 1640s and going to the local record office and seeing what they had on rituals. That then grew into a third-year history dissertation, and that grew into a PhD, and I just kept going. So that’s how I started off, but the other part of it, in terms of how I started teaching about witchcraft – I used to do a whole course on witchcraft, it used to go on for twelve weeks and by week twelve the students would think ‘can’t we move onto something else’! – so the point about studying witchcraft is that it’s a very good way into a lot of other things. It’s interesting in itself, sure, and I think students tended to like that, but if you’re look at it in the 16th and 17th century then it’s a way to understand gender, economic change, and literacy, print and the law, and so on. There’s hardly any area of early modern life which is not informed upon in some way by studying witchcraft. Witchcraft opens a window on that lost world in all its many different forms.
I was struck by the parallels of life in the puritanical New World with our own modern society, particularly in terms of the ‘othering’ of some men but, mostly, women, from unmarried women, to widows, to women like Mary Parsons in The Ruin of All Witches struggling with their mental and physical health. Particularly in terms of the recent events like the US Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade, and the prevalence of so-called social media ‘witch-hunts’ more generally today, do you think we’ve come very far from the days of real-life witch hunts?
I have to say that we have come an awful long way but, I suppose it goes back to the 19th century about being overconfident about progress. People were very confident about progress throughout the 19th century and then the First World War happened, and it rather shattered the idea that there was this upward trajectory. I think we can also take a longer view of that; in the 20th century we got overconfident about the triumph of rationalism and rationality, and actually we’ve evolved to be rather hostile and suspicious and emotional beings! I’m sure you realised from the book that it’s really about the history of emotion, particularly hostile, negative emotion, and the way those things get acted upon. We like to think that we’re all about ideas when we’re often about feeling; Brexit was a very good illustration of that. You’ve just mentioned Roe vs. Wade; there, the narrative seems so often about being ‘pro-life’, but really, I wonder why conservative critics are so worried about choice and whether they really care about the lives of the unborn or whether it’s just another form of control over women, and that is of course what witchcraft is about too. That’s not to say witchcraft was a sort of conspiracy to keep all women down because women would also participate in the accusation of witches. Witchcraft is really about witchcraft and that’s one of the hard things you have to try to get across; it’s a category which makes sense in those times. But witchcraft is power, it’s power that people might take upon themselves; they might believe, or it’s power which people impute to others. In terms of how much it’s changed, and whether we have changed, I think that hostility of the powerful towards the powerless is something that we do see in our own time, and perhaps that it’s getting worse. Maybe what witchcraft teaches us is that we need to constantly defend rights, and the rule of law and liberty, because if we don’t then more powerful people tend to come and arrogate that power away and so we need to stick up for things; that’s one of the modern lessons that witchcraft teaches us.
In my mind, the word ‘witch’ is often seen as gendered and synonymous with women, however in the book Hugh Parsons is accused of witchcraft along with his wife, Mary. Was it a conscious choice to position both a man as well as a woman at the heart of these accusations?
It certainly wasn’t, especially with me as a man, needing to tell a 50% female audience that men were accused too! The interest of Hugh and Mary Parsons for me is that they were a household, and that so often we have this stereotyped image of what witch-hunting as lots of people ganging up on one person. And, you know, that happened, but witchcraft would have made much more sense to our ancestors as conflict between households, because the household was where all your power and survival mechanisms and resources were concentrated, and that’s what’s being attacked. So, in the book, with these people when their tools go missing, that isn’t like us losing a phone in a taxi or something, this is a household being attacked. You know, we think of ourselves rather individualistically whereas they thought of themselves very much in terms of that household. Witchcraft is a gender-related crime, but it’s not a gender-specific crime, and that is often the assumption: that a witch is woman. There is a very strong relationship between women and witchcraft because the overwhelming number of people who were accused of witchcraft were women, that cannot be denied. One of the things that was interesting to me was not just that witchcraft, or the fear of witchcraft and prosecution of witchcraft needed to be understood in terms of household conflict rather conflict between individuals, but that also the concept of the male witch made sense to early modern people. The idea that a man could be a witch was perfectly comprehensible it just didn’t happen as often. One of the reasons for that again goes back to power; women were, assuming they followed biblical teachings, were the ‘weaker vessel’. It didn’t mean that they were intrinsically evil but that they were more vulnerable to be tempted by the devil. Another thing is that women are less powerful than men, poor women are less powerful that richer women and older women are even less powerful. So, if you are a poor, old woman with those three social disadvantages then it makes more sense that you might be somebody who would use witchcraft in order to achieve power which you couldn’t achieve naturally. The Ruin of All Witches was an attempt to make witchcraft make sense to a modern audience in the mind of their ancestors. The history of witchcraft is so laden with myth and distortions that it’s good to try to get underneath and beyond those things because your ancestors and my ancestors believed in this stuff, and it really wasn’t that long ago. And as you say, you see kind of survivors of these things or revivals even in our own time. But your ancestors and mine once upon a time lived in villages and had the belief in witchcraft and they may have suspected their neighbours and that would have made absolute sense to them, in the same way that things about the material world make complete sense to us, and that’s what I was trying to achieve.
Witches & witch trials have emerged as a trend in publishing in recent years, with the success of works like A.K. Blakemore’s The Manningtree Witches which looks at the Essex witch trials. What do you think is behind this trend?
Well, I think it’s kind of always been there. People have always been interested in the occult, and it’s sort of always on the edge between an alternative sort of religion and power, and on the other side, horror, and of course people are very drawn to that, too. Publishing, generally, is in kind of rude health at the moment, and I think publishers work very hard to put attractive, accessible books – non-fiction and fiction – into the hands of intelligent readers. It’s interesting just how vibrant the book-trade is; even in the digital age people still want to have books with great covers that they can put in their pockets and take on the bus, or whatever – it still matters very much. So, I think why the subject matter appeals to people is that it’s quite an old appeal. There’s escapism, in the history or fiction of witchcraft, there’s a sense of fantasy, but there’s also a sense of danger. As we know from the popularity of horror films, we are naturally drawn to that because they are socially contained, and we always learn something about ourselves by exercising our emotions of anxiety and fear in a safe environment. Witchcraft is very good for catharsis – it goes back to the ancient Greeks and the idea that its healthy if we purge our emotions witchcraft is really all about emotions: the emotions that you feel and the emotions that you project onto others. And the people of Springfield, I think a lot of the time they are anxious; they believe in witches; they are fearful of the devil and they’re fearful of God’s judgement, all these things, they’re afraid for their children; they’re afraid of starving to death. These things are all real, and so they are also guilty, and they are envious of others and there’s a degree of self-loathing because they hold themselves to very high moral standards. We’re used to this when thinking about the Victorians, that if you ask ‘what’s the moral life of the Victorians’, you think, well, they were very censorious and prudish, but also self-loathing because they never quite measured up either. I think that’s the same in any intensely moral and religious age. Certainly, in Springfield in the 17th century, a lot of them had gone to New England because they wanted to revive Christian charity which they felt was waning in England, and when they get there, they find they’re not very good at it. Why? Because they’re flesh and blood and greedy and jealous and the rest of it, and they’re not very good at living with that and witchcraft is a projection of those negative emotions onto somebody else. It’s a kind of scapegoating, but I don’t really like using scapegoating regarding witchcraft because it sounds very deliberate, like saying ‘I’m going to accuse you of witchcraft because I don’t like you’. Whereas I think there’s something much more deeply psychological about this, and really people do think others are attacking them and they impute to others’ emotions that they can’t quite live with their own sinful selves.
One of the things in Springfield is that self-loathing builds up and is projected onto Hugh and Mary Parsons, and they get rid of them, but they aren’t suddenly happy and cleansed and pure. The things that we think are good for us don’t turn out to be as good as we thought. In a modern example, say, exercise or eating well or not smoking, not drinking too much, obviously there are health benefits. But deep down we think that if we do those things because we feel there’s a moral element to it as well – we do want to be better people. But sometimes, those things don’t quite deliver. Money might be a better example. Obviously below a certain level, and in this day and age with the cost-of-living crisis, below a certain level having no money does make you miserable. But equally when you reach a certain point, you don’t get exponentially happier and we often strive for things that we think we want, often material things, and they don’t always quite live up to expectation. People in Springfield are rather strange, and often rather unpleasant, and it was a long time ago. Their emotional world is different from ours and if it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be history. However, there are elements to them that we can identify within ourselves, because, really, biologically, and mentally they’re surprisingly ike us, just in a different time and place.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’ve changed direction, a bit, and now I’m working on a book about escaping POWs in wartime Italy. That seems like a huge departure, and in some ways it is, but if one wanted to make a link o The Ruin of All Witches it would be in the epilogue of that book which was about how I discovered that story and what it meant to interact with the physical evidence of the past. This book, then, is essentially based on my great-uncle’s memoir that he wrote when he was in hiding in Italy at the end of the war, which concerned an escape that he’d made earlier that year and that’s really the basis of this book. He’s long dead and so what this book is about is not reconstructing his life during the war, but what I put into it myself and how that story gets discovered. It really comes back to your first question which relates to self-examination about what history is and how we tell the truth about the past and how we communicate it, and where the limits lie. With this, as with The Ruin of All Witches, there must be an imaginative dimension. Historians don’t just serve up the evidence from the past, they also have to imagine the world that it belongs to. What a writer says to a reader is, ‘I want you to trust me, I want you trust that I’m not making this up’, and at the same time, the evidence that comes out of archives has to be served up in a way that makes an emotional connection with the readers in the present. The past is dead, whether it’s Hugh or Mary Parsons or my great-uncle Ralph. They belong to the past, the history belongs to us; history is in the present and we make of history what we want to.
The Ruin of All Witches: Life and Death in the New World by Malcolm Gaskill is shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize 2022.
Malcolm Gaskill is Emeritus Professor of Early Modern History at the University of East Anglia and the author of Witchfinders: A Seventeenth-Century English Tragedy and Between Two Worlds: How the English Became Americans. Gaskill is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and a frequent contributor to the London Review of Books.
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