Kathryn Hughes

Women who Denounced their Sisters as Witches

The Witch in History: Early Modern and Twentieth-Century Representations


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Sometime during the 1970s the witch was transformed from a black-hatted crone to a wise medicine women. The spell was cast by radical feminist historians, determined to find their own heroic ‘foremothers’ in the dim murk of the past. The witch was a good place to start. Dunked, splattered and singed throughout the early modern period, she could easily be reclaimed for the sisterhood. Her sexual strangeness, medical know-how and social unacceptability made her ripe for canonisation.

The only problem, says Diane Purkiss, is that it didn’t happen like that. Witches were not women who lived thrilling, passionate lives on the edge of village respectability. They were not turned over to the authorities because of their subversive way with camomile leaves. Neither was it their refusal to marry which brought a posse of self-righteous burghers to the door. Rather, they were often mean, grubby and dishonest, the sort of old hag no one wanted as a neighbour.

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