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How do you know she is a witch?

Today we are delighted to introduce our new guest blogger, Nell Aubrey.


Nell is a Historian of Medicine who started as a Medievalist but has also studied Medical Anthropology and Pharmacology and has branched out to do research into Botanical Folklore. Despite studying and teaching at UCL and Oxford she has spent most of her adult life in a Library and has been too busy reading to have a proper career. Following several years as 'Witch in Residence' at the Skip & Story Gardens at Kings Cross & St Pancras, She now lives with her Familiars in a spooky old Schoolhouse, in East Anglia.


How do you know she is a Witch?


One of my favourite Witch scenes in Cinema is the Witch ‘trial’ in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The scene is staged as a demonstration of the powers of rational enquiry over ignorance and superstition, whilst simultaneously ridiculing both. For those of you not familiar with the scene, first of all, Shame on You! and secondly here is a brief outline of the pertinent facts: Enraged villagers claim they have found a Witch and ask the Lord of the Manor, Sir Bedevere, for permission to burn her. He enquires ‘How do you know she is a Witch?’, their immediate response is ‘She looks like one’. It then transpires that the men themselves have dressed her up, with a carrot nose and a hat better suited to the tin man.



Waving aside one mans accusation that she had turned him into a Newt, a state from which he has clearly recovered, Sir Bedevere then outlines a ‘scientific’ method of Witch ‘discovery’. Employing a form of Scholastic ‘rational’ deduction concerning the flammable properties of both Witches and Wood, he finally confirms this hypothesis empirically, proving that She is in fact a Witch because She weighs the same as a Duck. In the context of the film all of these approaches, the stereotype, the allegedly logical deduction, and the empirical evidence, arrive at the same end, that of course is the joke. The backstory of why they dressed her up is never addressed, but this satirical take on the ‘costuming’ of the Witch also casts a sidelong glance at a wider issue.


The Witch figure has always been one upon which fears, desires and needs are projected, as if by the magic lantern of the human imagination. In the run up to every Halloween it is very clear how specific symbols construct an immediately recognizable image of the Witch. This costume appears ‘traditional’ but these symbols, whilst persistent, are also mutable. The original meanings have become unmoored, in some cases what began as a metaphor has become to be taken as ‘real’. This malleability is apparent when even those who reject the costume often reinvent it, clothing the figure of the Witch in symbolic raiment more to their liking. This complicates the difficulty for anyone wishing investigate the historical evidence for the persons beneath the costume, obscured as it is by hyperbole, demonological theories, legal procedures, and sensationalist media. Even when first hand material exists, both accuser and accused are rarely heard speaking in their own voice. Therefore, before embarking on an expedition through what remains of the East Anglian material, I would like to unpick some of the strands which form the assumptions and preconceptions which we bring to our Idea of the Witch. Through investigating some of the most recognizable symbols with which She is associated, I will excavate the meanings of this ‘costume’, how it acts to inform, reflect, and create, and how emotions have been embedded in these symbols.


Notions of what constitutes a ‘Witch’, and thus how one is recognized, vary across and within cultures and historical periods, forming a series of heavily acculturated figures, rather than an eternal, ahistorical or universal one. Even within supposed ‘Authorities’, those legal, theological, and medical texts where the identity and behavior of Witches is most documented, there is a huge amount of wrangling and hardly any consensus. The original materials and reproductions of Trial testimonies and Confessions often serve more to elucidate these complexities than simplify them. If it were possible to congeal all the representations together and then examine, as it were, the inner grain of the Witch, within each stratum one would find associations and repetitions, but also a great deal of variety.



Ideas are not maintained in pristine cryogenically preserved purity, but continually intermingle, reform, and reshape. Almost any culture that interacts with another would have its own traditions of female magical machinations susceptible to outside influence to some degree. This was the situation across Europe in the years following the Fall of the Roman Empire, where the Witch of Ancient and Classical literature, itself recently melded within the worldview of a Christianity heavily laden with influences of the Ancient Near East, blended with other non-Christian Gallic, Celtic and Germanic ideas of the Witch. In practice through the use and reproduction of Classical texts, the literary trope of the Witch was continually re-invested Through multiple generations these ideas were continually discussed, deployed, and rejected in Church Law and Lore, as such the Medieval ‘Witch’ was in reality a heavily contested symbol, with Clergy and Church Authorities frequently on the side of the Skeptics against ‘popular superstition’. The tenth century Canon Episcopi, vehemently condemns belief in night-flying women, reflecting the ongoing failure to neutralize localized nuggets of questionably orthodox supernatural beliefs and practices. In the period of the Early Modern European Witch trials the Canon Episcopi amongst other skeptical texts often swayed jurist opinions against the reliability of testimonies in which Sabbatial shenanigans were centre stage. The newly developed ideas of the Demonic pact and the Sabbat were folded into the interpretations of older traditions which re-emerged in accusations, interrogations, confessions, and testimonies.


The popular academic term to describe this process, is ‘bricolage’, derived from the French word ‘to tinker’, its dictionary definition is ‘something constructed or created from a diverse range of things’ . In the context of the idea of the Witch, possibly the most relevant usages are in the works of the Anthropologist Levi-Straus, in which ‘bricolage’ is used to describe the creative processes at work in the creation of mythic thought. His related notion of ‘social bricolage’, similarly explains how groups create novel solutions by using resources that already exist in the collective social consciousness. To some extent this may function as a conscious strategy, in theological, literary, and legal writings which rely on precedent, and the authority of antiquity. In my overactive imagination I envisage this as operating like the mental equivalent of an A Team D.I.Y. montage, welding bits of junk into the fire power necessary for one of their plans to come together. Social bricolage in its mythic, social, and subconscious aspects, I imagine as something more akin to the gentle re-purposing practices of the Wombles. Another layer of theory, that of ‘Cultural’ bricolage, similarly examines how actual objects become symbolically repurposed, frequently within subversive subcultures. A famous example is that of the Safety pin; which functions as a safe, domestic object, at least before being inserted into the clothes, ear-lobes or nostrils of a Punk.


I mention these processes in an attempt to illustrate how complex the task of excavating meaning really is, especially in the case of symbols, which as things that represents more than themselves selves, both carry a lot of baggage, and are highly absorbent. There are a core set of objects which make the modern cartoonish or Halloween costume image of a Witch so easily identifiable. However, the trappings of Broomstick, Hat, Cat & Cauldron are heavily laden with layers of meaning which have altered over time. The repurposing of Cauldron and the Broomstick, has seen them take on an alternate life of their own, as much as they ever did in Disney’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice. From necessary, wholesome, domestic objects, and symbols of Women’s labour, which no respectable Household would lack, they have evolved into the essential apparatus of the Servants of Satan, and more latterly, as the basic educational and sports equipment of a magical boarding school.



Over the next few weeks I will examine these symbols and probably draw on others, in an effort to excavate some of the historical meanings which they have carried, and how they have been transmitted and understood over time. In order to do so I will be drawing on the wider images of Witchcraft from the Late Medieval and Early Modern periods, in order to set the images of the East Anglian Witch Trials into their historical context. As these trials occurred towards the end of the curious upsurge of prosecutions for Witchcraft, during a period of otherwise steady decline, as indeed was the case in Salem some 50 years later, I hope to untangle some of the meanings these symbols carry, both in their own cultural context and those they have brought to ours.


More from Nell coming soon :

i. Hat & Cat

ii. Cauldron & Broomstick

iii. Samhain & Sabbats.




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