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  • “Postmodernist, Deconstruct Thyself” A Response to Michael Ostling’s “Babyfat and Belladonna: Witches’ Ointment and the Contestation of Reality”
  • Edward Bever

Witch, Witch Ointment, Michael Ostling, Solanaceae, Solanaceous, Belladonna, Nightshade, Salve, Hallucinogen, Drug, Ergot, Rationalist

In his article “Babyfat and Belladonna: Witches’ Ointment and the Contestation of Reality” Michael Ostling makes a radical claim, that neither babyfat nor belladonna “was ever used by any early modern accused witch” because, he asserts, as far as we can tell, no “accused witches” tried “to fly (bodily or in trance) with the help of an ointment.”1 He places the learned early modern discussion of hallucinogenic witch ointments in the context of the debate over whether witches flew bodily or only in their imaginations, in the process dismissing both the eyewitness accounts and the recipes contained in several early modern works as literary borrowings from ancient sources or previous authors or thought-experiments describing what the authors assumed must be happening rather than actual reports of real observations.2 He goes on to point to the lack of physical evidence of hallucinogenic salves among the accused’s effects in trial records, and then questions whether the salves could have caused the experience of flight since topical medications that use the similar active ingredients do not.3 He explains the belief in witch salves among early moderns as a polemical position developed by learned men arguing that witches’ flight experiences were illusions caused by natural processes in opposition to demonologists who argued that witches really were [End Page 249] transported supernaturally by the Devil.4 Further, Ostling argues that modern researchers who have taken the early modern reports at face value and discussed the ointments and their reported psychoactive ingredients do so in order to advance a larger argument that seeks to obviate “rival approaches grounded in cultural or intellectual history” in the pursuit of a “revisionist . . . materially deterministic history,” which leads them, he says, to “an almost willful neglect” of the evidence.5 In opposition to this interpretation, Ostling advocates for the “one coherent, parsimonious, objectively-valid, and nontrivial explanation,” that “accounts of witch-flight must be explained . . . by reference to . . . language in its aspects of discourse, folklore, and theology.”6 Finally, he asserts that this language was not the discourse of “accused witches,” but rather of “commentators about them—magistrates and demon-ologists, theologians and natural magicians, and (latterly) historians, anthropologists, and pharmacologists.”7

Ostling presents a well-articulated account of both the early modern debate about the role of ointments in witches flight and a strong critique of modern histories that discuss them as hallucinogenic substances that really were used—so much so that Brian Levack, in his “Afterword” to the series of articles of which Ostling’s is a part, proclaims that “Ostling thoroughly dismantles the claims made regarding the effects of these psychotropic drugs and in the process discredits this entire genre.”8 However, close consideration of the arguments and evidence Ostling brings to bear suggest that he over-reaches somewhat (and therefore so too does Levack). The core problem is that while Ostling’s focus is on the solanaceous ointments discussed in the learned early modern treatises, he lumps all modern histories that treat hallucinogens as something some people actually used into a “phytochemical” camp that, he claims, repudiates “cultural or intellectual history” in favor of a “materially deterministic history.”9 In opposition to that, he adopts what can be termed a strong version of the culturalist position, asserting (quoting Stuart Clark) that “‘what is real or unreal in the world, and what therefore is true or false . . . are . . . forms of local knowledge.’ ”10 He positions himself [End Page 250] as defender of this “central finding of the culturalist models that the phyto-chemical party wishes to deny,” a participant in the “contestations of reality, early modern and contemporary, fought through the witches’ flight ointment,” a warrior in “the battles thus fought.”11

However, there is a median position between accepting a Margaret Murray–like underground cult of witches phytochemically “flying” to sabbats and treating all reports of the use of psychotropic drugs as fabrications and accounts of flight experiences as nothing but “words: cried out...


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