- Witchcraft, Witch-Hunting, and Politics in Early Modern England by Peter Elmer
Eliza Kent, Peter Elmer, witchcraft, witch-hunt, early modern witchcraft, English witchcraft, witchcraft and politics, witch trials
In this book, Peter Elmer fleshes out the "'highly speculative' conjectures and assertions" from his 2002 essay, "Towards a Politics of Witchcraft" (1). Elmer's contention is that, in England, "from the first series of witchcraft trials in the second half of the sixteenth century, it is apparent that accusations of witchcraft frequently arose from within communities beset by religious and political tensions that reflected wider debates in the body politic" (16). Over eight chapters, Elmer works his way through the politics of witch-hunting, and witch-hunting politics, beginning in the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, and continuing through the Civil War, Interregnum, Restoration, and on into the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The [End Page 421] book is forensically argued from a stupendous amount of research across an impressive number of sources. Elmer manages the chronology very well; his narrative overlaps, backtracks, and moves forward in a controlled manner, not losing his reader. The footnotes are hugely detailed—almost a book in their own right. For such breadth and depth of research alone, Elmer's conclusions need to be carefully considered by scholars of early modern English politics as much as by witchcraft historians.
For witchcraft scholars, the chief attraction of this book is that it embeds witchcraft trials into the broad sweep of English political history across the long seventeenth century. Elmer demonstrates that a vertical analysis that considers the national political context of a witch trial is as fundamental to understanding witch-hunting, as are the horizontal analyses that understand witchcraft accusations as inherently local events. Whereas historians such as Stuart Clark and Ian Bostridge "were principally concerned with exploring the political potential of witchcraft theory, often in isolation from actual witch trials," Elmer examines "how the politics of witchcraft may have influenced and shaped patterns of witch-hunting" (1). This study adds considerably to historians' understanding of the class of men responsible for enacting witch trials in local communities distant from the centers of power, who were nevertheless engaging with national—even international—political themes.
Of particular note is Elmer's re-evaluation of the East Anglian witch trials. Matthew Hopkins, he argues, should be seen as an "exorcistic healer . . . motivated by a desire to heal the wounds of the body politic and to lay the ground for, and legitimate, a new religious and political dispensation based on a strict, puritanical moral code," as opposed to, "a woman-hating psychopath intent on profiting from the delusions of his neighbours" (120, 119). While it is perfectly possible for an "exorcistic healer" to be a "woman-hating psychopath," Elmer's framework for understanding the Hopkins trials is, I think, more productive than the usual "mad or bad" approach to Hopkins and, very usefully, embeds these trials and the social and political communities that supported them, into the particularities of mid-seventeenth-century English history. Elmer's contention that these trials had a lasting impact on elite thinking about witch trials, as "magistrates, judges, and jurors became increasingly wary of the motives of those who sought to initiate prosecutions," is an important insight for future research (137).
Elmer identifies important changes in the deployment of the "language of demonology" which went from being a way to describe diabolic witches to a way of characterizing political enemies. This language was ideally suited [End Page 422] to the "logic of political discourse, informed by notions of inversion and contrariety," and meant that "each side now viewed its opponents as confederates with witches and in some cases conflated the two" (90). This brings Elmer to his major conclusion: "Witchcraft was not so much argued out of existence in the period after 1660, but rather was redefined, or reconstituted, in such a way as to undermine the traditional fears surrounding witches." "The decline of witchcraft in England, both in terms of belief and trials, was therefore...