- Witchcraft, The Devil, and Emotions in Early Modern England by Charlotte-Rose Millar
As the title suggests, this book offers two distinctive perspectives on the crowded field of early modern English witchcraft studies: a focus on the role of the Devil, and a commitment to the newly established field of the history of emotions (particularly strong in Australia, where the author is part of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions). It offers these perspectives through an analysis of sixty-six witchcraft pamphlets published in England between 1566 and 1716. These, rather than the wider evidence for the nature of witchcraft, are the basis for the book's arguments that the figure of the Devil was central to how early modern English people understood witchcraft, and that a series of emotions—especially anger, hatred, and malice—were central to the perceived motives of the witches: in short, that "English witchcraft was understood as a diabolical crime that was motivated by strong emotions" (182).
Millar supports these core arguments by emphasizing three aspects of English witchcraft: the role played by familiars as agents of the Devil, sexual relations between the witch and the Devil/familiars, and a conspiratorial aspect to the behavior of the witches. She argues that, taken together, these aspects present a substantial challenge to what is seen as the standard socioeconomic explanation of English witchcraft—namely, that it was concerned largely with the maleficial harms caused by individual witches to their neighbors, and that it thus contrasted sharply with the diabolized and sexualized witchcraft prosecuted by inquisitorial systems on the Continent, a view associated particularly with the pioneering works of Keith Thomas and Alan Macfarlane. Based on her 2015 Melbourne PhD thesis, and continuing to expand on a series of articles on familiars, sexuality, and conspiracy that Millar has been publishing since 2010, this book presents itself, as its introduction is boldly subtitled, as "Rethinking English Witchcraft." The book concludes by stating that its analysis of the witchcraft pamphlets is "just the first, crucial step in understanding the role of the Devil in English witchcraft," prior to "further research on trial records and learned demonologies" (185).
Such a clear and boldly stated agenda necessarily raises several questions. How new is this emphasis on the Devil and related themes? How well-established is the analysis of witchcraft pamphlets that underpins the arguments here? And what is the relationship between the narratives offered by the pamphlets and our wider understanding of English witchcraft—are they likely to offer us a [End Page 279] reliable insight into the motivations either of those accused of witchcraft or of their accusers/prosecutors, or into the broader ideological and cultural role played by witchcraft in English society? This review focuses largely on the second question, but the first and third, though more briefly stated, are arguably even more critical.
Starting with the novelty of the claims developed here, Millar herself is at pains to acknowledge her debt to various scholars, notably James Sharpe, who have written on all the aspects of witchcraft discussed here, as well as such historians of demonology as Nathan Johnstone and Darren Oldridge. Her account of the place of the Devil in early modern England closely follows their analysis, especially the tension between the Devil as an apocalyptic warrior, as a spiritual tempter, and as a corporeal presence in daily life who might still, as in medieval culture, be regarded as a figure of humor or physical challenge. Similarly, she acknowledges the extensive work done on the particularly English feature of the familiar spirit, especially in animal form, not least by those interested in how this might relate either to other supernatural beings such as fairies, or to human/animal relations. Feminist historians have paid close attention to the sexual aspects of witchcraft, although Millar is right to note that, reacting to the focus on sexual violence/control of early radical feminists, scholars such as Diane Purkiss and Deborah Willis have laid more emphasis on issues of maternity and...