Women's History Resource Site

King's College History Department

Book Review

Diane Purkiss. The Witch in History:Early Modern and Twentieth-century Representations. NY: Routledge,  1996.

Throughout history, people have either been enchanted or horrified by witches. Tales of witchcraft altered the thoughts and behaviors of many people from 1400 – 1800. These tales alone were enough to have great impacts on history. The Witch in History written by Diane Purkiss in 1996, was created to provide readers with a unique perspective of early modern and twentieth-century witchcraft. The Witch in History attempts to provide a more feminist outlook on the time of the witch hunts. "This book argues that in early modern England, the witch was a woman’s fantasy and not simply a male nightmare" (1). The author takes a highly feminist point of view toward the witch hunts and seems to be bias in that manner. While the book may take a more feminist approach, the intended audience of this book could be anyone with an interest scholarly or otherwise in witches. The feminist outlook however, would make the book especially appropriate for women fascinated with the witch through the ages. 

Diane Purkiss is listed as a lecturer at the University of Reading. Purkiss was formerly Professor of English at Exeter University and is now Fellow and Tutor at Keble College, Oxford. She has also taught students at Norwich, and London on the topic of witchcraft. Purkiss has conducted a great deal of research on women’s studies and with modern witches. Her other publications include At the Bottom of the Garden, Renaissance Women, and Women, Texts and Histories 1575-1760. Purkiss’ expertise lies in literary fields and not in history. While this may be so, it is more appropriate to assess the book with an objective historian perspective. It appears that this book was written with slightly too much of a feminist outlook. Purkiss ignores that some people prosecuted in the witch hunts were male. The author forgets that witch is not a gender specific term. I feel the book would serve as a better source of information if it incorporated more of a historical perspective along with its literary perspective. In my eyes, the book might been improved if the author was less determined to be gender specific.

The main argument evaluated is that in early modern England, the witch was a "woman’s fantasy and not a male nightmare"(1). The book argues that witch stories were used for women to express ideas and feelings that were simply not socially acceptable. The author simply asks that the reader put aside historical data, and read the myths of witches as literary works. Rather then basing the book on fact, the author uses the myths from the witch hunts to present her thesis. The author reaches the conclusion that witches of early modern drama have had a great deal of affect on the people of the late twentieth century. "For despite the subtleties of radical feminists, historians and modern witches the dominant image of a witch is still a shrieking hag on a broomstick, the wicked witch of the west" (276). The author includes a great deal of primary sources within the work. Most of these deal with the direct folk tales being discussed. The literary fashion in which Purkiss writes provides so many sources that review of all of them would be next to impossible. These sources do make it very evident that the author researched extensively on the subject at hand. Other then pure text sources, the book lacks maps or pictures. 

The book does an excellent job in providing a literary outlook on the folk tales of witchcraft. The book clearly states that it wishes to provide a more positive feminist view into witch folklore, but does not directly contradict other perspectives. The book simply provides a different viewpoint then is traditionally accepted. For example, Purkiss does an excellent job of handling the emotions of the women who lived in a time of repression, and gives good proof that the witch folklore was a way that allowed these women to exercise a power that they had been denied before. In one instance, Purkiss writes: "Having a reputation for witchcraft is seen as something that is done to a woman, not seen as something they do. …Women involved with witchcraft entered vigorously into a struggle to control the meaning of their own lives" (145). In other words, women used witchcraft to express themselves in a time where women had very little influence in a largely male dominated society.

The main problem that I found with the book was simply its style. It can be difficult for the common reader to find his or her way through the literary maze that Purkiss’ language creates. It becomes obvious that an English professor and not a historian wrote the book. For example, Purkiss writes: 

"…. radical feminist figurations of the witch, again like other histories, seek to erase the traces of their own historicity…. The radical feminist history of witches often appears to offer a static, finished version of the witch. However, feminist histories of the witch are not finished artifacts, but stages in a complicated, conflictual series of processes within the public sphere, processes which involve both the writing of women’s past and the rewriting of their present and future" (10). 

This problem shows faults in myself as the reader as much as it does the author. Other then the occasional difficulty of comprehension, the book was well-written. This reader would have preferred if more factual information, such as dates and locations, would have been presented alongside the folklore. Also, while I understand that a feminist outlook is the point of the book, I feel that things could have been dealt with more objectively.  As for a personal read, I found the book to be less then excellent. This is mainly due to my distaste for the style in which it was written. 

This book can nicely contribute to the field if read as a companion to other more historical sources. It does an excellent job of providing more information on the literary works that we use so much in the study of the witch hunts. The author does not seem to take into account opposing viewpoints, and at times even admits to sticking to a strict feminine viewpoint. It would be nice to have the same literary viewpoints for the stories involving men being persecuted for witchcraft. The author’s main point was that the witch was a fantasy at times created by desperate women during a time of male dominance. Although I am not convinced that witch folklore was as much a feminist outcry as the author believes, she still did an excellent job of putting forth that viewpoint. Her conclusion that witches of early modern drama have had a great deal of affect on the people of the late twentieth century is totally valid.I would recommend this book to someone looking for more information on literature on the time of the witch hunts, but not as a pure historical source. 

BACK HOME URL: http://departments.kings.edu/womens_history/wrevpurkiss.html
Written by Clark Gallo
Last Revision: 14 November 2001
Copyright © MM Prof. Pavlac's Women's History Site

Questions, Suggestions, Comments? e-mail bapavlacATkings.edu