Sunday, 23 January 2011

Review : Witchcraft: Suzannah Lipscomb A Ladybird Expert Book-

The most striking aspect of this book is why a celebrated historian and broadcaster would write such a book. It is true that Lipscomb is a leading light and outstanding communicator in her field, but it is a bit like William Shakespeare putting in a script for EastEnders.

Another anomaly is while the book is beautifully illustrated by Martyn Pick the number of illustrations is half the book. Given the complex nature of the subject, you would have thought Ladybird would have given more space for analysis. On the other side, the book is an entertaining, straightforward but minimal introduction to the subject.

Even a gifted writer like Lipscomb clearly is uncomfortable with explaining a complex historical issue in such a short space. She does slay some of the more apparent myths that have developed about the subject. Lipscombe is correct that the witch trials were not carried out by “ecclesiastical authorities but by judicial courts. This is a good point, but it does not explain the fact that the worldview of the ruling elite carrying out what amounts to legal murder was backward and medieval.

The book is not without exciting information who knew that “men could be witches too. Across Europe, 70–80 per cent of people accused of witchcraft were female – though the proportions of female witches were higher in certain areas: the bishopric of Basel; the county of Namur (modern Belgium); Hungary; Poland; and Essex, England. But one in five witches were male across Europe, and in some places, males predominated – in Moscow, male witches outnumbered women 7:3; in Normandy 3:1”.

In Lipscombe’s defence, she does believe that “causality is not simple.”, But given her limited space, her arguments are not fully developed. Many of the witchhunts carried out were in times of famine, war and plague but many were not. She correctly states that war, disease and famine did create the social and political conditions to carry out a near genocide against large sections of the population.

Perhaps Lipscomb most crucial point is made on page 22 under the heading The Dawn of Modernity she makes this point, “most people lived in small village communities and depended on each other. They lent, borrowed, gave and forgave. It was only the way to get along. But in tough times, people turn in on themselves. They start to look after number one. A neighbour who would not offer help or charity, who enriched himself by expanding his farm as others were forced to give up theirs, or who begged for handouts when everyone was suffering could foster resentment, bitterness and suspicion. These feelings were the product of a transition from old to new ways. In grand socio-economic terms, what was happening was a shift towards capitalism. The witch-trials were the blood red finger of modernity”.

I know Marx said that capitalism came into the world dripping with blood but blaming it for the witch-trials is a bit much. As Lipscomb points out the trials and their decline was the product of the transition from Feudalism to capitalism. But the trials were more a product of Feudalism, than early Capitalism and their fall was a product of the development of more scientific ways of thinking which brought about the decline religious doctrine.

As the Marxist David North explainsUntil the early seventeenth century, even educated people still generally accepted that the ultimate answers to all the mysteries of the universe and the problems of life were to be found in the Old Testament. But its unchallengeable authority had been slowly eroding, especially since the publication of Copernicus's De Revolutionibus in the year of his death in 1543, which dealt the death blow to the Ptolemaic conception of the universe and provided the essential point of departure for the future conquests of Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), Johann Kepler (1571-1630) and, of course, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642). Intellectually, if not yet socially, the liberation of man from the fetters of Medieval superstition and the political structures that rested upon it, was well underway”[1].

I very rarely do not recommend a book to be read so I will not break this tradition. The book has severe political and historical limitations. Also who exactly is it aimed at? On the plus side, it is gloriously illustrated. So read it don’t read it you pay your money you take your choice.


Tuesday, 4 January 2011

More Correspondence

From Christopher Thompson :

But Harrington's argument was not "the product of an analysis of the contemporary distribution of land, because it does not claim to be" such: it was an investigation of the decline of feudal tenures and the development of freehold tenure, which made possible a state in which a Classical Republic of the kind described by Livy and advocated by Machiavelli. Scholars like J.G.A.Pocock and Judith Schklar showed as long ago as the 1950s that Tawney's view of Harrington was erroneous.

Reply thehistorywoman (

I'm not saying that Harrington's thesis is based on an exact or even correct 'analysis of the contemporary distribution of land'. But he did perceive significant changes which - as you rightly say - were caused by 'the decline of feudal tenures'. And this decline of feudal tenures gave rise to a new type of landownership and at the same time a new type of society characterised increasingly by merit rather than birth. The senators who replace the old lords in Harrington's ideal state hold their office because they are 'wiser than the rest', not by the virtue of their birth. That is what matters. Changes in property ownership produce changes in a country's power structures. In the long term freehold tenure facilitates popular participation in politics.

Monday, 3 January 2011

Correspondence on The historywomans article Property and Power: On James Harrington’s 400th Birthday

Christopher Thompson

I am afraid that these assertions about the transfer of land between the nobility and gentry. The peerage in 1601 may have held less land than in 1558 but it still held more than in 1534. By 1641, the much enlarged peerage had far more land in its hands than in 1601. This is true even using Lawrence Stone's highly improbable figures. The English Civil War or Revolution was preceded by a notable shift in landed possessions towards the peerage and by the rise of "aristocratic constitutionalism".

thehistorywoman (

That's an interesting point. The 'rise of the gentry' hypothesis has long been contested. However, I find it significant that Harrington still perceived a shift of property and power towards the gentry and yeomanry. Of course one might wonder how far this perception was influenced by a political agenda.

Property and Power: On James Harrington’s 400th Birthday

(Kindly reprinted from the History Woman’s blog)

Power is founded on property. Few people nowadays would deny this doctrine. The political philosopher James Harrington formulated it in the mid-seventeenth century. Living in per-industrial England he still considered land, not money, the most important form of property. The social group that held most of the country’s land also held the largest amount of power. In early modern England this was the monarch and his nobility, including the bishops.

However, from the reign of Henry VII onwards, and especially through the Reformation and the dissolution of the monasteries and sale of Church lands, power relations began to change. Over time, the King (or Queen) and nobility lost land and power in favour of the next social group, the gentry and the commoners, represented in the lower house of Parliament. By the early Stuart period the power balance had been upset so badly that struggles between the King and the House of Commons led to a breakdown or ‘dissolution’ of the government in the English Civil War. Anyone trying to reconstruct the English government in the aftermath of the war would therefore have to create a new superstructure that took into account the changed power relations.

The most famous elaboration of Harrington’s theory can be found in his utopian Commonwealth of Oceana of 1656, in which he tried to persuade Oliver Cromwell to play the sole legislator, set up the perfect republican state and retire to the country.

‘Good laws’, Harrington believed, could give the country stability, and these laws had to be infallible, so that bad men would not be able to corrupt the state. Harrington never saw his dream come true. The Restoration of the Stuarts in 1660 meant a return of many of the old problems. But his ideas of mixed government and a balance of power remained influential in the writings of the Neo-Harringtonians of the later 17th and early 18th century. They influenced both the American and French Revolutions, while his materialist theory of political change would also strike a chord with Marxists and modern economic and political thinkers.

James Harrington would have celebrated his 400th birthday today. He was born in Upton, Northamptonshire on 3 January 1611 and died in Little Ambry on 11 September 1677.