Date: 27 Apr 1998
Realism is the opposite of rationalism. The rationalist interpretation assumed that Witches didn't really exist. Obviously! The Burning Times were caused by hysteria and superstition. Realists, on the other hand, asked "What if there *were* Witches? What if the Witch hunters weren't deluded?"
There are two major schools of realist interpretation, with two *very* different sets of modern adherants.
One is the "Satanic Witches" interpretation, popularized by Montague Summers. Summers was an odd religious eccentric and absolutely fascinated by the Witch trials. He assumed that the Inquisition was completely right. Witches existed. They were a Satanic conspiracy bent on destroying Christianity. They commited innumerable hideous crimes. They deserved to die.
Summers never enjoyed any success in historical circles. His theories were too obviously the product of religious enthusiasm, not solid research. However his books are incredibly popular, many still in print decades after they were written.
Summers' "Satanic Witch" interpretation is the standard interpretation amongst Christian fundamentalists. Many non-religious "Satanism experts" adhere to it too, citing this ancient "Witch cult" as the ancestor of the Satanic cult they believe is terrorizing America today.
The second school of realism was much more influential. Beginning in the 19th century, folklorists noticed that there were Pagan elements in many Witches' spells. In the 1920, an Egyptologist named Margaret Murray took these folklorists' insights to a revolutionary new height. She declared that Witches did exist: they were Pagans, a religion separate from and hostile to Christianity. The Burning Times weren't an outburst of hysteria -- they were the Church's lethal attempts to destroy a rival religion.
When it was first published, Murray's theory held great appeal. Rationalists portrayed Witch hunters as lunatics, and it's hard to believe that every human being in the Middle Ages was insane. Murray proposed that they weren't nuts. Christians were religious fanatics, but their motives were intelligible. Her theory seemed to make much more sense than the rationalists', who were forced to say, "I don't know why people were so nutty back then, but they were."
There was only one problem: the quality of Murray's research was abysmal. She used a tiny fraction of the evidence. She ignored huge quantities of counter-evidence. She lied; she re-wrote texts to make them support her theory. But, you see, her work was *perfectly* abysmal -- this was the kind of abyss only an expert would notice. If you haven't read Murray's sources in their original form, you won't know how badly she's altered them. If you aren't familiar with the full spectrum of historical evidence, you won't see how much she ignores.
And so, from the start, Murray's theory lived a double life. Witchcraft historians ignored it, after a brief moment of excitement. Amongst non-specialists, though, Murray was The Woman. Her Witch cult became the standard explanation in the popular press, reigning from around 1930 to 1970. Her high point came in the 1960's, when the Encyclopedia Britannica asked her to write their entry for "Witchcraft". Despite the fact that almost no scholars believed in her theory, she presented it as unquestioned fact.
But this exaltation didn't last for long. Within ten years, Murray's theory was relegated to the scrap heap. Two factors contributed to her down-fall. First, historians started explaining *why* her research was lousy. Critics like Norman Cohn and Elliot Rose demonstrated just how weak Murray's evidence was. Second, we acquired scads of new information in the 1970's, as the first trial records studies were completed. This new, more reliable information showed absolutely no signs of Murray's Witch cult.
Today, the only place you'll find Murray-based writings is in the Neo-Pagan community. Gerald Gardner was Murray's #1 fan. Much of Gardnerian Wicca comes directly out of Murray -- Gardner either invented a religion based on her works, or he radically re-interpretted traditional lore to make it fit the Witch Cult hypothesis. And so many Witches believe, as a religious principle, that Murray was right. It's an article of faith, not history.