Margaret Murray: Who Believed Her and Why? (review)

by Jenny Gibbons

"Margaret Murray: Who Believed Her and Why?" by Jacqueline Simpson. Folklore #105 (1994), pp. 89-96.

Thirty years ago, Margaret Murray's Witch-cult Hypothesis dominated discussions of historical Witchcraft. Today, it is thoroughly discredited. As a matter of fact, scholars are now writing articles like this one, which attempts to explain why anybody would have believed Murray in the first place.

Simpson begins with a good, if swift, survey of Murray's flawed methodology, of the ways she twisted and warped her evidence. She describes how, in her later books, Murray white-washed her Witch-cult and became more and more emotional in her defense of it. By the end, she claimed that anyone who disagreed with her did so out of religious prejudice.

So why did people believe Murray? Simpson blames the apparent reasonableness of the theory and poor academic response.

On the surface, Murray's theory seems sensible. It's hard to understand why Witchcrazes occurred and Murray's explanation -- the Church was persecuting a rival religion -- appears to make sense. Moreover her errors and lies are hard to spot. If you aren't familiar with our evidence, you don't realize how much Murray ignores. If you haven't read her sources, you don't see how she abused them.

And the academic response was too little, too late. When Murray's theory first appeared, most Witchcraft historians ignored it. A couple tersely dismissed her books as nonsense and twaddle. But nobody ever explained WHY Murray's theory was ridiculous. So when it was introduced to a popular audience, it caught on like wildfire. It was much more exciting than the dry theories historians had to offer. Non-specialists had no idea of the vast quantity of data Murray ignored. And no one ever gave any *reasons* why Murray was a poor researcher. If scholars aren't going to give any evidence to support their statements, why should they expect anybody to listen to them? This changed in the 1970's. Scholars began to be more specific in their criticisms and the new evidence revealed in the trial records put the final shovel of dirt on Murray's Witch-Cult Hypothesis.

Simpson's article is a good summary of the controversy, and an excellent introduction to Murray's flaws as a researcher. If you're not sure why historians ignore her, this article will explain it well.