Foreword to Christina Larner, Witchcraft and Religion; The Politics of Popular Belief (Blackwell, 1984)


Alan Macfarlane




At the time of her tragic death at the age of 49 in April 1983,

Christina (Kirsty) Larner had already established her scholarly

reputation in a number of ways. She was the foremost expert on

the history of witchcraft in Scotland. She was thought to be one of

the most important social historians of Scotland. Her work was

one of the most interesting examples in the cross-disciplinary field

of historical sociology. Finally, she had contributed significantly to

legal history and archival history through her study of Scottish

records and court processes. All this had been established on the

basis of one book, Enemies of God, The Witch-hunt in Scotland,

published in 1981, a duplicated Source-Book of Scottish Witchcraft

compiled with Christopher Lee and Hugh McLachlan (Glasgow,

1977) a number of articles, unpublished lectures and an unpub-

lished doctoral thesis.


    Dr Larner's work is important at both a descriptive and a theor-

etical level. Descriptively, we now have a far better idea of the

dimensions and nature of Scottish witchcraft prosecutions and

beliefs. By the use of the original legal records Dr Larner was able

to show where witchcraft prosecutions occurred (almost exclu-

sively in the lowland regions and, particularly, near Edinburgh)

and when they occurred (1560-1700, with peaks in 1591, 1597,

1629 and several between 1649 and 1662). She was able to show

who were the accused (mainly middle-aged and old women) and

the process of the accusations. The differences and the similarities

between Scottish, English and Continental witchcraft were

illuminated. For the first time, the legal processes behind the

prosecutions were laid bare. All of these themes are pursued in

further detail in essays which form the first five chapters of this



    One of the striking features of Dr Larner's work is a sceptical





attitude towards simple and universal explanations. Yet, in the last

chapter of Enemies of God, tentative suggestions are made

concerning the necessary, if not sufficient, causes of the witch-

hunt. The preconditions are a peasant economy, a witch-believing

peasantry, and an active belief in the Devil among the educated.

Four more proximate causes explain the specific timing of witch-

hunts. First, was a judicial revolution, consisting of a shift from

restorative justice' (where the case is brought by the injured) to

retributive Justice' (where it is brought by the state), applying

general and abstract standards. Second, there was the rapid

development of printing and literacy. Third, what is termed the

'Christianization of the peasantry', that is to say the move from a

largely animistic and ritual world to one where personal salvation

and Christian belief became predominant. Finally, there was the

rise of the Christian nation state. The witch-hunts coincided

exactly with the period of the Godly state, when Christianity

became the official ideology of the new-born nation state. The

fruitful ideas hinted at towards the end of Enemies of God became

central themes in the Gifford lectures which constitute the second

half of this volume. Although these factors do not work particu-

larly well in explaining English witchcraft prosecutions, they

throw a great deal of light on the horrendous mass witch-hunts on

the Continent.


    One of the most interesting features of Dr Larner's subject

matter, as she herself notes, is the way in which Scotland lies at the

mid-point between English and Continental cultures. Roman law

and the inquisitorial process, the remains of the Celtic clan struc-

ture and another language, gave Scotland many similarities with

parts of Europe, that are reflected in the pattern of witch-hunting.

Yet its early conquest by Norman barons from the south and close

contacts with England made it share many of the features of

English society. It thus provides an excellent test case for seeing the

similarities and differences between parts of Europe in the past. A

central and repeated emphasis in Dr Larner's discussion is the way

in which neither the English nor the Continental model of witch-

craft works properly for Scotland. In England, the prosecutions

were almost totally concerned with maleficium, causing harm to

one's neighbours, and little concerned with Devil worship, covens

or heresy. On the Continent, though many trials started with the

former, once they reached the courts and leading questions and

torture were applied, they were turned into heresy trials, con-





cerned principally with the Satanic compact. The two types were

strongly differentiated. Through a minute investigation of both the

local and the central records, Dr Larner is able to show that

Scotland fell between these two extremes. Maleficium was of inter-

est to the high authorities, just as the Satanic compact was of

concern to village.

The study of witchcraft is both important and difficult. Impor-

tant because such beliefs lie at the precise intersection of religion,

law, economics and family life. Thus an understanding of this

phenomenon leads to an understanding of much else besides.

Because of this, Dr Larner's learned and thorough work on Scot-

tish witchcraft illustrates so much else about early Scotland. It is

for this reason that the subject is so difficult, for to penetrate far

requires that a scholar become knowledgeable in all these fields. Dr

Larner was acquiring this knowledge and adding to it that compa-

rative framework provided by sociology and social anthropology.

She was never prepared to accept easy answers and the tone of the

following essays and lectures reveals the pugnacious, enquiring

mind that endeared her to so many. In the notes she made during

her last illness, she concludes a section thus: 'So what should the

communicating sociologist aim at? There are three things she can

do for the historian:


1        Demonstrate to historians what their own theoretical assump-

tions are.

2 Produce historical material which illuminates and uses

sociological theory.

3        Demonstrate the relationship between social theory and

historical scholarship.


All this to be done in Times English.' The reader will have to

decide how far Dr Larner has succeeded but there is no doubt that

she always wrote with clarity and a refreshing absence of jargon or

mystification. As Norman Cohn wrote in the foreword to Enemies

of God, 'Where hitherto our view has been blocked by a seemingly

impenetrable mass of undergrowth, a path has been hacked out. A

wide vista stands revealed. From now on it can surely never be lost

to view.' These essays and lectures extend and broaden that path.