Katherine Howe on Witchcraft, Archives, and Historical Judgment

Katherine Howe credit Laura Dandaneau high res

Earlier this fall, I read at an event with Katherine Howe, author of several novels and editor of the recent anthology The Penguin Book of Witches. Rather than read from the historical documents collected in the book, Howe discussed some of the cases mentioned therein, and helped refresh what some of us in the audience may have thought of witchcraft in the context of American history. A few weeks later, I talked with Howe over the phone to learn more about the anthology, her own fiction, and more.

How did you come to assemble this anthology?

My first novel is called The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, and it came out in 2009. It’s a Salem story. I wrote it when I was in graduate school, and it’s Salem from a witch’s perspective. It’s, basically, what if one of the Salem witches was the real thing, but not the modern fantasy, pointy-hat version? What if she’s the real thing the way the colonists believed witches to be? We have this pop-culture representation of what witches are, which is so endemic, and we forget the fact that witchcraft was a part of the intellectual world of people in North America for hundreds of years. It’s an intense thing to remember. So I wrote a novel that was based around that thought experiment–what would the world look like if magic were real in the way that people believed it to be and conducted their lives believing it to be that way.

What happened was, that book got enough positive attention–which is really wonderful and gratifying–that Penguin Classics got ahold of me about doing this anthology. “We would like to do a Penguin Book of Witches; what do you think?” I said, “Well, I am totally unqualified to do that, but–yes! I will happily do that.” I had already engaged with these primary sources in different degrees while researching the first novel. One of the first things about transitioning from being an academic to being a novelist was that I discovered how many people read historical fiction because they want to learn about history. There’s this idea that reading history books is somehow boring, or not very rewarding. And so, invariably, when I ended up talking about the first novel at events, I would talk more about the history than the novel itself. I got the sense that there really was a desire for this kind of anthology.

There are a few primary-source readers that are already out there, usually done through university presses. They tend to be for an academic audience; they’re not the kind of book where you can sit down and read them. They tend to be more reference books. And they’re great! I engaged with a lot of them. They have different territorial strategies; they gather material from a different perspective. But what I thought would be useful would be to have a book that you can come to if you’re interested in this stuff and don’t know where to start, and if you sit down and read it–I wrote introductory passages for each item. It’d be like sitting down with me and me walking you through why I think these sources are interesting and cool, and what I think is worthwhile about them. In theory, by the time you’d read through the whole thing, you could come away with a pretty solid beginning of understanding why we believed what we believed about witchcraft in North America for as long as we did.

Were most of the primary sources collected in one place, or did you have to go from archive to archive?

They’re kind of all over. I worked on it for about five years, so it was a pretty substantial project for me. On the one hand, it’s kind of amazing, because even in the time that I was working on it, a lot of these sources had become digitized, which is phenomenal, from a research standpoint. We live in phenomenal moment; a generation ago, if you wanted to look at it, you’d have to get a grant and go over to the British Museum and put on your white gloves and look at it. Now we can bring it up on our phones. It’s incredible.

So–a lot of it’s been digitized. One of the things I tried to do was to put a link in the footnote, so that anyone who wants to look at a facsimile of the actual document can do so. I also tried to include some sources that you couldn’t get anywhere else, that haven’t been anthologized or digitized or made available. I went to a number of different archives at a couple of different places–the Massachusetts State Archive, which has a lot of this stuff; Cornell University has a really huge witchcraft collection, and I used some of that; Harvard University has a collection. I did do some travel and running around to get my hands on some stuff that hasn’t been published any place else.

The focus here is on the Americas, and you do go into the history, at least in England, of how people viewed witchcraft. Was this mostly an American phenomenon, or could there just as easily have been a version of this focusing on a different country?

There definitely could. I had to make it a pretty focused project; otherwise it would have gotten quite sprawling. There’s at least one anthology that has a transatlantic approach, that includes Africa and South America. It’s a cool collection, and it’s done by a scholar who’s incredibly awesome. But I wanted to have a more focused approach. Once you bring in Africa, you’re bringing in a lot of different cultural markers that don’t necessarily speak to each other.

One thing I struggled with was including more continental sources. Some people are surprised that there’s no excerpt from the Malleus Maleficarum, the Hammer of the Witches that was published first in 1486. It’s the original hardcore witch-hunting manual. But the thing is, the Malleus Maleficarum was published in Latin, and it wasn’t translated into English until the 19th century. And even though a lot of the ideas that are in it did make their way from Germany, where it was written, into England and they were disseminated, the Malleus was not widely read outside of a circle of highly educated people.

One of the things that I wanted to do was have a collection that connected academic interests–academic in that time period–in witchcraft with the experiences of ordinary people, common people. There’s a political impulse behind witch hunting, but it’s also about relationships between neighbors, relationships between people. I really wanted to focus on sources when, even when they were written by highly educated people, were still trying to speak to a general audience. They’re writing in English; they’re trying to have their ideas as widely disseminated as possible.That was my editorial strategy. So, in answer to your question, yes–you absolutely could do a collection like this with just the stuff that was written in Latin, or just the stuff that was written in French or German, and it would be an amazing source. Much of the Cornell witchcraft collection is in German. I wanted to focus on the Anglophonic experience, and the popular Anglophone experience–to get at why we really believed this stuff.

A lot of the book is focused on Salem, but you also venture into the Chesapeake Bay area, among other places. How did you arrive at that structure?

I wanted to expand as much as I could. Part of it is because Salem gets so much of the attention, and in a way, that’s totally as it should be. Salem is the most widespread, it was the most fatal. It was the witch trial that was the most akin to some of the worst witch hunting that happened on the continent. But at the same time, I feel like we focus on it to so much of an extent that we underscore the idea of Salem as an anomaly. Part of the reason that we talk so much about Massachusetts is because not only did Massachusetts have the most witch trials, but it also has the best records. It’s one of the weird tricks or problems with the study of history. There’s almost an archival bias that happens because of the archives that are intact. What I wanted to do was illustrate the fact that even though the records emphasize Massachusetts, it doesn’t meant that just Massachusetts fit into this intellectual schema, or just Massachusetts conducted itself in this way.

Whenever possible, I wanted to include examples from other colonies. Like the Chesapeake Bay, like the record from Virginia. Like a record from Setauket, New York. It’s difficult because the records are so fragmentary, especially in the South. A lot of the colonial-era records in the South are no longer extant. And if they are extant, they have been transcribed by historical societies in the 19th century, so we’re already getting them through a filter. A lot of the Massachusetts records–I could show up at the Massachusetts archives, fill out a lot of paperwork, and then be handed a sheet of paper which was the actual trial record. Which was incredible. It’s a tricky challenge, but I wanted to try to do it as best I could. If you look at other academic anthologies, they highly privilege Salem or they’re just about Salem. If we want to try to re-conceive witchcraft as non-anomalous, as a part of how colonial people understood reality, which is my purpose with this book, one of the ways to do that is to say, “No, look–it happened in other places, too.” Even if I can’t find trial records, like in South Carolina, I could point out that laws were on the books.

That was something that I was really pulled in by, as I was reading–the fact that, as you pointed out, witchcraft was a legal matter.

I feel like a lot of people talk about it in terms of behavior or in terms of superstition. One of my goals with this volume was to provide a corrective to that tendency. I feel like we have a tendency to look at people in the past and judge them because they can’t see the world as we can see it. I feel like it’s both unfair and gives ourselves way too much credit. One of the things that I wanted to demonstrate in the volume, if possible, was that witchcraft had a function. It was part of the legal system, not just as some weird anomalous part of it, but it actually served an intellectual, a social, a spiritual function for these people.

You can then implicitly extend it–what are the things that we’re so certain of in our belief systems today? We’re certain of all of these different things, and we don’t know which of these things, in 300 years, will be taken as something to pity us for.

Do you see any present-day descendants of the legal reasoning surrounding witchcraft?

I’m not a legal scholar, so it would be hard for me to answer that question. I will say that one of the things that’s interesting to think about, and can be challenging while reading the early theological treatises, is that they have a different mode of argument than we do. We’re all trained to have the thesis, the antithesis, and the synthesis. We’re trained in a mode of argument that requires a hypothesis followed up by evidence, and you test the hypothesis and come to a conclusion about whether the hypothesis is true or false. That is a historically contingent practice. That mode of presentation arose out of the scientific revolution. The mode that they used in the early modern period was an argument from exegesis, and so if you read through some of the early theological stuff, you’ll see that they keep referencing the same Biblical quotes over and over again. It can actually get kind of repetitive after a while: “I already know that the devil goes about like a roaring lion, taking what he may devour! Thank you, though, for pointing it out yet again in this paragraph.” It can seem really tiresome. But in early modern logic, that mass of reference was what made it a powerful argument. The typical structure was, the more quotes and references and parenthetical comments I can heap into this argument, the more persuasive it’s going to be. For me, one of the things that was interesting to think about was that logic itself is an evolving process, and it’s historically contingent. We’re so used to constituting our own arguments and our own reason within the post-scientific revolution manner–that itself is a construct, is what I’m trying to say.

You spoke about this somewhat at the event, but: do you think our view of Salem is heavily influenced by The Crucible?

One of the interesting things about Salem in particular is that, for many generations now, it has been used as a tool or a lens to talk about a particular moment. In the 19th century, Salem was used as an opportunity for moral Christian instruction. There were all of these morality plays that were written in the 19th century that dramatized Salem as a Christian parable as standing up in God’s truth in the face of false accusation. And was how it was primarily interpreted. And the dominant interpretation changed, obviously, in the 1950s, and I feel like we’ve stuck with that dominant interpretation, partly because we’re still working through many of the themes that held true in the 1950s: scapegoating and political anxiety and racial anxiety. A lot of these themes are still being worked out in our culture; it’s not like we’ve left them behind.

At the same time, I feel like the tendency to want to look at a moment in history and use it for our own purposes doesn’t give the people in the past their due. They were just trying to live their lives and make it through every day. They were not trying to be symbols or arguments. In particular, when it comes to The Crucible, I think that–despite the fact that it’s a beautiful play and a masterpiece and all that great stuff–by virtue of it still being such a dominant narrative of Salem, there’s a troubling gender politics that comes into play. I mentioned that in our talk. The important thing about Salem is not John Proctor’s moral rectitude and name. That’s not the most important thing. The most important thing is about women and power and class.

Was there anything that you learned over the course of your research that surprised you?

I was most interested to see what happened with witch belief when it stopped being a crime. For me, the part of the book that I’m most interested by, and that I wanted to expand more, is the “After Salem” stuff. The moments when you no longer have to worry about being put to death as a witch. It’s in the 18th century; it’s in that hundred-year span when witchcraft recedes from the legal realm but stays in the cultural realm. I’m very interested by that. There are a number of different ways that you can talk about that, and there are a number of different hypotheses about why that happened. One of my hypotheses for why that happened is that, in the 18th century, we’ve started to enter a consumer revolution; it’s no longer a time of scarcity. Your average person has more clothing; your average person has a few more dishes. It’s not as awful to be alive in the 18th century as it was in the 17th century. Because witchcraft and the witch trials and witch accusations are so much about scarcity and the household, when we’re no longer struggling with scarcity to the same degree, it’s become less threatening. I’m interested by that. I’m interested in that weirdly transitional period where witchcraft receded from the fatal realm and still organized our understanding of reality in ways that haven’t widely been talked about.

Is there anything that you encountered when putting this volume together than may inspire your fiction?

As a fiction writer, I’m always interested in periods of history where people’s understanding of reality is very different from our own. One of the things that I find fun and rewarding about fiction is that I can explore that world in a slightly freer way than I could in nonfiction history writing, where you have to be strictly interpretive. Instead, I can imagine my way into that world. I’ve done that in every novel I’ve written: my second novel is set in Boston in 1915, and it’s very much about spiritualism and seances. I was really interested in what it was like to live in a Boston that looks like the Boston of today, complete with subways and electric cars, except that people believe you can talk to ghosts. That seemed like a really interesting, different worldview.

My next novel is going to be out next fall, and it’s a New York City story, mostly set in the present but partly set in the 1820s, which is kind of the beginning of the heyday of New York’s ghost lore. That’s when Washington Irving was on top of the bestseller lists. And I’m starting to work on a project that’s going to be set on the Gulf Coast. Generally speaking, in fiction, I’m always interested by magical realism, sort of, except that it’s more of a historically-contingent magical realism, if that makes sense.



Photo: Laura Dandaneau. This interview has been edited for publication.

Follow Vol. 1 Brooklyn on TwitterFacebookGoogle +, our Tumblr, and sign up for our mailing list.