A conversation with Will Pooley

By Kristof Smeyers, 20 September 2022

Will Pooley is a Senior Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Bristol.


00:00:00 Kristof

Welcome, everyone, to an episode of the summer podcast of the Research Network Enchantment in the History of Capitalism. We’re a very interdisciplinary group of scholars that get together to explore the different ways enchantment can be a methodological tool, conceptual structure, or a driving force one way or other in histories of capitalism and in the past month. With ‘we’ I mostly mean Astrid Van den Bossche and Anat Rosenberg. We’ve organized several roundtables in which we discussed the usefulness of enchantment in its many different definitions, it’s a term that’s often used in very evanescent ways, maybe very vague ways. And these podcasts are meant to build on that momentum, which is why I’m very excited to welcome Will Pooley today.

Will is a Senior Lecturer in modern history at the University of Bristol, he tackles enchantment head on, I would say by studying primarily witchcraft, magic and the occult.

His first book, Body and Tradition in Nineteenth-Century France, used folklore sources to write a social and cultural history of the Moorlands of Gascony. And last month saw the publication of a Cambridge Elements ‘minigraph,’ I think is the right term, on Creative Histories of Witchcraft written by Will, Poppy Corbett, and Anna Kisby Compton, which I highly recommend. And it also doesn’t stop there, Will is currently writing a book on witchcraft in post-revolution France.

So welcome, Will. Hi.

00:01:26 Will

Hi, nice to see you Kristof.

00:01:28 Kristof

Likewise. Perhaps it’s nice to start by asking how we should understand the economy of witchcraft in France in the period you’re studying, and I mean that in very practical terms. Who is doing the witchcraft, who’s doing the accusations? Who is involved in in this period, your setting?

00:01:48 Will

So that’s such a great question. And I think I can give you a kind of general picture of it before I do.

I mean, I thought it’s worth saying that one of the characteristics of witchcraft in this period, you know, the period after the French Revolution and indeed up to the present day, is that confusion is typical of how everybody involved, and outsiders as well, understand it. So people are very confused about terminology, and they’re very confused about what’s going on in general. And so the kind of schematic picture I can give you is definitely one that’s there’s an academic kind of construct if you like. It’s based on looking at lots of examples. Whereas people who actually lived some of these experiences, or indeed people who notice this stuff happening at the time, and often with complete horror, they wouldn’t necessarily have been as clear about things as I’ll try and be. But put very simply, a witchcraft dispute in economic terms probably looks something like this, and it starts with a suspicion that you know you’re suffering from bewitchment.

And indeed, many cases never really get much further than that. So you know, lots of things are going wrong, typically with your family farm or perhaps your small business. I’ve got lots of cases like that in my research and, you know, you begin to develop a sense that this might be because someone is causing this and through supernatural means: that in itself is the essence of witchcraft and, you know, it is very often a kind of economic harm in that sense.

But in some cases, that suspicion can go a little bit further, and you might want to involve someone who knows more about witchcraft than you as a kind of lay person do. And that’s when you’d pull in someone like an unwitcher, and typically pay them actually normally small amounts. So sometimes these people are actually just paid in food and drink or household objects. I found a lot of people who were paid in clothing because it was, you know, a readily available means of payment. Or small amounts, as I’ve said, very often just a couple of francs in the period I’m looking at. But sometimes a lot more so sometimes up to thousands of francs I’ve seen as well. And that person was, you know, you’re paying them because they say that they know more about witchcraft than you do and they’re going to help you lift the spell.

And in terms of the kind of sense of the economics of witchcraft, those are probably the two really important actors: the person who feels they’re bewitched and the person who they pay to help them lift the spell.

00:04:07 Kristof

That’s great. And the difference in payment that you just talked about, does that mean that the stereotype – people in a poorer demographics, perhaps when falling victim to witchcraft more frequently than people in the middle classes or upper middle class – is perhaps not true? Or who gets bewitched?

00:04:27 Will

That’s such an interesting question. And I think the really important thing to say is that the poorest in my research I’ve done in France, which covers the long 19th century, the poorest members of society do not seem to suffer from witchcraft, you know, in the sense that they don’t suspect themselves of being bewitched. I always say that it’s people who have something to lose.

So the typical victim – and I haven’t finished crunching my numbers, but I’m crunching a lot of numbers – in terms of people who report themselves as victims in various cases, the typical victim is actually a relatively wealthy, you know, by agricultural, farming standards, relatively wealthy middle-aged man. And yeah, because there people have something to lose, you know, they stand for the farm as a kind of economic enterprise. And when things start to go wrong, they’ve got more at risk, certainly.

00:05:23 Kristof

And you mentioned agricultural men. Does that mean there is a clear divide, and I know it’s a question you’ve probably had before, a divide between the countryside in the city in this at all, or is it more of a geographic difference? Because France is a big country.

00:05:42 Will

It’s a massive country. I should have thought about that more when I started. I wouldn’t call it an absolute rural/urban divide, but I think, and I’ve talked about this, I was talking about this with someone last year, actually, on another podcast. I think that I have gradually come to accept that when I went into this research I thought, well, you know, it’s not all in the countryside and that’s really true: it’s definitely not all in the countryside.

But most of the cases that I’ve seen and certainly the most dramatic cases which end in kind of extreme violence, almost all of those, the participants are from the countryside, but the people who are performing unwitching services, you know, in English sometimes called cunning-folk, those people are certainly not confined to the countryside, and a lot of them in fact live in towns or even big cities, and people from the countryside will go to a town or to a city to find someone to help them with their witchcraft problem.

So there isn’t an absolute divide, but I think there is definitely a preponderance of cases in the countryside and, you know, there are lots of theorists and in the 20th century and the 21st century have talked about why witchcraft has so often been associated with agricultural work and, you know, and agricultural enterprises. So there are urban cases I could talk about for a great length. I won’t.

00:07:05 Kristof

It’s tempting to ask you for an example of an urban case as well.

00:07:09 Will

OK, so my favorite, I feel like as a historian, like there are certain things that ring your bells, right?

00:07:10 Kristof

Yep, yep, yep.

00:07:15 Will

And one of my favorites is in Marseille. And what rings my bell about this in the 1860s and 1870s, is that the same people keep ending up in court on different sides of witchcraft disputes. And it’s really fun from that point of view, in the sense that you get the view – sorry, fun is not quite the right word, but it’s very interesting because you do see these disputes evolving. People are accusing other people at different times of similar things. Unfortunately, the archives in Marseille haven’t preserved all of the criminal trial records, so I just have the newspaper reports on what happened. You know, what people talked about in court. But that was very much about kind of small businesses – urban small businesses, so greengrocers and kind of food shops, things like that who are in competition with one another. And that seemed to be where the witchcraft suspicions had come from.

00:08:07 Kristof

So when you talk about the damage that’s allegedly been done by a person accused of witchcraft in an agricultural setting, you think of, you know, the classics, someone tampering with the cow’s milk, someone ruining the butter. Is that still the case in the 19th and the 20th centuries?

00:08:29 Will

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, the thing that I think about this, you know, the harms that witchcraft can cause are basically as extensive as the human imagination. So yes, butter magic and lots of magic around cows and dairy products remain important. I think other things which before I went into the research I wasn’t so aware of were kind of key concerns of witches. Which is they’re very often blamed for fleas.

I think you’ve heard me talk about this before, so I won’t bore you too much with my kind of my thing on fleas and witches, but I think that’s interesting. And they’re also so, you know, if we’re talking about urban cases or cases that are more distant from the rural examples, there are a whole set of things which don’t have to be confined to agricultural work. So, particularly tools. There’s lots of cases I’ve seen with bewitched tools, objects that move around the house inexplicably. And, you know, those cases very often, they sound much to us, like people would talk about poltergeist phenomena from the 20th century. And then, of course, human illness, which remains undoubtedly the most important part of suspicions of bewitchment. 9You know, how it affects the human body.

00:09:43 Kristof

And how does that, because you study quite a long period, how does witchcraft change over that period relating to medicine, for example?

00:09:57 Will

There are clear changes, I think, in terms of the kinds of things that people are talking about. So one that I’ve talked about before is that, you know, you get a growing focus on nervous disturbances which is very much drawing on the kind of medical ideas across the 19th century and increasing emphasis on nervous disorders. There’s also an appeal to ideas from contemporary theories of electricity, magnetism, and then, of course, on the edge of that something that we wouldn’t necessarily recognize as a as a true scientific theory today, but the importance of mesmerism. So very quickly from the end of the 18th century onwards some people involved in witchcraft disputes adopt some of the ideas from mesmerism. Not the most complex kind of ideas, the universal fluid and how it’s meant to work, according to Mesmer. But lots of and similar ideas about intention and will and mediums who can put themselves into a trance to help you with the problem, for instance.

00:11:03 Kristof

That’s really quite interesting because if you look at witchcraft over a longer period, all these other things start – or you start seeing changes and all these other things in a different way. Because you you’ve mentioned two other main actors, I think, already, which is in one case the court and in the other the press I think, and I’m assuming a lot of your sources are coming from court records and the media. Could you say a little bit more about that? How do those two institutions, in a way, relate to witchcraft or how do they treat it?

00:11:37 Will

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, just to kind of give a background to how I started the research: I think a lot… And, you know, there’s lots of really good work like this by other historians working in other countries in Europe. And I’m thinking about Owen Davies, of course, or Tom Waters. And Monica Black recently had a book out in Germany after the Second World War. And I think all of us have taken a similar, you know, we start in a similar place, which is by looking in the press because it’s really easy to find press reporting about cases of witchcraft, especially now that so much of the European press has been digitized and, you know, word search, so I word search the kind of key terms connected to witchcraft.

I mean, I think that I’d certainly after a long time of looking at the press, I have a lot of reservations about, well, the basic accuracy, actually, of some of that news reporting and also of its usefulness. Sometimes I feel… Yeah, the ways that it reports on these cases doesn’t always help us to understand what’s really going on. So I also, after looking at the press, I’ve done quite a lot of work trying to find criminal trial dossiers for these cases. And in France and, you know, France is an inquisitorial judicial system, which means that for these more serious crimes there’s a process of drawing up a dossier of evidence against the suspect. And that’s what is stored in the archives. So you don’t actually get a record of the trial itself necessarily. In fact, very rarely do you have a good record of what happened at trial. But what you do have is the evidence that the judicial investigation put together into the cases.

Now I think what’s fascinating about that kind of evidence is that it’s much more… I mean the word I would use is it’s like a script, you know, it involves people debating one another. There’s a lot of disagreement. And it presents the points of view of lots of different people involved in these cases in a very, you know, sometimes it’s confusing, but it’s certainly very ambivalent and that’s very different than newspaper sources because the newspaper sources always present these cases as being settled. You know, most typically they make it to the news because the unwitcher involved has been accused of fraud and the newspapers – well you know this is an opening, this is an open-and-shut case. This person made up some nonsense about magic and then defrauded people of a load of money. Of course they were convicted and everything seems very straightforward, but if you look in the criminal trial dossiers that’s not at all how things unfold.

00:14:01 Kristof

And I guess the press is doing it for an audience. So could you say a bit about who consumes that news at all? Or is that very difficult? I know it’s very difficult. But I was wondering, is this popular news throughout the years?

00:14:18 Will

So, yeah, that’s a really good question. I mean, obviously again it’s a very long time period and these things change a great deal across it and in the kind of most schematic terms there’s a clear evolution. So a lot of the newspaper sources that I look at from early in the period are from court reporting, specialist legal reporting. So the Gazette des tribunaux, you know, is a very popular source for French historians because they report on a lot of both criminal and civil trials, actually. But then in the later 19th century there’s a relaxation of censorship laws, particularly after the 1870s. And you see the explosion of a much cheaper and kind of populist press. And they, oh, they love witchcraft cases. So Timothée Trimm, he’s a very famous editor of, I think it’s Le petit journal, but he’s a kind of famous kind of sensationalist journalist of his time. He is constantly – not constantly – but he does write several editorials about, you know, contemporary witchcraft. Yeah, they make a lot of it in the same way that the press like to make scandalous stories throughout history.

00:15:26 Kristof

So it’s treated as a scandal. Does the Catholic media write about it at all, or in different or similar ways?

00:15:36 Will

Yeah so, yeah, they do write about it and it’s fascinating because… So there’s, you know, there’s a large anti-clerical press in France and they, whenever they report on cases they say, well we know who to blame, it’s the Catholic Church. They’re the ones who are going around filling people’s heads with superstitions. But the Catholic press has a different take on it, which I suspect actually might be somewhat closer to the truth of things, which is that they actually – you know, their take on it is: Look at where this stuff is happening. It’s happening in regions that have traditionally had strong faith, but where faith has been kind of, you know, taking a bit of a beating and superstition is what swarms in when you don’t have good Catholic education and good Catholic faith and I, you know, without wanting to, one never necessarily wants to take the side of historical actors in a debate like that, but I do think there’s some truth in that because a lot of the cases happen in regions of traditional Catholic devotion. But the people involved in them are not necessarily very good Catholics, should we say?

00:16:38 Kristof

I guess witchcraft is an especially useful way in a way to think about enchantment as a type of manipulation. You know, people accused of witchcraft were essentially suspected to have manipulated something or someone in a supernatural way. I suppose this is one way of defining witchcraft. Is that tension, that manipulation, something that plays a part in those court trials that you’ve looked at?

00:17:06 Will

Oh yeah, absolutely. And I mean, in fact, it’s one of the most interesting kind of, I don’t want to say debates, but there’s like a conversation happening where the two sides of the conversation just don’t speak the same language so they don’t understand what the other side is saying. Because for people who are genuinely kind of in fear of their lives or in fear of their kind of livelihoods deeds of witchcraft… They, you know, they talk about witchcraft as being something that has compelled them to behave in a certain way. They talk about, you know, not having a choice about things that they’ve done for instance.

Whereas obviously for the authorities prosecuting fraudsters or sometimes prosecuting people for attacking witches, they just don’t believe that witchcraft can compel people to behave in that way. You know, they think that to believe that is in itself, you know, superstition. Well, they mostly think that I should say.

But I do think that, you know, one of the things that makes witchcraft in this period quite interesting is that in the later 19th century there are various kind of complicated arguments that courts get themselves into about how far we should accept what people say about their own intentions, and how far it’s possible to control someone else’s intentions. And, you know, there’s a lot of historical work on this from the point of view of hypnotism and whether hypnotism was, for instance, a valid defence to committing crime in the late 19th century.

But actually those arguments very often get invoked in witchcraft cases as well. So the one that I’ve talked about quite often: a sad case from 1890 where a young woman murdered her newborn baby. You know, she gave birth and she killed the baby immediately and at her trial she said that she had done so under the orders of a witch essentially and she was convicted but she was convicted with diminished responsibility because the court held that it was, you know, she’d been controlled ,kind of mind-controlled by this supposed witch.

00:19:12 Kristof

That’s really interesting, yeah. I’ve noticed that we try to stick to a 15 minute format, but I’m going to ask you one more question. I know that you’ve written about the value of thinking about things like witchcraft in terms of doubt rather than belief. Would you say that – and it may be a bit of a general question to end on – but would you say that enchantment is born especially in areas of doubt, in doubt or suspicion or uncertainty and is that, could you even say that that’s some kind of agency, I guess? Do people get to reposition their attitudes based on shifts in doubt?

00:19:54 Will

Yeah, I mean, I think enchantment is one of those words which lends itself to being talked about in terms of doubts, because I mean – so the reason that I’m interested in doubt… I’ve argued before that doubts are not as solid as beliefs, right?

You know, belief is something where you say, ‘Oh, I have evidence and, you know, however good or bad that evidence might be, and therefore, this is what I believe about it.’ You know, beliefs are open to being challenged rationally. Even, again, if you don’t accept, you might not accept those challenges of the evidence of the people offer, whereas doubts are much less consistent than that. You know, people are not necessarily always very… We don’t own our own doubts. We’re not willing to believe, you know, we’re not willing to state outright that we doubt something.

And I do think that enchantment is one of those things that works particularly well from the point of view of doubt because it’s a word, isn’t it, that we often tend to use quite metaphorically, you know? Oh, you know, enchantment as a kind of… as something that we do as kind of make belief or play. You know, there’s lots of great work, obviously, on how this has worked in literature, especially in my period in fact, you know, there’s a lot of interest in that. And so it is definitely something where people are less, you know, they’re not, they’re not owning that attitude and saying very consciously and forcefully, this is what I think to be true.

00:21:13 Kristof

I think that’s a really nice note to end on. Thank you very much, Will.

This podcast was generously funded by the Department of Digital Humanities, King’s College London.
Musical intro is Sleepwalking by airtone.