Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Monday, 31 October 2011


1508 woodcut of witches
Photo by FrauBucher
I recently found myself in conversation with a small child in the run-up to Halloween. “What is a witch?” the child asked, “and where do they live?” As a history tutor who teaches the European witch-hunt for at least four separate Oxford undergraduate papers, I knew what the scholarly answer might be. A witch is early modern (and late medieval) Europe’s projection of its own ultimate imagined Other, the inversion of all the values that society most appreciated – a witch worshipped the Devil instead of God, engaged in sexual orgies in lieu of continence, killed cattle, made people sick and messed with the weather, rather than living as a useful member of the community. The witch was the infertile, jealous woman who poisoned infants, instead of the nurturing Christian mother. A witch was the parody of all that early modern Europeans believed held their fragile world together. (You can read about all this, for example, in Witch Craze, by Oxford's new Regius Professor, Lyndal Roper).

Instead of saying that, I said: “A witch is a woman who rides through the sky on a broomstick.” And because of the Polish elements in my upbringing, on the question of place of abode I went on to say: “She lives on Lysa Góra (Bald Mountain), with her friends.” There is a popular Polish nursery rhyme that goes: ‘There once was a witch who lived in a hut made of butter, and that hut was full of wonders…’ I was a bit surprised that, put on the spot, I gave this 21C child a 16C definition of witchcraft, which could have been straight from the pages of a demonological treatise (albeit with the more graphic details excised). Was it because I thought the 16C answer would be more comprehensible to a three-year old than the 21C answer? (I did add that witches could be men too, and that they are not real, as concessions to modernity). But this conversation did bring home to me this Halloween that, however much historians analyse and research and deconstruct, certain elements of early modern culture do live on, stubbornly and surprisingly, in our own, and we too transmit and preserve and hand down that culture, if only in our oral and story-telling traditions. And interestingly, when the child then pointed and said: “I can see a witch walking on the roof of your house” I was, half a millennium after the European witch-hunt and after decades of brilliant modern witchcraft scholarship, a little bit spooked.


  1. I don't see why it's surprising that certain elements live on. I'd be really surprised if none of them did. Even without masses of technology, there are too many ways things can persist and it need not take that many people to cause some things to persist. Many of the 'ancient traditions' of Oxford and other universities live on, so I'm not sure if that many people who find a story interesting are truly needed.

    If somebody asked me what a witch was, I think I might just point them to Buffy---plenty of magic but hardly a broomstick in sight.

    If I had to give any coherent reason, I'd just say it's because enough people think it's a good story, and how often do other forces get in the way of that?

  2. Witches do make for a good story, but I suppose what surprises me is that the witchhunt is the aspect of early modern culture which we find probably the most repellent, nasty and hard to fathom - students often find it quite upsetting to study. It's interesting that it's the bits of our past which we purport to find most alien (and alienating) which we keep alive in our own culture, albeit in an apparently sanitised way. I imagine that's the kind of question which psychologists could help us answer...

  3. Hi, this is a very good post. It is true children ignorant of history and think very strange and funny things at times. My son once asked me if her grandmother was a witch, it was very funny, the worst is that I did not know that answer, maybe he was right. Because for what was also the neighbor was afraid because he was too old and said it was a ghost. I poienso to be let go your imagination and explaining a little of everything.
    Luis Aguirre - Vudu

  4. The Witches is a subject that interests me greatly, the average age is a time very dark and mysterious at once. I agree with what he says Natalia Nowakowska, I send a big salute to all, keep so ...
    Jennifer Larsen | Enigmas y Misterios