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Charlotte-Rose Millar, Witchcraft, The Devil, and Emotions in Early Modern England

London: Routledge, 2017. 230 p. ISBN: 978-1472485496 (Hardcover). £115
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Charlotte-Rose Millar, Witchcraft, The Devil, and Emotions in Early Modern England. London: Routledge, 2017. 230 p. ISBN: 978-1472485496 (Hardcover). £115

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1This monograph is what Charlotte-Rose Millar describes in her personal web page as a significantly expanded and revised version of her PhD thesis ‘The Devil is in the Pamphlets: Witchcraft and Emotion in Seventeenth-Century England’ defended at the University of Melbourne in 20151. Its findings rest upon the analysis of a corpus of sixty-six pamphlets, thus providing a welcome addition to existing scholarship which covers the entire period going from the publication of Elizabeth I’s 1563 witchcraft statute to 1735, the date of the repeal of James I’s harsher statute.

2In the introduction, the author clearly states her claim to ‘Rethinking English Witchcraft’ (p. 1) by paying particular attention to the demonic elements in these pamphlets. Throughout the book, she repeatedly asserts that the devil and the demonic are indeed at the very core of English witchcraft. In order to demonstrate the centrality of the devil in English witchcraft pamphlets, the book is divided into five chapters. The first chapter contextualises constructions and perceptions of the devil himself in early modern England. Once this broader context is set, chapter 2 explores the quintessentially English importance of the witches’ familiars, which is one of the fields of expertise of the author in her other publications. Chapter 3 then explores the issue of emotional control, dealing especially with anger, revenge, hatred and malice. The next chapter moves on to a study of the sexual undertones of witchcraft literature, dwelling upon the intimate interaction between the witches, the devil and their familiars. Finally, chapter 5 dwells upon the collective dimension of witchcraft, showing that pamphlets expressed a feeling of national fear towards witchcraft as a collaborative and conspiratorial endeavour. After a brief conclusion, the book presents two appendices, the first being a list of all sixty-six pamphlets studied, and the second a useful graph to visualise the chronological spread of English witchcraft pamphlets printed in the decades 1560s through 1730s.

3Throughout the book, Millar is careful to place each one of her chapters within its historiographical context, retracing the major trends of scholarly study on witchcraft broadly speaking, ranging from early seminal works by Notestein, Ewen or Kittredge to the milestones of the 1970s and 1980s, most notably Keith Thomas and Alan Macfarlane. She also pays tribute to the 1990s focus on sex, gender and witchcraft, with the works of feminist scholars such as Deborah Willis and Diane Purkiss, as well as Malcolm Gaskill for male witchcraft. Millar recognises that her chosen focus on the devil has already been explored by James Sharpe. And indeed, any new work on the topic of witchcraft will have to find its place within an area of study which is already incredibly rich. In a market where younger scholars are required to be more aggressively competitive and critical, as well as original and novel, some have tended to discard the works of their forebears to advance their theories, as it were, in an iconoclastic fashion. However, Millar’s treatment of the ‘older historiography’ (p. 2) from which she claims to move away remains nuanced; rather than present her work as a debunking of others’, she offers it as an addition, a new stone on an already well-trodden path.

4Even if the topic is not entirely novel, the book provides valuable insights thanks to its broad selection of popular pamphlets, covering the longue durée. More essential questions relate to the methodology that underpins its analysis and argument. The first such question regards the corpus itself. What were the criteria for selection of the pamphlets? The author chose to focus on popular print rather than trials or treatises of daemonology. But the rationale has not been explained clearly enough to give the sense of a rigorous method. This is not to say the selection process was not carefully thought-out; yet it would have been useful to inform the reader more thoroughly about the criteria applied. For instance, the length of the pamphlets ranges from one single page to Thomas Pott’s 188-page publication. The costs of such printed material would have varied enormously, and their styles, purposes and intended audiences were different. It would have been interesting for the author to tackle such issues, the study of which would enrich her analysis.

5Another issue concerns the treatment of emotions in the book. Emotions feature in the title of the monograph, whose development in the homeland of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions promised an exciting re-reading of witchcraft pamphlets through the lens of the emotions studies. But only one chapter engages with the subject of emotions, as if it had been superimposed upon a pre-existing, central reflexion about the devil. As such, the treatment of emotions in witchcraft pamphlets does not sit comfortably in the book. Yet it could have provided such a fruitful lens to study the proposed corpus. How does the author define the topic of emotions? The chapter emphasises the importance of revenge, malice, hatred and anger; in fact, it could be argued that revenge and malice are not emotions at all. Moreover, the study remains superficial even on anger and hatred; a closer reading could have been much more revealing. The book falls short of unveiling ‘the emotional experiences of witches, victims, accusers, readers and authors’, as it ambitiously claimed in the introduction (p. 17). Why did Millar choose to limit her study to those emotions, when she could also have found revealing insights about fear, disgust, envy, or guilt, for instance? Such a choice for narrow interpretation may be deliberate, but in the absence of explanation from the author, it appears puzzling. That same narrowness of view applies to the chapter on sexuality, in which Millar interprets mentions of demonic familiars suckling on the witch’s teat as evidence of oral sex; this is a possibility, but can it be generalised?

6Overall, the analysis which underpins the arguments appears fragile. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the author sets out, from the beginning, to prove a particular point in each chapter, and in doing so, she deprives herself of the opportunity to explore the riches of her sources, their nuances and contradictions, as well as their convergence. This drive to demonstrate a point overshadows one of the potential strengths of the book, whose most original contribution consists possibly in the time-range covered by the corpus of pamphlets Millar selected. The long time span allows her to reveal some shifts in the presentation of witchcraft in popular culture, during different periods. For instance, in the chapter about the sexual elements of witchcraft pamphlets, the author shows that ‘penetrative acts with man-like devils were confined to the 1640s and later’ (p. 116), while the earlier periods privileged non-penetrative acts with animal-like familiars. Similarly, when she presents her findings on witchcraft as a group activity, Millar shows that pamphlets shifted their emphasis over time. When in the earlier period, they implied a link between a collective conspiracy of witches and the underground Catholicism activities of recusants and missionaries, she argues that the undertones shifted around the 1650s to express concern about newer religious groups such as Quakers. This is the real strength of the book: it offers insight into what early modern people could read in popular witchcraft pamphlets, and it can reveal much about what were the beliefs to which they were exposed, and their nuanced emphases over time. By moving away slightly from bold claims, of which it is easy to fall short, to give its due space to closer observation of the details of the texts, the book would be more in tune with its true potential.

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Laurence LUX-STERRITT, « Charlotte-Rose Millar, Witchcraft, The Devil, and Emotions in Early Modern England », E-rea [En ligne], 17.2 | 2020, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2020, consulté le 14 juillet 2020. URL :

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Aix Marseille Univ, LERMA, Aix-en-Provence, France

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