Margaret Murray

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Margaret Murray : biography

13 June 1863 – 13 November 1963
Her manipulation of sources is sometimes so blatant as to be naive, for even a cursory reader can spot what is going on. At one point she is arguing that witches went to their meetings on foot or on horseback in a quite non-magical way, and quotes from the well-known confession of Isobel Gowdie: "I had a little horse, and would say ‘Horse and Hattock, in the Devil’s name!’" – but without mentioning that the "horse" Isobel was talking about was a magic wisp of straw (Murray 1921, 99-100). Then, five pages later, she quotes the same passage again, but this time in full, straw and all, to show how witches had hallucinations of flight (Murray 1921, 105-6); she does not realise that she has thereby wrecked her previous rationalistic interpretation of the passage.

Murray’s work involved her rationalizing many elements of the witch trials, particularly those she deemed impossible, such as the accounts of witches flying through the air or the Devil existing as a supernatural entity. However, Simpson criticised her for taking this rationalization too far in claiming that some of them are so ridiculous that they are "unintentionally funny."Simpson 1994. p. 90-91. As evidence for this, Simpson highlights Murray’s claim that trial accounts of Satan’s cloven hoof were instead referring to "perhaps a specially formed boot or shoe" that the coven-leader wore so that he could be recognized.Murray 1921. p. 91. Subsequent historians examining the Early Modern witch trials, particularly Carlo Ginzburg, Eva Pocs and Emma Wilby have also emphasised that the accounts in many of the witch trials represent visionary experiences, containing within them imaginary and surreal elements, which goes against Murray’s rationalization of the trial accounts.

Murray was also criticised by Simpson for her "passionate system building," developing her own image of a "rigidly codified and uniform [religious] system throughout Britain and Europe" that had its own set "Rites of initiation, dates for festivals, sabbath rituals, discipline and hierarchy within covens."Simpson 1994. p. 91-92.

Reception

1920-1962

As soon as Murray published her theory she received criticism from other historians who had studied the Early Modern witch trials. As later historian Ronald Hutton noted, "Among that small number of scholars who were familiar with the trial records, [Murray’s theories] never had a chance. The use of source material which underpinned them was too blatantly flawed."Hutton 1999. p. 198. In a 1922 review of The Witch-Cult in Western Europe in the Folklore journal for instance, W.B. Halliday, an expert on ancient religion, dismissed her theory, and noted that her hypothesis relied upon "documents torn from the background of their own age and divorced from the serious study of their historical antecedents."Halliday 1922. In a similar vein, C. L’Estrange Ewen, a specialist in the witch trials, referred to them in 1938 as simple "fancies" that were nothing but "vapid balderdash."Ewen 1938. However, whilst a few historians chose to challenge her theories, most simply chose to ignore them as irrelevant, and as later folklorist and vocal critic of the theory Jacqueline Simpson noted, "Normally this is an effective technique for ensuring the oblivion of bad books, but in this case it backfired, since it left her theory free to spread, seemingly unchallenged, among an eager public."Simpson 1994. p. 95.

Murray responded to much criticism by claiming that it was religiously motivated, coming from Christians who did not want her theories to be true: in one case she stated that her theory had received "a hostile reception from many strictly Christian sects and reviewers, but it made its way in spite of opposition."Murray 1963. p. 104. As Hutton noted, she had "a tendency to deny any good motives or virtues to those who criticized her theories."Hutton 1999 p. 194. and "Her own reviews of [L’Estrange Ewen]’s work in the Folk-Lore Society’s periodical were amazingly ungracious, avoiding any engagement with his actual arguments or evidence and dismissing him completely in general terms as ‘unscientific’, ‘uncritical’, ‘dull’, and so valueless and worthy only to be ignored."