Last month the Scottish government gave its support to a proposal to grant a posthumous pardon to people who were executed as witches. The campaign group Witches of Scotland estimates that between the passing of the Witchcraft Act in 1563 and its repeal in 1736, almost 4000 people were accused; around two thirds of them, more than 2500 people, were subsequently convicted and executed. As well as a pardon, the campaigners want an official apology and a public memorial to those who died.
In Scotland as elsewhere, a large majority of the victims of witch-hunting—around 84 percent of them—were women, and the campaign has been seen as a feminist issue. For some supporters its significance goes beyond the purely historical: it’s been suggested that the righting of this centuries-old wrong will also, in the words of Scottish Parliament member Natalie Don, ‘have an impact in challenging gendered and patriarchal attitudes in [present-day] society’. All of which raises some interesting questions about history, politics and (for reasons I’ll come to shortly) language.
There are other cases where a pardon has been granted to a group of people who are considered, in retrospect, to have been criminalized unjustly. In 2016, for instance, the UK Parliament passed legislation pardoning anyone who had been convicted under the various laws that once prohibited consensual sex between men. Lord Sharkey, who proposed the relevant amendment, said that ‘a pardon is probably the best way of acknowledging the real harm done by the unjust and cruel homophobic laws, which thankfully we’ve now repealed’.
Not everyone agreed. George Montague, a gay man who was convicted of gross indecency in 1974, told the BBC he wanted an apology, not a pardon. ‘To accept a pardon means you accept that you were guilty’, he said. ‘I was not guilty of anything. I was only guilty of being in the wrong place at the wrong time’.
One pardons a wrongdoer, not the party wronged. Yet by means of a pardon conferred by statute the state is granting, not seeking, forgiveness. A pardon (of witches or anyone else) does not quash a conviction. It actually reaffirms its existence.
Pardoning is an example of the type of speech-act the philosopher J. L. Austin called a ‘performative’, meaning that the utterance of certain words actually performs, as opposed to just reporting, a specific action. Whereas statements like ‘it’s raining’ describe a state of affairs that exists independently of the speaker’s utterance (or doesn’t: I can check by looking out of the window), performative utterances like ‘I bet you £5 it rains today’ or ‘I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth’ are, in themselves, enactments of the bet or the oath. They bring a new reality into being—or at least, they do if they’re performed properly. Performatives don’t have truth conditions, but rather ‘happiness’ or ‘felicity’ conditions which must be met if the performance is to have the intended effect. In the case of pardoning those conditions include the prior existence of a crime or a wrong for which the person being pardoned was responsible. Consequently, Stevenson argues, pardoning the witches cannot achieve the intended effect: it will not bring into being a new reality in which they were never guilty of anything.
But while this argument may be legally correct, for most people in modern Scotland it is surely beside the point, since they already take the witches’ innocence for granted. Witches are a different case from gay men: a pardon is not being proposed because of a change in society’s attitudes to what they do (people used to think witchcraft was wrong, but that has now been recognized as an unjust prejudice), but rather because we now reject the idea that witchcraft is, or ever was, a real phenomenon. To us it is self-evident that the accusations made against witches—for instance that they had killed their neighbours’ cows with curses, transformed themselves into owls or cavorted on beaches with Satan—were false: no one could have been guilty of such absurd and impossible crimes. In that sense you could argue that the wrong has already been righted, to the extent it ever can be. But in that case, what is a pardon meant to accomplish?
A cynical answer might be that it’s ‘performative’ not (just) in Austin’s sense, but in the now-popular pejorative sense: an ostentatious but superficial display of concern intended mainly to boost the performer’s claim to the moral high-ground. That criticism has sometimes been made about the formal apologies other governments have offered for more recent wrongs like the removal of indigenous children from their families in Australia, or the abuse of women in Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries. The problem isn’t necessarily that they’re insincere (I’m sure the Scottish government does genuinely believe it was wrong to execute people for witchcraft). But if the regret politicians express for the way certain people were treated in the past is not accompanied by any concern about the injustices those people still suffer in the present, their performances may be dismissed as just self-serving, empty words.
What about Natalie Don’s assertion that revisiting the history of witch-hunting in Scotland will serve the purpose not only of atoning for past sins, but also of ‘challenging gendered and patriarchal attitudes’ in the present? This argument is often made about the commemoration of atrocities: we should remember the Holocaust or the Atlantic slave trade not only as a mark of respect to the victims, but also as a way of educating ourselves, and so preventing comparable horrors in future. Painful though it may be, we can only learn from history if we face up to what really happened and why.
The witch-hunts of the early modern period have not generally been commemorated in this way: they’ve been mythologized and trivialized by the entertainment and tourism industries. In the English town of Lancaster, the site of the 1612 Pendle witch-trials (in which ten women and two men were convicted and executed), the historian Rachel Hasted reported in 1984 that
The local tourist bureau has just launched an advertising campaign headlined The Magick of Lancaster, with a 17th century woodcut of several women being hanged…Tourist shops all over the county sell little black-hatted figures on pipe-cleaner broomsticks and guide-books to ‘the witch country’ with lurid accounts of their doings.
A quick online search confirmed that some tourist attractions in the area are still presenting Lancashire’s witch-hunts (aka the torture and killing of human beings) as if they were quaint local traditions on a par with cheese-rolling or dancing around the maypole.
As Silvia Federici argues in her 2018 book Witches, Witch Hunting and Women, the lurid tales and tacky souvenirs both sensationalize and sanitize history: they recycle an image of the witch that was originally constructed by her persecutors, while glossing over the reality of her persecution. Federici would presumably applaud Scotland for facing up to that reality. But exactly how to present ‘what really happened and why’ remains a complicated question. Historians, including feminists, hold different and sometimes conflicting views.
Back in the 1980s, Rachel Hasted took issue not only with the crass pop-history in tourist guides, but also with what she dubbed a ‘new myth of the Witch’ popularized by feminists. This account posited that the witches were ‘wise women’ and healers, dispensing plant-based natural remedies to the people of their peasant communities, and (in some versions of the story) holding on to ancient pagan beliefs. Witch-hunts were said to have occurred when these long-established activities, and the traditional knowledge that underpinned them, began to be seen as a threat to the authority of the church and the interests of the men who controlled the emerging medical profession.
But in Hasted’s view the Lancaster records did not support this interpretation. The Pendle women were pious Christians who neither laid claim to nor were accused of using any knowledge of medicinal herbs. In Scotland, too, it seems that few women tried for witchcraft were known in their communities as healers. These cases might fit better with an alternative account in which women were victimized not because the authorities felt threatened by their power, but on the contrary, because they were so powerless.
Some research suggests that accusations of witchcraft were disproportionately made against individuals who were already marginalized because they were old, disabled, or without regular employment, and consequently so poor that they would sometimes beg or steal from their neighbours. It wasn’t a coincidence that many of them were women: the exclusion of women from many kinds of work made them vulnerable to poverty, especially if they were single. But in this account what made them targets was not their sex in itself, but the perception of them as troublesome and undesirable. The implication is that accusers were motivated less by fear of witchcraft than by a desire to see people they disliked, disapproved of, or had some kind of quarrel with, punished by the authorities.
That desire has existed in every age, and been exploited by authoritarian regimes of all kinds. We now know, for instance, that in both Nazi Germany and Communist East Germany, many people who informed on their neighbours, workmates or fellow-students did so for personal rather than ideological reasons, to settle scores with their enemies or gain an advantage over their rivals. Recently there has been some discussion of this in Scotland, in relation to a controversial new hate-crime law which was finally passed last March. One concern expressed by critics of the legislation was that it would encourage zealots and grudge-bearers to drag the state into their personal or political feuds.
The Scottish witch-pardon might also invite questions about the complacency of a society that condemns past abuses of women while tolerating comparable abuses in the present. When I say ‘comparable’, I obviously don’t mean that women in Scotland are still being executed for witchcraft. But many of the same things that were said about witches are still regularly said about women in modern courtrooms—for instance that they are liars, manipulative, vengeful and sexually predatory.
The actual language of witch-hunting is not dead either. In 2020, after the trial of former SNP leader Alex Salmond on multiple sexual assault charges ended in his acquittal, commentators in the Scottish media used it to attack some of the women journalists who had covered the case. A programme fronted by Kirsty Wark was said to have featured a ‘coven’ of women who were likened to the three witches in Macbeth; one of them, Dani Garavelli, was also described as ‘the Rapefinder-General’. The sexism of this rhetoric, which recasts women, the original witch-hunt victims, as persecutors of innocent men, is not, of course, unique to Scotland. But nor does Scotland have any special claim to have moved beyond it.
I’m not suggesting that feminists should oppose the pardoning of witches (or formal apologies or memorials to them, which IMHO might be apter choices), but I do think we should consider what we want these performances to accomplish. If all they accomplish is to distance the living from the superstitious beliefs of their long-dead ancestors, that’s fine as far as it goes, but there’s nothing especially feminist about it. For the gesture to ‘have an impact in challenging gendered and patriarchal attitudes’, it would need to go beyond saying ‘look, we’re not like our ancestors, we find what they did abhorrent’, and address the ways in which—regrettably—we are still like them.