A Hapless Heritage?: witchcraft, inclusivity and historical remembrance
Illustration: Nicola March

History is something we’re all familiar with, whether you are an enthusiast, a passive onlooker, or even somewhere in between. As such, the concept of a historical narrative remains at the forefront of long-standing debate, as we try to answer, ‘who’s history are we telling?’ Despite movements emerging over the past few decades calling for greater emphasis to be placed on black, feminist, LGBT and hidden histories, the heritage sector has largely failed to acknowledge this demand for a fresh and more comprehensive perspective on the past.

However, following the recent death of George Floyd, which catalysed the Black Lives Matter Movement, the importance of recognising such histories has resurfaced with a more pressing agenda for equality. Unfortunately, some of these protests, particularly those taking place in Britain, have been undermined by our system’s short-sighted take on the past. Indeed, such short-sightedness continues to be prevalent across the education sector, the heritage industry and, in turn, the public sphere.

A quick scroll through social media reveals just how embedded racism, prejudice and discrimination is in 21st-century British culture, with the majority of posts failing to acknowledge (or blatantly denying) the role Britain played as a major imperial power. Most convey racist undertones, preferring to adopt an unwavering patriotic attitude. It is from the controversy and debate that has been elicited from such movements that have made me – and hopefully you – consider more deeply the way particular aspects of heritage are represented, particularly regarding my dissertation topic: witchcraft.

Unlike other histories you may be more familiar with, witchcraft sits as uncomfortably in the modern mindset as much as it did in antiquity. Obscure, unclear, abstruse, but undeniably there. Similar to the history of disenfranchised and minority groups, witchcraft has often been subject to manipulation, with the British heritage industry traditionally adopting a largely stereotyped approach, focused predominantly on the persecution of women.

“The heritage sector’s portrayal of the past is paramount to changing modern historical perceptions.”

Even today, the majority of people, when asked to describe a witch, will follow a similar line of identification: a lonely, old, widowed woman, with a pointy hat and a black cat. However, this schema did not come out of anywhere. A famous treatise, the Malleus Maleficarum, (translated as the Hammer of Witches) written in 1487 by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, highlights how well rooted this stereotype became. The authors’ strongly emphasise the naïvety and gullibility of women, labelling them as “credulous, impressionable and fragile.” In a patriarchal society-rule by male householders-female independence, especially sexual liberation, was something to fear. Consequently, the main series of witch-hunts throughout the 16th and 18th-centuries served to solidify the conventional connection between women and witchcraft. 

Whether we are referring to witches, minority history, or even the popular narratives of monarchs and dictators, the heritage sector’s portrayal of the past is paramount to changing modern historical perceptions. For example, while recent research has revealed that witch-hunting was not women-hunting, with male witches being perfectly feasible, the heritage sector continues to employ arguments asserted by feminist historians that claim witch hunts were aimed at women. Famously, Barbara Ehrenreich and Deidre English claimed works like the Malleus were employed as part of an androcentric campaign by male medical professionals to denounce women. As a result, women have been largely stereotyped as ‘victims’ of a gynocentric pursuit, ultimately affecting how witchcraft is presented in the British heritage industry. 

Take, for example, the case of Alice Nutter: a Lancastrian woman who was hanged in 1612, as part of the Pendle Witch Trials that occurred in the North of England. A statue of Alice was erected in 2012, in the hope that it would memorialise and defy the “stereotypical hooked nose, warts and ugly countenance,” by alternatively presenting her as a real, ordinary and  “dignified person.” While statues like that of Alice Nutter do not ignore the persecution of male witches – with two of the Pendle Witches being men – the heritage sector has largely failed to be fully comprehensive on this matter. Instead, it favours the conventional and sympathetic narrative that avoids anachronism. 

A connection can also be made here to the recent call for the removal of certain statues in Britain, which has evoked a considerable amount of controversy. One example from 2015, which has recently re-emerged in light of the current circumstances, concerns the statue of 19th-century imperialist, Cecil Rhodes, at Oriel College, Oxford. As part of the #RhodesMustFall campaign, a petition was issued to Oxford University, calling for the statue’s removal.  However, despite the renewal of protests resulting in a more stringent review of the statue, racism prevails in Britain. It is, therefore, implicit that the heritage industry needs to continue its review of the past with increased scrutiny.

“More children know the names of Henry VIII’s six wives than our role as a colonial oppressor.”

A parallel can also be drawn to the British curriculum’s teaching of topics like Civil Rights and minority history. Having been brought up in the British education system, there was little insight into the influence of Britain on the rest of the world – especially concerning its position as an imperial power. As noted in an article in the Financial Times in 2010, there is too much attention on ‘Hitler and the Henrys.’ While these subjects should not be eradicated, there is something to be said for the fact that more children know the names of Henry VIII’s six wives than our role as a colonial oppressor, with the majority of students still favouring modules on dictators and monarchs. By limiting our understanding of British history to a single, monolithic narrative, we are failing to acquire a comprehensive insight into our past, whether that is concerning disenfranchised groups, colonial history, or even witchcraft.

Although comprehensiveness is improving in all areas of the heritage sector, it has been a relatively slow process. This principle of inclusivity can also be applied to the heritage of other minority groups, with organisations like the National Trust only having incorporated such narratives in the past twenty-years or so. Sissinghurst Castle, for example, emerged as a popular heritage site for members of the LGBTQ community. The estate became particularly well-known following the publication of Portrait of a Marriage (1973), which amplified the homosexual affair between Vita Sackville-West and Violet Trefusis. However, this part of Sissinghurst’s narrative was largely ignored by the National Trust until 2008, with most of the emphasis being placed on the gardens as a symbol of the heterosexual harmony between West and her husband. This has since been better acknowledged, with a brisk search on its website revealing a more comprehensive insight into West’s personal life.

Nevertheless, the heritage industry is positively evolving, with greater efforts being implemented to provide an extensive and all-encompassing insight into the past. Yet, it seems we still have a long way to go, with orthodox and elitist narratives remaining largely at the forefront. 

So, we begin as we started. How should history and, indeed, more obscure subjects like witchcraft, be represented in heritage today? Unlike the phrase commonly misattributed to historian Arnold Toynbee, history is not simply ‘one damn thing after another.’ It is much more intricate, diverse and emotional than that, involving individuals at all levels and in all circumstances. Human emotion has changed little over the past millennia. What has evolved, however, is what we attach our emotions to.

Humans are strange creatures. We like to create order from disorder, structure from chaos, and to separate good from the bad. While this approach has helped us to gain a sense of control in times of uncertainty, it has left us with a limited understanding of our past. By challenging these expectations, we will, in time, acquire a more comprehensive account of British history, allowing for a more thorough grasp on the past and, as such, greater clarity on who we are as people today. Of course, history remains subject to individual interpretation. Yet, if there is anything to take away, it’s that the heritage sector should be more conscious of the concepts it brings to the past, and the notions people of the past had of the events around them.