[Student Comments on Burning Times]   [Student Assessments of The Burning Times]

"A Holocaust of One's Own. The Myth of the Burning Times."

Diane Purkiss's critique of radical feminist histories
of witchcraft and witch hunting

History in the Service of Postmodern Myth

In chapter 1 of The Witch in History (London: Routledge, 1996, pp. 7-26), Diane Purkiss takes aim at the historical distortions in the radical feminist project that created the myth of "The Burning Times." At bottom, she argues, the problem lies in the conscious misuse of history to suit the needs of the radical feminist movement of today. This is the intentional practice of "a historicism": the abandonment of historical perspective and the rules of evaluating historical evidence.

Distortions more egregious than in other histories:

  • "Like other histories, then, though more egregiously than some, radical feminist histories of witches and witchcraft remember the past according to a variety of myths, ideas and political needs, and often they refer explicitly to the needs and desires which brought them into being. Equally often, however, radical feminist figurations of the witch . . . seek to erase the traces of their own historicity, in the interests of offering themselves as a means of access to a transparent, unmediated past." (Purkiss, 10)

A historicity: denying the difference between past and present:

  • [The] "tension between past and present is experienced in all feminist histories, but only radical feminism resolves it by denying the difference. Radical feminism offers its narrative not as a reconstruction of the past, but an account of the way things always are." (Purkiss, 11)

A historicism: abandoning the rules of reading and interpreting evidence .

  • [Radical feminism] "constitutes a challenge to the traditions of academic history not because of the explicitness of its political agenda, but--more importantly--because its ahistorical stance allows the complete overthrow of the rules of reading and interpreting evidence." (Purkiss, 11)

The Witch as Most Persecuted and Innocent Victim: Appropriating the 20th century Holocaust to recast the early modern witch and forge modern feminist identities.

  • "What does all this tell us about gender and history? The radical feminist creation of the myth of the Burning Times is difficult to analyze and discuss because it has become such a key part of many feminists' identities that to point to its limitations is bound to be painful and divisive. The myth reminds all of us that we want to find ourselves in the past, that we scan the past looking for confirmation of who we are, who we want to be. We search for something to aim for, and something to aim against. We look for stories about our own journeys, battles, passions. We search for real women, women as real as ourselves, perhaps more real than we can manage to be. . . . the myth of the Burning times covers over historical specificity in its eagerness to unite women, and in the coerciveness of the myth thus created. Worst of all, there are the questions of the theft of the rhetorics of atrocity this century, and their deployment to support an identity as Most Persecuted and Innocent Victim. These thefts show how far narcissism can go in clouding the past to make a mirror for the endlessly uncertain present. In thus helping ourselves, we are silencing early modern women anew. We are also denying ourselves the chance to hear historical differences which might show us just how different thing could be, how fragile the assumptions which make us suffer now might seem to our descendants. If the past is different, the future can be." (Purkiss, 26)