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‘Staging Witchcraft Before the Law: Skepticism, Performance as Proof, and Law as Magic in Early Modern Witch Trials’ – Lecture by Julie Stone Peters (Columbia University)

Date: 24 May 2024
Time: 14:15 – 16:00
Location: Leiden University, Academy Building – Faculty Chamber Law
Organisers: Yasco Horsman and Yiorgos-Evgenios Douliakas
Julie Stone Peters will also host a workshop on the same day (1 ECTS). More information can be found here.

Early modern witch trials never cease to fascinate us. How could so many have believed that the world was peopled by witches? Why did so many confess? How could so many innocent people have been tortured and judicially murdered? Scholars answer “witch-beliefs” or “social forces” or “delusion.” But the answer lies as much in the visible evidence produced in the courtroom itself: “acts of Sorcery and Witch-craft” that judges, juries and spectators saw with their own eyes. When (as one witness said) the accused “act[ed] Witchcraft before us by the motion of [her] body,” there could be no doubt.

This talk explores a set of extraordinary episodes during early modern witch trials: those moments when judges, accusers, victims, or the alleged witches themselves staged or performed witchcraft as evidence of the crime. In courtrooms, examination chambers, prisons, and town squares, participants ordered the accused to conjure the devil, create hailstorms, or turn themselves into wolves. They brought the bewitched before witnesses, where they spoke in demonic voices, thrashed with palsy-like shakes, turned their bodies into hoops, howled like dogs, vomited hair, straw, or nails. They made the invisible world visible and set it in motion.

Looking at a wide array of images, demonological treatises, and pamphlets, I argue that such staging answered to specific doctrines of proof. At the same time, performances often overflowed the demands of doctrine, generating complex and contradictory expressive effects. Through a close examination of two extraordinary cases—the cases of the French witch-demoniac Françoise Fontaine in 1591 and of the English “Witches of Warboys” in 1593—I will explore such effects, while suggesting methods for “close reading” historical performance. These cases remind us that all may depend on staging, —then as now in that conjuring practice we call law.

Julie Stone Peters is the H. Gordon Garbedian Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, an Affiliated faculty member at Columbia Law School, and a Global Professorial Fellow at Queen Mary University (London) School of Law. Her most recent books are Law as Performance: Theatricality, Spectatorship, and the Making of Law in Ancient, Medieval, and Early Modern Europe (Oxford UP, 2022) and Staging Witchcraft Before the Law: Skepticism, Performance as Proof, and Law as Magic in Early Modern Witch Trials (forthcoming, Cambridge UP, 2024). Her more public-facing essays have appeared in the New York TimesLondon Review of BooksVillage VoicePublic Books, and elsewhere. She is currently working on a project tentatively titled The Video and the Law.