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The Visions of Isobel Gowdie

Magic,Witchcraft and Dark Shamanism in Seventeenth-Century Scotland

Emma Wilby an Honorary Fellow in History at the University of Exeter. Her first book, Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits, has been published to critical acclaim and review.

Shortlisted for the Saltire Society Scottish History Book of the Year Award 2010

Shortlisted for the Katharine Briggs Award 2010

“This is in my opinion the finest reconstruction of the thought-world of somebody accused in an early modern witch trial yet made, making sense of elements that most people would find wholly fantastic.” Ronald Hutton, University of Bristol, writing in Pomegranate

The witchcraft confessions given by Isobel Gowdie in Auldearn, 1662, are widely celebrated as the most extraordinary on record in Britain. Their descriptive power, vivid imagery and contentious subject-matter have attracted considerable interest on both academic and popular levels. This book provides the first full-length examination of the confessions and the life and character of the woman behind them.

The author’s discovery of the original trial records, deemed lost for nearly 200 years, provides a starting point for an interdisciplinary endeavour to separate Isobel’s voice from that of her interrogators, identify the beliefs and experiences that informed her testimony and analyze why her confessions differ so markedly from those of other witchcraft suspects from the period. In the course of these enquiries, the author develops wider hypotheses relevant to the study of early modern witchcraft as a whole, with recent research into Amazonian ‘dark’ shamanism, false-memory generation and mutual-dream experience, along with literature on marriage-covenant mysticism and protection-charm traditions, all being brought to the investigation of early modern witch-records for the first time.

Emma Wilby concludes that close analysis of Isobel’s confessions supports the still-controversial hypothesis that in seventeenth-century Scotland, as in other parts of Europe in this period, popular spirituality was shaped through a deep interaction between church teachings and shamanistic traditions of pre-Christian origin. She also extends this thesis beyond its normal association with beneficent magic and overtly folkloric themes to speculate that some of Europe’s more malevolent and demonological witch-narratives may also have emerged out of visionary rites underpinned by cogent shamanistic rationales.

Hardback ISBN: 978-1-84519-179-5
Hardback Price: £75.00 / $125.00
Release Date: June 2010
Paperback ISBN: 978-1-84519-180-1
Paperback Price: £37.50 / $50.00
Release Date: June 2010
Page Extent / Format: 616 pp. / 246 x 171 mm
Illustrated: Yes


List of Illustrations

Part I The Construction of the Confessions
Introduction to Part I

chapter one
The Cottar’s Wife

chapter two
The Confessions

chapter three
The Shadow of the Interrogator

chapter four
Interweaving Worlds

chapter five
Curious Minds

chapter six
‘Q[uhe]n I wes in the elfes houssis’

chapter seven
The Men of Constant Sorrows

chapter eight
The Ethics of Malevolence

chapter nine
Wonderful Lies

Part II Shamanistic Perspectives

Introduction to Part II

chapter ten
An Old Way of Seeing

chapter eleven
Isobel Follows the Goddess

chapter twelve
‘His hour was pursuing him’

chapter thirteen
The Choosers of the Slain

Part III The Demonological Elements
Introduction to Part III

chapter fourteen
Lady Isobel and the Elf Knight

chapter fifteen
The Devil and the Covenant of Grace

chapter sixteen
Crafting the Bridegroom

chapter seventeen
‘The De’il’s aye gude to his ain’

chapter eighteen
Witches’ Covens and Dark Dream Cults

Appendix: The Confession of Janet Breadheid
Works Cited

Gowdie’s confessions offer probably the most challenging and mysterious material in British witch trials. Emma Wilby subjects them to a long and painstakingly minute analysis, which covers much folkloric material, but also involves a great deal of speculative interpretation. Her book will prove controversial, but is an important contribution to witchcraft studies.
The Katharine Briggs Award Judges Report, 2010

This is a remarkable book based on remarkable historical documentation ... an important work and essential reading for all scholars of early modern witchcraft, and of the popular culture of that period more generally.
James Sharpe, American Historical Review

An inspired and inspiring assessment of this famous witchcraft case … Through Wilby’s carefully crafted system of speculation, built upon shards of evidence, the historical actors and their belief systems become clearly and convincingly entwined with our understanding of Isobel’s trial and the unique traits for which it is so famous. The result is a deeply complex understanding of the trial that is wholly attributable to Wilby’s admirably creative thinking and painstaking research.
Janay Nugent, The Sixteenth Century Journal

In this bold and imaginative book, Emma Wilby attempts to understand Isobel by taking us deeply into her culture and spiritual worldview ... With meticulous attention to detail, she reconstructs Isobel’s life as a poor, illiterate farmwife: her cultural horizons within the fermtoun, or small agro-pastoral community where she lived; her spiritual worldview, which combined Christianity with many aspects of folklore rooted in earlier cosmologies; and the likely sequence of events that led to her arrest and imprisonment. Wilby gives equally careful attention to the personalities and agendas of the men who questioned her, showing how a unique combination of personal, religious, and political ideologies came together in the small interrogation room, culminating in her remarkable performance ... No other author to date has come up with such a cohesive interpretation of Isobel’s confessions. In the end, this book does what good research should: provide us with provocative, original interpretations and raise questions for further exploration. Wilby’s book will be of great interest to folklorists, anthropologists, historians of witchcraft, and of course modern Pagan Witches.
Sabina Magliocco, California State University, writing in The Journal of Folklore Research

[Wilby's research is] illuminating and thought-provoking, and will therefore be of immense value to those scholars who venture into the complex maze of witchcraft history ... Her book is immensely rewarding, whether one agrees with every point or not, and is to be recommended to anyone who wnats to have a more intimate understanding of both this region of Scotland at a particular point in its history and the interaction between a highly self-aware Calvinism and older traditions of beneficent and malicious magic.
Peter Maxwell-Stuart, University of St Andrews, writing in Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft

Reviewed by the Historical Association, at:

This volume offers several rewarding approaches in the field of witchcraft studies, particularly in its focus on a single trial. With many recent scholars emphasizing the primary role played by specific individuals and the local context of the witch trials, such a micro-historical approach is exciting. The prodigious amount of evidence that Wilby brings in allows her to explore not only the lives and personalities of the local laird, minister, notary, and alleged witch, but also the unique interpersonal dynamic that may have arisen as a consequence of their roles in the trial. Equally important is Wilby’s exploration of the acknowledged, yet rarely researched, possibility that some individuals’ accused of sorcery might actually have believed themselves to be witches … The significance of Wilby’s project lies in its reminder to scholars and novices alike that, for some people, witchcraft could indeed represent a lived experience. In emphasizing the subjective nature of “visionary experience,” Wilby points out that while alleged witches might not have actually flown to diabolical sabbaths on wisps of straw, they might have experienced something very similar through dreams and visions of flying, astral projection, and spiritual transformation. In making such an argument, Wilby restores agency and vitality to those individuals who are so often portrayed as the passive victims of a state or patriarchy-driven witch hunt, and offers a significant contribution to the field of witchcraft studies.
Sierra Dye, International Review of Scottish Studies

Wilby’s book is immensely engaging and rich with the promise of allowing us a better understanding of witches and their craft, particularly in the north of Scotland ... this book makes an invaluable contribution to its field of study, and everyone involved in writing about witches and witchcraft should be sure to read it.
The Journal of British Studies

The breadth and depth of Wilby’s presentation of Scottish witchcraft, both as a historical and a religious phenomenon, is to be highly commended – indeed, her study constitutes a major contribution and advance in witchcraft studies in general … Wilby writes in an engaging and accessible way: the reader’s interest is maintained throughout, not least by the ingenious way in which the web of detail is brought to bear on the interpretation of the confessions. The overall feeling is of a scholarly detective story, which is what good study should be … Wilby’s reinterpretation of witchcraft is likely to bring a breath of fresh air into some rather stultified schools of historical research, which have tended not to see any reality in the descriptions of witches’ activities. Scholars of comparative religion are perhaps less likely to find the conclusions so unexpected, though they may still be taken aback by the level of detail with which Wilby has been able to argue her case for the reality of the spiritual dimension of witchcraft … Wilby has resurrected one form of witchcraft, and by implication witchcraft in general, from being an invention of maniacal Christian inquisitors into a credible form of spirituality which must be considered by any researcher in the field of comparative religion.
Clive Tolley, in Shaman: Journal of the International Society for Shamanistic Research

This is the first book-length examination of Isobel’s trial, and scholars owe a debt to Emma Wilby for her insightful and in-depth examination of several key figures who played a vital role not only in this trial, but also, it is argued, in shaping and recording Isobel’s confessions … the treatment of Rose and Forbes should be of interest to scholars of the broader intellectual and religious developments of the “early Enlightenment,” which gave the late seventeenth-century theological and natural philosophical debates surrounding witchcraft and the occult their vitality and urgency. Wilby’s discussion here overlaps with other recent works, such as Michael Hunter’s The Occult Laboratory (2001), and suggests that there may be more to the story of Scotland’s domestic theological and intellectual motivations to explore the mysterious operations of the natural, spiritual, and occult worlds than is sometimes acknowledged. Certainly, this is an area ripe for further research … Wilby pursues some fruitful lines of inquiry by singularly concentrating on the case of Isobel. Isobel’s was anything but a typical Scottish witch trial, and as a microhistory of an aberrant and unusual case, this book owes much to such classic microhistories as Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms (1976) and Natalie Zemon Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre (1983). The author sees in the very particularities of Isobel’s case an opportunity to better understand and define a latent culture and tradition visible only through scattered, fragmentary, and easily distorted or marginalized documents … This book gives us much to think about, renewing some old debates and setting up new ones.
Paul Jenkins, H-net Reviews

This is a very important study of visionary experience and many of Wilby’s arguments will have application far beyond studies of 17th century witchcraft.
Peter Rogerson, Magonia Online

Wilby has written an interesting book based on exhaustive reading of the literature related
to shamanism, and it can be recommended to all readers interested in witchcraft research. As a whole, the book shows an original and wholehearted attempt to interpret Gowdie’s confessions in the context of shamanism.
Liv Helene Willumsen, University of Tromsø, writing in Women's History Review

Like the theoretical physicist, the historian of early modern witchcraft must speculate and hypothesise in order to generate understanding of inaccessible phenomena; and one of the great strengths of this book is the precision and daring of its speculations. Witchcraft studies should change as a result of the ideas this book contains … The extraordinary range of materials that it brings to bear on the Isobel Gowdie case will certainly change our understanding of this particular case, as well as the ways that witchcraft scholars are enabled to think about some of the most difficult questions of witchcraft itself.
Lawrence Normand, Journal of Scottish Historical Studies

Here, for the first time, Isobel Gowdie’s depositions are subjected to sustained, and often brilliant analysis, and while many will raise objections to aspects of this detailed and lengthy study, Emma Wilby is to be congratulated on providing such a stimulating, well researched and articulate account of one of the most important and debated witch trials of the period … there is little doubt that Wilby has brought to life, as never before, the magical world-view of one marginalised individual from this period.
Peter Elmer, Northern Scotland

Gowdie’s confessions are a source of considerable interest to historians, folklorists, theologians and students of literature; and The Visions of Isobel Gowdie has much to offer scholars of all these disciplines. Emma Wilby’s in-depth examination of the case, its contexts, and possible reconstructions of what may have lain behind the narratives is a substantial investigation into one of the most interesting witchcraft cases of the early modern period.
John Newton, The Seventeenth Century

This study offers several important questions, challenging paradigmatic views of early modern witchcraft through the author’s attempt to reanimate one single story with its original human value, giving back to those people, whose voices have been distorted, contaminated, or simply not carefully received, an intense spiritual and physical life.
Francesca Matteoni, Folklore

This book can be viewed not only as an opus in the field of folklore, but as a very interesting addition to the research and literature on (re)enchantment which scholars of contemporary Paganism have been exploring, and may be particularly useful for those working on the imagined and historical pasts that have influenced the Paganisms of today … the honesty and clarity of Wilby's argument, the extent of her research, and the eloquent fluency of her writing, which vividly re-animates the lived experience of Isobel Gowdie and her community, are impressive; and led to this book deservedly being shortlisted for the Saltire Society Scottish History Book of the Year Award 2010, and the Folklore Society’s prestigious Katharine Briggs Award 2010.
Melissa Harrington, The Pomegranate

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