History In Focus logo and homepage link

History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 2: What is history? •

What is history?

Book cover: In Defence of History

A response to Richard J. Evans


In Defence of History

Richard J. Evans
Granta, 1997 307 pp., 15.99 (hardback)

Dr. Diane Purkiss

University of Reading

In this age of information explosion, I suppose we must all grow used to being cited without being read, at least by undergraduates. To be discussed without being read, however, is rather different. In his book In Defence of History, Richard Evans compliments me with a number of citations and a lengthy discussion of Chapter 3 of my book The Witch in History. If only he had expended equal energy reading chapters 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, and even 7, 8, 9, 10, and 11, his reading of Chapter 3 might have looked rather different. For a man passionately keen to argue that historians must judiciously evaluate all available evidence and refrain from going beyond it into speculation, Evans seems strikingly reluctant to use this august methodology on his hapless victims. For the rabble of 'feminist' and 'postmodern' historians, a quick skim over their most immediately annoying ideas will do.

Or not even that; the most annoying ideas that can be manufactured from a careless reading of their writing will also do. On p. 4, Evans claims that I say that poststructuralism 'threatens to throw historians out of work'. It would indeed be hilarious if I thought that; what I actually say is that conservative defenders of history often sound as if they believe that poststructuralism will make them unemployed. Any resemblance between my work and claims made about it by Evans is purely coincidental, but of course one simply must have grist for the conservative argufying machine, otherwise, I suppose, redundancy would truly beckon. Like all who argue in defence of something, Evans badly needs to manufacture an aggressor. In The Witch in History, Chapter 3, he must have thought he had found a beauty. After all, I disagree fairly sharply with Keith Thomas, and what is worse, I don't keep the rules while doing so. Instead of arguing in a straightforward and manly fashion that Sir Keith is empirically wrong, it seems, I wickedly suggest that his comprehensive lack of interest in the question of gender in early modern witchcraft might have some connection with his tendency to portray witches themselves as disempowered beggars.

Or so Evans says. If, however, he had let his eyes stray as far as Chapter 4 and Chapter 6 of The Witch in History, he would have seen that the former argues that while some accused witches were getting money or food(begging), as many, or more were giving gifts and returning borrowed items, and I argue that this suggests a different interpretation of such exchanges than the one advanced by Thomas. The latter argues that some of the women accused of witchcraft were not the passive recipients of an appellation bestowed on them by others, but actively chose to be witches. These chapters were written first of all, as Evans could have discovered if he had noticed that one was published in an article in 1995. Having discovered these misinterpretations in the Thomassian witchworld, I then set out to try to think through how he had come to misinterpret such a large body of material, and (generously) I concluded that he was guilty of participating in the world-view of the early 1970s. (I could, of course, simply advance the alternative theory that he was merely stupid and an incompetent reader of texts.) What led me to this conclusion was the number of historians who had apparently accepted his quite untenable views, a number which now includes Evans himself.

Evans stoutly says that Thomas's arguments are backed by 'a mass of telling contemporary evidence'; he does not add, and may not know, that all this evidence, telling or not, comes from printed sources, that Thomas often neglects to read these sources scrupulously or carefully, that he neglects crucial archival material almost completely, and that he often uses literary sources without distinguishing them carefully from trial materials. Evans need not take my humble 'postmodern' word for it; he can ask Jonathan Barry, James Sharpe, or Robin Briggs, who all implicitly or explicitly make some of the same claims. (After all, if Religion and the Decline of Magic were still the last word, why would these gentlemen have troubled the presses at all?) My bet is that Evans has not examined a jot or tittle of this evidence for himself, a practice he urges on the rest of us, but he is quite willing nevertheless to thunder judiciously from his pulpit on behalf of Thomas. For me, Evans's practices of not reading - not reading me, not reading Thomas, not reading Thomas's evidence - are what I set out to oppose in my attack on the way the Great and Good often practise history.

Evans thinks there is no evidence that Thomas, Macfarlane and others used the figure of the witch as the ground for their own academic identitites. This suggests that as well as being unable to get beyond Chapter 3 of The Witch in History, he was unable to read that to the end. I provide three kinds of evidence: the insistence of academic historians of witchcraft on duffing up a woman historian for being somehow too close to the figure of the witch, the kind of 'witch' they themselves create from a misreading of historical materials (or, more bluntly, the ways they get it wrong) and the enthusiasm of Thomas and Macfarlane for sceptical male writers like Scot and Gifford who are often explicitly misogynist and masculinist. It is one thing to disagree with my readings of this evidence; it is quite another to say that I haven't provided any. The fact that I express discomfort with the word 'evidence', which seems to me to preclude the recognition of textuality, does not debar this refutation. Incidentally, if I needed more evidence - or texts - to show that male historians tend to ground rationality in a repudiation of the feminine as problematically inchoate, I would need to look no further than Evans himself on my own work and that of Natalie Zemon Davies, delighted as I am to find myself in her august company.

It is hard to say what evidence Evans would find compelling; a signed letter, perhaps, from Thomas, perhaps, tearfully stating that he did allow his views about begging and women to influence his argument, or a note from Macfarlane explaining, with a maniacal cackle, that it was his fiendish plan all along to use the figure of the witch to define history in masculine terms? Of course no such evidence is going to materialise, because at no point do I argue that Thomas or Macfarlane consciously thought any of this. The whole point of my arguments about Thomas et al is that historians must learn to recognise that things not consciously intended by historical actors (a category which includes historians) nonetheless influence what they can and cannot say , what they do and do not find plausible, what they will or will not believe. The same is true of witches and their accusers, of course, a point made exhaustively in the chapters Evans has not bothered to read.

The whole of Chapter 3 of The Witch in History is a plea for attentive reading not of intentions, but of meanings. Meanings are generated quite independently of intentions, which is not to say that a text can mean anything you want it to mean, and is in fact to say the opposite; that all of us have less control over meaning than we might like. Once again Evans's own response to my work ironically provides me with all the evidence I need of this. Evans cannot read my work accurately; he remains blithely unaware of the nearly impossible task of reading all the words that are there, just those words and no others, not adding, not taking away, just reading. This is one of the hardest things in the world to do, and none of us do it most of the time, my self included.

The gravamen of the Evans indictment against me is not, however, that I make free with Sir Keith's reputation. It is that I do not believe in truth, or, in Evans's hysterical formulation, that I am a postmodernist - a word, incidentally, that appears nowhere in any of my work. (This matters not, apparently; in a long footnote, Evans explains that those who disavow the label are simply wrong about its usefulness. Just who, one wonders, is saying that things can mean whatever we want them to mean?) This makes me, in his words, one who concentrates on 'the portrayal of witches in verse, drama, historical texts, and other forms of secondary literature' rather than on 'the witches themselves' (p. 99). I am not being naive when I say that I do not know what Evans means when he talks of 'the witches themselves' as a possible focus. I don't think he can simply mean a focus on the early modern period, because I do devote three chapters to this, and in the chapters on literature my whole focus is on the s harp disjunction between popular beliefs and literary representations. I can only assume that he must mean that he thinks that somewhere there are witches who are somehow fully present to us without the intervention of a bunch of just about the most interested historical texts possible. If he does think so, perhaps he would like to point all of us towards such a transparent source.

In its abeyance, I argue for the impossibility of a single explanation for the behaviour of every person involved in the early modern witchtrials, and I argue against the usefulness of global theories which attempt to squeeze disparate materials into a large and general hypothesis. This is not the same as arguing against truths, though it is an argument against 'the truth', and it is also an argument against doomed attempts to find out 'what really happened' - henbane, mass hysteria, and the like. I am arguing that truths may be local and specific, and that historians who cling to global theories are closer than they would like to those whose investments in global theories transparently arise from a wish to use the past as the material for fantasy, and that these fantasies may themselves be historically interesting - that is, what happens inside people is history too. I do not think this heterodox, as Evans believes; I think Religion and the Decline of Magic, Macbeth, and The Spiral Dance are indeed on a level in that all of them are wrong about witchcraft, and all are wrong because all allow the play of fantasy to replace rigorous reading. They are different because they are motivated by different fantasies. I confess to a lack of interest in determining which is a beta minus and which a beta plus query plus as answers to some Great Historical Finals Paper. Evans thinks that such reflections must mean I can't believe in truth, though I should have thought that they suggested the opposite.

I would not be bothering to reply to such a pitifully inadequate reading of my work at all were it not for one thing; Richard Evans has the consummate nerve to equate me implicitly with Holocaust deniers. This is absolutely astounding on any grounds, but in the light of the fact that I devote some six pages of Chapter 1 of The Witch in History to attacking radical feminists for their failure to recognise the horrible specificity of the Shoah, and criticising them for their tendency to fantasise about t he witchcraft persecutions in terms suggested by the testimony of K-Z survivors, it is flabbergasting. Evans, I should add in fairness, acknowledged this himself when I pointed it out to him, and did a small and grudging piece of backpedalling in the US edition of In Defence of History - and incidentally, he did not in our correspondence deny that he had not hitherto bothered to read Chapter 1 of my book - but his deep concern for truth has not led him to print any other retraction.

For the record, here is what I say in The Witch in History:

"Historians are fond of pointing out that deconstruction's leading American exponent was a Nazi sympathiser and anti-Semite during the war, indicating the dire political consequences of deconstruction's challenge to traditional history." (p. 70)

and here is what Evans, that eager seeker of truth and evidence, makes of it:

"Their[Holocaust deniers'] use of the scholarly apparatus of footnotes and references, and their insistence that they are telling the objective truth, demonstrates in Purkiss's view the 'dire consequences' of such a scholarly apparatus, the bankruptcy of such a belief in objectivity and truth." (pp. 140-1).

So a phrase used by me to describe historians' view of postmodernists now becomes alchemically transformed into a phrase attacking traditional history. Look, the jig is up; Evans just didn't read what I wrote with even the meanest level of care.

My solution to the intractable problems presented by writing the history of the Holocaust is not, as Evans claims (on no evidence whatever) to tell stories and not worry about whether they are true; this is not even a reasonable inference (Evans, p. 24 2). I think Evans is not attempting to summarise what I actually say about the Shoah, but trying to extrapolate from what I say about witches and predict what I might say about it. But this is only a guess. Here, not at all surprisingly, he himself commits, hilariously, the same mistake as radical feminist amateur historians; he conflates the Holocaust with the witch-trials, ignoring the historical specificity of each.

So what is the beef? Apparently, it is that I threaten to merge Evans and his party with the deniers. Evans is upset because I point out, very truly, that Holocaust deniers do not say that they don't care about truth because they are groovy and postmodern, or that evidence for it can be undone via deconstruction. Instead they use very conservative - and historically erroneous - protocols of truth-seeking, evidence, and footnotes, to make explicit truth-claims within a discourse of entirely conservative history. Of course this doesn't taint Evans and other legitimate historians, because, as Evans rightly points out, Holocaust deniers are rotten at history, but it does make it hard to see how they can be in league with the sinister postmodernists who, in Evans' book, are out to undermine all truth-claims. If the indeterminacy of truth is such an asset to neo-Nazis, it is surprising that they never avail themselves of the fashionable arguments that Evans is so eager to refute. This was the modest point I sought to make, but as a result of making it I am now part of the threat of Holocaust denial. The words mountain and molehill come somewhat forcibly to mind.

Evans has not made me change my mind about any of this; all he can say in defence of his attempt to link postmodernism with Neo-Nazi Holocaust denial is that they occurred at the same time (241). (Using the same logic, I blame postmodern scholarship for the spread of MacDonald's in France, the rise of Microsoft, and the invention of the mobile phone.) Worrying about how we get at the truth of an unprecedented event like the Holocaust will not help us do it unless it leads to some concrete thinking. Th ere are problems with survivor testimony - this is not even a controversial remark - for two reasons: one, the only testimony, with a few rare exceptions, is from survivors, and as Primo Levi pointed out, survivors are not witnesses because they are survivors; they are divided by the terrible fact of being able to speak from what they would speak about. The only true witnesses are the murdered millions, whose murders mean that they cannot speak. Secondly, there is a problem with memory, with story formation; even leaving aside the gloomy pronouncement by one survivor that surely some survivors must have been block Kapos, but no-one ever says so, even someone speaking with absolute intent to tell the whole truth will not be able to do so because the very process of shaping memory into story alters and reshapes memory. This is not to say that we can never know any truth about the Holocaust, the position attributed to me by Evans, but it is to say that we can never know the whole or absolute truth about it, and nor can anyone. Which is just as well, because it would be more than any of us could bear. I fail utterly to see why this argument could not be used to refute the authors of Did Six Million Really Die? and kindred works, who certainly do make some pretty remarkable claims for themselves, and Evans does not succeed in convincing me otherwise.

Perhaps he would like a demonstration? But no - there can be no point in writing more words for a man who cannot or will not be bothered to read them.

In my next essay, I shall have more to say about Evans' arguments about historiography. But I do not apologise for troubling you with the above, because it seems to me somewhat to vitiate Evans' claims for the Good Old Cause of Historical Truth that he has read a fellow historian's work with such evident carelessness and discourtesy. Disagreement is what we live by; disrespect is another matter.

(Diane Purkiss)

Original review (by Prof. Antony Easthope)

Professor Richard J Evans's response to his critics

A further response by Dr. Diane Purkiss

Back to reviews index

Back to top