Texts of Authority: Witchcraft Accusations and the Demonstration of Truth in Early Modern England

  • Peter Rushton


Historians may no longer see themselves as storytellers, despite the return to narrative styles of writing, but they have always relied upon stories from the past for their sources. The interpretation of these recorded stories has become problematic in the years since the ‘linguistic turn’ in historiography. This is not the place to review the problems of treating history as text, nor deal with the uncertainties and dilemmas this new direction caused.1 However, one useful outcome was that the production and reception of historically recorded statements became a major focus. In research into the legal system, however, the new linguistic or literary perspectives had a limited impact. Clearly, literary analysis can enrich the understanding of some judicial sources, as Natalie Zemon Davis showed in Fiction in the Archives.2 However, she has been criticized for attempting the impossible task of recovering the authors’ original intentions, rather than trying to uncover the ‘meaning the text or story can produce in particular contexts’.3 Intention is naturally difficult to establish given poor or fragmentary evidence, but equally meanings within the judicial context cannot be easily inferred from a simple outline of the legal processes and courtroom setting.


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© Peter Rushton 2001

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  • Peter Rushton

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