As librarians we must be on constant guard about the quality of information our patrons use. Information literacy in the age of endless internet data has never been a more pressing concern. However, when one Egyptologist Margaret Murray, some ninety years ago, turned her hand to re-writing the history of witchcraft, it was an information skills lesson in the asking. Her false theories and how they penetrated popular culture act as a warning from history regarding the importance of good information skills. When poor sources of information and false ideas creep into the public domain, whole histories can be re-written.
“Who controls the past,” ran the Party slogan, “controls the future: who controls the present control the past’”. In George Orwell’s 1984 Winston Smith goes to sit in his tiny booth in the Record Department of Ministry of Truth and spends all day re-writing and amending back records of newspapers. “All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and re-inscribed exactly as often as was necessary.”
Orwell’s book inspired me throughout my teenage years and instilled in me a passion for politics and history. My well-loved copy has enjoyed several re-readings over the years and the heavily marked margins would make any librarian weep. Now I am enjoying a fourth re-reading of the book in my late twenties. As a part-time Library Assistant and PhD student of Folklore this image of Winston Smith has brought out some interesting reflections on how the historical record is re-written in the real world. To discuss these ideas I will focus on the enigmatic Egyptologist and Folklorist Margaret Murray, who controversially re-wrote the pages of witchcraft history and in the process falsely changed the entire public perception of witches.
It was 1914 and lecturer of Egyptology Margaret Murray had seen her students go off to war and all opportunities of excavations scuppered. She became a nurse in St. Malo as part of the war effort. After a breakdown of health and a period of convalescence in Glastonbury, she was inspired to begin investigating the history of witchcraft. She was an Egyptian specialist, teaching hieroglyphs to students at University College London, not a witchcraft historian per se. In fact she proudly claimed she had never passed an exam in her life.
Nevertheless with minimal training she wrote several influential books: The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1922) and The God of the Witches (1934). In these she proposed that the witches’ accounts found in sixteenth century trials were actually descendants of a pre-historic religion that had survived several thousand years. Due to persecution, they had in effect survived as a secret society. Murray in her autobiography claimed: “I was startled almost alarmed, by the way the recorded facts fell into place, and showed that the witches were members of an old and primitive form of religion”. She used evidence from Palaeolithic wall paintings, Greek vases and trial records to prove the longevity and survival of this hitherto unheard of religion. Placed side by side with heavy quotations and very little awareness of the source context or reliability any Subject Librarian would surely have offered her immense help to brush up her information skills.
Her theories were highly controversial and faced either polite silence or sometimes venomous reviews. Many of her colleagues did not challenge or take her ideas seriously at first. It was not until 1975 that one historian, Normal Cohn, wrote an extensive criticism of her work. He found her quotations excluded large portions of original source material. She had a habit of adding several ellipses in her lengthy quotations which would often leave out the more fantastical elements of magical happenings. This acted to distort the evidence and change how the accounts were presented.
After a number of deeply critical reviews, her theories had become completely dismissed and debunked. Recently one author Juliette Wood wrote: “Murray’s arguments involved a priori assumptions of considerable proportions imposed on evidence which is fragmentary, ambiguous and, as her critics are quick to point out, often manipulated or poorly argued.” Yet her poor information handling skills were only highlighted years after her incorrect theory had infiltrated into the public domain.
This case study highlights the importance of getting information skills right first time and constantly encouraging students to interrogate the material they use, even if it is from respected peer reviewed journals. In the era of Wikipedia and the array of conspiracy theories banded around on Buzzfeed comments, librarians and teachers must always be on their guard to see that students are using the right kind of sources.
Murray was asked to write the article for ‘witchcraft’ in the 1929 Encyclopaedia Britannica, which was reprinted until 1969. In this article she presented her theory of witchcraft as fact, making no appeals to the other theories at the time. Every time anyone in that 40 year period looked up “witchcraft” in the world famous, trusted encyclopaedia it was her flawed idea that was transmitted to members of the public.
Murray had in become the ‘go-to’ authority on witchcraft in England. She published swathes of articles on this theory in peer reviewed journals, her books were re-printed and her ideas widely infiltrated into popular culture. Ideas contained in popular films such as The Wicker Man were directly descended from her theories. The theory was clearly appealing to a public audience who liked a good horror story, but sadly the basis of fact was missing. Whilst more recently scholars have been kinder in their reviews and recognise that other folklorists at the time used similar unscholarly methods, the case still stands in point.
Whist this is not an extreme a case of doctoring history as Orwell’s nightmare vision, it shows how false ideas with a lack of stringent peer review can infiltrate through the walls of the academy. Librarians must always teach their students to be on guard and focus on information literacy. As we live in a world of increasing communications, where everyone has the opportunity to transmit opinions on anything and everything, regardless of how much knowledge they have, the job of the information professional becomes increasingly important.
In October 2013 The Guardian reported: “Hundreds of open access journals accept fake science paper: Publishing hoax exposes ‘wild west’ world of open access journals and raises concerns about poor quality control”. We may wonder how much has changed since the days of Margaret Murray. Information Professionals are more needed now than ever, as the gate keepers of high quality information and as teachers of information skills, so students and researchers use the right high quality information intelligently. Like the Record Department in Orwell’s dystopian novel who controls knowledge can indeed re-write both the past and future. Let’s just make sure that it’s based on reliable information.
Cohn, N. Europe’s Inner Demons: an enquiry inspired by the great witch-hunt, (London, 1975).
Hutton, R. The Triumph of the Moon (Oxford, 2000).
Murray, M. My First Hundred Years, (London, 1973).
Murray M. A. The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (Oxford, 1962).
Murray, M. ‘Organisation of Witches in Great Britain’, Folklore 28 (1917), 228-58.
Murray, M. The God of the Witches (London, 1933).
Orwell, G. 1984 (London, 2000).
Shaw, C. ‘Hundreds of open access journals accept fake science paper’ The Guardian, 4 Oct. 2013, (http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2013/oct/04/open-access-journals-fake-paper).
Sheppard, K. The Life of Margaret Alice Murray, (Maryland, 2013).
Simpson, J. ‘Margaret Murray: Who Believed Her, and Why?’, Folklore 105 (1994), 89-96.
Wood, J. ‘The Reality of Witch Cults Reasserted’ in J. Barry and O. Davies (ed.), Palgrave Advances in Witchcraft Historiography, (Basingstoke, 2007), pp.69-85.