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Modern Language Society

Publishing for the Masses: Early Modern English Witchcraft Pamphlets

Author(s): Carla Suhr
Source: Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, Vol. 113, No. 1 (2012), pp. 118-121
Published by: Modern Language Society
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/43344555
Accessed: 17-12-2017 15:07 UTC

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Publishing for the Masses:
Early Modern English Witchcraft Pamphlets

Lectio praecursoria

The author defended her doctoral dissertation Publishing for the Masses: Earl
English Witchcraft Pamphlets (Mémoires de la Société Néophilologique LXXXIII.
2011) at the Faculty of Humanities, University of Helsinki, on 18 November,
official opponent at the public defence was Professor Thomas Kohnen (Univ
Cologne), and the defence was chaired by Professor Irma Taavitsainen (Univ
Helsinki). The following is the introductory talk delivered at the start of the viva.

I have often been asked why I chose to study witchcraft pamphlets. No,
because I have red hair (and, incidentally, also a black cat). I think, initia
historian, what drew me to look at witchcraft documents was the fact t
were one of the few windows into the everyday lives of regular people in
modern period - the ones who didn't leave behind written memoirs or l
though they increasingly had rudimentary reading skills.
It is a well-known fact that these people were not so concerned about w
or not the local witch associated with the devil, but they were very worr
the material hurt the witch caused the village or neighborhood with her m
acts. The learned elite, however, stressed that witchcraft was first and fo
crime against God, since working with the devil or his demons (which took
animal forms and were known as imps) implied a rejection and renunciatio
(see e.g. Sharpe 2001). What witchcraft pamphlets demonstrate is the m
these two worlds: the spreading of the elite view to the general masses, h
entertaining narratives that are easy to read, to listen to, and to repeat. W
pamphlets were thus a part of the efforts to "re-Christianize" Engla
reintroduce "proper" Protestant doctrine.
So witchcraft pamphlets were written with a specific audience in min
unlearned masses - though it did not preclude a more heterogeneous rea
This was a new development in writing and printing practices, and it also
witchcraft pamphlets with literacy studies. This constellation of a new au
new kind of writing and a specific message is why I chose to focus on wi
pamphlets in my dissertation. Historical pragmatics, with its emphasis on
in a wider sense to include social and cultural factors influencing langua
was a natural approach for a historian to choose. I wanted to find out h
new audience and its expectations influenced the development of the genr
its 150 years of existence. The key concept for analyzing the language o
craft pamphlets was developed by Koch and Oesterreicher in 1985.
below is based on their theory, according to which the continuum of sp
written language intersects with a continuum of communicative immed
communicative distance.

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Publishing for the Masses: Early Modern English Witchcraft Pamphlets 119

Figure 1. The relationship between spoken and written language and the communicative
immediacy and communicative distance continuum (based on Koch & Oesterreicher 1985:
23; Koch 1999: 400).

At the extreme end of communicative immediacy are the parameters physical

immediacy, privacy, familiarity of the partners, high emotionality, context em-
beddedness, deictic immediacy, dialogue, communicative cooperation of the
partners, free topic development and spontaneity. At the extreme end of com-
municative distance are located the opposite parameters of physical distance,
publicness, and lack of privacy. Thus face-to-face conversations would situate
themselves at A: they are high in communicative immediacy. Legal proceedings,
on the other hand, are written documents high in communicative distance, and they
are thus situated at D. However, plays, for example, are written documents high
in communicative immediacy: they are found at C, whereas formal speeches are
located at B. Witchcraft pamphlets are written documents, but where do they go on
the continuum of communicative immediacy and communicative distance: closer
to C or D?
The new semi-literate readers would not be familiar with texts high in
communicative distance, since they required a higher level of education and
reading skills to understand. They were more familiar with situations high in
communicative immediacy, whether spoken or written. So texts aimed at the
semi-literate masses would work better if they were closer to C than to D. But
the task was complicated, for the source materials of many of the pamphlets were
official trial proceedings, which are high in communicative distance at D. This
meant that the texts needed to be edited to decrease the communicative distance
and increase the communicative immediacy. Since there were no conventions for
writing witchcraft pamphlets - because it was a new genre - it took some time
before writers adjusted to the requirements of their readers and learned to write
texts higher in communicative immediacy. Thus the expectation was that linguistic
features signaling communicative immediacy would increase over time at the
expense of linguistic features associated with communicative distance.

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120 Caria Suhr

Close readings of the 36 text

witchcraft pamphlets, the m

1) trial reports, which are heavily based on various official documents related
to witchcraft trials and retain many of the features of these source texts. The
author is not visible in trial reports, except in the prefaces. These texts are
high in communicative distance.
2) narratives, which usually edit trial documents into more cohesive narratives
and contain much evaluation by the author and interaction between the
author and the reader. These texts are high in communicative immediacy in
comparison to trial reports.
3) news pamphlets, which are short, succinct accounts of suspected cases of
witchcraft or witchcraft trials. There is less evaluation and interpretation
of the events by the author than in narratives. News pamphlets are situated
between trial reports and narratives on the continuum of communicative
distance and communicative immediacy.

The level of interaction between the writer and the reader, solicited by the writer
by the use of first- and second-person pronouns, as well as the level of evaluation
- both directly stated as the author's opinion or more subtly indicated through
word choices - proved to be areas where witchcraft pamphlets changed over time.
For evaluation, I applied Martin & White's (2005) appraisal theory, incorporating
indirect (or in their words, invoked) attitude into my analysis of corpus texts. This
required devising a method that allowed me to quantify roughly the amount of
attitude in the three kinds of witchcraft pamphlets.
Though originally I planned to focus solely on linguistic features, that is, how
the texts were written to take into account an audience unfamiliar with learned
discourse, over time I began to notice that extra-linguistic factors such as the choice
of typeface and illustrations of witchcraft pamphlets also had a role to play in this
development. These are features that Genette (1997) has called publisher's peritext ,
as they are not a part of the text itself but serve to present the text, and they are
decided by the printers and/or publishers of texts rather than by their authors. For
example, book historians have noted that black-letter type continued to be used in
texts aimed at popular audiences much later than in learned texts. Learned texts
had by and large switched to roman type by the 1580s, but witchcraft pamphlets
were printed in black-letter type until the first decades of the seventeenth century
(McKerrow 1928: 297). Other typographical conventions of learned texts were
adopted quickly in popular pamphlets, so that prefatory materials, headings, foreign
words, proper names and quotations were often highlighted by switching type. In
the latter half of the seventeenth century, printers of witchcraft pamphlets also
took advantage of this way of highlighting portions of the text as aids for reading
comprehension, for example to indicate pivotal points in a narrative, structural
elements such as author's asides or signatures of witnesses, or topical words such
as strange items vomited by victims of witchcraft.
What I found most striking, however, was that in the sixteenth century, when
witchcraft pamphlets were linguistically high in communicative distance and thus
foreign to semi-literate readers, printers used illustrations to signal who the intended
audience of witchcraft pamphlets were. They included in the pamphlets woodcut
illustrations that were not necessarily relevant to the text at all or were very generic,

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Publishing for the Masses: Early Modern English Witchcraft Pamphlets 121

copying conventions from popular reading materials such as the Canterbury Tales.
For romances, too, generic woodcut illustrations were a signal of texts marketed for
popular consumption (Luborsky 1987). Printers of the sixteenth-century witchcraft
pamphlets used illustrations in the same way, and so a witchcraft pamphlet printed
in 1566 contains a crude picture of a salamander or lizard, though the text is talking
about a toad. This was irrelevant for readers; what was relevant was the presence
of a woodcut - it signaled to them that the text was intended for the semi-literate
masses. Even if writers were as yet unable to write texts suitable for their intended
audiences, printers knew how to market the texts to these audiences. Over time,
however, writers became more adept at achieving communicative immediacy, and
printers limit illustrations to title pages for financial reasons. This example shows
that pragmatic analysis of texts can be augmented by looking not only at their
linguistic features but also at the way the texts are presented to the readers. Printers
are active players in the production process of texts, alongside authors. The example
also shows the value of adding the context of early modern printing and publishing
to the more general socio-general context when analyzing the pragmatics of early
modern texts.
The study shows, how both linguistic and paratextual elements of witchcraft
pamphlets were influenced by the changing socio-cultural context: the changing
motivations for writing which reflected changing witchcraft beliefs, the increasing
level of (abecedarian) literacy and the accompanying shift from visual to verbal
features, and changing marketing considerations reflected in the use of peritextual
elements such as illustrations and the layout of title pages. The 1640s emerge as
a watershed on all fronts. There is a shift from trial reports to news pamphlets in
linguistic features, and a shift from visual to verbal emphasis in the title page in
peritextual features. In the socio-cultural context, the combination of the educational
push of the previous decades and the explosion of print in the early 1640s is tied to
both the lifting of censorship and the demand for news of the progress of the Civil
War. The combination of these three contexts - linguistic, peritextual and socio-
cultural - allows for a nuanced and comprehensive pragmatic analysis of witchcraft
pamphlets that can be adopted for analyses of other genres as well.


Genette, Gerard. 1997. Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation. Translated by J

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Koch, Peter. 1999. Court records and cartoons: Reflections of spontaneous
Early Romance texts. In: Andreas H. Jucker, Gerd Fritz & Franz Lebsan
Historical Dialogue Analysis. (Pragmatics and Beyond New Series 66.) Am
& Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 399-429.
Koch, Peter & Wulf Oesterreicher. 1985. Sprache der Nähe - Sprache d
Mündlichkeit und Schriftlichkeit im Spannungsfeld von Sprachtheorie und
geschichte. Romanistisches Jahrbuch 36: 15-43.
Luborsky, Ruth Samson. 1987. Connections and disconnections between image
The case of secular Tudor book illustrations. Word & Image 3 (1): 74-85.
Martin, J.R. & P.R.R. White. 2005. The Language of Evaluation: Appraisal
Houndmills & News York: Palgrave MacMillan.
McKerrow, Ronald B. 1928. An Introduction to Bibliography for Literary St
impression with corrections. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Sharpe, James. 2001. Witchcraft in Early Modern England. Harlow: Pearson E

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