On Misreading ‘Triumph of the Moon’

An earlier post of mine about writings on Wicca that lacked authority generated some responses around the Pagan blogosphere.

Some bloggers, however, simply do not understand scholarly writing. For instance, this:

For over a decade, Professor Ronald Hutton’s study on the history of Wicca, Triumph of the Moon, has been considered by most Pagan scholars to have closed the book on the issue of the survival of elements of Paganism from Pagan antiquity.

Let’s think about that. Edward Gibbons’ The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is probably the one book on the topic that every educated person has at least heard of.

It was published in installments between 1776 and 1789. It is a classic. By the blog writer’s standards, therefore, it should have “closed the book” on writing about ancient Rome.

Yet new books on ancient Rome are published every year. How can that be?

No topic is ever “closed.” Historical works—which is how Prof. Hutton would describe Triumph—are not holy scriptures. New thinkers and new generations bring new scholarship and new interpretations.

But what Hutton has done is establish a standard. Anyone who challenges his conclusions (and given that ten years have passed, he has challenged some of them himself, I expect) must do at least as much in-depth research as he has done. They can’t just snipe from the sidelines.

Rhetoricians talk about “invented ethos,” by which a speaker or writer displays their qualifications to engage a topic: I have studied such-and-such at this or that level. I have done such-and-such. I have experienced such-and-such. (“Invention” does not imply falsification in this context.)

It is that level of ethos I see lacking in his critics—so far.

Another problem, probably too big to tackle here, occurs when people approach a book like Triumph looking for “right answers” or for information on which to base their personal religious practice.

Oh, you can do that. “The reader constructs his own text,” as all the postmodernists say, sure. You can also use a Stradivarius violin for a canoe paddle.

But I think one is better off reading a Triumph as a history of ideas, a history of the ways that English people, in particular, thought about and constructed the idea of “witchcraft.”

7 thoughts on “On Misreading ‘Triumph of the Moon’

  1. I think that one of the problems is precisely that Hutton, and his supporters more so, talk as though he HAS “closed the book” on scholarship in this area.

    “Anyone who challenges his conclusions … must do at least as much in-depth research as he has done. They can’t just snipe from the sidelines.”

    To disprove a specific point in someone’s thesis, all one has to do is provide evidence contrary to that point, i.e. “to snipe from the sidelines”. Whitcomb’s work may or may not be valid (I can’t make my mind up), but that is independent of whether or not the research is in as much depth as Hutton’s, or whether it builds as big a conceptual framework as Hutton’s.

    “Rhetoricians talk about “invented ethos,” by which a speaker or writer displays their qualifications to engage a topic: I have studied such-and-such at this or that level. I have done such-and-such. I have experienced such-and-such.”

    Well, I always make a conscious effort to disregard all such claims. One of the recent commenters here sniped at you, Chas, for being an academic. I certainly don’t do that, but I try to ignore anything like academic credentials when starting to read something. I have a PhD myself (unrelated field), and I know what a priesthood the academy is.

    Anyway, as I commented recently, in this particular field, I don’t think anyone even has a set of rigorous definitions.

    Have you read DuBois “Introduction to Shamanism”? I was surpised by that, being a new, academic book that takes “Pagan” continuity seriously.

  2. I have gone into certain aspects of our history in a lot more detail than Ronald Hutton. In most cases my researches confirmed what he had said in “The Triumph of the Moon”. In some cases, I found evidence which indicated that he had been mistaken. We have had a very good-natured correspondence and in some cases I have been able to convince him that I was right! As historians, in his case as an academic and in my case as an amateur, I think we both agreed that our aim was to get at “the truth” and, I think, we are both willing to change our stated views on a particular topic if presented with evidence to the contrary.

  3. Rombald: As I stated, and as Philip Heselton confirms, Prof. Hutton, at least, does not talk as though Triumph was the last word.

    “To disprove a specific point in someone’s thesis, all one has to do is provide evidence contrary to that point, i.e. “to snipe from the sidelines”.”

    No, they must come onto the “field of battle” as it were and meet face to face.

    “I certainly don’t do that, but I try to ignore anything like academic credentials when starting to read something.”

    Yet a writer’s work displays ethos too! How are sources treated? If appropriate, are their citations and bibliographies? Who published it? How is the book designed and typeset? All of these and more factors go to establish ethos.

    “Have you read DuBois “Introduction to Shamanism”? I was surpised by that, being a new, academic book that takes “Pagan” continuity seriously.”

    No, I haven’t, but I shall add it to the list. Thanks.

  4. Philip Heselton writes, “We have had a very good-natured correspondence and in some cases I have been able to convince him that I was right! As historians, in his case as an academic and in my case as an amateur, I think we both agreed that our aim was to get at “the truth” and, I think, we are both willing to change our stated views on a particular topic if presented with evidence to the contrary.”

    Exactly. That was how he and I met too, when I offered evidence that he had misunderstood Charles Leland’s work in something else he had written.

  5. I think that the term “Neo-Paganism” came into use some years before TOTM was published, and that the “Neo-” prefix was intended to distinguish recent movements from historically well-known spiritualities. But without making any particular claim about continuity or non-continuity of any elements, practices, or material culture.

    I also think that we do need to sort out Hutton’s (or any other historian’s) conclusions about the local subject of study–Gardner and Witchcraft in Southern England, say–from statements about broader related topics and issues. The development of Neo-Paganism during the post-WW II years in Northern California generally appears to follow a different course, for instance.

    But, as you say, Chas, Hutton’s treatment does remind us of some intellectual standards.

  6. CHas: “Yet a writer’s work displays ethos too! How are sources treated? If appropriate, are their citations and bibliographies? Who published it? How is the book designed and typeset?”

    Well, I would make an effort to disregard the identity of the publisher, and the quality of the book.

    I think citations, bibliographies, etc., are crucially important. I went through a stage of reading UFO books a few years back. They are mostly published on cheap paper by backstreet publishers, but the crucial problem is that they do not provide references – they say that a newspaper report said such and such, but do not give the exact date or page number so someone could go to the library and check. I don’t think this criticism applies to Whitcomb’s work.

    I also agree with Pitch that Hutton’s conclusions really only apply to a narrow social and geographic range.

  7. I know I put this in a comment a couple of weeks back, but I think it’s relevant now.

    When talking about “Pagan” survivals in Europe, it might be a good idea to distinguish different categories:

    1. Whole-society Paganism: Non-Christian religions practised by entire societies, as in Lithuania until about 1350, and among Saami and some Russian tribes until much later.

    2. Influences of type 1 on overt Christians. Eg. the influences of Saami on Scandinavians.

    3. Literary Paganism: Educated people who considered themselves to be in some sense Pagan, based on reading classical works, reading the Eddas, response to nature, knowledge of non-European cultures, etc.

    4. Folk Paganism: Persistence of pre-Christian beliefs or practices among non-literate people who are nominally Christian, but are conscious that their beliefs are at odds with accepted Christianity.

    5. Folk traditions: Persistence of non-literate practices that have pre-Christian origins, and may be frowned upon by the elite, but are seen as entirely compatible with Christianity by those who practise them.

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