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.”