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Storytelling in Anthropology

By Romy de Vos – For my bachelor’s thesis, I conducted research among individuals and groups who are involved in initiatives to grant posthumous rehabilitation for people who were accused of witchcraft in the early modern period in what is now the Netherlands. These initiatives included artworks, museum exhibitions and even a play, all created to tell the stories of the victims of these witch-hunts in a new light.

The aim of these initiatives was often to move away from seeing the people accused of witchcraft as committers of the most heinous and ‘satanic’ crimes imaginable, to seeing them “for who they truly were”. Midwives who happened to help a mother give birth to a baby with a cleft lip, for instance. Or a twelve-year-old whose fantastical stories about witches’ gatherings and flying on broomsticks were reason enough for the authorities to send her and her mother to the stake.

During my fieldwork I encountered many such stories, and every time it struck me how many perspectives one could take when looking at these stories. Back then, they were seen as irrefutable evidence of these people’s guilt. Nowadays, some are saying it is instead evidence of a kind of institutional misogyny that has survived to our own time and reveals itself when, mostly women in powerful positions such as politicians, are called ‘witches’ by their opponents. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Thus, storytelling and the effects of emphasizing different aspects of people’s stories to get messages across to different audiences became an important part of my thesis.

There’s a song at the end of a musical I like, Hamilton, called ‘Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?’. During my fieldwork, in all my conversations and interviews, the elephant in the room was always the deafening silence of the victims themselves. Those whose stories are only known to us because historical documents from their trials, tortures and executions have survived to our time. Their stories were essentially told by those who had sentenced them to death.

And despite my interlocutor’s efforts to change that narrative, I kept wondering if death had truly silenced the victims. And on more than one occasion, it seemed to me and to some of my interlocutors, that it may not have done so entirely.

What about, for instance, the face that seemed to reveal itself in the clay in the hands of one of the artists I met, when she tried to imagine what her ancestor Entgen Luijten (ca. 1600 – 1674) must have looked like? Sculpting it had been uncannily easy. And when the bust was revealed to her fellow descendants – family members from branches that had grown so distant through the centuries since Entgen’s death that many had never met one another – all gasped at the familiarity of this face that was now staring back at them.

Or what about the sudden and intense coldness that a fellow descendant from Entgen felt as he stepped into one particular cellar in the dungeons of Limbricht Castle, as he tried to locate the exact place where Entgen had been strangled to death? Was this too a moment of connection to his ancestor that transcended time?

And what to think of the doe and her foal staring at me on my way to an interview with a theatre producer who then told me she uses this exact imagery in her play ‘De Heks van Almen’ to represent the innocence of Aleyda van Almen (d. 1472) and her daughter, who once lived in the same village as this producer?

Almost all of my interlocutors had had such experiences since involving themselves in this topic of posthumous rehabilitation. And whether they had actually been allowed a peek through the veil of time or whether they had been reading too much into something that wasn’t really there did not seem to matter too much. And I must say, I rather agreed with them. What good does it do to try to explain these things away? They were part of the experiences my interlocutors had had with this topic and they had become part of mine. They add another dimension to the stories that are told about the victims and the current efforts for posthumous rehabilitation. And above all, in one way or another, they made Entgen, Aleyda and all the others part of the here and now a little longer.

Romy de Vos recently earned her bachelors degree in Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology at the Vrije Universiteit, and is currently enrolled in the Social Anthropology master’s programme.

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