'Keep That Woman Out!' Notions of Space in Twentieth-Century Flemish Witchcraft Discourse

This article considers the importance of a spatial dimension for witchcraft research, which has so far been largely neglected. In twentieth-century Europe people in certain regions still considered their world in terms of witchcraft; they attributed misfortune to bewitchments and usually blamed their neighbors. Here a part of Flemish-speaking Belgium is investigated with the help of legend texts collected in the 1960s. The witchcraft discourse that informed these texts did not just contain formulations of space; sometimes it also determined how people negotiated space. In this part of Flanders, witchcraft was embedded in Roman Catholicism; monasteries were the favored destinations of all those who considered themselves or their family members bewitched. In order to find cures for bewitchments people undertook hazardous journeys of considerable distance and found their efforts hindered by the witch they sought to counteract. The measures against evil influences that they were given were meant to consolidate the boundaries between their own (private) space and the (outside) space where witches roamed. Bewitchments were generally blamed on women. In the contemporary patriarchal social order, both public and domestic spaces were nearly always under men's control. This is why bewitchment was caused less by transgressions of male-defined boundaries than by infringements of bodily spaces such as by eying or touching somebody else's children. This suggests a different approach to female space based on notions of proximity.