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Witchcraft in the Middle Ages Paperback – August 6, 1984

3.1 out of 5 stars 9 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


"A magnificent history. . . . Russell's survey of modern literature on the subject is in itself almost a major contribution, and his careful period-by-period and phase-by-phase description of the development of witchcraft through the fifteenth century is indispensable to any further serious treatment of the phenomenon in Europe."―Georgia Review

"The study of witchcraft is of more than fleeting interest. To understand this phenomenon is to acquire a more profound understanding of man, society, and self. Thus Russell's book is of singular importance. . . . With insight the author demonstrates how political, social, economic, religious, and intellectual developments either fostered or militated against the growth of witchcraft."―Church History

"Russell fills a real gap in the literature. He does so with the scholarly probity and sound good sense that arc the absolute prerequisites for any serious work on the subject, and he has composed his book for the general reader as well as the specialist. . . . In the course of his narrative Russell successfully lays to rest any number of erroneous 'well-known facts,' and he demonstrates that classical witchcraft was largely a creature of Christianity and that heresy was the strongest influence on its development as an idea."―History

"Russell's contribution will undoubtedly become a standard reference work on witchcraft. It is a clear, straightforward account resting on meticulous textual analysis and comprehensive documentation."―The Review of Books and Religion

About the Author

Jeffrey Burton Russell is Professor of History Emeritus at the University of California, Santa Barbara.


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 414 pages
  • Publisher: Cornell University Press; 1st edition (August 6, 1984)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0801492890
  • ISBN-13: 978-0801492891
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.1 x 8.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #967,611 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
An eminent historian of demonology and heresy relates these to this misunderstood and elusive phenomenon. Russell argues for the reality of witches. He shows how they "usually acted as they were supposed to act." That is, the fluidity of definitions applied by medieval clerics and then inquisitors pressured dissenters to adapt the terms by which they were marginalized, persecuted, and often executed.

He interprets historical, verifiable witchcraft along a continuum. Rejecting the extremes that nobody in the Middle Ages believed in witchcraft and that "weird phenomena are not only real, but supernatural, and proof that the Devil and his minions live," Russell plots the truth along three points. 1) "At least some people were deluded into believing themselves witches." 2) Old pagan cults, folklore, sorcery, and heresy entered into their beliefs and practices. 3) These "as described by the sources (mainly trial records) did exist to a substantial degree." (21)

Russell moves chronologically, if for me too rapidly over the biblical Hebrew references (these barely gain a mention). He establishes proof from primary sources. He estimates that 31% of the Inquisitorial charges were for sorcery, 23% for folklore traditions, 27% for heresy, and 19% for those added by theologians (such as the pact, the Devil's mark, worship of the Devil, the obscene kiss, the sabbat). (I wish he had charted this with geographical and topical data, as graphically this might have enhanced what can be a challenging amassing of material within a densely written text. It's a demanding, depressing, if valuable account.)

Any continuity between ancient and medieval traditions here, Russell insists, was not consciously controlled.
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Format: Paperback
It's a historical overview on the evolution of witchcraft through the middle ages, from the perspective of a historian who doesn't seem to believe in magic, yet nevertheless admits there was _something_ going on. The style is dry and academic, with lots of big words from sociological and psychological jargon. At times it reads like a doctorial thesis.

The first two chapters are a sort of preperatory overview of the subject, with brief mentions of the ancient middle-Eastern and Egyptian origins of magic and the belief in good-vs-evil Dualism. The next 7 chapters present a chronological evolution of witchcraft and how it was perceived (and dealt with) by the Church and secular authorities. The time span is from 300 to 1480 a.d. meaning this book stops short just before the classic "witch craze" of the Renaissance began. The final chapter is a summation of the significance of witchcraft in medeival thought.

Keeping in mind that the only records regarding witchcraft were written by it opponents, Russell carefully presents the information and offers a fairly objective assessment of it. His overall thesis is that witchcraft was largely an invention of the Church, and that from ancient pagan roots, withcraft evolved alongside heresy. He clearly demonstrates that the crime of witchcraft was regarded as distinct from simple heresy, and also distinct from sorcery and natural magic or herbalism. He has pinpointed almost the exact moment when the notion of the "Devil's pact" was introduced. He presents information about a number of medeival heresies, and shows how ideas crossed over into witchcraft - and even how some heresies later began to be prosecuted AS witchcraft.
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This book isn't exactly graduate level, but it helps if you are. And even if you're not, you'll figure it out. Simply, you should own this book. Will you refer to it every day? Not likely, but it's one of the best 'general' studies of witchcraft out there, even if it is becoming somewhat outdated. But still a fantastic "MUST OWN" reference material! And despite the fact that it is getting a little outdated, Russell is an important scholar whose ideas you should be familiar with if you're considering any major research in this field. His work is still frequently sited and offers a solid basis to which you can refer to as your own understanding of the subject progresses. Buy it, read the sections that interest you, and keep it as a resource book. I bought it out of curiosity and ended up using it for an extensive paper on witchcraft. It served me well and will continue to do.
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When I purchased this book, it was because Jeffery Russell's name kept coming up in the footnotes of other material on the same subject. I found his work to be very politically correct and contradictory. For instance he states that there were no reference to paganistic Diana worship from the Roman period through the middle ages but then quotes the Roman history Livy who recorded such practices in the Roman period and then describes similar practices that occurred throughout the middle ages. So I obviously could not agree with his conclusions. He frequently used the words "witch-hunt" through out the book that made me believe he was trying to use rhetoric to program his beliefs to the reader.

The author seemed to be trying to program a point into the reader that the evidence suggested otherwise. I found it amazing that the author would so readily quote ancient sources on paganistic practices but vehemently disagree with the ancient historians opinion on what they witnessed (especially since they witnessed it).

The book did in fact further my research, and for that I am thankful. I glad to have it in my library.
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