Europe's Inner Demons: The Demonization of Christians in Medieval Christendom 1st Edition
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Norman Cohn looks at early/Medieval Christianity, early European history, and the role of mass hysteria coupled with cunning political manipulations that led to the outburst of mass-murder in the 15th through the 17th century. Thereafter the trials slowly decreased and finally vanished—though there have been periodic outbursts of this in the world since.
There is also an interesting chapter on the Knights Templar that is sure to interest many people.
If there is a negative to Prof. Cohn’s book it is that it focuses on the Witch Trials as a fundamentally European activity. Certainly, the particular expression of this pathology was European, but Witch Trials and killings [judicial or extra-judicial] have been and continue to be a fact of world history and current events. The greatest and most disturbing of these trials came from Europe – no doubt about that. Still, what is needed is a global study of these and the causes behind them. Because this book was first published in 1975 Prof. Cohn was bounded by the perspectives and data of the time. What is needed, however, is a global history of this phenomenon.
That being said, this is a wonderful introduction to the history of the origins of the European Witch Trials. Europe’s Inner Demons is not a history of the Witch Trials, but, rather, a history of the origin of these…which is something readers interested in the history need to take into consideration.
The work is thoughtful, comprehensive [within the limits of space], erudite, and insightful. Also, and this is no small thing, it is accessible to general readers with a little patience and the willingness to spend 288 pages of reading time on such a bleak subject.
Highly Recommended for readers of European History in general and those readers interested in the Witch Trials in particular.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars.
It is also the clearest statement I know of why the claims of Wicca to be inheritors of an ancient tradition are bogus.
It is a book of many excellencies, not least the compact and clear style that only Oxbridge seems to produce, and then only among a few.
Cohn sets out to correct a variety of errors and misconceptions in the vexed history of witchcraft history. It might be simpler to list them:
1. The falsity and confusions of the Margaret Murray/Montague Summers version, which conceived witchcraft as something real.
2. The second delusion, that there were confraternities of witches. Only crazy people ever thought it possible to summon demons or call up thunderstorms, but there have been a lot of them. Nevertheless, Cohn is definite that there never was a religion or craft of witchery in Europe, at least not as conceived by the witch-finders. He admits to ritual magic.
3. That the great witch-hunt had its origin in persecution of the Cathars. For readers unfamiliar with medieval religion, Cohn does not sufficiently make clear that Cathars were apostates, not heretics. He emphasizes that the origins of the witch-mania were heresy. He traces this mindset back before Christianity, to a murderous purge of Bacchanals in the 180s.
The key insight is that the perception (whether real or not) of a "ruthless, power hungry conspiracy" lies behind witch-hunts, not just the great witch-mania of the 16th and 17th centuries. Among the lesser excellencies of "Europe's Inner Demons" is Cohn's equation of the Great Witch Mania with the Stalinist show trials. While this is hardly the main point, it is worth making it, because among fanatical anticommunists there is a delusion that Stalin's purges were a hateful innovation of atheism. As we see here, the entire apparatus of witch-mania was invented by the godly.
4. That from its origins the witch-hunt was aimed at women or the poor. That came later. The first victims were mostly clergy and therefore all men. "The demonological obsessions of the intelligentsia" first swallowed the intelligentsia. (Another precursor of what one of its victims, Eugenia Ginzburg, called "Stalin's meat grinder.")
5. That the toll was insignificant. Cohn rightly says that there is no way to calculate the dead and imprisoned, but he knocks down the idea, common among defenders of religion, that it was a minor episode. Not so.
6. That the witch-craze was a political movement that exploited religion. Cohn essentially ends his critique in the mid-15th century, before the Spanish Inquisition got its hooks in the peninsular Jews. There were other inquisitions before. Great outbreaks occurred only when local civil power acquiesced, but the intellectual and moral underpinnings were purely theological.
The sensation of the first edition (1973) was Cohn's demonstration of a bizarre series of forgeries that had informed (and still to an extent do inform) serious scholarship.
The witch-craze was a such a great crime that even though it ended (for the most part) by 1680, apologists for Christianity (Catholic and Reformed) still feel obliged to defend, excuse or diminish it. Not that many political arguments of the late 17th century are still so lively.