- Paperback: 144 pages
- Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (May 20, 2010)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 019923695X
- ISBN-13: 978-0199236954
- Product Dimensions: 6.8 x 0.7 x 4.4 inches
- Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #879,670 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Witchcraft: A Very Short Introduction 1st Edition
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"...this is an excellent introduction to the topic of witchcraft. It is readable, assured, and encyclopedic in its knowledge and research." -Marion Gibson, Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft
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Top Customer Reviews
And the truths are fascinating without elaboration. Witches were parts of the community; they existed and thought that they were capable of magic; even if they had no occult powers, other people thought they might, and they capitalized on that belief; witches were hunted, books were written on witch-hunting, there were believers, fanatics, and skeptics; witches were burned. Fascinating stuff through and through without exaggeration.
For me one of the best parts of the book was the matter of fact debunking of the "Burning Times":
"Ewen's work demonstrated, among other things, that there were surprisingly few witch-trials in England, perhaps no more than 1,000 in the early modern period, only half of which resulted in executions. Archival research across Europe also produced downward estimates and differing timescales. The witch-hunt proper hadn't started in the 14th century, nor in the 15th, but in the later 16th century; some countries had ended their trials in the early 17th century, others didn't get going until much later. Chronologically, spatially, and statistically, there was little consistency. If by `witch-craze', we mean a coherent, coordinated pan-European campaign, it wasn't really a witch-craze at all. It was patchy, fragmented, unfocused, even random."
"The only obvious way to reunite the data was to add up statistics. Just how many people had been tried as witches? Historians knew nine million was too high, but archival research brought them closer to the real figure. For much of the 20th century, it was believed that Scotland had executed around 7,500 witches, a figure suggested by H. C. Lea, an American historian inspired by Hansen: now this came down to 1,500. Poland's toll, calculated in the 1950s, was 15,000; less than one-fifth of that is probably nearer the mark.
Numbers everywhere had been exaggerated. Today combined estimates for Europe, Scandinavia, and America vary between 90,000 and 100,000 trials in the period 1400 to 1800. The worst time overall was 1560 to 1630. Perhaps half the prosecutions took place in German territories, several thousand in Baden Württemberg alone. A sizeable proportion occurred in neighbouring states, especially Switzerland, where perhaps 10,000 people were tried. In the borderlands of Lorraine, there were 5,000 trials, although in the vastly larger kingdom of France, just 3,000. Scandinavia also had around 3,000 trials, as did the British Isles. Spain and Italy accounted for 10,000; Eastern Europe and Russia half that.
The accuracy of these numbers matters, just as it matters for the millions who died in 20th-century genocides. To respect the dead, you have to tell the truth about them. And unless witch-hunts are precisely quantified, they cannot be precisely explained. As Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie once wrote: `of what use is an incorrect million for proving a correct idea?' Statistical errors had long been bound up with chronology and causation, principally the medieval and clerical character of the `witch-craze'; now that came to an end. From the ruins of Lamothe-Langon's fictions and various flimsy post-Enlightenment assumptions, a sturdier structure was raised by empirical historians. Like science, history has its paradigm shifts, and for witchcraft this was it.
Let's look in more detail at what had really happened. First of all, medieval ecclesiastical courts, like their Reformation counterparts, prosecuted sorcerers and magicians. In 1465, a man was hauled before the bishop's court in Cambridge charged with possessing writings on the black art, inscribed metal plates, and a gilded wand. He said he had bought them for four marks, believing they would earn him an abundance of gold and silver. But this trial was a bit of routine administration, not part of a concerted drive against witches; indeed, although the magician's offence would have been seen as a diabolic delusion, this didn't make him a devil-worshipping rebel - the stereotype that was to emerge. There were many such impious fools."
I was sold with that comment about "To respect the dead, you have to tell the truth about them." I contrasted the honesty and good faith of that comment with the effort to divert attention from the realities of the Inquisition in God's Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World by Cullen Murphy. My review of that book has this observation:
"At times, Murphy's approach to history makes for silly anachronism; at other times, it makes for questions as to his sincerity. For example, Murphy tells us that notwithstanding "older estimates of the number of people put to death by the Inquisition range to upwards of a million; the true figure may be closer to several tens of thousands," before launching on a story about how arguments about body count quickly become pointless and distasteful because the commandant of Auschwitz insisted that he had killed "two million," not "three million," and thereby adding yet another example of "guilt by grammatical juxtaposition" to the well stocked inventory in his book.
So, apparently, we aren't supposed to question Murphy's claim about "tens of thousands of deaths" because we certainly don't want to look like a Nazi. The problem, though, is that "tens of thousands" is high by several magnitudes of error. Murphy does not offer a citation for his "tens of thousands" figure, but Edward Peters says that the "body count" in Spain for the period between 1550 and 1800 was around 3,000. (Inquisition, p. 86.) If we generously add the approximate 3,000 deaths estimated by Murphy for the earlier, more active period when the Inquisition was founded in Spain , over the course of over 300 years, Spain - the most reviled Inquisition - comes nowhere near to the "tens of thousands" of deaths claimed by Murphy, who doesn't offer a citation to back his claim. In fact, though, 6,000 is still high by a factor of 100 percent; The number of executions according to Helen Rawlings The Spanish Inquisition was actually closer to 3,000! Also, Peters - a real scholar as Murphy concedes - points out that the Inquisition handed out a far smaller number of death sentences than comparable secular institutions. (Id.) The "body count" issue seems like one that is pretty important, providing the quality of "horror" for the Inquisition, yet all Murphy does is "hand-waive" about "tens of thousands" and tell a story about a Nazi, yet he offers no scholarly support for his "tens of thousands" number, and the actual scholars entirely, categorically and absolutely disagree with him."
Notice the difference between a real historian and a polemicist? To a real historian, facts matter because "unless witch-hunts are precisely quantified, they cannot be precisely explained." Thus, when you look at a 50% acquittal rate and indictment rate of some thousands over the course of centuries, you lose the thread of meta-narratives based on a political campaign to terrorize women or a Catholic conspiracy to destroy the "Old Religion" or some other overarching grand unified theory. What you have looks like, well, crime, with punctuations of hysteria, just as America had its hysteria about kidnapped children in the 1970s - the milk carton kids. Our ancestors, in short, look a lot like us.
The idea of the intolerant Burning Times as a club to beat up the Catholic Church is like the similar myths of the Inquisition. As Gaskill explains:
"Reaction against reductionist histories of witchcraft has a precedent. In the 19th century, alongside rationalism grew romanticism and with it the idea that witches had been a real sect, benign, passionate, and persecuted - the women Margaret Murray raised to mythological significance in the 1920s. In Europe's age of revolutions, anti-clericalism, and secular statehood, the church was blamed for all sorts of cruel injustices including witch-hunting. This had been the main beef of the German lawyer Thomasius. Now Jacob Grimm, collector of the famous fairy tales, portrayed witches as wise women, an idea elaborated by the French historian Jules Michelet (1798-1874), who repackaged them as proto-revolutionary heroines battling feudal oppression. Historical novels, notably those by Sir Walter Scott, mixed fact with fiction. William Harrison Ainsworth's The Lancashire Witches (1849) turned a well-documented 17th-century witch-hunt into a gothic romance. Fantasy and reality converged in the public imagination, just as they had while the witch-trials were still in progress."
Another myth that Gaskill punctures is the idea of the continuity of witchcraft. This bit is almost a textbook case of anthropological research, except the study was commissioned by Himmler:
"In the summer of 1935, a team of German researchers began to scour the nation's archives, hunting for early modern witches. Overseeing the project was Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, to whom witches were either persecuted religionists of the Germanic race or magical warriors fighting demons - a `black order' like the SS itself. Himmler hoped that the Hexensonderkommando would find millions of witches, but by the time work ceased in 1943, just 33,846 cases had been recorded. And what they revealed was that the witch's greatest enemies had been not clerical inquisitors but ordinary Germans."
As part of the "A Very Short Introduction," this book meets the requirement of being short and to the point. It covers a lot of material in short order. I think that the author has managed to craft some nice, stylistically clever sentences; I listened to it as an audiobook and I wasn't bored, at least. I am not sure that I agree with everything the author says, for example, his willingness to treat modern witches as a somewhat ordinary religious movement raised my eyebrow, but, then, that undoubtedly reflects my bias. I am sure that partisan Wiccans would be outraged by the author's academic perspective on the history of witchcraft and the absence of millions, let alone hundreds of thousands, of women burned during the "Burning Times."
If you want a good, interesting survey and introduction, you can't start in a better place.
Readers would also like "Jenna's Flaw," a novel about Satanism and demonic possession in the Midwest.