Witches and Witch-Hunts: A Global History
When Alan Macfarlane and Keith Thomas reinvigorated the study of historical European and particularly English witchcraft in the early 1970s, they were heavily influenced by studies of witchcraft in Africa, particularly the work of E. E. Evans-Pritchard done decades earlier. While they did not primarily [End Page 121] write comparative histories (only the final section of Macfarlane’s book is explicitly comparative), they drew on anthropological models to help them understand how belief in and fear of witches might have functioned in early modern English society. A door could have been flung open between the study of European and non-European systems of witchcraft. Instead, as histories of the European witch hunts proliferated in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, most scholars avoided broad, comparative arguments. Instead they stressed the particular nature of witchcraft in early modern Europe, with conceptions of “the witch” deeply rooted in Christian theology and demonology. Now Wolfgang Behringer, a major scholar of early modern witchcraft, wants to redress this tendency. His focus is witch-hunting—legal or quasi-legal actions taken against those supposed to have performed some type of maleficent magic against their neighbors. He begins not in Europe but in modern South Africa, where in 1990 a hunt claimed thirty victims. Throughout the 1990s, he notes, witch-hunting actually increased in South Africa and other parts of the African continent. He therefore contends that a purely Eurocentric, predominantly Christian conception of witchcraft is “no longer acceptable” (p. 3), nor is the comfortable notion that witch-hunting is an essentially “closed chapter in the history of mankind” (p. 8).
In his second chapter, “Belief in Witchcraft,” Behringer articulates a reasonable definition for “witchcraft” that can be applied to any culture: “There are evil forces around, and they try to cause harm. Some people, who are essentially anti-social, either incorporate such forces involuntarily, or form alliances with these forces intentionally in order to inflict harm by mystical means. . . . They not only act as individuals, but rather, through their alignment to evil forces, they act in groups, being part of a conspiracy” (pp. 12–13). He also notes that many cultures tend to associate such activity more with women than with men. Even in Western Europe, such notions have not disappeared, as 10 to 15 percent of Europeans, when polled, assert a belief in some form of witchcraft, although they may no longer associate witchcraft with Christian demonology and the devil.
In his next three chapters, which form the bulk of the book (about 150 out of 248 pages of text), Behringer narrows his focus to the history of Europe. “The Persecution of Witches” (Chap. 3) surveys legal responses to supposed witchcraft from Roman times through the Middle Ages. “The European Age of Witch-Hunting” (Chap. 4) surveys the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when witch trials were at their height across much of Europe. “Outlawing Witchcraft Persecution in Europe” (Chap. 5) covers the skepticism that was always present, at least about certain aspects of witchcraft and legal means used against suspected witches, throughout the period [End Page 122] of the major witch hunts, and discusses how such skepticism finally resulted in the end of most legal prosecutions in the eighteenth century. Behringer is a leading expert in this field and delivers valuable information and insight on almost every page. While keeping his survey broad, he does not avoid making important specific points, especially in terms of the geographical spread of the major hunts and the potential numbers of their victims. One of his main points is to stress how limited, both geographically and chronologically, were the relatively few truly massive witch hunts of this period. We should not, therefore, regard spectacular trials claiming hundreds or even thousands of victims (as sometimes occurred in this period, mainly in German lands) as the norm. Such great hunts were actually quite rare, but “witch-hunting” in terms of smaller-scale prosecutions was pervasive in Europe and clearly also exists in other parts of the world.
Chapter 6, “Witch-Hunting in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries,” largely returns to Africa, focusing on how European skepticism was exported through colonization, how it interacted jarringly with local systems of magical beliefs, and how in the postcolonial era a reinvigoration of traditional beliefs has led to some demands for a restoration of legalized witch-hunting. The chapter also touches briefly on Asia and the Americas, as well as the persistence of some forms of witch-hunting in modern Europe. The final chapter, “Old and ‘New Witches,’ “ deals with the emergence of Wiccan and other neo-pagan movements in contemporary Europe and North America, and their connections, real and supposed, to historical witchcraft. Behringer has no patience with the claims of some neo-pagans to be the direct descendents of historical witches, whom they believe practiced an ancient pagan religion. He notes that aside from neo-pagans themselves, the modern group most favorable to the argument that historical witchcraft was actually a popular form of pagan religiosity that resisted Judeo-Christian hegemony over Europe was the Nazi Party.
This is an important book, in that it calls for a broader, more comparative understanding of what witchcraft can be and what forms witch hunts can assume in various cultures. Yet the largest part of the book still focuses on the rise and fall of witch-hunting as it is traditionally understood in premodern Europe. This is unsurprising given that this is the area of Behringer’s main expertise; his survey here is valuable on many points, and informs his attempt to set witchcraft in a more global perspective in important ways. Yet that global perspective can appear to be simply a substantial addendum to what remains an essentially European story. This is not helped by the fact that when Behringer goes beyond Europe, it is almost always to Africa (not surprising since, Europe aside, Africa has been the focus of the largest body of [End Page 123] witchcraft scholarship). Thus, this book is really a useful survey of historical European witchcraft and witch-hunting, with an extension of that history into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, along with a comparison to colonial and postcolonial Africa. That, in itself, is no small accomplishment. Nor is Behringer’s point about the need to think about and study witchcraft in far broader terms than has typically been the case any less valuable because he has not presented us with a study as broad as could possibly be imagined or hoped for. What remains to be seen is whether Behringer’s call will serve to open doors to comparative scholarship and interpretation that have largely remained shut for the past forty years.