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  • The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe
  • Michael D. Bailey
Brian P Levack. The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe, 3rd ed.Harlow, Eng., London, New York: Pearson Longman, 2006. Pp. xv + 344.

For nearly twenty years, this book as been the standard English-language introduction and survey text for the period of the major European witch hunts. With an excellent third edition, it is set to continue its dominance for years to come. In the preface to the new edition, Levack tells his readers that his purpose in updating the book was to take into account the flood of scholarly publications in the decade since the second edition. What is remarkable, given how much work has been done on witchcraft in that period, is how little Levack has needed to alter his book. While new information is scattered throughout, the main lines of argument and interpretation remain unchanged, a testament to how effective this book has been through all its editions.

Perhaps the most substantial alteration, made in the general introduction to the topic of the witch hunts that begins the book, is a reduction in the estimate of the total number of victims of witch trials in Europe. As careful [End Page 101]research into specific hunts has flourished, the number of those thought to have been executed as witches has generally declined. Responding to this, Levack reduces his overall estimate from 60,000 executions (given in the first two editions) to around 45,000 executions across Europe in the early modern period. There are similar alterations to many regional estimates made later in the book. German executions fall from 30,000 or more to between 20,000 and 25,000. For the Kingdom of France, the estimate falls from 4,000 to 3,000. Other figures remain unaltered, however; for example, the estimate that there may have been as few as 1,500 executions in Britain.

Other changes are nuanced but valuable. In the second chapter, on “Intellectual Foundations” of witch-hunting, Levack has restructured the section formerly on “The Challenge of the Renaissance,” which mainly looked at the skepticism of many humanist thinkers toward witchcraft and witch trials, into a more broadly conceived section on “The Sceptical Tradition” generally. This allows him to highlight the fact that from the very beginning of the witch hunts there was considerable skepticism at least about certain aspects of witchcraft from many quarters. In chapter 3, on “Legal Foundations,” the section formerly dealing with “Witchcraft and Local Courts” has been revised into “Witchcraft and the Early Modern State.” Here Levack retains his essential argument that smaller, local jurisdictions were more prone to conducting witch hunts, but he situates this analysis more effectively amid major issues of the growth of states in the early modern era. In chapter 5, on the social context of witchcraft, he has expanded his discussion of the gendering of witchcraft to give more attention to male witches, already included in earlier editions but enlarged here in light of recent research. These are only examples of the sort of useful refinements made throughout the book.

What formerly was the final chapter of the book, on the “Decline and Survival” of witchcraft, has been significantly expanded and divided into two chapters, on the “Decline and End of Witch-Hunting” and on “Witch-Hunting after the Trials.” In the “Decline” chapter, Levack gives a fuller account throughout. In addition to legal changes, intellectual developments that brought the idea of witchcraft into question are treated more fully in a section on “Disenchantment,” and religious changes that contributed to the end of witch-hunting are also given more attention. Most significantly, though, the edicts that actually ended witch trials in many regions, formerly treated as one aspect of legal change, are now given a separate section. This is fitting, as technical decriminalization of witchcraft typically occurred well after the actual end of witch trials in any region, and often these seemingly major legal pronouncements had very little practical effect.

The new final chapter deals with four general topics that were previously [End Page 102]all treated within a single section in the earlier edition. The discussion of lynching and...


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