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Reviewed by:
  • Witchcraft Historiography
  • Michael D. Bailey
Jonathan Barry and Owen Davies, eds. Witchcraft Historiography. Hound-mills, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Pp. x + 248.

This important collection should be of interest to almost all readers of this journal. There have been countless book-length studies, and no few general surveys, of the history of European witchcraft and witch-hunting from the fifteenth through eighteenth centuries. The historiography of witchcraft, however, has received much less attention, and always in journal or encyclopedia articles, or as sections within books. This is hardly unusual. Book-length historiographies are rare. Yet the historiography of witchcraft is exceptionally fascinating. As the editors note, few other topics have engaged so directly with so many different methods and approaches to doing history. Especially given that much of the work in witchcraft studies is relatively recent (the field really came alive in the 1970s), the number of major methodological problems confronted (and contested) is impressive.

The essays in this volume begin long before the 1970s, however, for many of the problems historians face when working on witchcraft stem from the way this phenomenon was conceived and constructed in the past. The first article, by P. G. Maxwell-Stuart, focuses on the era of the trials themselves, and examines how early modern authorities and prosecutors of witchcraft placed the object of their attention in time. His point is that early modern authorities did not generally regard witchcraft as a historical phenomenon, but rather as a manifestation of perennial demonic hostility toward humanity. Although most treatises against witches were very much products of their time, deriving from reformist energies or being spurred by anxieties concerning confessional conflict or wars of religion, their authors did not conceive of witchcraft as a product of any particular age, and so simply did not discuss it in such terms.

Maxwell-Stuart's piece is followed by an essay by Peter Elmer focusing on the relation between ideas of witchcraft and the scientific revolution in the seventeenth century. Elmer notes that ever since the Enlightenment, a standard interpretation of the historical decline of witchcraft, or at least of witch trials, has been that progressive developments in science and medicine alleviated the anxieties that fed fear of witches, and ultimately undermined belief [End Page 81] in a supernaturally infected universe. Starting in the 1960s, however, and especially since the 1990s, scholars have increasingly rejected the notion that early modern science was incompatible with belief in witchcraft. Whatever finally pushed fear of witches out of mainstream Western consciousness, it was not some inherently progressive quality of Western intellectual culture.

After these two chapters focusing on how ideas of witchcraft interacted with other intellectual currents in the past, the volume begins to move more or less chronologically through post-Enlightenment historiographical developments. Christa Tuczay outlines the mainstream nineteenth-century "liberal rationalist" tradition that regarded early modern witch-beliefs as remnants of "medieval" superstition and the prosecution of supposed witches as an example of irrational religiosity run amok. She associates this tradition above all with Germany and the United States (e.g., Wilhelm Gottlieb Soldan and Joseph Hansen, George Lincoln Burr and Henry Charles Lea). She also notes a countervailing tradition based in Romanticism that regarded witches (potentially) as bearers of ancient and laudable folk beliefs. While she sees the earliest appearance of such ideas in Germany (with Jakob Grimm), she associates it mostly with England and France (Walter Scott and Jules Michelet). In the early twentieth century, strains of the Romantic tradition were responsible for giving rise to the fanciful notion that an actual cult of witches existed in medieval and early modern Europe, either as a functioning ancient fertility cult (Margaret Murray) or, in a quite different vein, as a real diabolical cult (Montague Summers). These developments, and these two personalities, are discussed in the subsequent essay by Juliette Wood.

In the second half of the twentieth century, most work on witchcraft continued to follow the "liberal-rationalist" view that elite fears of supposed diabolical conspiracies drove witch-hunting, and that witch trials represented a horrible example of the persecution of innocents. Scholars drew back from declaring such fears or their consequences to be "irrational," however...


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