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Reviewed by:
  • Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe
  • Michael D. Bailey
Merry E. Wiesner , ed. Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2007. Pp. xxii + 202.

This book, a volume in Houghton Mifflin's Problems in European Civilization series, brings together selections from recent scholarship on early modern [End Page 112] European witchcraft in order to expose students to major debates in the field. The book is divided into four parts, representing broad areas of research: "Intellectual Foundations and Demonology"; "Political, Economic, and Social Causes"; "Accusations, Trials, and Panics"; and the ever-contentious subject of "Gender and Witchcraft." In each section, Merry Wiesner presents four selections drawn from recent monographs or scholarly articles (all originally published within the last twenty years). While no such collection could possibly cover all perspectives on this complex topic, Wiesner's selections do a good job of introducing several important areas of scholarly debate, and this slim reader would be a useful addition to any course on the history of early modern witchcraft.

Each section begins with a brief introduction summarizing the arguments of the subsequent selections and situating them in a larger historiography. The first section presents pieces dealing with the intellectual foundations of witchcraft. This is in some ways a very old-fashioned approach, akin to that taken by scholars such as Henry Charles Lea and Joseph Hansen in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is also, however, a newly revitalized area of study, thanks primarily to the efforts of Stuart Clark, and an excerpt from his magisterial Thinking with Demons is the first selection presented. He is followed by a piece by Charlie Zika, moving beyond formal demonology and connecting learned concerns to popular folklore. Then comes Gerhild Scholz-Williams, tying the demonological thought of Pierre de Lancre to concerns over New World exploration. The final selection is from Walter Stephens, introducing his controversial thesis that demonologists were obsessed with witchcraft not because they feared demonic power, but because they were skeptical about demonic existence. The connections—and the conflicts—between these varied arguments might not be immediately apparent to a student, but could easily be brought out by an instructor in classroom discussion.

The second section is even more varied, encompassing political, economic, and social studies of witchcraft. A selection from Brian Levack stands as the lone political analysis, arguing that witchcraft prosecutions were not abetted but rather were hindered by increasingly powerful centralized states in the early modern period. The next two selections, by J. T. Swain and Gábor Klaniczay, each begin with a consideration of Keith Thomas's and Alan Macfarlane's classic analysis that witchcraft accusations often began in cases of refusal of charity, although while Swain presents a fairly focused economic study, Klaniczay moves into a broader social analysis. The final selection, from Robin Briggs, situates accusations of witchcraft within family networks. [End Page 113]

The third section examines various types of trials and panics. A selection from Wolfgang Behringer is used to introduce stereotypically major waves of prosecution in the central European heartland of witch hunting. Robert Walinski-Kiehl then explores the issue of children accused of witchcraft—an interesting approach but one that falls rather flat in this section, since none of the other selections focus on characteristics of the accused. The student finds no explorations of elderly, poor, or socially marginal witches to compare to this study of witch-children, though some reference could be made to the beggar witches of Part II or to the exclusively female witches of Part IV. Julian Goodare provides an account of the major Scottish witch panic of 1597, while Thor Hall and Herbert W. L. Burhenn present the single case of Elline Klokkers, executed for witchcraft in Gjerpen, Norway. While Wiesner does not dedicate a separate section to the geographic variations in witchcraft, an instructor could create some discussion of this issue by comparing the German, Scottish, and Norwegian material in this section to the Hungarian (Klaniczay) selection in Part II and potentially the Italian (Scully) selection in Part IV.

Part IV, dealing with gender, is the most thematically coherent section of the book (even more so than Part I), but...


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