- The Realities of Witchcraft and Popular Magic in Early Modern Europe: Culture, Cognition, and Everyday Life
Bever’s book is an exciting and provocative contribution to the study of magic and witchcraft. Reaching far beyond the usual material of history into the disciplines of psychology and neurophysiology, Bever has drawn conclusions both stunning and profound in a work that will move the field forward as surely as it will inspire debate. To begin at the end, Bever concludes that the early modern campaign to eradicate witchcraft and magic ultimately failed to eliminate the belief in, and practice of, magic in Europe, although it had a substantial impact on the beliefs of the majority of people. “Magic persists because it is real,” Bever writes, sure to invite an uproar from those who have understood him as well as those who have not (430).
The reality of magic and witchcraft that Bever describes exists on many different levels—no doubt inspiring the plural realities in his title. [End Page 444] When early modern people made witchcraft accusations, the details of those accusations often referred to unquestionably plausible acts: material theft, physical violence, verbal assault, and poisoning with biochemical agents. Bever points out that such physical acts are often ignored or marginalized by scholars of witchcraft as irrelevant, despite being identified as witchcraft by the accusers. This important insight, however, is quickly marginalized by the main thrust of Bever’s argument. His intent is not merely to describe the physical acts that composed witchcraft but to muster research from psychologists and neurophysiologists to explain the scientific reality of apparently supernatural effects.
The heart of this book is a series of readable and engaging descriptions of insights from recent research in the biomedical fields about the nature and implications of the recursive relationship between mind and body. Witchcraft was real, Bever explains, because ill will can cause real somatic harm in the body of the recipient through the powerful intermediary of the subconscious mind, which can detect it through subtle clues (if it is not made explicit) and express it in illness, paralysis, and even death. Bever is careful to explain that this argument about the reality of witchcraft is not meant to advance the guilt of particular suspects, nor to justify the fates of any accused witches. Even those who may be skeptical regarding the prevalence of this reality of witchcraft in the majority of trials will find Bever’s treatment both sophisticated and convincing.
Although he begins with classic witchcraft trials, he does not end there. Particularly interesting are his analyses of the cultural, psychological, and pharmacological origins of the witches’ sabbath, healing arts, and divination. For scholars of early modern witchcraft, Bever’s work will prove an invaluable source, updating what were sorely outdated notions of psychosomatic responses to witchcraft. For historians generally, this work can stand as a model for how our understanding of human nature and of both the continuities and varieties presented by human societies can be expanded by reaching beyond the social sciences to scientific studies of the human organism itself.