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  • A Cultural History of Witchcraft
  • Gábor Klaniczay

It was Peter Burke who got me into the “witchcraft business” more than a quarter of a century ago, and this overview of research on witchcraft, the first version of which was prepared for a conference celebrating his seventieth birthday in 2007, is dedicated to him. Let me begin this historiographic overview with a few personal remarks recalling our cooperation. I first met Peter Burke in 1982 at an Economic History congress in Budapest. I was a research assistant at the time, developing an interest in various aspects of “popular religion,” such as heresy, sainthood, and shamanism,1 and I was eager to hear his theoretically based insights into the history of “popular culture.”2 He invited me to a large-scale comparative conference on the history of European witchcraft in Stockholm, which he was organizing with Bengt Ankarloo and Gustav Henningsen in coordination with the Olin Foundation in 1984. He encouraged me to broaden my interest from Hungarian shamanism to an overall examination of Hungarian witch trials (a historical topic that at the time had not been made the subject of much scholarly study). It was the first international conference to which I had been invited as a speaker.3

To cope with the challenging task posed by this invitation, the preparation of a new and conclusive historical overview of the witch trial documents in early-modern Hungary, I entered into cooperation with a group of Hungarian [End Page 188] folklorists and worked together with Éva Pócs, who intended to research popular witchcraft mythologies, on the basis of both historical and present day documentation.4 We made the ambitious plan to develop a computer-based encoding and a structural analysis of maleficium narratives,5 but as I drew closer to the material I realized that I had to combine (or rather counterbalance) this “Proppian” morphology6 with what I referred to in the paper I delivered at the 1984 Stockholm conference as “the transformations and blackouts in the universe of popular magic”—that is a thorough study of the historical transformations in the structural patterns of witchcraft beliefs, something to which I will refer here as “a cultural history of witchcraft.”7 Actually, a few years later I gave the subtitle “social or cultural tensions” to a lecture I presented in Burke’s presence in Cambridge on witch-hunting in Hungary.8 Seen in this light, my version of the “cultural history of witchcraft” is largely the fruit of Peter Burke’s inspiration. Here I want to rethink its premises: do they still make sense in the light of recent orientations of cultural history?


By recalling personal memories from the 1980s I mean to focus on a particular historiographic moment when a significant renewal occurred both in the study of European witchcraft and in the concept of cultural history—this will be the starting point of my overview. Let me rely here on the synthetic image Peter Burke himself formulated in the conclusion of the 1984 Stockholm conference entitled “The Comparative Approach to European Witchcraft,” starting with the observation that “in the last twenty years or so, witchcraft [End Page 189] has moved from the periphery of historical attention to a place near the centre.” The reasons for this interest were manifold: witchcraft was a topic that cut across established disciplinary boundaries and provided a possibility for fruitful exchanges between various fields of research, including social, legal, and cultural history; the folklore of magical beliefs, practices and mythologies; and anthropological enquiries into social, moral, and cultural meanings, functions, or dysfunctions. The combination of these different approaches, together with a renewed close scrutiny of archival documents, led in these decades to a number of studies and monographs, linking this topic to other concerns of contemporary research, such as community studies, family history, gender approaches, historical anthropology, and histoire des mentalités.9

Taking all this into account, Burke noted the paradox that “when Hugh Trevor-Roper published his lively essay on what he called, following nineteenth- century German scholars, the European ‘witch-craze,’ he could have hardly guessed that he was summarising and synthesising the conventional historical wisdom on the...


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