- Witch Hunts in the Western World: Persecution and Punishment from the Inquisition through the Salem Trials
The purpose of this book, according to the preface, is "to help illuminate errors and fantasies" about "witches and witchcraft" in popular writing while participating in the academic discussion, which has "increased by leaps and bounds over the past few decades" (vii). The book certainly has the potential to accomplish the first goal: It is relatively short; it is written in a reasonably accessible style; it provides broad background information; it is based on a solid survey of current as well as [End Page 280] older works on the subject, including published collections of original documents and demonological texts; and it covers the subject from its roots in antiquity through the Enlightenment roughly to the present day. Its contribution to scholarly discussion, or even academic instruction, however, is more limited.
On a technical level, the author's decision not to include citations for anything except direct quotations diminishes the book's usefulness as an introductory survey or general reference. Although most of the material will be familiar to specialists, they will find it impossible to follow up on the occasional, unfamiliar points that Pavlac raises, or to use the book as a quick entry into an unfamiliar topic. These limitations will similarly frustrate non-specialist scholars and students.
On a structural level, after a survey of the Middle Ages, the book's chapters divide by nation and region in a fragmented, chronologically jumbled presentation of anecdotes and isolated observations rather than a systematically developed, analytically informed overview. The sense of discontinuity is heightened by the profusion of major headings within chapters and only occasional use of subheadings. For example, the discussion of Switzerland within the Holy Roman Empire is not presented in a cohesive section internally divided into subsections but as a series of major topics strung one after another: "Witch Hunting in Switzerland," "Devil's Mark," "Hunts in Geneva," and so on (71-73).
The problems with this structure are most apparent in the book's handling of the decline of witchcraft, in which common legal developments and cosmopolitan discourse receive only patchy coverage toward the end of each national sequence. As a consequence, "Arguments against Witch Hunting [in Germany during the early 1600s]" immediately precedes the discussion of the continent's earliest hunts around 1400 in Switzerland (70-71), and the section on Balthasar Bekker's publications in the 1690s comes just before "The Decline of Hunting in the Empire," which began around 1660 (76-77). The upshot is that Pavlac exaggerates the importance of early-Enlightenment criticisms of magic while obscuring the recent insight that witch hunts in the core areas had begun to dwindle decades earlier, mainly because of legal caution rather than any new metaphysics.
On a conceptual level, the book suffers from a superficial understanding of the subject. In the first place, it chronically conflates witch hunts, witch trials, witchcraft beliefs, and prosecutions for other forms of magic. Pavlac acknowledges in specific places that zealous inquisitions and mass panics were just a subset of the total reactions to suspected witchcraft, and that separate laws existed for beneficent practitioners, but in general, he refers to all actions against magical activity (except when considered to be fraud) as hunts.
More broadly, the book is hampered by its traditional, rationalist perspective, which leads it to assert that "no witches existed who made pacts with demons and worked harmful magic" (190); that a relativist understanding of the mentality of people who believed in witchcraft [End Page 281] "neither clarifies nor excuses" them, since "voices spoke out against the natural reality of magic . . . throughout the age of the witch hunts" (188, 190); and that the hunts ended when people rejected the "aberration of Christian thought" that credited magic with physical power and returned to the "common sense" apprehension that magic is impotent (82, 187). However, without denying the illusoriness of...