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Reviewed by:
  • Witch Hunts in the Western World: Persecution and Punishment from the Inquisition through the Salem Trials
  • James Sharpe

witch, witch hunt, Inquisition, strixologist, demonologist, witch theorist, Salem, Mary Beth Norton

Brian A. Pavlac. Witch Hunts in the Western World: Persecution and Punishment from the Inquisition through the Salem Trials. Lincoln, Nebraska, and London: Bison Books/University of Nebraska Press, 2009. Pp. xx + 228.

In this book Brian A. Pavlac seeks to provide a guide to the history of witch-hunting throughout Europe between the emergence of the stereotype of the demonic witch at the end of the Middle Ages and the termination of the hunts in the eighteenth century, thus taking matters, despite the work’s subtitle, beyond the Salem trials of 1692. The book, presumably directed mainly at an undergraduate audience, covers a wide chronological and geographical span. After an initial chapter introducing the theme of witch-hunting, Pavlac discusses the medieval origins of the witch hunts, covering a wide range of topics and providing a brief description of the significance to his theme of such historical events as the Renaissance, European explorations, and the Reformation. He then covers the medieval origins of the hunts in a chapter that helps guide the reader through the complexities of the subject. This chapter contains clear and well-balanced discussions of the Inquisition, of inquisitorial process, of torture, of the increasing interest among theologians in demons, and of the way in which witchcraft was redefined as a heresy by a church that had become very experienced in hunting, and burning, heretics. [End Page 231]

The main core of the book is a discussion of witch-hunting in the Holy Roman Empire, in France, in the British realms (including the North American colonies), in southern Europe (mainly Spain, Portugal, and Italy), and northern and eastern Europe, with a chapter being devoted to each of these regions. Specialists in the history of witchcraft in any of these territories will find factual errors in what Pavlac tells his readers: thus there were considerably less than four hundred executions at the time of the Matthew Hopkins trials (p. 129); Alice Molland, the last witch known to have been executed in England, died in 1685, not 1682 (p. 145); there was no such thing as “British law” in the seventeenth century (p. 135); and what Charles V attempted to impose on his subjects in the Low Countries in 1542 was a remodeled version of the existing Netherlands Inquisition rather than, as Pavlac implies, the Spanish Inquisition (p. 157).

Irritation at such errors should not, however, deflect attention from the merits of this book. Some may find Pavlac’s practice of splitting each chapter into bite-sized sections irritating, although this is probably done in the light of the author’s perception of his audience. What comes within each of those sections is generally well done, and shows an awareness of the most recent research. Pavlac is aware, for example, of matters as diverse as the role of the Paris Parlement in overturning convictions for witchcraft in the early seventeenth century, of how the writings of Joseph Glanvill encapsulated some of the complexities surrounding witchcraft as an issue in post-Restoration England, and also of the most recent interpretations of the Salem witch hunt, notably those of Mary Beth Norton. Above all, the book is to be applauded for its relatively thorough treatment of witch-hunting in southern, northern, and eastern Europe. In these sections, again, he is fully aware of recent research, and of the complexities thrown up by various national or regional experiences. Whatever the book’s deficiencies, the reader of Witch Hunts in the Western World will come away with a wide geographical view of witch-hunting as a historical phenomenon. They will also be grateful for a very useful chronology, glossary, and selected bibliography.

Many readers, however—and one feels especially university teachers who might wish to encourage their students to read this book—will be concerned by Pavlac’s apparent lack of engagement with some of the interpretative issues that have so much concerned historians of the subject. There is a brief (six-page) discussion of theories about the hunts...


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