- Witch Hunts in the Western World
General summaries of the history of witch prosecutions in Europe and the Americas have a useful role to play in transmitting some of the latest research to the public at large and weaning people off the sensationalist and inaccurate views to which they are happy to cling and that are still peddled by some of the media and popular press. Unfortunately, Pavlac’s book, potentially interesting and informative, is spoiled by his old-fashioned insistence on letting readers know that in his opinion witchcraft was nonsense and witches in effect were innocent victims of sinister or heartless authorities. He does this mainly via his choice of vocabulary: “blaming witches was more convenient” (p. 66), “Demonologists invented the [Devil’s] mark” (p. 72), “[Descartes’] promotion of the scientific method” (p. 76), and so forth (emphasis added). Research has long passed the old notion that authorities, especially the Church, fell in with people’s supposed eagerness for scapegoats to blame for poor harvests, disease, or similar catastrophes and used intensive prosecutions to further their own authoritarian ends. It may not have been Pavlac’s intention to re-create this catchall explanation, but the way he writes leaves the reader with the impression that this is what he means. There also are other blemishes that do not help his narrative. His account of witchcraft in Scotland, for example, is confused and rather a mess; he makes claims that, if pressed, he would find difficult to prove—“De Lancre’s opinions inspired a widespread hunt” (p. 97) and “[Del Rio’s] detailed explications of the various arguments about witches convinced many of their reality” (p. 158); and he also spends too long (pp. 97–103) on reviewing cases of demonic possession. These, although interesting in themselves, are not witch hunts and take up space that might have been more fruitfully employed in expanding his principal topic. One also questions the title Witch Hunts. Wolfgang Behringer has discussed this kind of emotive terminology—persecutions, hunts, panics—and, in effect, suggested that scholars choose their terms more carefully.
Certainly it is true that Pavlac’s book has the virtue of covering very wide chronological and geographical ranges and introduces to the survey areas [End Page 73] such as South America and Eastern Europe that often are neglected in general surveys of this kind. On the other hand, when he summarizes witches and witchcraft in his final chapter, he cannot resist pushing the button of appeal to emotional response. Having quite rightly noted that modern research tends to reduce the estimates of individuals executed for witchcraft, he adds that “many more people at the time, though, were affected by the hunts” and that “while these numbers hardly attain the level of a holocaust or a genocide, they nonetheless show how too many people suffered for a crime that did not exist” (p. 189). The references to holocaust and genocide are superfluous and irrelevant, and one must therefore conclude that they are there as part of Pavlac’s subtext, a subtext that is by now very old-fashioned indeed, not to mention unsubtle. That there is such a subtext seems to be confirmed by his ending the book with an anecdote relating to an incident from 1589, a woman brutally tortured, almost certainly innocent, and burned alive. Why is she included at this particular juncture? Witches were by no means always tortured, many were guilty as charged, and relatively few suffered death by burning. So this example’s inclusion looks like a final emotional appeal rather than anything else. Modern studies of historical witchcraft are a good deal more sensitive than that to the available evidence. So, as a final judgment on Pavlac’s book, one is unfortunately obliged to repeat Muriel Sharp’s Miss Jean Brodie: “For those who like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing they like.”