- Witchcraft: A Very Short Introduction
OUP's Very Short Introduction series has established itself as the first port of call (other, of course, than the oracular Wikipedia) for scholars, students, and the general reader in subjects from Jung to medical ethics to privacy law. [End Page 230] So it is no surprise to see Malcolm Gaskill's volume on witchcraft join the set. Witchcraft is a subject of wide public interest as well as being studied in a wide range of university and college courses, from general introductions to early modern history to specific modules devoted to witch trials and their literatures. A volume on witchcraft was certainly needed, and it will surely be a popular title.
The book begins enticingly—Gaskill admits engagingly that he's a victim of circumstance and passion. Witchcraft is a subject that just won't leave him alone. Most readers of this journal will know exactly what he means. This Very Short Introduction therefore sets out to explore why witchcraft is such a compelling topic, along with surveying the main features of its history, historiography, and contemporary cultural relevance.
Gaskill is a fine writer: clear, direct, chatty, authoritative. He brings the subject to life with provocative analogies. Witches are special, different from other victims of persecution like Cathars and Lollards because, bizarrely, they are the subject of board games and children's TV shows. He teases and challenges the reader. Have you ever been truly hungry? If not, how can you judge those who accused their neighbors of spoiling their crops? Ever fantasized or hated? You too could have been a witch-hunter.
Gaskill begins by embedding witchcraft belief into the longest possible durée, the (pre)history of human religiosity, inquisitiveness, and competitiveness. The persecution of witches, then, was no sudden "outbreak," madness, or even a category error. Human beings were, in certain senses, made to hunt witches. The book invites the reader to deal with this conclusion and move on, through the definition of terms like "superstition" and "rationality" to the specific notion of heresy in early modern Europe. Here we encounter a range of the usual suspects, necessarily discussed because their cases and theories are important (Jean Bodin, Johann Weyer, Reginald Scot, Alice Kyteler, Bridget Bishop, Cotton Mather, John Junius, Margaret Murray, Aleister Crowley, Edward Evans-Pritchard, Keith Thomas, Gerald Gardner, and so on). But the book also features less immediately obvious commentators on historical witchcraft and its religious context: Samuel Butler, Samuel Pepys, Dan Brown. The book takes pains to connect what scholars think they already know to the wider world of popular culture and general interest, making for a genuinely inclusive and thought-provoking read.
Gaskill also talks about the duties of historians to their subjects—general introductory books like this one do allow a judicious stepping-back from the detail of texts to a general consideration of both why and how we should be studying the records of torture and execution that constitute our understanding of many witchcraft episodes. Good historians, he suggests, must accept a [End Page 231] relativist approach that does not condemn or excuse torturers, witchfinders, or those who consume images of their activities. Yet this statement is contextualized by repeated discussion of recent witch-hunting activities in Africa and indeed in Europe—the murder of Victoria Climbié, for example. How should we respond to such events, given our now quite deep and complex knowledge of their historical parallels? The book does not attempt to answer the question, but it opens it up for the reader's consideration.
Overall, the approach is one of liberal relativist understanding: as Gaskill sums up (this time in discussing extreme feminist assertions about "millions" of executions), "when people get upset, they make mistakes." I remained uneasy with this as I read, despite wondering what else Gaskill could have said. The spread of witchcraft accusation around the world is a challenge to which witchcraft historians ought to be uniquely placed to respond. Is it enough to say that we understand and that it has all happened before? Witchcraft may be history for...