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  • The Witch in the Western Imagination by Lyndal Roper
  • Peter A. Morton
Roper, Lyndal – The Witch in the Western Imagination. Charlottesville & London: University of Virginia Press, 2012. Pp. 240.

Historians of the early modern witch trials have worked over the past couple of decades to reveal an underlying rationality in demonology, showing it to be a reflection of the ways in which Europeans structured their society and reinforced values of class, gender, and political power. From the beginnings of her research, Lyndal Roper has steered a different course, seeking the motives for witch-hunting in the inner worlds of the unconscious. Roper has drawn on the resources of psychoanalysis to explore the elements of emotion and fantasy that informed the concept of witchcraft and drove the actions of the witch-hunters. Her latest book is a collection of independent essays. Most of the essays have been published elsewhere; yet read together they offer a powerful series of case studies that illustrate and reinforce Roper’s approach to the study of European witchcraft beliefs.

The book looks beyond the archival sources that have occupied so much of the research into witchcraft and demonology. Roper says it was her recognition of the fold-out image of the witches’ sabbath by Jan Ziarnko in Pierre de Lancre’s Tableau de l’inconstance des mauvais anges et démons as a work of Baroque art that inspired her to look at elite and popular culture as a whole, including works of art, entertainment, household objects, and landscapes. She argues that neither the linguistic analysis of texts as networks of signs nor the other investigative framework common to early modern studies, historical anthropology as inspired by the work of Clifford Geertz, are adequate to recognize and analyze the ambiguities, contradictions, and diversity in the cultural images of the witch. To move beyond these traditional methods Roper uses microhistory informed by psychoanalytic theory to “illuminate culture and psychology through reconstructing the subjectivities of individuals” (p. 11).

As Roper points out, traditional studies of demonology have emphasized theology, metaphysics, and philosophy. By contrast, in her first chapter Roper examines the contribution of demonological works to the literature of entertainment, referring to the ways in which the best known of the demonological writers drew upon classical references as well as personal experience to construct their marvelous stories. These stories led to the Faust literature and to the Devil’s Books of Lutheran literature, which make full use of humour and of the aesthetics of the Baroque, to entertain and titillate. The second chapter investigates the role of female figures in the history of Augsburg, including the mythical origin of the city with a race of Amazons, and the legend of Agnes Bernauer, a common Augsburg girl who was betrothed to the Duke of Bavaria but drowned by his father. These images of women match the pagan image of a witch in their fundamental ambiguity as both goddesses of fertility and as enchantresses and destroyers of fertility. This contrast of extremes, “luxuriant fertility and destruction of fruitfulness and Christianity” (p. 75), is explored in the third chapter through a close investigation of a picture frame designed by Albrecht Dürer and the painting that it originally held, showing how Dürer had planned to present the contrast through the picture and its frame. Roper argues that Dürer and his student, Hans Baldung Grien, were not obsessed with the female body, as might easily be imagined, but rather with the reproductive powers of women’s bodies.

Chapter Four defends the history of emotions as an addition and corrective to individual psychoanalysis. Roper focuses here on the emotion of envy arising from the tensions [End Page 256] between fertile younger women and those beyond the age of fertility, which she has long argued played a major role in the construction of witchcraft. She emphasizes the image of the witch as an old hag with sagging breasts, which is also found in classical traditions and reproduced in the emblem books of the Renaissance. Following some of her earlier work, her interpretation of these images draws on the psychoanalytic theories of Emily Klein, who gives envy a central place in...


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pp. 256-258
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