- Surveying Early Modern Witchcraft:Levack’s Oxford Handbook
In both the scholarly and popular imaginations, European witchcraft once fit into a narrative of darkness and enlightenment. Witchcraft beliefs and the trials of the witch ‘‘craze’’ were (or so the story went) the product of the Middle Ages, and much of the blame for the witch hunts could be placed squarely on the Catholic Church. The trials finally came to an end when the backward and superstitious belief in witchcraft succumbed to the rising forces of secularism and modern science. Scholarship on witchcraft has proliferated over the last fifty years, challenging many aspects of this account. Archival research has redrawn the chronology of the witchhunts, which did not begin in earnest until the Renaissance and peaked in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Scholars have explored the possibility that particular features of the early modern social and political landscape (such as the rise of the nation state) may have encouraged witch-hunting. Others have pointed out that many rationalist philosophers and empirical scientists maintained a belief in witchcraft, and studies of Catholic demonology have been supplemented with careful consideration of popular witchcraft beliefs. A multitude of regional studies has demonstrated that the witch hunts were, in fact, an agglomeration of a great many local, highly distinctive trials.
This explosion of research makes the subject of early modern witchcraft ripe for inclusion in the Oxford Handbook series. As editor Brian Levack notes in his introduction, The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America, like other books in the series, has three purposes: to summarize current knowledge in the field, to identify and discuss the most important literature on and approaches to the subject, and to propose new avenues for research. Levack’s volume runs to an impressive 630 pages and includes thirty-two essays by both established and up-and-coming researchers. [End Page 329]
Reflecting the field of witchcraft studies, the Oxford Handbook is thoroughly interdisciplinary. Levack says that he has made ‘‘no effort to enforce uniformity of approach,’’ (10) and the authors look at witchcraft through an array of theoretical lenses. While there are inevitable conflicts of interpretation, many contributors agree that no one approach is sufficient to capture the complexities of witchcraft beliefs and the witch hunts. The essays also consider a variety of source material, including (among others) demonological treatises, folklore, pamphlets, and trial records. Furthermore, the Handbook includes essays on the representation of witchcraft in the less-studied genres of literature and the visual arts. Given the importance of visual culture in both shaping and reflecting early modern notions of witchcraft, it is unfortunate that the volume is not illustrated.
The Oxford Handbook is divided into three parts: the first focuses on witch beliefs, especially as they developed in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The section as a whole challenges the notion that there was any stable or universally shared understanding of the identity or activities of witches. Many essays explore the interaction between popular and learned discourses on witchcraft, resisting historiographical traditions that maintain their separation. Another common theme is the need to reconsider the ‘‘cumulative concept,’’ which has served as an important paradigm in witchcraft studies. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the German archivist and historian Joseph Hansen proposed that the early modern concept of witchcraft emerged from a fusion of pre-existing ideas about magic and heresy. According to Hansen, a ‘‘witch’’ became someone who not only practiced maleficium (or magic used for harmful ends), but also made a pact with the devil, attended nocturnal Sabbaths, and was capable of flight. The ‘‘cumulative’’ or ‘‘collective’’ concept was an important precondition of the witch-trials, as the witch became a much more serious threat: the witch was no longer an individual who simply used magic for malicious ends, but also a heretic and member of an anti-Christian sect. While Hansen’s work remains significant for identifying the most common components of...