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  • Cultures of Witchcraft in Europe from the Middle Ages to the Present ed. by Jonathan Barry et al.
  • Sarah Ferber

witchcraft, history of magic, history of witchcraft, anthropology, folklore studies, literary studies, witch trials, Reformation, Middle Ages, Early Modern period

jonathan barry, owen davies, and cornelie usborne, eds. Cultures of Witchcraft in Europe from the Middle Ages to the Present. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018. Pp. xxiv + 283.

Scholars attending conferences on European magic, ritual, and witchcraft over the past thirty or so years are very likely to have benefited from the presence and insights of Dutch scholar Willem de Blécourt. What de Blécourt has offered is a combination of intellectual impatience—the essential tool of the scholar, always driving debate forward—and a collegial positivity about the shared task at hand. He has been insistent that historians and historical anthropologists have an obligation to break down assumed historical continuities and analogies—to interrogate them with facts and then interrogate the creation of the facts themselves. An innovator in an innovative field, de Blécourt is one of a generation of scholars to press out boundaries. It is a fitting tribute that his fellow editors of the important series Palgrave Historical Studies in Witchcraft and Magic—Jonathan Barry and Owen Davies, together with Cornelie Usborne—should have assembled a volume of essays dedicated to him, in which almost every author is at pains to underline their methodology and its limits, to position their approach in the context of debates about "grand theories" of witchcraft history, and to highlight one or more of the themes in de Blécourt's work.

The first of the twelve essays is a keynote by de Blécourt himself, in which he revisits the work of the French anthropologist of witchcraft Jeanne Favret-Saada. He takes issue with what he sees as a deficit model in Favret-Saada's thinking about the possibility of accessing meaningful knowledge of witchcraft in the present or the past. In his view, and with typical positivity, there is always a sufficiency of evidence available to study and to understand "the history of the witchcraft discourse" because witchcraft, when understood as discourse, "charts relative positions rather than producing a master narrative" (21). Essentially, his affirmative response to Favret-Saada is about the possibility of ever understanding the lives or actions of others, whether living or dead, and ultimately, perhaps, whether one can even understand oneself. He concludes that historical archives are always sufficient for the task: what matters is how the task is framed and what chance it has to communicate and create new connections with others.

The other authors come from across four disciplines—"historians, anthropologists, literary scholars, and folklorists"—but their diverse modes of inquiry call for only slight adjustments of the reader's lens. Indeed, in a field such as this, cross-disciplinary conversation has been one of the sources of much needed interpretative subtlety, in response to a wide variety of complex social [End Page 431] phenomena. The subject matter ranges from regional overviews to intimate individual stories, and traverses several centuries up to the present day.

Christa Agnes Tuczay's survey of Austrian witch legends yields new insights into the geographical localisation of diverse traditions, and identifies the importance of witch trials and demonological thinking in reshaping local stories, while Hans de Waardt's suggestive, geographically oriented essay posits the North Sea as a "crossroads of witchcraft beliefs" and point of linkage in what de Waardt describes as a sometime "mild zone" for witch trials, while assessing the impact of economic collapse and warfare on claims of witchcraft. Eva Labouvie's study "The End of Village Witch Trials in the Saar Region" examines a shift in the period from 1580, in which locally orchestrated witchcraft accusations led to multiple executions, to 1635, after which trials became infrequent. Contributing substantially to historians' current analyses of why witch trials ended, Labouvie examines the role of societal upheavals, shifts in mentality, and "internal processes of change" during and after the Thirty Years' War.

Louise Nyholm Kallestrup provides a poignant account of a group of witch trials among the nobility in Funen (Denmark) in 1596...


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