Title: The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe
Author: Brian P. Levack
Rating: 4 of 5
There is no lack of books about the shameful era of witch-hunting (most intense from ~1450-1750). Most authors have their own pet theory of the main cause of the travesty (personal revenge, misogyny, the Protestants, the Catholics, religious intolerance in general, societal changes, political maneuvering, mass hysteria, etc.). Brian Levack rejects the idea of a monolithic witch hunt driven by one or two all-explaining reasons. Instead, he interacts with a wide range of primary source data and scholarly views regarding the rise, continuation, and decline of witch-hunting and argues that certain aspects of most of these views are applicable to varying degrees depending on the location, size, and time of individual witch-hunts. Whether or not all of his surmises are accurate, I appreciated the relative objectivity and complexity of his approach.
One of his main themes that I found particularly interesting was his distinction between maleficia (trying to cause harm through magic) and diabolism (the worship of the devil…especially in an organized, collective “witches’ Sabbath” fashion). He does not go into whether magic actually works or the devil actually exists, but offers analysis on whether there were people that actually attempted to practiced either or both of these (supposed witches were generally accused of both). He argues that the practice of maleficia certainly existed to some extent, but that organized, collective diabolism was almost entirely a figment of Medieval Christian imagination. He regards this belief in diabolism as an important precondition for witch-hunts accelerating from the occasional burning of a disliked old woman to the wide-scale state-sponsored panics that consumed hundreds of victims. It reminded me a lot of the weird Satanic Ritual Abuse panic from the 80’s and 90’s (the reason a whole generation of Conservative Evangelical kids weren’t allowed to go trick-or-treating…though I suppose that’s better than thousands of people being executed).
I felt like the author occasionally mischaracterized Christian (especially Reformed) doctrinal development and beliefs, but overall the book was well research and thoughtfully argued – a must-read if you are interested in this topic!