The ‘anti-religion’ that roiled Europe

Locals dress as witches for the annual Walpurgis Night celebrations in Germany (Getty)

The Witch: a History of Fear, From Ancient Times to the Present
by Ronald Hutton, Yale, £25

The study of witchcraft in early-modern Europe has, as Ronald Hutton explains, matured into “one of the most dynamic, exciting and thickly populated areas of scholarship”. It is a model of interdisciplinarity, archival endeavour and cautious deployment of the historical imagination. Certain themes have, though, tended to dominate – notably gender and the social or political power structures that underpinned outbreaks of persecution. Hutton does not object to this – indeed, he is at pains to applaud the leading practitioners – but he believes that it would be wise to dust off other interpretative lenses. If we want to understand the lineaments of early modern witchcraft then anthropology, the traditions of folklore and the transmission of ideas from the ancient past all have their role to play.

Hutton adopts a highly ambitious approach, underpinned by a staggering amount of research. He writes about “narrowing circles of perspective”, which in essence means looking at witchcraft on a global scale, over millennia, and tracing how tropes and tendencies manifested themselves in the early modern experience.

He is constantly on guard against generalisations and is wary of inventing overly convenient linkages between eras, but the strategy of placing everything in context pays rich dividends. Hutton observes, for instance, that “the majority of recorded human societies have believed in, and feared, an ability by some individuals to cause misfortune and injury to others by non-physical and uncanny (‘magical’) means”.

Early modern Europe fits the pattern, and that particular place and time shared other attributes with older non-European societies: the belief that witches were an internal threat to community; targeting kin and neighbours more than outsiders; the assumption that witches were part of a tradition, passed down by various means; and the reassuring thought that witchcraft could be resisted and that society had an urgent duty to resist its mischief.

Similarly, when exploring the experiences of ancient European and Near Eastern cultures, there are suggestive links to the early modern understanding of witchcraft – ideas about shamanism, notions of cosmic dualism that pervaded Persia, the understanding of the demonic in Mesopotamia or ancient Germany’s night-flying creatures.

Europe was also distinctive, however, and in some ways close to being anomalous. Witchcraft came to be seen as an “organised heretical anti-religion”, worshipping a false principle of evil. The figure of the Satanic witch, part of an organised, Devil-worshipping cult, was something new. Unusual, too, was the later, concerted attempt to move beyond destroying witches to rejecting the possibility that they had ever existed in the first place.

Hutton balances the broad sweep with a stunning parade of historical vignettes and close analyses. He is wonderful, for instance, on ceremonial magic. For the longest time, the rituals and experiments of magi, priests and philosophers were seen as entirely separate from witchcraft and fair game for faithful Christians, but this distinction fell out of fashion in later medieval Europe.

Hutton’s quest for the influence of folklore and the beliefs that percolated beneath the surface of an intellectual elite also proves to be worthwhile. Many of the obsessions of early modern witchcraft hunters – spirits of the night, a connection between witches and the realm of fairies, or the witch’s animal familiars – had strong echoes in older paradigms of the supernatural. He also notes that, bucking the trend, there have always been “instances of peoples who either have not believed in witches or have not feared them much”. Might the legacy of such a tradition in Britain’s Celtic regions help to explain why witch trials were relatively few and far between in early modern Wales, the Isle of Man, and Gaelic Ireland and Scotland?

These, and many other fruitful questions, are asked and answered, with suitable scholarly tentativeness, in this utterly bewitching book.