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.

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