WITCHCRAFT IN EUROPE 400-1700: A documentary history, 2nd edition (Review)

March 1, 2013

Edited by Alan Charles Kors and Edward Peters (University of Pennsylvania, 2001)

Much of the information available to pagans about the witch persecutions of European origin is biased and distorted, if not downright inaccurate. This is even (or especially) true of information from academic sources, which often have a strong antifeminist bias as well as a fear of appearing to validate twenty-first century pagan notions. Reviewing source material can cut through a lot of this prejudice and misinformation to give a more accurate understanding of the prejudice and misinformation that sparked the witch hunts.

Witchcraft in Europe is a collection of sixty-nine texts tracing the evolution of Christian belief about witchcraft. Included are theological writings, excerpts from witch trials, personal accounts by witch hunters, and essays by clerics and non-clerics questioning the validity of witch persecutions. Of particular value are the forty-one illustrations that reflect the understanding of artists of the period about witchcraft.

By looking at documents such as these we are by definition getting a biased account. These men (they are all men) were of similar religion, social class, and education, whatever their beliefs on the witchcraft question, and they themselves were limited in access to accurate data. Still, a look at their thought processes, understanding of the world, and personal motivations reveals a great deal about how the persecutions originated and provides a few insights as to why the fear of witchcraft grew to such monstrous proportions.

The original edition of this book concentrated on the twelfth to the seventeenth centuries, and most books about the witch persecutions focus on a narrower period than this, coinciding with the most intense trial activity. The editors decided that a longer view was necessary in gaining an accurate understanding of the development and evolution of beliefs about witchcraft. The longer historical period in itself makes this book superior to most others, although an understanding of history regarding paganism and witchcraft before and after this timeframe is also important.

There is an introduction to each of the texts giving a background of the author along with a summary of his other work, which is very helpful. There is also a forty page introduction, which has some biases. Read the rest of the book and form your own conclusions.

I have had this book on my shelf for years and have read many sections numerous times, but it was not until this year that I actually read the whole 400+ pages in order from start to finish. I have to admit it was painful, alternately tedious and infuriating, but in the end worth the effort.