Thursday 18 March 2010

Review: Witchcraft: A Very Short Introduction

Witchcraft has always been with us, but not as a continuing historical witch cult with mysteries handed down from mother to daughter since the dawn of time. Rather, witches have been here because people have always needed them - to help heal their ills and solve their problems when mainstream sources failed them, or to blame for their troubles when things went wrong.

That is a theory put forward in Witchcraft: A Very Short Introductionby Malcolm Gaskill.

He says: "Witches are living projections of feelings that defy easy rationalisation or reconciliation: amity and enmity; compassion and cruelty; self confidence and fear... We find witchcraft today and in antiquity and in rich nations; it's familiar to young and old, high and low. Some label enemies 'witches', while others profess of confess witches' skills."

Malcolm Gaskill suggests that witches are an archetype found universally in the human subconscious mind but, although we recognise the image, they are not easy to define. They can be seen as a force for good or a force for evil, they can be a seen as something real and tangible or a literary or fictional symbol. They are "limnal - a grey area inhabited by things and people that don't find obvious categories".

In order to fully understand that role, it is important to set history straight - to examine existing records to sort the truth from wishful-thinking. And that is historian Malcolm Gaskill's speciality.

He is a Reader in Early Modern History at the University of East Anglia and an expert in the history of witchcraft. He runs a course on witchcraft in early modern Europe (1450-1750) and his latest book summaries his research and findings.

The book explodes many commonly-held beliefs about witches. For example, the popular notion that there was a "witch-craze" in Europe - meaning a coherent, co-ordinated campaign across the entire region to exterminate witches - is false. The persecution of witches was "patchy, fragmented, unfocused, even random," according to Gaskill.

He also says that far fewer people were actually executed for witchcraft than is commonly believed. Some historians had suggested that around nine million people were tried for witchcraft. Malcolm Gaskill says this is a gross exaggeration and states: "Today combined estimates for Europe, Scandinavia, and America vary between 90,000 and 100,000 trials in the period 1400 to 1800."

Most trials took place over just a few years, from 1560 to 1630 and while some regions, such as Baden Wurttemberg, in Germany, zealously prosecuted those suspected of witchcraft, other areas pretty much ignored the issue.

It seems "The Burning Times", which in England would more rightly be described as "The Hanging Times", because hanging rather than burning was the standard execution for someone found guilty of witchcraft in this country, was not nearly as pervasive or destructive as has sometimes been stated.

The reason that era of history is often talked about when one thinks of witches is primarily because it was a time when lawyers, scientists, clergy and philosophers tried hard to define witches not only to make laws to deal with them, but also to try to find ways of getting evidence against them. Malcolm Gaskill says: "Only in the 16th century did ideology coincide with social necessity and political opportunity. In theology, law, and the popular imagination, the witch came to life as universal enemy."

But people continue to fear witches today, and to persecute innocents who they imagine to be witches. In London in 2000, eight-year-old Victoria Climbie was tortured to death by her guardians after she was denounced as a witch by her pastor. Thousands of children have been persecuted in modern Nigeria after evangelical preachers have called them "witches".

Malcolm Gaskill believes that these kinds of witch hunts tend to happen in societies that are unstable politically, socially or economically or where there have been disasters that have caused poverty, famine or disease. It is sometimes easy to blame witches - or something like them - and to see persecution of these scapegoats as a quick fix for the problem.

Malcolm Gaskill says: "Witches are archetypes, stored inside individuals but originating in shared cultural sources and activated by similar experiences and emotions."

The archetype that is useful as a scapegoat isn't always exactly a witch: "When the witch symbol bubbles up from our unconscious, it isn't always Ghoulish Gertie cackling on a broomstick: it might be a Muslim, a Jew or a Roma. Archetypes know many stereotypes."

Malcolm Gaskill also looks at neopagan witchcraft - often called Wicca - and suggests that hostility against modern nature-worshipping witches actually works in their favour, by uniting them against this opposition and "sharpening their identity as freethinking dissidents from a redundant culture."

Witchcraft: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) is a fascinating read: succinct and informative as well as entertaining. I would recommend it to anyone interested in the history - and philosophy - of witchcraft.

Witchcraft: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) is available to order through AmazonIt is due to reach shops on 25 March as a paperback original with an RRP of £7.99.

It is published by Oxford University Press

Other books by Malcolm Gaskill include Hellish Nell: the Last of Britain's Witches, Witchfinders: A Seventeenth-century English Tragedy and Crime and Mentalities in Early Modern England (Cambridge Studies in Early Modern British History).

My previous reviews of books on the history of witchcraft:

No comments: