11 May 2017


Owen Davies (ed.), The Oxford Illustrated History of Witchcraft and Magic, Oxford University Press, 2017.

The back cover declares that this addition to the Oxford Illustrated History series tells ‘The 4000-year story of witchcraft and magic – from the ancient world to Harry Potter… and beyond’ – a bold promise to deliver in 300 pages.
In fact, it’s nowhere near as comprehensive as the blurb makes out. (And what does ‘beyond Harry Potter’ actually mean?) The history is almost exclusively European, and the bulk of the book is devoted to a thin – if particularly compelling – slice of that 4000 years, between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries. The focus is very much on witchcraft, and the magic is of the related popular or folk variety; the ‘learned magic’ of the occult traditions of the Late Middle Ages, Renaissance and Enlightenment is only covered where absolutely necessary. So there’s a lot missed out.

Within those limits, however, the book, edited by Owen Davies, professor of social history at the University of Hertfordshire and a specialist in popular magical and religious traditions, provides an absorbing and illuminating study. It consists of nine chapters, each by an expert in the field (two by Davies himself), with plenty of black and white illustrations and eight pages of colour plates.

The book kicks off with ‘Magic in the Ancient World’ by Peter Maxwell-Stuart, lecturer at the University of St Andrews’ School of History, a decent overview of the magical beliefs and practices of the ancient Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Jews, Greeks, Romans and early Christians, examining their common features and differences, and in particular their equivalents of later European witchcraft (maleficent magic practised by individuals within a community against others in that community, or the community as a whole).

Maxwell-Stuart notes that it was the Romans who began to see harmful magic as the particular province of women, a notion that helped shape the Roman Catholic Church’s – and therefore ultimately our culture’s - concept of witches.

UCL history lecturer Sophie Page takes the story on into the Middle Ages, the period in which the relationship between the Church and magic was defined, as pagan sources of sacred power were replaced by Christian equivalents (saints instead of local deities, and so on). According to Page, ‘magic was the name given to a class of inappropriate sacred rituals, which were excluded from normative Christian practice’, and it became characterised as an ‘antisocial and even demonic activity’.

Page also examines the ‘extraordinary influx’ of Arabic, Greek and Jewish magical texts into Europe following the reconquest of Spain in the eleventh century, and how it ‘transformed the status of late medieval magic from an illicit activity into a branch of knowledge’ and led to what has been described as the twelfth-century renaissance.

She shows that magic and sorcery – which wasn’t initially considered counter to Christian doctrine and was only prosecuted when it caused harm – came to attract the Church’s hostility as a consequence of the combating of large-scale heresies such as that of the Cathars. This led to a hardening of attitudes against anything outside normal Christian teaching, a process culminating in a decree by Pope John XXII in 1326 that equated the practice of magic with heresy.

Page’s chapter sets the scene for what is the core of the book, three complementary chapters that cover the period of the witch-hunts and trials. The concentration on this episode isn’t only because it’s most popularly associated with the term ‘witchcraft’ but also because, in Davies’s words, it’s one ‘around which swirls much misunderstanding, misinformed opinion, and dubious facts’, in particular the inflated number of executions and the misconception that it was a medieval phenomenon – its heyday was rather the early modern period, between about 1580 and 1700.

The first of the three chapters, by James Sharpe, Professor Emeritus of Early Modern History at York University, is on demonology, ‘the intellectual system that expressed the framework within which educated Europeans between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries understood and debated witchcraft’.

Sharpe makes the important point that, while the vast majority of societies in history believed in witches or their equivalent, only in late medieval/early modern Europe did they come to be viewed as an organised, subversive sect – the ‘new phenomenon’ of the ‘demonic witch’ that emerged around 1400. Tracing the development of ideas about the interaction between humans and demons from early theological conjecture to the hard-line dogma of the Inquisition, Sharpe pinpoints the trial of the Knights Templar as an important milestone in the development of the demonic conspiracy idea and he, too, highlights John XXII’s conflation of heresy and magic as a turning point.

Interestingly, Sharpe shows that recent research suggests that the notorious witch-hunters’ handbook Malleus maleficarum was nowhere near as influential as has been thought, noting that the Spanish Inquisition cautioned its judges not to believe everything that the book said!

The witch trials and hunts themselves are dealt with by Rita Voltmer of the University of Trier, Germany. She shows that their conduct, scale and intensity varied greatly across Europe, as did the kinds of activities that led to accusations of witchcraft: ‘A global paradigm cannot cover the linguistic, religious, cultural, economic, and political influences on local, regional, and territorial witch trials.’

Like most contemporary historians, Voltmer eschews the terms ‘witch craze’ – invented in the nineteenth century for ideological motives in Protestant vs. Catholic polemic – as creating an erroneous impression of events being driven by hysteria; in context, ‘believers and hunters acted in a level-headed and logical manner’.

Rather than the millions of victims bandied about in some sources, the current estimate is that between 40,000 and 60,000 people were executed for witchcraft, about half in the Holy Roman Empire, where witch-hunting was fiercest. Voltmer provides tables breaking down the trials and executions by territory. She confirms that the majority – some 75-80 per cent – of victims were female, although the ratio between the sexes varies both chronologically and geographically, and in some regions most executions were of men.

Examination of that core period is rounded off by an engrossing chapter, ‘The Witch and Magician in European Art’, by Charles Zika, cultural historian at Melbourne University, which analyses way that the imagery and iconography of witchcraft developed and changed from the late fifteenth century to the end of the eighteenth, and how art both reflected and helped shape popular concepts of witches and their activities.

Owen Davies himself has two chapters, both very informative. The first, ‘The World of Popular Magic’, widens the scope to look at forms of folk-magic other than witchcraft (much of which was intended to counter the actions of witches), from the kind that could be practised by anybody, through that associated with specific professions (such as blacksmiths) to the ‘one-stop shop’ provided by professional cunning-folk.

The second, ‘The Rise of Modern Magic’, is a comprehensive, if rather breathless, gallop through the history of occultism from the ‘occult enlightenment’ of the late eighteenth century to the ‘new golden age’ of the late nineteenth/early twentieth century - basically from Mesmer to Crowley – and on to modern witchcraft.

The only chapter that steps away from Europe is ‘Witchcraft and Magic in the Age of Anthropology’ by Robert J. Wallis of Richmond University, and even here the focus is on what Western anthropology tells us about the West’s attitudes to and understanding of magic and witchcraft, the beliefs and practices of the indigenous peoples discussed serving only to illustrate the anthropologists’ methodology and theorising. As Wallis observes, incisively, ‘Witchcraft and magic are things against which the West has defined itself for 500 years or more.’ This looking-glass reversal, using the indigenous magical practices to shed light on European science - essentially an anthropological study of anthropologists – made this chapter, for me, the most thought-provoking.

Wallis takes us through the development of anthropological and ethnological study of witchcraft and magic, beginning with the late nineteenth century ‘armchair anthropologists’ such as Sir James Frazer (of Golden Bough fame), who saw magical beliefs and practices as evidence of cultural primitiveness and placed them in a progressive, evolutionary paradigm that begins with simplistic animism and, after passing through totemism and polytheism, ends in the sophistication of monotheism (and after that, many would say now, atheism). Subsequent generations of anthropologists, based on fieldwork among indigenous cultures, developed more positive views of the psychological and social needs that a belief in magic fulfils, while taking it for granted that the magic doesn’t actually work.

Since the 1980s, however, there has been a rise in ‘auto-ethnography and experiential’ anthropology, in which the anthropologist fully participates in, and accepts the reality of, the magical belief system – a trend that Wallis puts down to the influence of feminism, which led to a questioning the assumption that the anthropologist can be truly objective: ‘Magic is a form of consciousness which must be encountered not just studied’, and rationalism ‘only one way of understanding the world’. (Peter Maxwell-Stuart points out in his opening chapter that ‘magic is entirely rational within its frames of reference’.) Ironically, this marks a return to animism, interpreted more positively.

The final chapter, by the Dutch historical anthropologist Willem de Bl├ęcourt, looks at the portrayal of witches in cinema and TV. I’m not entirely sure of its relevance, in terms of what it tells us about the contemporary image of the witch, as de Bl├ęcourt’s analysis is somewhat limited. He restricts his study to films and TV shows that depict witches in a modern setting, on the grounds that those set in the past ‘demand a rather tedious juxtaposition with the reconstructions made by historians, which as a rule have escaped the attention of film writers, directors, and producers.’ It’s a pity, as that ‘tedious juxtaposition’ may well tell us much about modern conceptions of witches and witchcraft, through the mismatch between them and the historical reality. For example, I was struck by the prevalence in the films and TV series he discusses of the notion that witches are set apart from ‘normal’ humans, as a separate ethnic or hereditary group – something not found either in the historical concept of witches or in modern Wicca – and an exploration of how and why this theme entered the modern popular consciousness could be enlightening.

Not that the chapter is without interest – de Bl├ęcourt draws some interesting cultural insights from the motifs and themes in his chosen films and shows – but it only skims the surface of the subject. The suspicion is raised that the chapter is really there to get the magic (!) words ‘Harry Potter’ into the book. In fact, de Bl├ęcourt gives the Potter movie series short shrift, regarding the books on which they’re based derivative of earlier literary and cinematic sources and (ironically given their condemnation by Evangelicals) Christian themes of redemption and resurrection. He devotes most attention to the 1960s-70s sitcom Bewitched and older movies such as Bell, Book and Candle and I Married a Witch.

All of the chapters are readable and don’t assume any background knowledge, making Witchcraft and Magic a good introduction for a general readership, while those with a special interest in the subject should find it informative. All in all, Owen Davies succeeds in delivering an excellent, extremely useful work – if not quite the one promised by OUP’s publicists. -- Clive Prince.

No comments: