13 November 2017


Ronald Hutton. The Witch: A History of Fear From Ancient Times to the Present. Yale University Press, 2017.

In this book the noted historian and folklorist Ronald Hutton examines the various themes and motifs which coalesced into the great European witchcraft fear of the early modern period and its expression in the United Kingdom especially. It is not an account of those trials themselves but of the beliefs that led up to them and the conflicting views of scholars over the last 200 years or so as to their origin and nature.
The book develops through a process of narrowing from the most general to the most specific. Therefore the first chapter is a cross cultural study of witchcraft beliefs across a range of traditional societies and of the persistence of those beliefs into the modern world. In the course of this Hutton notes that how in the past Western Christian missionaries had opposed witchcraft beliefs as “pagan superstition”, they are now active in promoting belief systems that actually encourage witchcraft accusations.

Hutton then examines witchcraft beliefs in classical Egypt, Greece and Rome, essentially arguing that it is Rome where such beliefs tend to develop. He next studies the claims that witchcraft beliefs arose out of shamanic practices, an idea associated with the Italian scholar Carlo Ginzburg and in the UK with Emma Wilby.

In the second part of the book Hutton examines “continental perspectives” including the role of ceremonial magic, with its alleged Egyptian origins, in elite culture. In this section he next examines the various ‘hosts of the night’ from the wild hunt, the dead riders, the female followers of a mysterious woman sometimes called Diana and other times Herodius, and how these might merge together. He then examines how concepts of the witch evolved through the middle ages and into the early modern period.

In the final section ‘British perspectives’, Hutton examines the role of fairy beliefs, the status of witchcraft in the Celtic countries of Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and the role of the animal familiar in British witchcraft trials.

Throughout Hutton argues with exquisite attention to historical detail and overturns many popular misconceptions, while providing a balanced overview of the many conflicting opinions of other scholars. One interesting theme which recurs is how much of what is regarded as popular belief has actually first arisen in elite culture, only to trickled down into mass culture, to be rediscovered by later generations of the elite as ‘popular lore’.

Hutton examines the manner in which the polarities of opinion generated by the Egyptologist Margaret Murray, who argued that witches were members of a surviving pre-Christian religion, and the reaction against that view which tended to see witchcraft beliefs as ideas that were imposed from above by religious elites, still can influence debate. On a more general level these might be seen as part of the wider division between 'cultural source' and 'personal experience' models of folklore.

This is a deeply scholarly work requiring close attention and is not a light read, or for those wanting gory accounts of witch trials, but should be essential reading not only for those studying the historiography of witchcraft, but a wider range of social and cultural historians, folklorists, students of theology, the history of ideas, anthropologists and for the lay reader willing to give the time and patience this work requires. – Peter Rogerson

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