A History of Fear from Ancient Times to the Present Ronald Hutton Yale 2017 Hb, 360pp, plates,notes, ind, £25.00, ISBN 9780300229042
The Witch is a very different book from Ronald Hutton’s usual output. Most of the popular Bristol historian’s previous work is aimed at an intelligent non-specialist audience; The Witch is, in contrast, an uncompromising academic text.
Hutton explains clearly in his introduction what the book is – and isn’t – about. It’s not about modern-day Pagan witches. It’s not about wise women or cunning men, the people in a village who would give you a love-charm or a healing or a blessing, or help with your childbirth. It’s quite specifically and only about those people who do harm (or rather, are thought to do harm) by magical means. And so, as Hutton’s books often are, it’s more about how a group of people are perceived rather than about how they actually are. (The Spectator reviewer perhaps missed the Introduction where Hutton explains this; he presumes to inform Hutton about evidence that real witches were wise women who had visions from fly agaric mushrooms and ergot!) For this book, wise people, cunning folk, medicine men, traditional healers – people who “provide magical services for clients” – Hutton calls “service magicians”; and it isn’t about them.
Much of the book is a very detailed comparison of what previous historians and anthropologists have said about witches as people who do harm – something of an academic literature survey. Changes in academic fashion have meant a shift away from exploring ideas about witchcraft from anthropology, folklore and ancient history in the last half century, at least amongst English-speaking scholars, though some Continental scholars have maintained this approach. In The
Witch Hutton seeks to look at what can be learned from both approaches.
His book begins with a global comparison, based on ethnographic studies, of attitudes to malefic witchcraft in the non-European world, then in ancient Europe and the Near East, before asking whether shamanic traditions had any influence on beliefs in magic and witchcraft. The second section looks at the mediæval European background to the witch trials we’re all familiar with, and asks how local traditions affected those trials. It explores the influence of ceremonial magic – a very different thing from witchcraft, though in the early modern period they were sometimes conflated, leading to a development of ideas about witchcraft and to the stereotype of the “satanic witch”.
In the final section the book comes more alive as Hutton focuses on Britain, and on more recent scholarship into the witch trials. One chapter looks at British beliefs in fairies, and whether this has any effect on belief in malevolent witches. If an accused witch spoke of her relationships with fairies (or “good neighbours”), this was sometimes interpreted by the magistrates as making a pact with a demon, to the witch’s detriment.
There’s a clear dividing line between England and lowland Scotland, which had many witch trials, and the Scottish Highlands, the Western Isles, Ireland, the Isle of Man and Wales – the Celtic areas of Britain – which had very few. Hutton finds a stronger belief in the Celtic areas in malevolent fairies rather than witches – and also a culture where disagreements are sorted out with reparation rather than punishment.
Continental witches don’t tend to have animal familiars, but English witches do, at least from Tudor times, and the final chapter explores this difference. By the 17th century belief in “the keeping of demons in bestial form and a pet-like relationship” led to a search for a witch-mark or teat used by the witch to suckle her familiar.
Witches (in the sense that Hutton is studying them in this book) are, he points out, largely created by their opponents. And his book, though focusing almost entirely on the harmful view of the witch, is “not designed to restore that fear and hatred but to annihilate them, by providing a better understanding of the roots of belief in such a figure”. Through a blending of history, anthropology and folklore, he succeeds in doing that.