The Witch

A His­tory of Fear from An­cient Times to the Present Ronald Hut­ton Yale 2017 Hb, 360pp, plates,notes, ind, £25.00, ISBN 9780300229042

Fortean Times - - Reviews / Books - David V Bar­rett

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.