Saturday, May 20, 2017

Witch Hunts in the Western World by Brian Pavlac

Witch Hunts in the Western World by Brian Pavlac is a comprehensive account of the witch hunts that occurred in Europe and America. This is a nuts and bolts, serious chronicle of events. It is very balanced. The history of witch hunting as it occurred in Europe and America is chronicled. Many individual cases are examined. The ideology behind witch hunting is also detailed, as is the ideology that was espoused by its critics. This book is light on analysis, however.

Witch hunting mostly occurred between 1400 and 1800. It usually originated on the local level. Although the hunts were sometimes taken up by national and religious leadership, a higher level authority more often than not tended to stop or slow the persecutions. It was mostly women who were accused. However, there were some hunts that involved even numbers of men and women and a few that targeted mostly men. The accusations usually involved the use of magic as a means to harm others, as well as consorting with the devil, demons or other witches in various ways.  The accused would often be tortured. Under torture, the victims often implicated many others so the circle of accused witches grew. Thus, while some persecutions involved only one or two individuals, others turned into mass hunts involving hundreds of people. Those convicted were often, but not always, executed. People were often burned alive. This book details one story after another of brutal torture and execution. Thus, many readers will find this work disturbing. War, religious arguments and other social pressures often helped to kindle the fires.

Many scholars and religious leaders supported the persecution. Multiple books and tracts were written that encouraged it. However, others opposed it. Some famous thinkers were opponents who spoke and wrote against it. Rene Descartes and Erasmus were among the notable opponents.

The author writes of Descartes.

“his “Cartesian doubt”  required proof for something so fantastic as witches. His promotion of the scientific method showed that witches could not be proven as real. The tenets of rationalism fortified the skeptics of witch hunting.”

This book reads a little bit like a textbook. Pavlac does not embellish his writing much. There is a little analysis, but it is fairly sparse. One interesting thing that the author does is that he briefly surveys various theories on the underlying cause of these historical events. He does explain which theories he favors and why he favors them.

One area that the author does explore is the view that witch-hunting represented an anomaly for Western society and for Christianity. The author explains that prior to 1400, when people dabbled in magic, it was considered silly superstition. Many theologians and religious and political leaders dismissed it at harmless and not worth the attention of authorities. It was starting around 1400 that this attitude changed. Dabbling in magic became a serious offense and a capital crime. After 1800, the more relaxed view returned.  The author writes,

“Before 1400 witches did not concern most educated people in Europe. In 1600 most educated people saw witches as a danger to society. By 1800 almost no educated people believed that witches existed at all.”

Pavlac sees the changes as originating in variations in ideology. With that, the analysis here is sparse. I wanted to know more. Despite the author’s clear intent to provide a balanced, unbiased view, the text could have dug deeper into the underlying causes of these events.

I chose this book as I was looking for general history on witch hunting in Europe and America. Several historians had either written or told me that many of the popular books out there contained poor research or were too agenda driven. This book was recommended as one of several good sources.


This is a good book for a reader who wants to know the facts related to witch hunting in Europe and America. I learned a lot from it. With that, it seems primarily aimed at students and academics. Folks looking for an engaging read might want to look elsewhere. For those who are very interested in the subject, this book as part of a broader reading plan is invaluable for its completeness and objectivity. I recommend this work for readers who are so inclined.

34 comments:

CyberKitten said...

This is a subject I was interested in some years ago. As far as I know the 'causes' of the Witch Craze were economic, political and mostly ideological. They thrived during the Great Schism when both sides - Catholic and Protestant - saw the toleration of Magic in all its forms as highly dangerous not only for the souls of those who dabbled but for the whole of society that might then be on the receiving end of God's wrath. It is no coincidence that the worse Witch persecutions took place in Germany (then a bunch of small states) where the 30 Years War hit hardest.

Two books I can recommend if you want to dig deeper:

The Witch Hunt in Early Modern Europe by Brian P Levack
Witches & Neighbours - The Social and Cultural Context of European Witchcraft by Robin Briggs

Whilst both are a bit academic they are both well researched and well respected.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi CyberKitten - The underlying causes of these events are particularly interesting. The causes were surly related to the great schism. Though it is interesting that as oer this book, Catholics generally did not accuse Protestants of being witches and Protestants generally did not accuse Catholics. Each group tended to persecute its own.

Pavlac does point to the small states in Germany as being part of the underlying causes as stronger central governments often, though not always, tempered the witch hunts.

Thanks for the book recommendations. I was actually looking for the Levack book. It is expensive to buy and my library system did not have it.

The Reader's Tales said...

I find this subject very interesting and I'm willing to learn more about these historical real events. :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi The Reader's Tales - It is a very interesting subject. I am reading a few different books on it this year.

Jonathan said...

This is a topic that interests me as well. A few years ago I read The Witch Hunts: A History of the Witch Persecutions in Europe and North America by Robert Thurston which was a fascinating read. The Pavlac book looks good as well.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Johnathan - I had heard that the Thurston book was good. I may do more reading on this subject so I will keep it in mind.

Tim Davis said...

What a great review! I'm intrigued and will look for a copy of the book. I'm especially interested in whatever sparked the frenzy (i.e., rational and irrational factors) and the how fears were given the faces (i.e., how witches were "invented").

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Tim - I think that you would like this and similar histories. These events were so tragic but interesting. Their underlying causes are worth exploring.

The Bookworm said...

Witch Hunts in the Western World sounds interesting but I think if it reads like a textbook it wouldn't be for me. It does seem like you mention, good for people who are doing research on this topic.

It's crazy to think how torturing the accused probably made some of them pass the blame on others, who were then tortured also and on and on...
Great review as usual enjoy your week!

James said...

This sounds like an interesting book. Like you I would want more insight into why the craze started and stopped. Do you suppose it was connected with the interests of the ruling classes?

Suko said...

I'm interested in this topic, but it has always seemed a bit odd to me, so I've never studied it or learned that much about it. This book sounds like a good way to learn the historical basics re Europe and America. It's so sad to me that some (many!) scholars and religious leaders supported this persecution. It demonstrates that fear can lead people down a terrible path. Excellent commentary Brian Joseph!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Naida - The book is dry and not for everyone.

Believing confessions that were obtained during torture was so ludicrous. Some folks realized it back then but so many people did not.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - I think that to some extent the hunts went after people that threatened powerful interesting in society. I have just finished The Devil in Shape of a Woman which delves into that issue. I will be blogging about it in a few weeks.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - Though we think of witch hunting as something that went on during much of the past, this book points out that it only occurred in a fairly narrow window in time. For this reason and others it was odd. It is terrible that intelligent people and leaders supported this. Once again, we see that not everyone did support this unsupportable behavior.

Tracy Terry said...

Hmm, a bit disappointing that this is lacking in analyse. Still, a book I'll definitely be adding to my wish list. Thanks Brian.

Gently Mad said...

This is a great review. I would like to read the book sometime.

However, I'm going to add a factor that I derived from a book by Sabine Baring-Gould that he wrote about Werewolves.

One thing it seems Pavlac and the people commenting are assuming is that witch craft wasn't real and therefore it was all a way of the state to control the people, rather like Stalin's regime ousting people out of their homes in the middle of the night and into gulags for being "enemies of the Soviet".

In Gould's book and also in Charles Williams excellent survey on witch craft, they show that there were people who considered themselves to be witches (and were wolves) and committed heinous crimes.

Today, people's beliefs are different; if someone is a serial killer we call them a sociopath. Back then they were considered (and often considered themselves) witches.

It certainly got out of hand, and the idiotic idea that torture would produce an honest answer is abominable.

But it is also important to remember that back then people committed crimes for different reasons. Today it's gang wars for control over drugs; then it was "worshiping the devil" to acquire personal power.

I would like to find a book that studies in greater detail the psychology of people from that time period who considered themselves witches.

And today Wiccan is a fairly large group of people in this country.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Sharon - Pavlac actually addresses this theory. He really tries to be unbiased. As I recall he mentions that he had trouble finding information and evidence either way. He does mention several cases where the accused may have been guilty of real crimes or may have considered themselves witches. I think that when one looks at all events, it turns out that most of the accused were innocent however.

On the issue of dabbling on magic, Pavlac highlights the fact that many, but not all, of the accused did claim to do so. One of his main points is that before 1400, civil and religious authorities considered it this to be trivial and harmless. After 1800 this attitude returned to prominence.

He also talks about modern day Wicca and mostly concludes that this belief has more contemporary roots.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy - If you read this I would love to know what you thought.

Caroline said...

I read so many books on the topic, mostly however with an African angle as that was part of my M.A. In cultural anthropology. The reasons are vastly different, I'd say. It's a troubling topic. I'm always upset when I read about the trials.

Kate Scott said...

This sounds interesting. I've always been fascinated by witch hunts but I haven't read much on the topic outside of the Salem Witch Trials. I did not know that witchcraft wasn't taken very seriously before the fifteenth century. It seems like the Christian church goes through periods where it finds certain "sins" more dangerous than others and a frenzy of paranoia springs up around them. Maybe same-sex relationships are the witchcraft of the modern era. 🤔

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - Some of the better books that I heard about covered witch hunting in all parts of the world and into modern times. I was not able to find them at a reasonable price or in my library system.

This stuff is by nature upsetting.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Kate - Though I am tempted to say that the various Christian sects have gotten more humane and rational over time, the fact that witch hunting started in the fifteenth century shows that at the very least there have been setbacks.

Obviously some, but not all, Christian sects have terrible views on LGBT rights. Hopefully this will get better over time and nothing else will pop up.

baili said...

My younger sister who lived in Virginia Arlington for six years told me lot about the people of such advanced states where people deeply believe in werewolves ,vampires,witches and specially black magic .

I heard lot about witches from my grandmother but never believed in them personally when grew up
I used to deny black magic too until day i encountered with circumstances who made me believe it .
brilliant review like always brain! quite interesting topic

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Baili - One of the points about this book is that while some folks have always believed in magic and witchcraft, it was only during a limited period that people were murdered for it.

Some folks still do believe these things are real. I am skeptical of the supernatural.

Maria Behar said...

Another outstanding review, Brian!

The whole idea of witch hunting is based on a very well-known passage from the book of Exodus, in the Old Testament: "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live". It's Exodus 22:18; this is the King James Version. The New International Version states it thus: "Do not allow a sorceress to live". Other English translations also use the word "sorceress". This obviously has a rather misogynistic connotation, as, historically, men as well as women have engaged in magical practices. Given the misogyny prevalent in previous centuries (and still prevalent today, unfortunately), I am not surprised that most of the people targeted in these witch hunts were women, although men were sometimes included, as well. They were included far less often than women, though, from what I've read about the Inquisition, for example.

This verse is yet another example of the harshness of certain parts of the Old Testament. It's totally dismaying to find such passages in what is supposed to be spiritual literature.

Witchcraft and magic are indeed real to those of us who believe in God and the spiritual world. I have read online testimonies, as well as watched YouTube videos, from people who had been involved in Satanism and the occult. The stories they tell are truly frightening. However, conducting witch hunts on a wholesale basis does seem very extreme, especially as people will say ANYTHING under torture. It is certainly very disturbing that so-called 'civilized' people would engage in such horribly destructive behavior, and especially people who hold spiritual beliefs.

Christians believe that there's no such thing as 'white' or 'black' magic; ALL magic comes directly from the devil. On the other hand, Wiccans, who are modern witches, often point out that they do not believe in the devil, and that this character was invented by Christians. They also point out that their own ethical creed, The Wiccan Rede, strongly discourages the use of magic for evil. The Wiccan Rede (the short form) states the following: "An it harm none, do what ye will." This means that, to Wiccans, there is such a thing as white magic, used only for good.

Nowadays, it would seem that magic would harm the practitioner more than anyone else, as it does involve contact with spirit beings. Such contact is also forbidden in the Old Testament, as the entities contacted are evil beings. I realize that non-believers will immediately deny that any of this is real, but I've read enough on this issue to convince me of its reality.

There is that equally well-known passage from the book of Deuteronomy, which states: ""There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, one who uses divination, one who practices witchcraft, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who casts a spell, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead.…" (Deuteronomy 18:10 -11)

Given our present, secularized society, it would be very hard indeed to prove that black magic actually harmed anyone. If it could be proved that someone could be killed through the evil use of such magic, then they should definitely be prosecuted. However, witch hunting on a massive scale is obviously something that is heavily prone to other equally evil things, such as the accusation and prosecution of innocent people. It also seems to be a totally INSANE thing to do. Thankfully, human beings have, for the most part, moved beyond such things, at least in Western civilizations.

I find it much too disturbing to read about witch hunts. As you know, I tend to avoid unpleasant subject matter in my reading. This might be considered akin to burying one's head in the sand, lol. However, what I do is to read articles online (I do a lot of Googling), and thus, I am informed while sparing myself all of the gory details. Lol.

Thanks for the very informative review!! Hope your day is going GREAT!! :) :) :)


Kate Scott said...

I think you're right–Christian communities have grown much more humane over time with the rest of the world. While, in America at least, Christians aren't burning LGBT folk at the stake, I think the problem with LGBT rights in the church is more pervasive than some realize. Over 26% of Americans identify as Evangelical and 22% as Catholic. 46% of Catholics oppose LGBT rights (which is actually not bad compared to the country as a whole) and 70% of Evangelicals do as well. It's definitely improving, but it's more than just a sect.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Maria.

Thanks for reminding me of those passages from the Old Testament. They are very relevant to this topic.

There was clearly an element of misogyny involved with witch hunting. I have also recently finished The Devil in the Shape of a Woman. That book delves into the issue further, I will be posting on it in a couple of weeks.

Pavlac does indeed delve into Christian theology concerning White and Black Magic. Indeed most Christian theology considers both White and Black Magic to be the work of the devil. Pavlac does mention a few Christian scholars who disagreed with mainstream Christian thinking and believed that White Magic was acceptable and was the work of God. I find this all very interesting.

The Wiccan belief system is also very interesting. Thanks for the information.

This is very disturbing reading. It is so troubling that people can be so cruel to each other.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Kate - Thanks for those statistics. Those numbers are indeed troubling. I agree it is not just a sect.

Hopefully, as you mention, attitudes will keep improving.

Citizen Reader said...

I totally wish I had time to read this right now; I don't mind something a little "textbooky" as well as its well-researched nonfiction. I'll add it to the TBR list; thanks!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Citizen - As they sat, there is so much to read and so little time. I think that you would like this if you get the chance to read it.

JaneGS said...

Sounds very interesting, but like you, I think this book would have left me dissatisfied that I had really explored the subject. Fascinating about the 1400/1600/1800 shifts in perception/fear of witches. The ebb and flow of what we as a society fears is an interesting subject in itself.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jane - What a society perceives as threats does go through changes. Those changes are often not backed up by facts or rationality.

I really with this book had more analysis.

thecuecard said...

"One story after another about torture and execution" sounds rough! I agree more analysis about the witch phenomenon would be more engaging. I'm quite fascinated by the changes within society or communities that would induce beliefs in witchcraft to start and stop. Was the persecution just to keep people in line, to do away with people who were a threat, or to stem mental illness and belief in magic altogether. Hmm.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - The underlying causes of these events are worth exploring.

I think that all the causes that you mention played a part in The Witch Hunts.