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.