The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe

4th Edition

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Brian P. Levack
Combined Review with The Witchcraft Sourcebook
  • New York, NY: 
    Routledge
    , October
     2015.
     324 pages.
     $49.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781138808102.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

A complex set of circumstances and often hard to understand social conventions led to the phenomenon of witch hunting in Europe during the early modern period. Historian Brian P. Levack released his first book on this topic in 1987—thirty years ago and that book, The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe (Routledge), is now in its fourth edition. This 2016 edition was released with a comprehensive source book, now in its second edition, and access to a companion website as well. Levack’s extensive research and attention to detail are unquestionably why these books have endured through multiple editions and printings.

Levack’s ongoing research aims to illuminate the causes of the “great European witch-hunt” (2). By examining the dynamic social, religious, and economic conditions at play, Levack demonstrates that such understanding does not come easily. A carefully defined working vocabulary helps the reader to understand differentiations between witches and warlocks, maleficia and magic, and devil worship and demonic possession. Such specificity is then teased out to assist the undergraduate, hobby historian, researcher, and educator alike to understand how approximately 90,000 individuals were prosecuted for witchcraft and half of these later were executed. This book’s success rests on the construction of this intricate and nuanced vocabulary.

After Levack carefully creates the terms in which to discuss witchcraft in his “Introduction,” he uses this same format to flesh out the various causes and results of witch-hunts in subsequent chapters. Each chapter has a clear and concise chapter title, making the book easy to navigate. Chapter two carefully examines the “Intellectual Foundations” on which these beliefs in witches were based, measuring the importance of literature and the printing press in promulgating ideas about witches. Chapter three, “The Legal Foundations,” explains the process for the prosecution of witch-hunting. Accusations brought forth by community members were charged and tried differently than those brought by the Church. Similarly, cases tried in local courts also had different processes and acquittal rates from those tried in higher courts. Chapter four, “The Impact of the Reformation,” explains how both the shift in religious attitudes during the Reformation and the conflict between Protestants and Catholics contributed to the witch-hunt phenomenon. Chapter five, “The Social Context,” shows how economic and social concerns caused citizens to persecute witches. Chapter six, “The Dynamics of Witch-Hunting,” looks at the hundreds of hunts that occurred at separate times and places, and show how to—given that their varying sizes complicate the witch-hunt narrative—synthesize the variables. Chapter seven, “The Chronology and Geography of Witch-Hunting,” more closely examines the various hunts of the early modern period by date and location. Chapter eight, “The Decline and End of Witch-Hunting,” recognizes shifts in governing, religious beliefs, views of the supernatural, and economic conditions as contributing to witch-hunting decline. Finally, chapter nine, “Witch-Hunting After the Trials,” briefly examines other witch-hunts after the early modern period, with particular emphasis on the similarities of modern day witch-hunts in the US and Africa.

The Witchcraft Sourcebook, unlike the main text, does not reach beyond the early modern period as most of the texts used range in date from 1400 to 1750. It does include a wide range of early modern primary source documentation keyed to the textbook with documents arranged into sections based on subject, and the textbook makes references to this sourcebook. Since the sourcebook is arranged by subject and not by order by appearance in the main book, using it can be cumbersome. However, this does not detract from the importance of the information in the well-selected sermons, trial records, texts about witchcraft, and numerous other documents from the period. Being able to read how witch hunters, courts, churches, and the common people engaged with—or against—witches helps readers to better understand the historical period, and how it was possible for thousands to be persecuted.

Levack’s extensive research works to successfully navigate a complex period of history in a way that is intriguing and informative. His arguments are amply supported by primary sources, the creation of a precise vocabulary, and a comprehensive explanation of all of the factors which contributed to the beginning and the end of the witch-hunt in early modern Europe.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Anitra Bishop is a graduate student in history and archival studies at the Claremont Graduate University.

Date of Review: 
April 27, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Brian P. Levack is John E. Green Regents Professor in History, University of Texas at Austin. His publications include The Witchcraft Sourcebook (2004), Witch-Hunting in Scotland: Law, Politics and Religion (2008), The Devil Within: Possession and Exorcism in the Christian West (2013).

Keywords: 

Add New Comment

Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.

Log in to post comments