This super book is a ‘Ronseal job’ – it does what it says on the tin by telling the story of how the witch craze swept (mostly Western) Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and claimed the lives of an estimated 40,000 people.
It describes the conditions that primed Europe for this irrational obsession, such as the ‘siege mentality’ borne from the medieval trauma of the Black Death and the threat of invading Muslim armies, and the move towards legal systems based on the ‘systematic discovery of the facts’ that provided a framework for prosecution.
There’s also lots about the different legends associated with witches, such as pacts with the Devil, collective witches’ meets known as ‘sabbats’, and their night-flights (depicted on the book’s cover), propelled by special flying ointment provided by Old Nick. Recent analysis of the recipes for these ointments shows that they contained hallucinogenic ingredients that created the sensation of flight and of travelling over large distances. This, and the legend of the ‘Obscene Kiss’ – where witches were depicted as paying homage to Satan by kissing the anus of a goat – made 17th century Europe sound like a dodgy 90s rave or a particularly ridiculous episode of Skins.
Predictably, there are some nasty bits about the process of being accused of witchcraft, the nastiness for me not just being the torture meted out to victims to secure declarations of guilt, but also the sheer panic that must have gripped a locality as these accusations spread, and the desperation of individuals accused of crimes they did not commit (I sound like the A-Team intro there…). The 1634 trial of Father Urbain Grandier at Loudon in France is especially haunting, even if the story of the nuns he had seduced turning on him as a local love cheat is initially entertaining.
Apparently, the English witch craze differed from its European counterpart: ‘whilst wild sabbatic orgies raged across the continent, witchcraft in England was an altogether quieter affair’ as ‘the continental witchcraft stereotype never really reached English shores intact.’ I am surprised the Brexiters haven’t seized on the whole ‘English witchcraft was less loony than European witchcraft’ thing, but facts don’t seem to be the strong suit of either side of Referendum campaigning, do they?
There’s less than I thought there would be on the fact so many victims of this craze were women. However, Martin highlights that we need more research on victims and more importantly on what victims themselves thought – did any believe that they participated in these activities, and, if so, was this on the basis of mental illness (as has been claimed) or actually some sort of belief framework that has been overlooked?
The main message that I took from this terrifically comprehensive and readable book was how worryingly easy it is to go from zero to sixty on collective hysteria if the right conditions exist to fan the flames. I was reminded of the wonderful Arthur Miller play, The Crucible, which used the 1692 Salem witch trials (which are dealt with in this book) as an allegory for 1950s McCarthyism, to demonstrate how even our post-Enlightenment (which contributed to the end of the Witch Craze), modern age is not exempt from this madness. Food for thought.