Monday, September 01, 2014

September Book Review

James Sharpe
Instruments of Darkness: Witchcraft in Early Modern England
(University of Pennsylvania Press)

This book explores witchcraft in early modern England.  It starts with an overview of historical scholarship on witchcraft so far exploring the early histories of witchcraft by Montague Summers, Jules Michelet and Margaret Murray before exploring the Freudian and feminist explanations of witch persecution.  He is critical of the terms 'witchcraze' and 'witch hunt', preferring the less strong term the “period of witch persecution in Europe”  This is in line with his thinking on the numbers of people executed at this time which he believes to have been closer 50,000 than the 9,000,000 million figure put forward by some.

Sharpe explores the origins of early modern ideas on witchcraft by considering the influences of the Classical World, St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas.  He charts in detail the key texts which structured early modern thinking on witchcraft and explores theological and legal arguments for witch hunting as well as the attitudes of the multitude.

Chapter 4 was particularly illuminating focusing on Patterns of Persecution.  Sharpe creates a statistical picture of the early modern period using available court records.  From the available evidence, he is able to state that the period 1570-1590 included half of all accusations for the entire early modern period with the other peak period being the 1650s, that victims of witchcraft were more likely to be female (54.2% of cases involved a female victim), that earlier accusations often related to the damage of livestock while later accusations involved children as victims.  There were also cases of people who were accused of bewitching beer, milk or cream but these only appear in trial records because the witch was also accused of more serious crimes.  

Sharpe focuses on the English notion on maleficium and suggests that some of the wilder accusations (i.e., Sabbats and sex with the Devil) were the exception rather than the rule in English witchcraft trials.  His book ends with explorations of the changing religious context and the role of science in the eighteenth century which, he argues, created more scepticism about witchcraft.

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