The Witch
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The Witch

A History of Fear, from Ancient Times to the Present

Ronald Hutton

  1. 385 páginas
  2. English
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eBook - ePub

The Witch

A History of Fear, from Ancient Times to the Present

Ronald Hutton

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This "magisterial account" explores the fear of witchcraft across the globe from the ancient world to the notorious witch trials of early modern Europe ( The Guardian, UK). The witch came to prominence—and often a painful death—in early modern Europe, yet her origins are much more geographically diverse and historically deep. In The Witch, historian Ronald Hutton sets the European witch trials in the widest and deepest possible perspective and traces the major historiographical developments of witchcraft. Hutton, a renowned expert on ancient, medieval, and modern paganism and witchcraft beliefs, combines Anglo-American and continental scholarly approaches to examine attitudes on witchcraft and the treatment of suspected witches across the world, including in Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, Australia, and the Americas, and from ancient pagan times to current interpretations. His fresh anthropological and ethnographical approach focuses on cultural inheritance and change while considering shamanism, folk religion, the range of witch trials, and how the fear of witchcraft might be eradicated. "[A] panoptic, penetrating book."—Malcolm Gaskill, London Review of Books

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Social Sciences
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF a quest for a worldwide context for the early modern European witch trials is that it can determine what, if anything, is specifically European about those trials, and about Europe’s images of what a witch was supposed to be. It may answer the question of whether what happened in early modern Europe was something unusual, in a global setting, or simply the most dramatic regional expression of something which human beings have done in most places at most times. To embark on such a course, it is essential to establish from the beginning precisely what is being sought, and what the characteristics of the figure known in English as the witch are supposed to be. The basic usage chosen earlier, of an alleged worker of destructive magic, establishes the first and most important characteristic credited to the people who were prosecuted in the early modern European witch trials: that they represented a direct threat to their fellow humans. In very many cases it was believed that they employed non-physical, and uncanny, means to cause misfortune or injury to other humans, and very often they were accused, in addition or instead, of striking at the religious and moral underpinnings of their society. Four more distinguishing features were embodied in the figure of the witch as defined by those trials and the ideology on which they were based. The first of these four features was that such a person worked to harm neighbours or kin rather than strangers, and so was an internal threat to a community. The second was that the appearance of a witch was not an isolated and unique event. Witches were expected to work within a tradition, and to use techniques and resources handed down within that tradition, acquiring them by inheritance, initiation or the spontaneous manifestation of the particular powers to which they were connected. The third component of the European stereotype of the witch was that such a person was accorded general social hostility, of a very strong kind. The magical techniques allegedly employed by witches were never officially regarded as a legitimate means of pursuing feuds or rivalries. They were always treated with public, and usually with spontaneous, anger and horror, and often associated with a general hatred of humanity and society and with an alliance made by the witch with malignant superhuman powers loose in the cosmos: in the European case, famously, by a pact with the Christian Devil. Finally, it was generally agreed that witches could and should be resisted, most commonly by forcing or persuading them to lift their curses; or by making a direct physical attack on them to kill or wound them; or by prosecuting them at law, with a view to breaking their power by a punishment which could extend to having them legally put to death.
Few, if any, experts in the early modern European witch trials will find those five definitive components of the witch figure unacceptable; indeed, if there is anything problematic about them it is likely to be their banality. None the less, they do provide a more precise checklist of characteristics than has been employed hitherto, suitable for a comparative study covering the planet. The result of such a study is in one sense a foregone conclusion, for scholars have spoken for centuries of finding very similar figures to that of the European witch in all parts of the world, and indeed they have employed the English word ‘witch’ for those figures. Again, however, it may be suggested that more care can be taken in making the necessary comparisons, and a larger sample of material can be employed for them. Moreover, it is by no means certain that most specialists in the study of the European trials would consider such an enterprise to have any value. The story of the relationship between experts in those trials, and those in what has been called witchcraft in other parts of the world is already a long and sometimes fraught one, with a large component of estrangement. That story must be considered before this latest contribution to it can be attempted.
Historians, Anthropologists and Witchcraft:
A Friendship Gone Wrong?1
In the 1960s a global approach to the study of the witch figure was virtually the norm among British scholars, largely because most of the research published on witchcraft during the mid-twentieth century was by anthropologists working in extra-European societies, above all in sub-Saharan Africa. As British experts in European witch trials emerged at the end of the decade, they not only usually employed anthropological data to interpret European evidence, but acknowledged that their interest in the subject had been inspired partly by the reports coming from overseas.2 Anthropologists reciprocated with gestures of partnership, so that their conferences and collections of essays on witchcraft routinely included papers from experts in European history.3 When Rodney Needham wrote his study of the witch as a human archetype in 1978, he used data from both African and European sources, declaring that a comparative approach was essential to the exercise.4 By then, however, this view was already on the wane. It had not convinced American historians, who claimed that the ‘primitive’ social groups of Africa bore little resemblance to the more complex cultures and societies of early modern Europe.5 Such views also affected some American anthropologists, who were already warning before the end of the 1960s that the term ‘witchcraft’ was being used as a label for phenomena that differed radically between societies.6 Even in Britain, at the height of collaboration between history and anthropology in the field, prominent members of both disciplines urged that such exchanges should be carried on with caution.7
What really doomed them was a shift within anthropology itself, as the dissolution of the European colonial empires produced a reaction against the traditional framework of the discipline, now perceived as a handmaiden to imperialism. This reaction embodied hostility both to the imposition of European terms and concepts on studies of other societies and the offering of comparisons between those societies which the imposition of the terms concerned made easier. Fashion was turning to close analyses of particular communities, as unique entities, carried on as much within their own linguistic and mental models as possible (which of course also gave added value and power to the individual scholars who claimed a privileged knowledge of those communities). This self-consciously ‘new anthropology’ was reaching British universities by the early 1970s.8 In 1975 an American exponent of it, Hildred Geertz, published stringent criticisms of the British historian who had emerged as the most distinguished practitioner of the application of anthropological concepts to his own nation’s past, Keith Thomas. She accused him of having adopted categories constructed by the British from the eighteenth century onwards, as cultural weapons to be deployed against other peoples; and questioned in general whether cultural particulars could be formed into general concepts and compared across time periods and continents. She did not actually question the value of scholarly categories in themselves, only arguing for more care and criticism in the use of them; but Thomas made the debate an occasion to suggest that Western historians now needed to back off from comparisons with extra-European cultures and concentrate on their own societies, for which their terminology was native and so well suited.9
In doing so, he explicitly recognized the change in anthropology, acknowledging that its practitioners had become wary of using Western concepts to understand non-Western cultures and preferred to employ those of the people whom they were studying. He accepted that they now desired to reconstruct different cultural systems in their entirety rather than employing terms unthinkingly used by historians, such as ‘witchcraft’, ‘belief’ and ‘magic’, to make comparisons between them. In case any of his compatriots missed the point, it was being hammered home between 1973 and 1976 by an anthropologist based in Thomas’s university, Oxford, called Malcolm Crick, and with specific application to witchcraft. Crick called for the concept of the witch to be ‘dissolved into a larger framework of reference’, by relating the figures whom English-speakers called witches to others who embodied uncanny power of different kinds within a given society. He also asserted that conceptual categories varied so much between cultures that ‘witchcraft’ could not be treated as a general topic at all, and warned historians off ethnographic material, proclaiming (without actually demonstrating) that ‘English witchcraft is not like the phenomena so labelled in other cultures’.10 Historians of European witchcraft generally internalized this message, and the ever-increasing number of studies of early modern witch beliefs and trials which appeared from the late 1970s onwards limited themselves to cross-cultural studies within the European world, sometimes extended to European colonists overseas. When a very occasional scholar did try to compare European and African material, it was never somebody prominent in witchcraft studies or one who continued to publish on them.11
In 1989 a review article uncompromisingly entitled ‘History without Anthropology’ concluded that anthropologists had very effectively deterred historians from taking any further interest in their work with reference to the subject of witchcraft.12 The irony of this was that during the same period the practitioners of anthropology themselves were starting to change their minds again. In an important sense they had never abandoned the comparative approach and the Western terminology that many of them had criticized in the 1970s, because even those who described the magical practices of non-European peoples using native terms still put English expressions such as ‘witchcraft’ and ‘magic’ into their titles. For the most part they continued to put them into their introductions as well, and some made such words the framework within which the local study was introduced: they retained their value as an international semantic currency for English-speakers. By the 1990s some of the most distinguished anthropologists were starting to become more actively interested in a new collaboration between their discipline and historians of Europe. One described the fixation of her discipline on holistic fieldwork in specific small-scale societies using participant observation as an ‘academic narrowness’, which had cut it off from the history of religion.13 Another used both modern African and early modern European data to compare attitudes to witchcraft and leprosy as strategies of rejection, and to consider the phenomenon of witch-hunting.14 A third suggested that early modern images of witchcraft were closely related to African beliefs. In doing so she explicitly attacked the earlier assertions that the term ‘witchcraft’ lacked any validity in cross-cultural comparisons: indeed, she restated such comparisons as a duty of her discipline.15 In 1995 a British sociologist, Andrew Sanders, made a parallel challenge to those assertions, and published a worldwide survey of occurrences of the witch figure, using both historic European and modern ethnographic records.16 The most significant development in this regard was among Africanists, who called for a renewed emphasis on cross-cultural comparison in witchcraft studies. It was propelled by one of the most distressing and – to many – surprising characteristics of post-colonial states in the continent, an intensification of fear of witchcraft and attacks on suspected witches as one response to the process of modernization after independence: it will be discussed below. Anthropologists who studied this phenomenon found themselves needing to dissuade fellow Westerners from attributing the persistence of a belief in witchcraft in Africa to any inherent disposition to ‘superstition’ or ‘backwardness’ on the part of its peoples. Such a strategy called for a new emphasis on the prevalence of such beliefs across the globe, including in the relatively recent European past, and a return to a comparative method; and direct calls for that were being made by prominent Africanists by the mid-1990s.17 Typical of them was an influential study of Cameroon by Peter Geschiere, who concluded that ‘these notions, now translated throughout Africa as “witchcraft”, reflect a struggle with problems common to all human societies’. He invited anthropologists to study research into the European trials, and termed their recent neglect of this ‘even more disconcerting’ than the loss of interest by historians of Europe in African parallels. Rounding upon experts in early modern Europe who had claimed that modern African societies were totally dissimilar to those which were their own focus of study, he argued that, especially with its ruling elites of colonial European administrators and settlers, early twentieth-century Africa had been as socially and culturally complex as sixteenth-century Europe.18 By 2001 the editors of a major collection of essays on African witchcraft could introduce it by warning scholars not to restrict the study of witch beliefs to ‘any one region of the world or to any one historical period’.19 In urban centres of modern Africa, a multicultural perspective had become essential in any case: the image of witchcraft in the Soweto suburb of Johannesburg, for example, was by the 1990s a blend of ideas drawn from different native groups with some brought by Dutch and English settlers and based on the early modern European stereotype.20 A rapprochement between historians and anthropologists over the issue was, however, an extremely difficult enterprise.
Despite the call made by some for a return of the comparative method, few Africanists in practice paid attention to studies of the witch figure anywhere else in the world, or in time. Those who did attempt to cite early modern European material often seemed unaware of anything published on it after the early 1970s: the burgeoning of research that had occurred since, internationally, and taking ever more sophisticated forms, had passed them by completely. As for historians of witchcraft, almost all of them had stopped reading anthropology on the assumption that they had been discouraged from doing so by its practitioners. To resume an engagement with it after more than two decades would require a large amount of additional work of unproven value, when they were already achieving apparently impressive results as a consequence of relationships with a range of other disciplines. It was quite plain by the 1990s why Africanists concerned with witchcraft might profit from a fresh engagement with European comparisons, but not even the anthropologists themselves were making a clear argument for why historians of Europe would benefit from the transaction. A concealed irony in the situation was that the newly developed cultural history of the 1980s and 1990s, which had a profound influence upon the study of European witchcraft, was itself ultimately derived partly from anthropology; but reached most historians at one or two removes from it.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, historians have largely ignored the opportunity for a new dialogue, and anthropologists have largely ceased to offer it. In the early 2000s the present author published two essays that drew attention to it and suggested specific advantages to experts in early modern Europe from such a comparative exercise.21 These have, however, been ...


  1. Cover
  2. Half Title
  3. Title Page
  4. Copyright
  5. Contents
  6. Acknowledgements
  7. Author’s Note
  8. Introduction
  9. Plate section
  10. Part I: Deep Perspectives
  11. Part II: Continental Perspectives
  12. Part III: British Perspectives
  13. Conclusion
  14. Appendix
  15. Notes
  16. Illustration Credits
  17. Index
Estilos de citas para The Witch

APA 6 Citation

Hutton, R. (2017). The Witch ([edition unavailable]). Yale University Press. Retrieved from (Original work published 2017)

Chicago Citation

Hutton, Ronald. (2017) 2017. The Witch. [Edition unavailable]. Yale University Press.

Harvard Citation

Hutton, R. (2017) The Witch. [edition unavailable]. Yale University Press. Available at: (Accessed: 15 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Hutton, Ronald. The Witch. [edition unavailable]. Yale University Press, 2017. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.