Beyond the Witch Trials: Witchcraft and Magic in Enlightenment Europe

By Owen Davies; William De Blécourt | Go to book overview
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Introduction: beyond the witch trials

Owen Davies and Willem de Blécourt

The so-called Enlightenment of the eighteenth century has often been portrayed as a period in which much of Europe cast off the belief in witchcraft and magic under the influence of new philosophies, and advances in science and medicine. This received wisdom has often led to the academic dismissal of the continued relevance of the belief in witchcraft and magic, not only for the poor and illiterate in society but also for the educated. This book seeks to counter this scholarly tendency, by looking at aspects of the continuation of witchcraft and magic in Europe from the last of the secular and ecclesiastical trials during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, through to the nineteenth century. It will examine the experience of and attitudes towards witchcraft from both above and below, in an age when the beliefs and 'worldview' of the 'elite' and the 'people' are often thought to have irrevocably pulled away from one another. It is too crude and misleading to portray the Enlightenment as a period of intellectual and social leaps. It should rather be seen as a period of subtler renegotiation between cultures, and a period when the relationship between private and public beliefs became more problematic and discrete, and therefore more difficult for the historian to detect. The study of witchcraft and magic provides us with an important means of exploring these broad changing patterns of social relations and mentalities, just as it has done much to help our understanding of social relations in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century society.

Yet the 'beyond' in the title of this book refers not only to the chronological emphasis of its contents, but is also indicative of the different methodological approaches that can be applied to the last of the trials, and the variety of sources that can be used to illuminate our understanding of the continued relevance of witchcraft once it was decriminalised. The contributors come from different academic disciplines, and by borrowing from literary theory, archaeology and folklore they move beyond the usual historical perspectives and sources. The emphasis is not so much on witchcraft trials but on the aftermath of trials, not so much on the persecution of witches but

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