Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe

Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe

Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe

Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe

Synopsis

This major work offers a new interpretation of the witchcraft beliefs of European intellectuals between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, showing how these beliefs fitted rationally with other beliefs of the period and how far the nature of rationality is dependent on its historical context.

Excerpt

This book began as an attempt to fill a gap in historical treatments of witchcraft in early modern Europe. By the early 1980s modern studies of most aspects of the subject were fast appearing but no sustained attempt had yet been made to reconsider the views of the many intellectuals--clergymen, theologians, lawyers, physicians, natural philosophers, and the like--who published books about it at the time. Many of these so-called demonologists advocated the prosecution of witches and could plausibly be said to have influenced the trials that took place. But except for a few well- known texts, read largely in isolation, their voluminous writings were neglected by historians, who preferred to focus on the social and institutional configurations of 'witch-hunting', together with the patterns of prosecution in the various European regions and the local circumstances that produced them. If anything, there was a reaction against studying the intellectual history of these episodes, reflecting an annoyance with the way earlier generations of scholars, especially in Germany around the turn of this century and in America thereafter, had done little else--and done it in a confessional and wholly rationalistic spirit. I had no wish to revive this tradition or reclaim some kind of priority for demonology. I simply wanted to reinsert the beliefs of early modern intellectuals into the history of witchcraft as one, but only one, of its necessary ingredients. The best way to do this seemed to be to read all the published texts in question, beginning in the fifteenth century when the learned debate about witchcraft really began and ending in the early eighteenth century when it finally lost momentum.

Over a dozen years later, I am still confident that demonology ought to have something to offer those seeking to explain the witch trials. But the connection cannot any longer be seen as straightforward and it is not one that I explore in any direct way. Some of the things I trace in the pages of books--apocalyptic expectations, evangelical campaigns, and political roles, for example--no doubt bear witness to the more general cultural conditions that made witchcraft seem a real and pressing danger and its eradication a desirable action. But several important studies--notably Robin Briggs's Witches and Neighbours: The Social and Cultural Context of European Witchcraft--have now confirmed that most witchcraft accusations and prosecutions were initiated in ways that precluded the immediate impact of intellectuals, even if the subsequent proceedings could be affected by consultations with academic jurists and theologians. It is simply not the case that witchcraft theory caused 'witch hunts' or that its incidence influenced theirs; indeed, the reverse is much more likely to have been true. In offering this survey of beliefs I am, therefore, under no illusions about their possible lack of correlation with events (as usually understood; the enunciation of a belief is, of course, an event, while events are unintelligible without reference to beliefs). This possibility might be worth investigating further, if only to underline the theory-bound nature of demonology and the textual constraints on its authors.

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