Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Witch Hunts in the Western World

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Witch Hunts in the Western World

Article excerpt

Witch Hunts in the Western World. By Brian A. Pavlac. [Extraordinary World.] (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. 2010. Pp. xx, 228. $17.95 paperback. ISBN 978-0-803-23290-7.)

General summaries of the history of witch prosecutions in Europe and the Americas have a useful role to play in transmitting some of the latest research to the public at large and weaning people off the sensationalist and inaccurate views to which they are happy to cling and that are still peddled by some of the media and popular press. Unfortunately, Pavlac' s book, potentially interesting and informative, is spoiled by his old-fashioned insistence on letting readers know that in his opinion witchcraft was nonsense and witches in effect were innocent victims of sinister or heartless authorities. He does this mainly via his choice of vocabulary: "blaming witches was more convenient" (p. 66), " Demonologists invented the [Devil's] mark" (p. 72)," [Descartes'] promotion of the scientific method" (p. 76), and so forth (emphasis added). Research has long passed the old notion that authorities, especially the Church, fell in with people's supposed eagerness for scapegoats to blame for poor harvests, disease, or similar catastrophes and used intensive prosecutions to further their own authoritarian ends. It may not have been Pavlac 's intention to re-create this catchall explanation, but the way he writes leaves the reader with the impression that this is what he means. There also are other blemishes that do not help his narrative. His account of witchcraft in Scotland, for example, is confused and rather a mess; he makes claims that, if pressed, he would find difficult to prove - "De Lancre's opinions inspired a widespread hunt" (p. 97) and "[Del Rio's] detailed explications of the various arguments about witches convinced many of their reality" (p. 158); and he also spends too long (pp. 97-103) on reviewing cases of demonic possession. These, although interesting in themselves, are not witch hunts and take up space that might have been more fruitfully employed in expanding his principal topic. …

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