Jeffery Burton Russell is well known for his works on the history and myth of the Devil. Here Russell provides us with a very well-researched introduction to historical witchcraft that seeks to give an overview of the essential influences and origins of witchcraft and the Christian myths of diabolic magic and demonic pacts that eventually lead to the virulent witch-craze of the Renaissance and early modern period.
Russell identifies several essential elements that influenced European thought and lead to the persecution and murder of tens of thousands of suspected "witches". These are: sorcery, ancient pagan religious beliefs, Christian theology, Inqusitorial and other anti-witch writings. These elements provided the basis for a belief in diabolic witchcraft that, modern historians largely argue, never existed and erupted in the period between 1450-1750 in the largest witch hysteria in history. However, Russell shows that these types of events are not relegated to the past, but can occurr in any society at any time, such as Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia in recent times. Russell analyzes the witch hunts in Europe, England, and the American Colonies and contrasts the various judicial methods and popular beliefs regarding them. For instance, it is interesting to note that unlike on the Continent, England viewed the crime of witchcraft as a civil rather than religious matter. This has alot to do with the connection between witchcraft and chrisitan heresy that was prevalent in Europe in the centuries prior to the beginning of the witch hunts but that was largely absent from English history. Russell continues with an analyses of the decline of the witch-craze and the rise of general skepticism and disbelief in witchery. He shows that by the late 18th century, the accusation and execution of suspected witches had all but ceased. It was only in the late 19th century that a revived nterest in magic and the occult gave rise to a romanticized interst in witchcraft. Russell concludes with an overview of the history of modern-day witchcraft and neo-paganism and the lingering perceptions that the public maintains about it.
This is an excellent introduction to the academic history of witchcraft and should lead interested readers to a more in-depth study regarding one of the most horrific periods in human history.
I was highly impressed with this book. The author deals not only with the history of Witchcraft, but sheds light on how many of the common ideas and misconceptions concerning Witchcraft came into being. What he gives is a fairly broad overview of European and American Witchcraft's overall developement and proper place in history. He leads up to, and deals briefly with modern Pagan Witchcraft, but focuses primarily on earlier developement prior to the 20th century. Read this for the broad view, and Ronald Hutton's _Triumph of the Moon_ for a more narrowly focused view, and you'll have pretty well all the common misconceptions and misinformation still prevailant within the Witchcraft community today cleared away. Money well spent.