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Witchcraft in the Middle Ages Paperback – 6 Aug 1984

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Traces the origin, development and practice of medieval witchcraft throughout western Europe, and describes the movement's social and religious significance.

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TO understand witchcraft we must descend into the darkness of the deepest oceans of the mind. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Defined by their enemies 14 Dec. 2009
By John L Murphy - Published on
Format: Paperback
An eminent historian of demonology and heresy relates these to this misunderstood and elusive phenomenon. Russell argues for the reality of witches. He shows how they "usually acted as they were supposed to act." That is, the fluidity of definitions applied by medieval clerics and then inquisitors pressured dissenters to adapt the terms by which they were marginalized, persecuted, and often executed.

He interprets historical, verifiable witchcraft along a continuum. Rejecting the extremes that nobody in the Middle Ages believed in witchcraft and that "weird phenomena are not only real, but supernatural, and proof that the Devil and his minions live," Russell plots the truth along three points. 1) "At least some people were deluded into believing themselves witches." 2) Old pagan cults, folklore, sorcery, and heresy entered into their beliefs and practices. 3) These "as described by the sources (mainly trial records) did exist to a substantial degree." (21)

Russell moves chronologically, if for me too rapidly over the biblical Hebrew references (these barely gain a mention). He establishes proof from primary sources. He estimates that 31% of the Inquisitorial charges were for sorcery, 23% for folklore traditions, 27% for heresy, and 19% for those added by theologians (such as the pact, the Devil's mark, worship of the Devil, the obscene kiss, the sabbat). (I wish he had charted this with geographical and topical data, as graphically this might have enhanced what can be a challenging amassing of material within a densely written text. It's a demanding, depressing, if valuable account.)

Any continuity between ancient and medieval traditions here, Russell insists, was not consciously controlled. Vague, fluctuating, and loosely defined at best, witchcraft drifted as popular and learned opinions shifted. Pagan remnants floated around what was considered witchcraft; Christian opposition shaped how those who resisted its power themselves regarded what they thought of and carried out as witches.

Contrary to common supposition, the Inquisitions (which began ca. 1225-50) did not constitute the only jurisdiction by which witches were summoned and condemned. In his subsequent "A History of Witchcraft" (also reviewed by me), Russell notes how the clerisy in some countries treated witches better than the secular forces. "The Inquisitors were taught what to look for, and they always found it, whether it existed or not." (159) Each confession under torture added to the supposed knowledge of what witchcraft was, and the people then were convinced all the more that the next person arrested should live up, or die down, to the "standard" of stereotypical behavior.

Understandably, immense difficulties remain for a medievalist culling the testimony to extract what witches "truly" then believed, as the Latin formulae were mis-translated into the vernacular to be told to the accused and then the admissions were twisted back at variance with the Latin, so a warped nature of the evidence permeates the entire account. This process I admit remained rather unclear to me, and I wish Russell had provided transcripts to explain this more slowly; the book is packed with argument and while not inaccessible, it can be dense and challenging-- he expects you to know what "endura" and "antinomianism" are beforehand, for instance. Throughout, adding to this terrible inversion in the cause of "truth," the torturers elicited from their doomed victims what both sides expected as "proof."

I wondered when starting this if I'd find out an insider's account of witchcraft that survived from the Middle Ages apart from the "testimony" coerced or concocted by tormentors. There seems none survived that we can find. Russell concludes that for both witches and those who hated them, their practice "was the result of fear, expressed in supernatural terms in a society that thought in supernatural terms, and repressed by a society that was intolerant of spiritual dissent." (289) He stresses how its magical and superstitious elements receded as the High Middle Ages determined to define witchcraft as the worst of all heresies. Alienation expressed itself among those marginalized, and as the Jews and heretics and rebels found, so did the witches. Feared by medieval Catholicism-- and its Reformed opponents who increased the body count on their own 16th-17th century "witch hunts"-- witches found themselves forced to define themselves by the shapeshifting terms of those who sought their annihilation.

Written in (original hardcover ed.) 1972, the analogies with anti-Communist or anti-imperialist crusades may have faded, but replace those with other terms and you can appreciate the relevance. King Philip IV of France demonstrates how deep cynicism curdled the whole apparatus of "justice." This scourge of the Templars, in 1303, forbade the Inquisition to deal with "sorcerers, usurers, and Jews." (171) Why? He wanted to profit from the confiscated wealth of these despised groups. Separation of church and state, indeed.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Interesting but Dry 1 Jun. 2005
By J. W. Kennedy - Published on
Format: Paperback
It's a historical overview on the evolution of witchcraft through the middle ages, from the perspective of a historian who doesn't seem to believe in magic, yet nevertheless admits there was _something_ going on. The style is dry and academic, with lots of big words from sociological and psychological jargon. At times it reads like a doctorial thesis.

The first two chapters are a sort of preperatory overview of the subject, with brief mentions of the ancient middle-Eastern and Egyptian origins of magic and the belief in good-vs-evil Dualism. The next 7 chapters present a chronological evolution of witchcraft and how it was perceived (and dealt with) by the Church and secular authorities. The time span is from 300 to 1480 a.d. meaning this book stops short just before the classic "witch craze" of the Renaissance began. The final chapter is a summation of the significance of witchcraft in medeival thought.

Keeping in mind that the only records regarding witchcraft were written by it opponents, Russell carefully presents the information and offers a fairly objective assessment of it. His overall thesis is that witchcraft was largely an invention of the Church, and that from ancient pagan roots, withcraft evolved alongside heresy. He clearly demonstrates that the crime of witchcraft was regarded as distinct from simple heresy, and also distinct from sorcery and natural magic or herbalism. He has pinpointed almost the exact moment when the notion of the "Devil's pact" was introduced. He presents information about a number of medeival heresies, and shows how ideas crossed over into witchcraft - and even how some heresies later began to be prosecuted AS witchcraft. He argues strongly against Margaret Murray's "witch cult" theory, suggesting instead that the apparent consistency of witch practices across Europe may be attributable to the consistency of Inquisitors' questioning. (Again keep in mind _who_ was writing the records. No sources of information from the witches themselves are known to exist.) It was interesting to see that the early Church was quite skeptical about witchcraft, and had even declared it was wrong to believe that witches flew around at night and so forth. That attitude was to change...

This book takes you up to a point just before the insanity and slaughter of the 14th and 15th centuries, and leaves you with a good background to continue research into the subject.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Good Book, But Outdated 2 Mar. 2011
By History Nut - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book isn't exactly graduate level, but it helps if you are. And even if you're not, you'll figure it out. Simply, you should own this book. Will you refer to it every day? Not likely, but it's one of the best 'general' studies of witchcraft out there, even if it is becoming somewhat outdated. But still a fantastic "MUST OWN" reference material! And despite the fact that it is getting a little outdated, Russell is an important scholar whose ideas you should be familiar with if you're considering any major research in this field. His work is still frequently sited and offers a solid basis to which you can refer to as your own understanding of the subject progresses. Buy it, read the sections that interest you, and keep it as a resource book. I bought it out of curiosity and ended up using it for an extensive paper on witchcraft. It served me well and will continue to do.
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Pollitically Correct 12 Sept. 2012
By jettrooper - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
When I purchased this book, it was because Jeffery Russell's name kept coming up in the footnotes of other material on the same subject. I found his work to be very politically correct and contradictory. For instance he states that there were no reference to paganistic Diana worship from the Roman period through the middle ages but then quotes the Roman history Livy who recorded such practices in the Roman period and then describes similar practices that occurred throughout the middle ages. So I obviously could not agree with his conclusions. He frequently used the words "witch-hunt" through out the book that made me believe he was trying to use rhetoric to program his beliefs to the reader.

The author seemed to be trying to program a point into the reader that the evidence suggested otherwise. I found it amazing that the author would so readily quote ancient sources on paganistic practices but vehemently disagree with the ancient historians opinion on what they witnessed (especially since they witnessed it).

The book did in fact further my research, and for that I am thankful. I glad to have it in my library.
11 of 19 people found the following review helpful
Outstanding interpretation of events.... 8 July 2001
By Dianne Foster - Published on
Format: Paperback
WITCHCRAFT IN THE MIDDLE AGES by Jeffrey Russell is a salient and well-written history about religious persecution during the Middle Ages involving individuals accused of the practice of "witchcraft". WITCHCRAFT was first published in the early 1970s when a renewed interest in the craft was gaining public attention.
Adherents of the craft have suffered a severe and enduring persecution--worse than any other religious persecution--including that of the Jews. Even today, in an era when folks pat themselves on the back for their religious "tolerence" and/or secular outlook, "witchcraft" is still largely misunderstood. Even the name is a misnomer.
Russell, who seems mostly objective, refers to the modern practice of "witchcraft" as "puerile" indicating he does not really understand the practice per se. Russell is not a participant-observer, he is an outsider examining in as objective a manner as possible events that transpired over a period of thousand years. He does not examine and order these events from the perspective of the practicioner being persecuted, he arranges them from the standpoint of the authories who now wonder what happened.
Russell says currently there are four views extant in the West concerning "witchcraft" -- mainstream Roman Catholics, Protestants and Jewish groups pretty much ignore it; Fundamentalist Judeo-Christian groups see it as a "clear and present danger" and "the work of the devil"; Liberals see it as silly or sick behaviour ignorant church people persecute and mentally deranged and confused souls practice; Ethnographers describe "witchcraft" as worldwide and real, with devoted adherents.
In the Middle Ages, the practice of "witchcraft" was associated with the diverse behaviors of various individuals or groups who for one reason or another found themselves on the wrong side of church law--first Roman Catholic and then Protestant Reformed. Russell says amazingly, individuals who participated in the Renaissance and Reformation, who overturned, destroyed, and abandoned many of the practices of the Church of Rome, retained the Catholic position on "witchcraft" and persecuted people suspected of the practice with a vengence unequaled by their predecessors.
Russell examines the roots of the Chistian attitude toward witchcraft. He says that during the Babylonian captivity, when the Jews were cruelly carried off and enslaved, they came to accept the reality of evil. Through their efforts to understand and deal with evil, they accepted it must have a creator, i.e. a source. But how can a good God be the source of evil? Enter the devil.
Russell says the dual thinking of the Jews (God and Satan--he provides many Biblical references to Satan--including the book of JOB), combined with the Greco-Roman belief in daemons (angelic entities who communicated with the gods) influenced thinking in the newly evolved Christian world. As the Church fathers grappled with folk beliefs that included Roman lares/penates and Celtic/Germanic Valkyries, fairies, elves and other supernatural folks, they came to believe Satan ruled all these magical creatures.
During the Middle Ages, individuals punished for "witchcraft" (evil practicies associated with Satan) fell into a number of different categories. Russell attempts to tease these categories apart and determine what "witchcraft" was (the concept and definition changed over time) and who exactly engaged in the practices that came to be viewed as "witchcraft" (many people of diverse interest and background did many different things--or were accused of doing these things).
Russell says for the most part, the church viewed individuals accused of "witchcraft" as heretics--i.e. engaged in non-church approved religious practices. The most famous example is the Cathars. Cathars were accused of witchcraft based on their dualistic belief in the brothers Jesus and Satan. Some non-Cathars accused of "witchcraft" were probably mentally deranged if their testimony is to be belived and the church on occasion recognized these sick souls for what they were--in writing. There were those accused of witchcraft, however, who were engaging in magical practices involving herbs, charms, illness, childbirth, and other aspects of daily living. Early records indicate these souls existed long before the church took an interest in their behavior. Much of what these practicioners believed and did was an outgrowth of their pagan beliefs. Russell says the brothers have Grimm recorded much of their belief system as "fairytales".
"Witchcraft" and its adherents came to be viewed as evil because the church could not condone magic practiced outside God's proscribed domain--and of course the church leaders determined what that domain was so this was basically a control issue. The church itself practiced magic--there is no other way to describe prayer and indulgences designed to manipulate God. The miracles of Christ and the Saints--turning water into wine, walking on water, raising the dead, expanding fishes and loaves to feed the multitude, etc. may be divine magic but are nevertheless magic.
Russell has divided his book into several chapters that deal with early, middle, and late phases of the Middle Ages. He notes that while some would define the later years as early Renaissance, he defines the Middle ages from the years following the demise of Rome's rule in Europe to the end of the 1400s when the Church in Rome lost control of Christianity in Europe.
This is an exellent book and a good place to start if you want to know more about the church's persecution of people accused of "witchcraft" during the Middle Ages. If you want to know more about "witchcraft", wicca or whatever you call the practice, I suggest DRAWING DOWN THE MOON by Margot Adler.
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