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Witch Hunts for the Curious
on 7 January 2012
This was an interesting and easy-to-read book covering the whole history of witch hunts starting as far back as 700 A.D. It's not an exhaustive study but is ideal for the casual reader. The excellent notes and bibliography gives the reader plenty of information to carry on further reading if they're interested.
The author covers the subject objectively and attempts to explain why the witch hunts started, how they operated and why they ended. For me the more interesting aspect of this subject was how/why they ended rather than how they started and also the contemporary arguments against the witch hunts and the use of torture. This was mostly covered in chapter five and was therefore the most interesting chapter for me.
Although the book is relatively short (about 250 pages once all the notes, maps etc. are excluded) he covers a lot of ground. Some of the points made are
1) Although similar to sorcery witches were considered worse as they had made a pact with the devil.
2) Witch hunts occurred throughout the whole of Western Europe and parts of North America though they appeared more densely in France and Germany.
3) They tended to occur more in villages than larger urban areas and usually where the elite encouraged such behaviour. Even so they were sporadic.
4) About 75 per cent of the victims were women, however the author rejects the view that the witch hunts were a systematic attack on women per se.
5) He also rejects any other 'functional' explanation, e.g. that they were an attempt of the rich and powerful to grab more power.
6) Torture was more prevalent in continental Europe and Scotland because of the change from an 'acusatorial' legal procedure to an 'inquisitorial' procedure and the requirement of a 'complete' proof, ideally a confession. In England and North America cases only had to be proved 'beyond a reasonable doubt' therefore putting less emphasis on a confession. I guess it's better to just be executed rather than tortured, then executed.
7) Interestingly witch hunts and trials were less numerous in Italy and Spain where most cases would have been sent to the Inquisition to deal with. The Inquisition was however more interested in heresy than witchcraft and was aware of the problems of confessions gained from torture.
Hopefully listing some of the points above will encourage you to read the book.