- Paperback: 380 pages
- Publisher: Routledge; 2 edition (1 April 1999)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0415196124
- ISBN-13: 978-0415196123
- Product Dimensions: 15.6 x 2.2 x 23.4 cm
- Average Customer Review: 4 customer reviews
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 686,282 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England Paperback – 1 Apr 1999
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This is a regional and comparative study of early modern witchcraft. The history of witchcraft continues to attract attention with its emotive and contentious debates. The methodology and conclusions of this book have impacted not only on witchcraft studies but on the approach to social and cultural history with its quantitative and anthropological approach. The book provides a case study on Essex as well as drawing comparisons with other regions of early modern England. The second edition adds a historiographical introduction, placing the book in context in the late 1990s.
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A classic book in the field of the history of the witch trials. The author takes a more detailed look at the numbers than is usual for a history book. His anthropological approach to the subject influenced many books after.
The introduction to this second edition is a good critique of the place of this book in the wider study of the history of the witch trials.
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In essence, Macfarlane argues that accusers usually knew those they accused quite well; they were in fact commonly neighbors. Under older medieval conceptions of neighborliness, one was supposed to offer elderly women (as the accused very often were) charity and the like. But in the early modern period, with the difficult economic conditions all over Europe and the rise of new conceptions of privacy, property, and so forth, as well as tremendous population growth, people increasingly did not feel inclined toward such easy charity. What commonly occurs, then, is that a middle-class landowner turns away a somewhat unpleasant elderly beggar, who then stalks away cursing and muttering; indeed, even if given charity, she may similarly stalk away cursing, perhaps believing the charity stingy, or perhaps angry at a situation which requires her to beg for charity at all. The landowner now feels guilt: he or she has in some sense violated a traditional trust. One way to assuage this guilt, however, is to assert that the woman was undeserving of Christian charity, on the grounds that she is a witch. Thus the accusation of witchcraft could serve to assuage one's own personal sense of guilt.
This is an extremely simplistic version of Macfarlane's complex social-historical reading. More broadly, he goes through huge numbers of documents and establishes that difficulties of social relations seem to underlie the majority of accusations in his chosen period and region.
While Macfarlane's work has been improved upon for both England and for the rest of the witch-hunting Euro-American world, it is nevertheless a seminal work in the social understanding of witchcraft accusations. The basic problem, you see, is that usually there is no reason to think that the accused witches had actually done anything resembling "witchcraft" -- no, they were not midwives, cunning women, or anything of the kind, as a rule. So the questions are (1) why were these particular sorts of people singled out, and (2) why did anyone level the accusations in the first place?
Macfarlane's book should be on the shelf of anyone serious about studying the history of the witch-hunt phenomenon in Europe. If you are a witch, you may find nothing of value here, as suggested by a previous reviewer. If you are interested on an historical level, however, this is a major work.