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THE EMPEROR HAD NO CLOTHES
on 21 September 2014
James Sharpe, who is an authority on crime in Early Modern England has written the last word on witchcraft in that period and country. This is fitting because the dark art was treated as criminal – and indeed as a capital offence. Hugh Trevor-Roper’s European Witch-Craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries was little more than an essay, though it dealt with a much wider geographical area; and it was largely based on treatises. Sharpe’s book is far more substantial, despite its narrower focus. It is based on a wide variety of sources, including an exhaustive analysis of trials.
This book is one of many which has caused me to change my youthful view of the so-called English Revolution of 1640-60.
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!
The picture of those years painted by Christopher Hill was indeed enchanting. But it did obscure, or fail to explain, the horrors, including the violence done by the Army to constitutional government in England, Cromwell’s treatment of Ireland and the unprecedented series of witch-hunts in East Anglia in 1645-7. How could a Revolution which was supposed to bring progress, enlightenment and scientific advance all at the same time, also bring us Matthew Hopkins? Sharpe provides several answers, but there is still a puzzle if we cling to the Whig or Marxist analysis of the Civil War. It we look at it as a Revolution, and on the whole as a ‘good thing’, the renewed interest in witchcraft is indeed hard to explain. If we look at it in the same way as the Earl of Clarendon did – as a Rebellion, and a ‘bad thing’ – we may change our mind on many things. There is nothing surprising then about the witch-craze; or, indeed about the persistence of the belief in witchcraft into the 19th century, despite a fundamental shift in attitudes towards the world in general.
This is an excellent book, but I did not always found it easy to read, because the author is reluctant to accept his own generalisations. He provides a wealth of evidence and he constantly draw conclusions, but they are not all to the same effect. He is also a little repetitive. Nevertheless, this is a masterly survey; and it is still fascinating to read in detail how credulous people were, and how rapidly those who ought to have known better came to see that the Emperor had no clothes, while many in the ignorant multitude continued to believe fervently that he did.