Saturday, December 19, 2009

Jeffrey Burton Russell's "Witchcraft in the Middle Ages": Book Review

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 here and on Amazon US), 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 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. (Posted to Amazon US 12-14-09)

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