The book offers a solid, reasonable interpretation of the accusation, prosecution, and execution for witchcraft in Europe between and Levack focuses mainly on the circumstances from which the witch-hunts emerged, as this report will examine. The causes of witch-hunting have been sometimes in publications portrayed differently from reality. The hunts were not prisoner escapee type hunts but rather a hunt that involved the identification of individuals who were believed to be engaged in a secret activity. Sometimes professional witch-hunters carried on the task, but judicial authorities performed most. The cause of most of these hunts is the multi-causal approach, which sees the emergence of new ideas about the witches and changes in the criminal law statutes.

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This is a must-read for anyone who wants to be informed on the issue of historical witches, historical witchcraft or the historical witch-craze. Author Brian P. Levack exhaustively marshals the data and sources and provides a coherent explanation for the phenomenon that gripped Europe between approximately and Not surprisingly, Levack punctures a few myths.

In some regions, the majority of executed witches men. Another myth that goes down the tube is the notion that the witch-hunt was a Protestant phenomenon, or, alternatively, that it was a product of the religious institutions of Europe.

In fact, witch-hunts affected both Protestant and Catholic territories and were almost exclusively under the control of the rising European states.

For all that, witch-hunts could be impressively destructive; Levack offers the example of communities where all but one or two women were left alive after their witch-craze had burned out. Stress might come from the guilt of not being able to avoid sin or in not providing charity to those in need as social mores changed. Stress could also arise from famines or the death of children, but not generally from wars, which tended to preoccupy people from engaging in witch-hunts. Levack proves his argument with examinations of the areas where witch-hunts occurred.

Where the full panoply of diabolical ideas was not present — Ireland, Spain, Russia — witch-hunts were smaller or infrequent. Torture was another factor in spreading the witch-hunt. In theory, torture was limited, but in practice, in secular courts, the limitations were ignored.

Interestingly, the limits on torture were respected in ecclesiastical courts, such as the Inquisition. In the Middle Ages papa inquisitors had become notorious for their unrestrained use of torture and the many other ways in which they had prejudiced the case against the accused. By the time the European witch-hunt began, however, inquisitors had produced a large body of cautionary literature, and two of the early modern institutions that succeeded the medieval inquisition — the Spanish and the Roman inquisitions — demonstrated exceptional concern for procedural propriety.

One of the most noteworthy features of both Spanish and Roman inquisitorial procedure is that torture was rarely employed. In Spain it was used only when there was strong circumstantial evidence but no proof, and it was applied towards the end of the trial, just before judgment was pronounced.

Even in the great Basque witch-hunt of , which involved thousands of suspects, the Inquisition tortured only two of the accused, and since the torture allowed their sentences to be commuted from death to banishment, it can be legitimately considered an act of mercy. The only pressure to use torture as a deliberate means to extract confessions came from local secular authorities and local mobs, groups whose extra-legal tactics the Inquisition sought to restrain.

Even the benandanti, the members of an ancient fertility cult in Friuli whom the Inquisition gradually convinced they were witches, were never put to torture. So, add that to the list of busted myths. Levack also explains why women were largely the victims of witch-hunts were women.

Children often died in this era and mothers had understandable anxieties about the care of their children. The death of children was often a trigger that fed on years of gossip and suspicion. Levack argues that the era of the witch-hunt ended in part because of its success. So many were swept up, including elites, that the elites could no longer believe that all the accused were guilty.

Central state control over prosecutions and executions took over, limiting or eliminating executions and eliminating the use of torture. Skepticism about confessions and the kinds of evidence, including spectral evidence and the testimony of children, also added to the decline.

Finally, Europe developed a more skeptical attitude about whether any particular misfortune was actually supernatural and whether these marginal members of society really were the kind of people that the Prince of Hell would enroll in his grand plan for subversion.

This book is not a casual read. It is a textbook. Nonetheless for students of history, it should make a captivating read.


Brian Levack’s The Witch-hunt In Modern Europe: Summary & Analysis

He received his B. Green Regents Professor in History. His research interests center on the history of the law, the relationship between law and politics in early modern Britain, the formation of the British state, witch-hunting, and demonic possession. His most recent book, The Devil Within: Possession and Exorcism in the Christian West , challenges the commonly held belief that possession signals physical or mental illness and argues that demoniacs and exorcists—consciously or not—are following their various religious cultures, and their performances can only be understood in those contexts. Levack offers a wide variety of courses on early modern British and European history, legal history, and the history of witchcraft. For eight years he served as the chair of his department.


Brian P. Levack



The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe




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