Thinking With Demons - The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe
By Stuart Clark, published by Oxford University Press at £25. PBk. 827pp. ISBN: 0-19-820808-1 (Reviewed by Brian Hoggard)
As you can see from the page-count, this is one enormous book - and it's printed in a rather small font so it's even bigger than you might think. Frighteningly, the author states that the book could have been bigger in the preface. As a reviewer, all I can say is one big thank you to OUP who have clearly had enough sense to control the amount of content in this book which is simultaneously impressive and tedious. On the back cover of the book four very positive book reviews are quoted in order to demonstrate how wonderful this book allegedly is. While there is no doubt that this book is an impressive achievement, I think that if it was reviewed by the ‘plain English' society it would have had a very poor review.
Although I have every respect for Stuart Clark as a fine historian and scholar, his writing style in this book was almost terminally dull. He has delved into the subject of language study in order to ‘clarify' what is meant by words like witchcraft but, sadly, has ended up using highly specialised terms from this field where ‘plain English' would easily have sufficed. The lack of a glossary for these terms will, I have no doubt, prove to be frustrating and annoying for the general reader and also for professional historians - at whose level he has aimed the book. The contribution that this foray into the world of language brings to the subject is sadly miniscule, making the use of complex terminology in this respect seem almost arrogant and certainly very tiresome.
The book is basically about witchcraft and demonology and it has possibly the most impressive bibliography of early modern sources I have ever seen for these subjects. He has clearly done his research. However, the book has a disappointingly large quantity of very small quotes in each chapter all saying basically the same thing (he's clearly keen to illustrate his point) and each have a couple of paragraphs by Clark saying why this supports his argument. For example, in the chapter headed ‘Contrariety', there must be over forty quotes all illustrating (and Clark explains this same point forty times also) how early modern authors used the opposite of something to illuminate a point, and how this led to the creation and embellishment of negative stereotypes of witches in particular. It is, and has been, obvious to many historians for a long time that this style of writing was used regularly in this period, yet Clark insists on using more terminology than is necessary and saying the same thing so many times that I nearly stopped a third of the way through the chapter and skipped to the next. The other chapters are all like this too.
This book is tedious and boring, but it does have occasional little gems which make you perk-up and say, ‘oooh I didn't know that!' before you quickly slump back into a trance which is very difficult to wake from. This book could so easily have been smaller. It is a very inconvenient size for a paperback, although at £25 it is, at least, half the price of the hardback (!!).
The author does make some very valid points about culture, society, politics and religion in this period. The book essentially provides a good picture of the ‘mental climate' of the early modern period which explains a lot about how and why people behaved the way they did, and, most importantly, offers another explanation for the ‘witch-craze'. The explanation being that the way people thought and wrote about evil, demons, witches, sin and God was what led to the escalation of negative feeling about witches (see! I said it in one paragraph!). I definitely learned a lot from this book - but I resented having to read 827 pages of this book to get it. If those great parts of the book were condensed into a book AT LEAST half the size I might have actually enjoyed reading it, instead of approaching it with a kind of despair. As it was I was negatively overwhelmed by the clumsy use of specialist terms, the unnecessarily lengthy excursions into other marginally relevant subject areas, his dreadful repetition of the same points and his tendency to justify why he went about doing things the way he did as though he was some kind of pioneer. I'm glad I have this book because it's got a great bibliography and it will probably be seen as a classic in future years - but I would strongly recommend that you get it from a library if you want to look at it. The good stuff in it is worth a maximum of half the cover price.
Conclusion: If you're the kind of reader who can work through a genuinely massive book without too much of a problem, and can easily digest rock, then this is for you.