THE HISTORY OF WITCHCRAFT
By Lois Martin, published by Pocket Essentials at £3.99. 96pp. ISBN: 1-903047-99-4
This little book was a very pleasant surprise indeed, coming as it does from a publisher with no significant track record of publishing books on occult subjects. It contains no real surprises in terms of what it covers, but scores highly for setting out the main issues and developments in the subject knowledgeably, concisely without sensationalism.
The book examines the classical origins of ideas about witchcraft, the attitude of the Church in the medieval period to witchcraft and charts the strands of belief which come together over the medieval centuries to produce the idea of the sabbat and the pact between the witch and the Devil to explain why witchhunting happened when it did and why it happened (or didn't happen) where it did. She examines the role of the Inquisition and of torture and the legal background to prosecution as well as a number of famous cases including that of Isobel Gowdie and other Scottish witches, the Lancashire Witches and the Salem outbreak. She also traces the history of the idea of the witchcult from the early 19th century through to its best known exponent, Margaret Murray, and of the prosecutions as a misogynistic attack on women in the writings of Michelet and Gage, the latter being responsible for the oft-quoted but completely unsubstantiated figure of 9 million victims.
Although the book tells us that Martin "has spent many years researching the history of European witchcraft, folklore and superstition, it does not mention any academic qualifications or credentials in the field; nevertheless it is not surprising, given her approach to the subject, to note that her recommended further reading and other resources comprise almost entirely books from academic presses and pointers to the websites of a number of university history departments.
In pagan terms, the target reader of a book like this is surely the person whose main, or even only, source for the history of witchcraft and the witch trials has been the at best flawed and at worst completely inaccurate and misleading chapters contained in books on popular wicca and paganism. For correcting such popular and widespread misinformation, it's a cracker.