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The Athlone History of Witchcraft and Magic in Europe, Volume 5: The 18th and 19th Centuries

Edited by Ankarloo and Clark, published by The Athlone Press 1999 at £18.99. 395pp. ISBN: 0-485-89102-6 (Reviewed by Brian Hoggard)

Another great book in the Athlone series. This series really is a significant moment in historical research into witchcraft as it represents a really comprehensive summary of past research in addition to providing some new insights into current research. I suppose I see it as kind of a milestone. Sure, it doesn't cover absolutely every last detail, but you'll find references to every significant work in here. If you are interested in historical research into witchcraft - buy these books. They vary in writing style quite a bit (to be expected in collections of work by different authors) but they represent remarkable value for money and high quality information.

There are three authors in this volume; Brian P Levack from the University of Texas, Marijke Gijswijt-Hofstra from the University of Amsterdam and Roy Porter from the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine and University of London.

Brian Levack begins this book with a thorough look at the nature and chronology of the decline in 'witch-hunts' throughout Europe. His writing style is not terribly exciting but it's not boring either - just consistent. The section he has written covers a difficult area, perhaps one of the most difficult in the field. He carefully appraises the evidence from many European countries in order to assess what were the main factors in the decline of witch-trials. Almost invariably this turns out to be a changing attitude in law systems, but this can not be taken for granted and surrounding circumstances need to be taken into account. For example, were accusations of witchcraft declining?; was there a change in witch-belief? This section covers these questions well and provides an interesting insight into the different ways that witches were perceived and treated in different countries. This section is remarkable because it is one of the only works that looks at the nature of the decline throughout Europe in one single piece of work. A great source of reference.

Marijke Gijswijt-Hofstra looks at the continuation of witch-belief beyond the period of the witch-trials. This is an interesting section as she discusses the gender of those seeking and providing love magic (for example, mostly women in Spain, mostly men in Italy) as well as looking at the types of services offered by the local cunning-men and women. Attacks on alleged witches in the period since the witch-trials is also discussed. This section, as with Levack's section, also utilises all the most important research which has and is taking place on this period - it was good to see the strong presence of Owen Davies' work in her summary of research in Britain. This chapter demonstrates the continuation of witch-beliefs in certain areas of Europe up to the early twentieth century. This is a fascinating section revealing a great deal that I had not previously been aware of for this period.

Roy Porter brings up the rear with his section which deals mainly with the main shifts in culture and society in the 18th and 19th centuries. He looks at the role of medicine in reducing the opportunities for the cunning-folk to practice, the enlightenment philosophy and it's spread throughout Europe, political, religious and ideological changes in the period are all described in this very well written and entertaining historical inquiry. This is not merely a chapter about change however. Throughout this period witch-beliefs could be found and Porter manages to bring a sense of this to life while dealing with these other major changes - which can be really quite difficult. In this section you will be introduced to several occult characters in addition to the more traditional historical facts. This section is really energetic, interesting and stimulating. Great stuff.

In conclusion you might as well read my comments on the other books in this series. A great book, well worth reading and great value for money despite the £19 price tag. Buy it now while it's in print - this series is a future classic. For anyone interested in doing any research into witchcraft at all, the bibliography and notes are worth £19 before you even start reading. I can't wait to see the other three books in this series.