Wednesday, February 6, 2013

"Current Trends in Historical Witchcraft Studies" (a 2011 paper by Jacqueline Van Gest)

This post is about an important recent paper of interest to all those who want to keep up on contemporary scholarship on Witchcraft. The paper in question is Jacqueline Van Gent's 2011 article "Current Trends in Historical Witchcraft Studies." The full citation is: Journal of Religious History Vol. 35, No. 4, December 2011, pp. 601-612). The paper is freely available in pdf form for download here:

Van Gent's paper is a combined review of four recent books on historical Witchcraft studies (well, Levack's book isn't "recent", but it has been recently reissued for its third printing, and van Gent discusses why the book continues to be quite relevant):
  • Sarah Ferber: Demonic Possession and Exorcism in Early Modern France, London and New York: Routledge, 2004; pp. 219 + xii.
  • Malcolm Gaskill: Witchfinders: A Seventeenth-Century English Tragedy, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005; pp. 364 + xvii.
  • Brian Levack: TheWitch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe, 3rd ed., London and New York: Longman, 2006 (first published 1987); pp. 360.
  • Charles Zika: The Appearance of Witchcraft: Print and Visual Culture in Sixteenth-Century Europe, London and New York: Routledge, 2008; pp. 296 + xiv.
In the course of the combined review, Van Gent also makes references to a number of other important works by authors such as Carlo Ginzburg, Wolfgang Behringer, Marie Lennersand, Gary K.Waite, Marion Gibson, Lyndal Roper, Lara Apps, Owen Davies, etc.

Here is  an excerpt from her paper:

Perhaps the most important development to have emerged in the historiography of early modern European witchcraft in the last two decades, is the greater recognition of the remarkable cultural, gender, and social diversity to be found within witchcraft practices. This diversity of witchcraft has made broader historical contextualization imperative. It is not surprising, therefore, that the most exciting studies of recent times are those which invite us to see witchcraft, not as an isolated and somewhat morbid phenomenon, but as an integral part of a much wider spectrum of early modern religious beliefs, gendered power dynamics, political crises, or social behaviour and traditions. This review will discuss four books that have appeared in the last few years and as the witchcraft literature is extremely vast, I will place them in the context of recent trends that have emerged in the last decade.

The most innovative paradigm shift in historical witchcraft research has been the expansion of our focus, both chronologically and thematically, beyond the periods of specific witchcraft persecutions, to consider witchcraft as a less sensational cultural practice. By expanding the timeline for witchcraft investigations to before and after the witch-persecution period, witchcraft studies have unearthed a wealth of new material and questions, and put persecutions into a new perspective. The kind of witchcraft pursued (or imagined) with such intensity by authorities during specific witch persecutions, might actually be an unusual form of witchcraft, restricted to very short periods and defined locations; while everyday forms of magic, more regularly practised, were both more influential and typical. This different paradigm allows for a more integrative view: the full spectrum of social activities, including healing, protective magic, and the recovery of lost objects, can be considered in our analyses. Indeed, it is the more integrative approaches to magic and related phenomena of belief and practice that are producing the most innovative work in the field. By expanding their chronological perspectives on witchcraft, stepping outside of the immediate phases of intense persecutions, or witch hunts, historians are also able to draw broader historical comparisons.

This was clearly signalled with the six volume series The Athlone History of Witchcraft and Magic in Europe, under the stewardship of general editors, Bengt Ankarloo and Stuart Clark, which appeared between 1998 and 2002. This series marks a watershed for witchcraft research. It has reinforced the point that magical activities have a much longer tradition than witchcraft persecutions: they existed long before and long after the witch hunts. Only one of the six volumes deals with the early modern period of intense witch prosecutions; all others show the different ways in which magic as a cultural and social phenomenon was part of everyday life. The series’ wide geographic spectrum reinforces the message of the diversity of legal approaches and the social dynamics of witchcraft practices. This more integrative approach to witchcraft is also reflected in the 2004 publication by Owen Davies andWillem de Blecourt (editors) of Beyond the Witch Trials: Witchcraft and Magic in Enlightenment Europe, which discusses the “decline” of witchcraft beliefs, or rather their modifications, in several European locations during the late-seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

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