The Witch by Ronald Hutton – 50 Years in 50 Books

The Witch was first published in 2017 and delves deeply into the context, beliefs, and origins of witchcraft in Europe’s history. In his book, Ronald Hutton traces witchcraft from the ancient world to the early-modern stake and sets the notorious European witch trials in the widest and deepest possible perspective and traces the major historiographical developments of witchcraft

In this blogpost, part of the 50 Years in 50 Books series for our 50th Anniversary, Ronald Hutton shares how 30 years of interest and research into witchcraft led to the publication of The Witch.

Article by Ronald Hutton

Of all the books that I have published to date (a total of eighteen by 2022), the one that was longest in gestation was that which eventually appeared in 2017 and which Yale University Press decided to entitle simply The Witch. I had been working towards it, in the slipstream of labour on volumes with a higher priority, for almost thirty years.

The subject area had been of interest to me for considerably longer – indeed since my early teenage years – because so many issues of concern to me converged on it. The witch is one of the very few images of independent power that traditional European culture has bequeathed to us, and one of those that directly connect the ancient with the modern world. Attitudes to witchcraft offer major perceptions into human psychology, opening up fear, suspicion, conflict, projection and a fascinating mirroring of all manner of fantasies and wish-fulfilments. Moreover the period in which European witch beliefs seemed to have been the most important, that between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries which generated the notorious waves of trials, had become since the 1980s one of the major growth areas for academic research. Earlier generations of scholars, with a few outstanding individual exceptions, had tended to avoid it, as an embarrassing and unpleasant display of human irrationality. Now new generations of historians, across the Western world, were prepared to confront it.

For a long time I was not. The main preoccupation of the new research was with the social, psychological and ideological dynamics immediately behind individual trials, and depended very much on the records of those. I simply found them too depressing. However, there was an aspect of the witch hunts that did harmonize with my own interests, instincts and abilities, and that consisted of their ancient ideological roots and their relationship with traditional folk beliefs rather than learned demonology. One historian, Norman Cohn, had already explored these to a limited extent in the 1970s, and I had met him when I was a student in 1973 and been convinced by him of their importance, which his subsequent book reinforced for me. I began to read up systematically on the subject in the late 1980s, and this exploratory work introduced me to studies by anthropologists of witchcraft beliefs in other parts of the world, as they had cooperated extensively with historians of European beliefs in the 1960s. Since then the two disciplines had parted company as anthropologists had turned against broad comparisons between different cultures; but I still saw clear similarities.

Early modern woodcut depicting a witch, via National Archives

Two events in the early 1990s galvanised my personal interest in the field. One was the first big British conference on early modern witch trials, held at Exeter University in 1991, which I attended and which convinced me both of the dynamism of current research into them and of its limitations of view. The second was the publication in English of Carlo Ginzburg’s great book, Ecstasies, the work of the leading Italian historian of his generation (now transplanted to California). It identified the origins of the stereotype of the witches’ sabbath in an ancient pan-European tradition of shamanism. I thought that Carlo’s approach was exactly the right one, but that his specific conclusion was wrong. My reading in anthropology, my study of Eurasian shamanism (inspired by my Russian family connections and travels in the Soviet Union), and my knowledge of ancient paganism all led me to other archaic roots for European beliefs. From that time I was working consciously towards formulating and publishing my own ideas.

I tried them out first in a series of guest seminar presentations and lectures in the British university system for the rest of the 1990s. The initial results were not promising, as my audiences tended to dismiss my attempts to contextualise European beliefs in a global and an ancient setting as too broad and too remote from their own interests. I had an especially disastrous appearance at Oxford, where I gave a Ford lecture in 1999 to argue the case, and clearly failed. It was not coincidental that British experts in the subject had generally dismissed Carlo’s book as well. Two developments in the early 2000s made my position easier. The first was that I adapted my approach in guest presentations to using global and ancient comparisons to explain particular national features of early modern witch trials. That worked especially well at conferences at Edinburgh in 2001 and Exeter in 2003, and I began to feel encouraged. The second development was that anthropologists, appalled by the reappearance of large-scale witch-hunting in the developing world, began to make comparisons between cultures again and call for a new collaboration with historians to understand such a general and dreadful phenomenon. As one of the few historians still reading them, I responded with an article calling for a new collaboration between the disciplines and submitted it to a leading British historical journal. The editor sent it out to two British experts in the early modern witch trials, who both urged that it be rejected out of hand, as such a collaboration was unnecessary. The editor was so irritated by such a flagrant example of the kind of attitude which I had written to dispel that he published the article as it stood, and it established me as a mediator between the two disciplines in the area.

Witches Initiation, David Teniers the Younger, via Wikimedia Commons

I continued steadily to collect material until 2012, when I had fulfilled my remaining intervening projects and could concentrate wholly on this one and complete it. The result was The Witch, after another half a decade. I gave it the risky and rather awkward structure of three concentric spheres. The first dealt with the big picture, the global and ancient context of European witchcraft beliefs and their relationship with Eurasian shamanism. The second homed in on Europe to show how these contexts shaped the development of beliefs and practices in the medieval and early modern periods onward, shaping the general and local form of the early modern trials.The third tightened the focus to the British Isles, and used three of the more enigmatic features of the trials there, showing how worldwide and continent-wide material could be employed to explain those features better. Overall, my book was bonded by a polemical and political message of a kind very rare in my work in general: that witch-hunting was a widespread and ancient human activity but not a universal and inevitable one, and nor one with any positive features. I represented it as a scourge of humanity, propelled by needless fear, which could by a worldwide effort be eliminated completely in the future, as smallpox had been and as polio was being. I called for such an effort.

This call harmonised completely with the work of an international network of researchers and lobbyists which had been developing momentum to campaign for just such an initiative. In January 2019 it co-hosted an international conference at Lancaster University, a noted centre for research into human rights issues, to pool information and ideas on witch-hunting past and present, and frame a resolution to be presented to the United Nations Human Rights Committee. I was invited to give the first keynote address, and the UN representative the second, and by the end of the event those present had agreed a form of words calling for an end to attacks upon and prosecutions of people which were motivated by beliefs in magic. This was tendered to the committee and eventually passed by it in July 2021, as Resolution 47/8. In March 2023 the Pan-African Parliament followed it up by issuing a detailed set of guidelines for governments in that continent – one of the currently worst affected by persecution of presumed witches – to bring that persecution to an end. To do so worldwide will be a long haul, but it has started, and my book played a small but perceptible part in that process.

It had been a long road to that point from my awakening of sustained interest in the subject near the end of the ‘80s, and not one that I would then have ever expected to reach. That I did so is yet another demonstration of the truth that while historians can never hope fully to know and understand the past, and can certainly very rarely predict the future from it, by writing about the past they may come to help change the present, and shape what is to come.

About the Author:

Ronald Hutton is professor of history, University of Bristol, and a leading authority on ancient, medieval, and modern paganism, the history of the British Isles in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and the global context of witchcraft beliefs.

About the book:

The Witch
A History of Fear, from Ancient Times to the Present
Ronald Hutton

The witch came to prominence—and often a painful death—in early modern Europe, yet her origins are much more geographically diverse and historically deep. In this landmark book, Ronald Hutton traces witchcraft from the ancient world to the early-modern stake.

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Also by Ronald Hutton:

Further reading:

Five Characteristics of a Witch – An Extract by Ronald Hutton

Yale University Press is celebrating 50 years of publishing in London. To celebrate, we have selected 50 important Yale London books from our past, present and future to tell the story of our publishing through a series of articles and extracts.

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