The Medieval Review 10.01.05

Klaniczay, Gábor and Éva PÓcs . Witchcraft Mythologies and Persecutions. Demons, Spirits, Witches, v. 3. Budapest: Central European University Press, 2008. Pp. 351. $45.00 ISBN- 978-963-7326-875. .

Reviewed by:

Hans Peter Broedel
University of North Dakota

This collection is the last of three volumes to grow out of an interdisciplinary conference on spirits, demons and witches held in Budapest in 1999. Previous volumes dealt with the first two conference themes; this one makes a valuable contribution to the ever-growing corpus of witchcraft scholarship. Taken collectively, the essays published here represent some of the best of contemporary continental European scholarship, and will offer fresh perspectives--notably a common interest in peripheries, both geographic and cultural, and a serious commitment to interdisciplinary methodologies--to a wide range of readers. The topics of individual essays, however, vary considerably, and the editors' attempt to categorize them into three sections ("Mythologies," "Legal Mechanisms, Social Contexts," and "Witchcraft and Folklore") is not particularly helpful. Nonetheless, certain common themes link many of the strongest papers; these will be the focus of this review.

The collection begins with useful background, in the form of Martine Ostorero's discussion of the origins of the witches' Sabbath and the "modern" concept of witchcraft in five crucial fifteenth century texts ("The Concept of the Witches' Sabbath in the Alpine Region"). In this essay, Ostorero analyzes the historical and judicial contexts of these works, demonstrating that despite their similar subject matter and close geographic and chronological proximity, their authors constructed very different interpretations of witchcraft and the Sabbath based upon their own unique perspectives. Nonetheless, she argues that all authors drew upon a common store of concepts associated with heresy, anti-Judaism, fear of conspiracy, and alpine folklore as the essential bases for their "fabrications" of witchcraft. This analysis recalls Joseph Hansen's venerable "cumulative" interpretation of witch beliefs, and even more closely resembles Carlo Ginzburg's reconstruction of the development of witch beliefs in Storia Notturna (Turin, 1989), but Ostorero approaches the evidence with a degree of precision that previous broadly comparative studies have often lacked. This essay deserves to be read alongside Wolfgang Behringers's brilliant study of the same basic problem in a previous volume ("How the Waldensians Became Witches: Heretics and Their Journey to the Other World," Klaniczay and PÓcs, eds. Communicating with Spirits Budapest, 2005).

Subsequent essays explore how this synthetic view of witchcraft was applied, adapted, and modified in different social and intellectual contexts, and how the abstract concept, "witch," was imposed upon actual people. For both the accused and their accusers, judicial interrogation played a critical role in establishing the "reality" of the witch, since only through this process could the details of witches' lives, crimes, festivities, and diabolism were fabricated out of the knowledge and imaginations of witnesses, accused witches, and magistrates. Four essays in this collection analyze this nexus of worldviews that emerges in judicial testimony.

Gábor Klaniczay compares vision narratives from medieval saints' lives, the confessions of accused witches, and Hungarian bewitchment narratives in his excellent contribution, "Learned Systems and Popular Narratives of Vision and Bewitchment." He argues that in saints' vitae , learned biographers elaborated essentially popular vision narratives to provide necessary theological and hagiographic content, but left the core experience intact. Records of fifteenth-century witch confessions, on the other hand, reveal traces of popular belief only from within an overarching narrative frame provided by men who were deeply invested in the concept of diabolic witchcraft. To find echoes of a "popular" Sabbath, Klaniczay examines a number of trials from early modern Hungary, in which witnesses claimed to have been kidnapped and taken to the witches' festivals against their will. In these cases, the guiding hand of judges is less apparent, and the witnesses had more latitude to describe folk traditions. Such accounts, Klaniczay suggests, are equivalent in many ways to the vision narratives of the middle ages, and reflect the structures of genuine folk tradition. Thus, the devil is almost entirely absent, although abundant food, social inversions, magic, and sexuality remain; for Klaniczay, this narrative tradition contains "the kernel from which the more colorful Sabbath descriptions develop (69).

Per Sörlin's essay, "Child Witches and the Construction of the Witches' Sabbath," shows that accused child witches in Sweden also made use of traditional motifs to construct their courtroom testimony. Sörlin, however, stresses that the children in these cases were under intense pressure to produce intellectually satisfying, internally coherent narratives, that corresponded with what both the children and their educated interrogators knew about the world, and which were, when possible, subject to empirical verification. Further, both the children and the adults in charge were anxious to maintain the credibility of the children and their basic innocence (since although they were witches, they were also victims). Sörlin shows that the children fulfilled these goals remarkably well, but at the cost of producing stories that were in other respects completely absurd--a detail most magistrates were able to overlook, at least for a while.

IldikÓ KristÓf demonstrates much more prosaically how the testimony of accused witches drew upon a common stock of "everyday knowledge" ("How to Make a (Legal) Pact with the Devil?"). Kristof shows that Hungarian accounts of the witches' pact drew heavily upon traditional "oral/gestural" understandings of what constituted a binding agreement. Finally, in an ambitious essay, lo Valk ("Reflections of Folk Belief and Legends at the Witch Trials of Estonia") compares narrative motifs from early modern Estonian judicial testimony with those found in modern folklore collections. He concludes that although Lutheran demonology certainly influenced testimony in trials, the presence of folkloric motifs shows that the witches' Sabbath was not somehow "forced onto folk belief by learned clergymen" but generated "spontaneously" from local folk traditions (279). This is a provocative argument, yet given the notorious difficulty of separating older indigenous traditions from the products of cultural assimilation and syncretism, not, perhaps, completely convincing.

While these essays foreground the socio-cultural interactions through which witchcraft was constructed in the courtroom, a second cluster of papers investigates the same problem within wider social contexts. In a careful examination of early Russian legal records ("Following the Traces of Xenophobia in Muscovite Witchcraft Investigation Records"), Polina Melik Simonian reveals the extent to which ordinary Russians tended to associate malign magic with foreigners, particular those with unorthodox religious beliefs. In contrast, well-known local magical practitioners, socially integrated into the community, were tolerated and accepted. This research demonstrates neatly how witchcraft accusations--although a widespread European phenomenon--were grounded in local fears and anxieties. Judit Kis-Halas's fascinating microhistorical study of a once respectable Romanian man accused of witchcraft ("The Trial of an Honest Citizen") similarly illustrates how fear of a foreign "Other" could lead to social tensions. The man in question was a wealthy, well-connected, politically active burgher, who was forced to leave his hometown for political/religious reasons. Despite his considerable social standing, his unruly behavior, odd habits (particularly his addiction to dance), and inability to "fit in" led first to suspicion among his new neighbors, and eventually to charges of witchcraft.

These case studies illustrate a pervasive European discourse of local witchcraft in which the ability and willingness to do magical harm is projected onto particular kinds social identities and situations. The remarkable endurance of the sustaining beliefs of this discourse is a principal theme of Daniel Ryan's study, "Boundaries and Transgressions: Witchcraft and Community Conflict in Estonia During the Late Nineteenth Century." Ryan's paper shows that until very recently, issues of boundary transgression, envy, and general "un-neighborliness" remained potent foci for witchcraft accusations, and strongly influenced Estonian traditional beliefs. Mirjam Mencej continues this exploration of the confluence between traditional lore and community interaction in her study of witchcraft in contemporary oral narratives ("Witchcraft in Eastern Slovenia"). Mencej articulates explicitly a principle implicit in a number of these essays: that in Europe's peripheries the church had less influence over local folk belief, and so their folklore has preserved "more archaic layers of witchcraft" than elsewhere (295). As a border zone between European cultural centers and eastern periphery, rural Slovenia provides Mencej with a test case in which popular conceptions of witchcraft are complex and multi-layered. Her analysis of oral narratives differentiates between "neighborhood witches," those with a very restricted reputation of supernatural malfeasance, "village witches," whose ill-fame is more wide spread, and "night witches," supernatural creatures who prowl the night but who are seldom associated with particular persons. These categories are very reminiscent of Lucy Mair's cross-cultural distinction between "nightmare" and "everyday witches" ( Witchcraft , 1969), but Mencej argues instead that this duality reflects Slovenia's particular cultural geography, and is a function of earlier beliefs about fairies and restless souls being integrated "into the witchcraft paradigm" (308-9).

This exploration of problems of magic and the social construction of identity in small communities continues in Ana Brzezinska's "Healing at the Jagiellonian Court." Her research reveals a diverse collection of healers: professional licensed physicians, traditional female healers, and ambiguous figures such as medical quacks nestled uncomfortably in between; all used procedures that we might consider magical, and to both healers and patients the line between various categories of healing was always vague. These circumstances help to explain why anyone at any level of the social hierarchy might turn to different healing strategies, depending upon which was perceived to be most effective. Nonetheless, procedures marked as obviously "magical" carried a social stigma, and those who were most associated with "magic," particularly women, were also those whose power was seen as most morally ambiguous and who were in consequence most feared. A similar ambiguity emerges in one of my favorite essays, Iveta Todorova-Pirgova's investigation of cultural syncretism in traditional Bulgarian communities ("Witches and Priests in the Bulgarian Village"). Todorova-Pirgova focuses upon the twin figures of the sorceress who employs Christian symbols and references in her magic, and the priest who accepts her supernatural powers as essentially benign and "God-given" (291). Todorova-Pirgova views these seemingly paradoxical figures as logical expressions of local acculturation within the context of close knit social relations; as such they provide a useful counterpoint to the habit of thinking of witch belief as an arena for "cultural collision," or of placing Christianity and folk-traditions on the opposite ends of a rigid bipolar scale. On the other hand, Adelina Angusheva's research shows that the Balkans even under the Ottomans were less isolated from European witch anxieties than might be supposed. In "Late Medieval Witch Mythologies in the Balkans," she argues that Greek Orthodox monastic authors objected vehemently to precisely the sort of syncretism that Todorova-Pirgova describes, and in sermons and pastoral texts attempted to stigmatize popular magical practitioners as in league with the devil.

This interest in the social construction of witches, whether in the courtroom, the village, or a royal court, is typical of modern witchcraft scholarship and will be familiar, I suspect, to most readers. Slightly more unusual, at least to English speakers, may be the general interest in a number of these essays in finding the most archaic elements of witch beliefs. Most famously, of course, one associates this project with Carlo Ginzburg's ground-breaking works, I Benandanti (Turin, 1972) and Storia Notturna , which proposed that ancient shamanic traditions strongly influenced late medieval and early modern witch beliefs. This is the topic for a high point of this collection: a roundtable discussion between Carlo Ginzburg and four knowledgeable critics: Gustav Henningsen, Éva PÓcs, Giovanni Pizza, and Gábor Klaniczay. Ginzburg sometimes paints with a broad brush, and commentators called for increasing precision at the level of both category and typology; Henningsen, for example, notes that "shamanism" in Ginzburg's work does not always mean quite what one expects. Others called for further research to establish the precise contexts of historical examples; thus, PÓcs questioned the utility of using analogies to the witches' Sabbath to interpret the practices of Hungarian sorcerers (35-41). Still, as Klaniczay observes, and as Ginzburg points out in his response, a certain amount of imprecision is almost necessary in broad comparative history, and should not obscure the value of the insights gained. Further, all present, together with many of the other contributing authors, share Ginzburg's fascination with the deep past. Thus, in Klaniczay's essay, he makes special mention of "archaic motifs" appearing in Hungarian witch trials (73). Similarly, Valk remarks that Estonian witch beliefs have their origins in "Balto-Finnic shamanism" (269). Used judiciously, such speculative leaps across the centuries can reveal new perspectives on otherwise incomprehensible narratives and open up promising new lines of research. Sometimes, however, this search for the antique can be confusing. PÉtÉr G. TÓth, for example, undertakes a comparative examination of "swimming the witch" ("River Ordeal--Trial by Water--Swimming of Witches") and concludes that while the medieval water ordeal is best understood through the symbolism of Christian baptism, Eastern European witch "swimmings" probably had more to do with sympathetic rain magic. To bolster this conclusion, TÓth posits a connection between ancient Mesopotamian river ordeals (which may have had a magical component) and the popular punishment of witches in Eastern Europe (132). TÓth's argument, however, seems more original and persuasive as it stands, without the lengthy excursion into the Near East. I have similar qualms about Francisco Vaz da Silva's investigation of the strange habit of seventh sons (and other unusually numbered children) to become witches and werewolves in Portuguese folklore ("Extraordinary Children, Werewolves, and Witches"). The essay's argument is too complex to do it justice here, but depends upon an intricate interpretive analysis of symbolism in folklore, and a corresponding chronological regression. Ultimately, the author argues that extraordinary children, witches and werewolves are similar sorts of "double skinned entities," characterized by regeneration and metamorphosis. This sort of analysis seems unduly speculative, particularly when it stretches back through the dim mists of antiquity to cite as "convergent insights", the "probable" pagan Slavic wolf cult and "old European Snake worship" (266).

This criticism aside (which may in any case be the result of disciplinary prejudice or innate cranky conservatism), this is an accessible and stimulating collection of essays, and a fitting conclusion to a fine trilogy. These essays would serve as an excellent introduction to current trends in European social and interdisciplinary history, and to a group of authors whose works are far too seldom translated into English.