Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
19.01.14 Rampton, European Magic and Witchcraft

19.01.14 Rampton, European Magic and Witchcraft

The most notable aspect of this volume is its chronology. Appropriate to the series in which it appears, it is a decidedly medieval collection, and in this way it stands out from its immediate competitors. In The Witchcraft Sourcebook (2nd ed., Routledge, 2015), Brian Levack included seven selections from antiquity and then another seven from the Middle Ages as background to his main focus (54 selections) on the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In The Book of Magic (Penguin, 2015), Brian Copenhaver's attention fell primarily on antiquity (77 selections) and the early modern period (59 selections), although he also devoted 37 selections from the early Christian and medieval periods. Alan Kors and Edward Peters, Witchcraft in Europe 400-1700 (2nd ed., University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001), is evenly divided between medieval and early modern selections (35 vs. 34), but most of its medieval selections come from the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries, charting the growing concern over harmful demonic magic and witchcraft that would spill over into the early modern period.

Rampton's selections, even within their medieval focus, are more chronologically balanced. After an opening chapter (and fifteen source selections) covering antiquity and early Christianity down to Augustine, the rest of the book is organized into five further chapters, each covering between two and three centuries. The medieval period is thus subdivided into the post-Roman period (sixth through mid-eighth centuries), Carolingian era (mid-eighth through tenth), High Middle Ages (eleventh through thirteenth), and late medieval (fourteenth and fifteenth). The final chapter provides an early modern coda (sixteenth and seventeenth centuries), although it is also by far the longest chapter, with twenty-two selections and almost 150 pages. Other chapters are generally about 50-75 pages long.

The organization is strictly chronological. This applies not only to the chapters themselves, but also for the most part to the arrangement of sources within each chapter. This is a deliberate choice on Rampton's part, in order that the "variety of genres" that addressed magic and witchcraft over many centuries can be fruitfully juxtaposed (xiv). There are just a few instances in the volume where she does not adhere to this principle and does, in fact, cluster sources thematically, but they are rare. Another conscious choice on Rampton's part was to keep her introductory material to a minimum. This was to better let the sources speak for themselves (xiii). Each chapter comes with about three pages of general introduction to the period that it covers, and most source selections are introduced by a paragraph or two. No bibliography or suggestions for further reading are provided at any point.

Out of eighty-six source selections, I counted nine newly translated by Rampton herself. In another seventeen cases, the translation being used was fairly recent (less than fifty years old), and among these some very useful selections have been made. For copyright reasons, most of the translations are from the nineteenth or early twentieth centuries, although a few of these are listed as revised by Rampton. Effort has clearly been made to include a good number of literary sources, as well as legal, philosophical, and theological ones. Presentation of visual evidence is minimal. Each chapter is preceded by one figure. Beyond this, there is a single image of an ancient curse tablet included in chapter 1, and one image of the witches' sabbath included in chapter 6.

In a collection this broad and inclusive, not just chronologically and thematically but also in terms of source genres, every reader will doubtless also find some choices to quibble about. While trying to avoid the worst excesses of reviewerish nit-pickery, let me note a few cases where I found certain inclusions or exclusions particularly striking. The first chapter, on classical and early Christian texts, is in fact weighted heavily toward the Judeo-Christian. Only four out of fifteen selections are classical, and all are literary. The absence of any ancient law codes, in particular, is notable given that chapter 2 begins with "Three Post Roman Law Codes against Malicious Magic," the Salic, Visigoth, and Lombard. Chapter 3 includes a selection from Beowulf, which features plenty of wondrous elements, to sure, but no overt magic. Rampton herself, in her brief introduction, poses the question "whether or not a selection such a Beowulf belongs in a collection of readings on magic and witchcraft" (133). Even more curious is that, although she includes the initial attack on Heorot by Grendel's mother, she omits Beowulf's descent to her lair and so his use of the giant's sword, which many translations explicitly describe as magical, to slay her. In fact, Rampton closes her selection describing Grendel's mother with the editorial comment that she "returned to the marshes with her son's arm, and there she lived out her life" (139). Technically this is true, given that she will remain alive in her lair until Beowulf pursues and kills her, but this phrase would be utterly misleading to readers not already familiar with the larger course of the poem.

There are, unfortunately, other misleading statements, less trivial than this one, when we come to the later Middle Ages. Rampton's introduction to chapter 5, on the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, focuses almost entirely on the development of inquisitorial procedure in the preceding centuries, and she insists on stating that a medieval "Inquisition" was formed in the thirteenth century, whereas most experts avoid using that term (singular, capitalized) until the emergence of truly centralized institutions (the Roman Inquisition, Spanish Inquisition, etc.) in the early modern period. The result is to create a clear impression that increasing concern over demonic magic and ultimately diabolical witchcraft that marked the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries was entirely the product of clerical monomania. Rampton never makes such a statement outright, and her choice of source selections continues to be broad, including literature and treatises on learned magic, as well as excerpts from Joan of Arc's trial record and the Malleus maleficarum. In fact, given her exclusive attention to "the Inquisition" in her introduction, I was surprised to find so little directly inquisitorial material (both the inquisitor Bernard Gui's handbook and that of Nicholas Eymeric contain extensive discussion of demonic magic).

Rampton also makes a few outright errors in this chapter. She labels Johannes Nider an inquisitor (281), when so far as we know he became involved in only one heresy trial in the course of his life, and he was never directly involved in any witch trials. A more serious error comes in her introduction to the "witch-bull" Summis desiderantes, which famously prefaces the Malleus maleficarum. She correctly dates the bull to 1484, but then states that it was issued after Heinrich Kramer's failed witch hunt in Innsbruck, which occurred in 1485. She also states that Kramer was acting there "without formal commission" because she accepts Montague Summers' incorrect translation of Summis desiderantes as applying to "Northern Germany," when in fact the text refers to "Upper [i.e. southern] Germany."

Her most substantial error occurs in her introduction to chapter 6, on the early modern witch hunts. There she states that "during the period from 1450 to 1650, between 80,000 and 100,000 people were executed for witchcraft" in western Europe (318). Since the volume lacks any citations or bibliography, there is no way to know where she gets that figure, but the generally agreed upon totals are roughly half that high. In the most recent edition of his Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe (4th ed., Routledge, 2016), Brian Levack puts total executions at 45,000 (21). In The European Witch-Hunt (Routledge, 2016), Julian Goodare puts the total at 50,000 (27). And in The Witch (Yale, 2017), Ronald Hutton suggests "between forty and sixty thousand" (180).

Returning to the point of witchcraft and "the Inquisition," Rampton never claims that Catholic inquisitors played an outsized role in the early modern trials, and she notes that Protestants responded to witchcraft mainly in the same ways that Catholics did. She continues to label diabolical witchcraft as "heretical witchcraft," however, and writes that "inquisitors" were largely responsible for the uniform stereotype of witchcraft that emerged in trials across the continent because they read the same demonological source materials (318). This will undoubtedly reinforce the impression for many readers that witch-hunting was mainly an activity of maniacal clerical authorities, whereas in fact the vast majority of early modern witch trials were handled in secular courts. Nor does Rampton offer any material that points to the other side of inquisitorial culture. Absent from the source selection, for example, is the Spanish inquisitor Alonso de Salazar Frias's famous call for skepticism and restraint in conducting witch trials, or anything else that would indicate that the Spanish or other large, standing Inquisitions of the early modern period were typically quite hesitant to execute witches.

These points aside, there is much to admire about this collection. Anyone looking for significant attention paid to the medieval period, and especially the earlier medieval centuries, will find it here. And for the late medieval and early modern periods, its attention to different kinds of sources, especially its mix of literature and drama along with legal and demonological texts, is a welcome addition.