Witches and Neighbors: The Social and Cultural
Context of European Witchcraft
, by Robin Briggs.
New York: Penguin, 1996

Reviewed by Max Dashu, 1998

Witches and Neighbors deals with witch hunts between 1580 and 1630. The book contains some interesting information, especially when quoting directly from witch trial transcripts. However, some of these excerpts contradict the author’s own theories, such as his claims that the hunts were not gendered. Robin Briggs is critical of “sweeping generalizations,” but the book is full of broad theoretical declarations seemingly meant to be taken on faith: that “only a small fraction of Europe was ever seriously affected” by witch hunts, or that the period of persecution was “relatively brief.” Unfortunately, these reductionist assertions are not backed by convincing documentation.

This author informs us that there was no risk of being burned as a witch in the middle ages, up until the 15th century: “until then the relative skepticism of the ruling elites, together with the nature of the legal system, excluded the possibility.” This absolute declaration flies in the face of the evidence: from the Lex Visigothorum, Statutes of Quierzy, and Anglo-Saxon royal laws, to the Spanish fueros, the Sachsenspiegel and Schwabenspiegel, the Treuga Henrici, or the municipal laws of Paris, Florence, and various medieval cities as far away as Croatia.

Witch-hunting laws appear in early feudal codes over much of western Europe, are renewed in the high medieval royal laws, and are included in municipal laws from the 11th and 12th centuries onward. The early city laws sometimes call for banishment, branding, and/or fines, but in some places (such as Italy) inability to pay could precipitate the death penalty. Chronicles mention witches being burned, drowned, disemboweled or tossed off city walls. Witch persecution was so widespread, in fact, that it was used to contextualize a 1252 papal call to punish heretics “as if they were sorcerers.” [1]

Briggs paints quite a different picture: the scapegoating of heretics, Jews, and lepers preceded all witch persecutions. He is apparently unaware of chroniclers’ references to 11th and 12th century attacks on witches in Bohemia (Sagae, or “wisewomen,” blamed for storms and executed), Bavaria and Russia (harvest failures and famine), or Belgium (women blamed for magically causing an aristocrat’s death). [2] For Briggs, it was only in the wake of the Inquisition that witches were criminalized, and ordinary people began to be convicted (“in very small numbers”) in the 1300s.

Let’s be clear: there’s nothing daring about these inaccuracies. Briggs is taking a well-beaten path, following Cohn and a sizeable contingent of English and American academics, in averting the historical gaze from the oldest witch persecutions. In countering the old popular misconception that witches were only burned in the middle ages, they substitute their own: that no witches were burned before the Renaissance. That manorial haut-justiciers did not keep records of witch trials does not prove that burnings or other repression did not happen. There is enough evidence in print on medieval witch laws and lynchings, even if poor to non-existent record-keeping denies us the benefit of written transcripts.


Even for early modern times, there are serious historiographical problems in declaring that there were few or no hunts in certain times and places. Over and over again, the experts on regional persecutions (such as Mazzali, Ewen, Monter, Mandrou, Ankarloo, Klaniczay, Bethancourt) state that few records exist before the 15th or, most commonly, the 16th century, and they point out discrepancies and lacunae in the records that do survive. William Monter discovered fiscal evidence for trials for which no criminal proceedings survive, no names of convicted witches: only payments for wood, tar, and the executioner. [3] Michele Brocard-Plaut informs us that in Savoy, trial transcripts were hung around the neck of the person being burned.[4] Clearly a full accounting isn’t going to be possible for that region, already famed as a Land of Witches in the late middle ages.

In addition, some relevant archives were destroyed by fires, wars, and even deliberately. Robert Mandrou writes that the parlements of Pau and of Bordeaux burned their archives in the early 1700s in order to remove evidence of noncompliance with orders from Paris to stop the burnings. [4] As for the archives of the Inquisition, Napoleon carried them off. Some were dispersed to Dublin, but parts have been lost. There are indications that the records of the papal Inquisition may have documented a wave of early witch hunts.

Lea, Ginsburg and others have pointed to the observation by inquisitor Bernardo Rategno da Como (who had access around 1500 to records no longer extant) that witch hunts had begun in north Italy around 1350. [5] Independent confirmation that such persecutions occurred comes from surviving trials of the Milan Inquisition, which burned peasant women as worshippers of Diana around 1390. However, Briggs gives short shrift to the spread of Inquisitorial witch hunts. He very briefly mentions the Valais trials of 1428-9, the Metz and Arras hunts, and, tentatively, “a small peak of trials in the 1480s...” That’s all. The crucial hunts in Dauphiné and Savoy are missing, as is any trace of persecutions in the Rhineland, Burgundy, Aragon and Lombardy. Italian trials by what has been called the "Roman Inquisition" are difficult to track due to huge lacunae in many of the local archives. [6]

Historians always feel more secure when they can refer to texts, and an abundance of written references has led many (Briggs among them) to emphasize the late-medieval sorcery charge as a weapon of intrigue among and against nobles, templars, bishops and even a couple of popes. The question that needs to be asked, however, is where this politically useful charge originated, as it appears after 1300 and runs into the mid-1400s. The particulars of these cases provide a ready insight: the means by which rival magnates could be brought down was ready to hand, in the already extant persecution of witches. Such cases are attested as early as the 6th century, in Gregory of Tours' History of France.

They recur in the high middle ages. In a number of documented cases, aristocratic plotters forced common women to testify that they performed harmful sorcery at the behest of the intended target, then burned them. This is what happened in the trial of the bishop of Châlons; three women were tortured until they testified that he had gotten poison from them to kill his predecessor. The "witches" were burned in 1315, but the bishop survived these machinations. Even earlier, in 1309, the royal minister Enguerrand de Marigny forced a poor sorcière to testify against the bishop of Troyes. The sorcery charge was later turned on Marigny, who eventually went to the gallows. But first his valet’s wife was burned at the stake. [7]

There were similar cases in England; in 1441 the Witch of Eye was burned as part of a successful plot to eliminate Eleanor Cobham, a commoner who had risen to become Duchess of Gloucestor. Similar charges were brought against Elizabeth Woodville, wife of Edward IV, and her mother Jacquette, but the queen was able to quell the attempt. [8] Jehanne d’Arc, too, was dogged by suspicions of witchcraft from the moment she sought out a local nobleman to take her to the Dauphin -- long before the Sorbonne and Inquisition collaborated with the English to try her as sorcière et ydolatre. [9] Witch trials of less celebrated peasant women exist in both secular and ecclesiastical records (the old studies by Hansen and Lea contain short but still valuable summaries). But these cases failed to generate anywhere near the blizzard of commentary that more celebrated figures attracted, in their time or in ours.

The map at the beginning of Witches and Neighbors presents an unduly reductionist view of European witch hunting. It leaves out most of north Italy, perpetuating Anglo-American scholarship’s studied omission of the Italian hunts. Briggs explains his neglect of Italy and Spain by a lack of “available information,” except for “atypical” regions such as Venice and the Basque country. Apparently that assessment is meant to include Carlo Ginsburg’s ground-breaking study of the Fruili (which draws a radically different picture than Briggs about the role of elites in fueling the hunts). But is it really possible for a major witchcraft expert to be unaware of the high-quality research that has been done on the Italian hunts over the last few decades? Such scholars as Giuseppe Bonomo, Carlo Bondí, Luciano Parinetto, Giovanni Romeo and Tiziana Mazzali have documented a much more extensive persecution in Italy than Briggs acknowledges. [10]

Briggs’ map also minimizes the French hunts, showing most of the country (except Savoy, Normandy and the far northeast), as “areas of relatively light but not insignificant persecution.” This is a surprising assertion coming from someone aware of Mandrou’s book -- cited in his footnotes -- which documents intense witch hunts in the southern provinces, especially during the 1640s. Mandrou shows evidence that the parlements of these peripheral regions, German witch burningfar from being “unusually critical” of the hunts as Briggs supposes, were enthusiastic supporters. Some, such as the parlements of Pau and Toulouse, defiantly proceeded with witch burnings without forwarding the required appeals to Paris. Even the relatively skeptical parlement of Dôle, while overturning some death sentences, gave the go-ahead for numerous burnings. [11]

As for Germany, most of its northern and eastern regions appear blank on Briggs’ map. Perusal of Wolf’s encyclopedic Geschichte der Hexenprozesse would go a long way toward filling up these gaps, as would some of the older sources, such as Hansen’s Quellen, or even study of north German witch-hunters such as Carpzov. No significant witch hunts, even in Silesia, land of the witch-ovens? Hunts there continued into the 1700s, as they did in Savoy, Switzerland, Bavaria, Prussia, Poland, Hungary, Austria, Scotland and alpine Italy. The last century of the Spanish Inquisition (until 1820) was primarily targeted at practitioners of “superstition,” though the stake was no longer in play. Portugal, on the other hand, got off a few last burnings in the 1700s. But witch-lynchings continued sporadically through the 1800s, and instances are even known for the 20th century.


One valuable contribution of Witches and Neighbors is its description of folk rituals that defused tensions and fears of witchcraft in the villages of Lorraine and elsewhere. Briggs’ evidence complements Hans Sebald’s earlier study of similar dynamics in Franconian Switzerland. [12] Social negotiations were possible within peasant culture in which the suspected witch could demonstrate good will by touching, giving food or drink, or other rituals to remove harm from an afflicted person. In Lorraine this clearing of accounts sometimes involved the “witch” recommending pilgrimages or herbs or ointments, and here a shading over into the archaic, pre-diabolist context of witchcraft is detectable. Remedies were available, whether the problem was illness or loss of animals or accidents, to remove the disharmony: they involved eggs, herbal drinks or baths or fumigations or packets or ointments. The suspected witch might perform a “neuvaine” with candles in church, then give a sick child apple and bread. Briggs brings in de Lancre’s account of parallel customs in the Basque region of Labourd, where “it was customary to ask the suspect to wash their hands in a basin, then give the water to the sufferer to drink, a ritual with multiple resonances.” Sometimes these interchanges resolved the problem and ended the accusations.

But at the height of the witch craze, these old methods were increasingly rejected in favor of witch trials and burnings. Multiple causes were at work: the lashing out of horizontal hostilities under severe socioeconomic stresses; the spread of torture-trials and with them, the triumph of diabolism in popular culture; and not least, the penetration of deeply misogynistic ideologies that promoted scapegoating of the least privileged members of European societies. Certain women -- and a minority of men -- were blamed for any and all misfortunes, and repeatedly accused. Some got tired of constantly being accused, as Briggs shows, and were tried and burned after refusing to pay any more visits to placate those who suspected them, or after voicing their anger.

Others were so demoralized by insults, beatings, shunning and other ill-treatment that they purposely constructed diabolist confessions to put their sufferings to an end. Excerpted testimony from Mengeatte des Woirelz, Barbelline Chaperey and the old widow Claudon Wannier resonate quite chillingly with the words of the old English woman who confided to the Lord Advocate that she had lied to escape starvation, beatings, and having dogs set after her. Briggs shows that reputed witches were beaten -- “regularly” in some cases -- and cites “at least a dozen cases in Lorraine where the murderer [of accused “witches”] obtained letters of remission from the Duke.” The French crown was equally indulgent toward men who beat "witches" to death in Auvergne, as Pierre-François Fournier has documented. [13]

Recent reviews have hailed Robin Briggs for proposing major changes in approach to witchcraft studies. His assertion that English persecutions differed in degree but not in kind from continental hunts has its merits. I would have liked to see him address the causes of this differential in greater depth, especially the ability of continental elites to impose diabolism through torture trials. However, this book shies away from the issue of torture in the witch trials. (In England there was no papal Inquisition and torture was not allowed, at least officially. The favored methods of pricking, rape, sleep-deprivation, blindfolding, and binding the suspect cross-legged on stools qualify as torture in modern terms, though they pale before the heated iron tools used in Germany, such as the infamous Witch Chair.)

Briggs ably draws parallels between the English suspicion of beggars and similar dynamics in Lorraine and elsewhere in France. He does a good job of sketching the role of class tensions, showing how they pop up in accusations and trial testimony. In a society periodically racked by famine, witch “confessions” included accounts of disputes between the rich, said to advocate destroying crops, and the poor witches, who feared food shortages.

But Witches and Neighbors makes the controversial claim that the hunts proceeded from below and that elites were the main influence checking them. Briggs calls ordinary people “the principal instigators of most persecutions,” but his analysis provides next to no historical background leading up to the period he examines, when the torture-trials were in full cry. He fails to account for the impact of a diabolist judiciary backed by the force of church and state long before rural villages were converted to the diabolist cult of witch-persecution. (In fact, Giuseppe Bonomo discusses numerous instances of common people protesting and even rising in revolt against Inquisitorial witch hunts in early 16th century Italy.) But as the hunts proceeded, popular culture gradually (and unevenly) absorbed diabolist ideology imposed by church and state. It was at this point that the accusations spun out of control, and it was then that authorities found it necessary to apply the brakes.

Briggs simply fails to deal with how inquisitors and ruling elites imposed diabolism through torture-trials, nor with how this framework shaped the future course of the witch hunts. He doesn’t address the substantial case, made by Robert Muchembled and others, that the hunts functioned to impose a greater degree of elite hegemony over village culture than ever before. [14] He barely touches on diabolism, in spite of the fact that his own evidence points to the survival of a different approach to witchcraft within the folk culture itself. Only at the end of the book does he acknowledge diabolism, briefly and rather obliquely, as an elite construct.


Briggs advances the proposition that most witch hunt judges were acting “in good faith.” This could mean that they believed in what they were doing -- but then so did the Nazis, and so does the Taliban. This attempt to rehabilitate the judges is rather bizarre, but Briggs is prepared to go far in their defense: “Polarized binary classification was the dominant style of early medieval thought, so that demonologists had no choice [!] but to associate women with evil and inferiority.” However, this misogynist association persisted long after the middle ages. Renaissance and baroque judges were, in fact, avid consumers of diabolism. During one decade in the early 1600s, they snapped up ten editions of the demonologist Boguet’s “breviary” for judges, and the Malleus Maleficarum remained popular, reissued again and again for an avid elite market.

Ignoring the standard use of torture, and its use in shaping testimony and securing names of other “witches,” Briggs claims that judges “rarely did much to guide the answers.” This is simply not credible; there is far too much evidence to the contrary. Think of the Portuguese inquisitors and secular French judges pressing the accused for details of painful intercourse with the devil, the size and temperature of his member. Recall the infamous “Ja” confessions, in which boilerplate diabolist questionnaires required mere assent from the tortured prisoners. Sambenazzi and Foa’s La Confessione di una Strega (1989) brings the harsh realities of witch-hunting to light through the trial transcripts themselves. The judges browbeat their strappadoed captives into repeating stories of diabolical sex and witches eating human flesh, repeatedly barking the phrase, “Ei dirlo!” (Say it!).

Elsewhere, Briggs admits that pressure from judges did influence prisoners, who altered their responses “to meet expectations.” But he calls this loaded interchange, with torture and death as the stakes, a “negotiation.” Corruption (specifically the direction of tortured suspects to name critics of the hunts) is dismissed as an anomalous kind of “malpractice.” The gender and class bias involved in the sifting out process -- who was accused, who was prosecuted, who was burned -- is simply not taken into account at all.

The author excuses “local judges who merely responded to insistent popular demands for action, directed against individuals who had shown manifest ill-will.” Contemporaries painted a very different picture. In 1649, at the height of the French witch-hunts, Gabriel Naudé wrote that “The judges are so predisposed that they often wipe out entire countrysides, under the shadow of purging and cleansing them of these popular maladies, going so far as to burn 400 at a time.” [15] Such testimony is far too extensive to elaborate here; the literature is full of it. True, late in the day the superior courts (and in southern Europe, inquisitors) began to try to quell the hunts at long last, but their predecessors had been all too effective in stoking a popular obsession with witches. Briggs’ analysis is limited to this stage, when the persecution had blazed out of control. Even then, ardent diabolists were still found among the authorities, including some of the German law faculties this book hails as a moderating influence.

The author’s belief in the judges’ “moderation” leads him to second-guess the reality of their prisoners. Of an accused witch’s observation that “the judges were wicked people,” he writes, “Those who thought like this were surely preparing the way for their subsequent collapse under interrogation and torture...” On the contrary, these uneducated old women had a pretty clear idea of the horrors they faced, and their assessment was based on what the judges had done to others like them: tortured them until they parroted back a diabolist “confession,” then sent them to the stake.

I think Briggs is too ready to take the accusations at face value, on the assumption that the accusers were accurately reporting what the “witches” said or did. He does acknowledge the barrage of name-calling, insults, vandalism, and beatings that these women faced on a daily basis, but seems unwilling to consider that the hostility they faced could also have manifested itself in slander and perjury. He doesn’t question the trial testimony: the witches must have said these things as reported. Nor does he question the trials’ frame of reference, often adopting their terminology; parents accused by their children “crumpled in despair and confessed their own guilt.”

In fact, Briggs insists that victims of the hunts were not “wholly guiltless,” suggesting many of them “collaborated in their own downfall,” whether by attempting to use the prejudices against them to obtain food or alms, or by using harmful magic. Muchembled’s commentary is apropos here: some witches may have been “notoriously quarrelsome,” but so were their accusers, so was the tenor of the entire stressed-out society. Briggs’ own data show that many suspected women were aware of their danger and bent over backwards to avoid fighting or even showing anger. But these precautions often proved ineffective.

The book is at its worst when it lapses into psychological cant, characterizing the witches as “poorly integrated personalities.” This kind of analysis is typical: “Those who felt themselves to be repeatedly disadvantaged, while routinely provoking antagonisms, would also have been usually bad at disguising their hostile fantasies, so that a self-reinforcing pattern would have been established. ...witches and their victims may often have been drawn together by unacknowledged complicities.” But the disadvantages faced by women, the old and poor, were all too real. It is too facile to assume that the antagonisms directed at them must have been provoked; their attackers made no attempt to conceal their hostilities - - yet they were not accused. And who were truly the victims in these scenarios: those who blamed an illness or a horse’s lameness on the widow down the lane -- or the old women who faced the hate of their village, torture, and the stake?

Certainly, Briggs is far from being the only historian witchcraft to accept the witch hunts on their own terms. It’s quite common to see trial allegations repeated uncritically, with unqualified references to witches’ guilt and “confessions” of evildoing, and dismissals of the accused as angry, ungrateful, deluded, senile, stupid, neurotic, and failed women. Many academics follow the diabolist model in the very definition of “witch.” (Based on this definition, Cohn, Russell, and others feel justified in stating that “witchcraft” only appeared on the cusp of modernity.) The Anglo-Saxon word itself is considerably older, of course, and the lexigraphic record shows numerous positive meanings of witch (as “knower,” “soothsayer,” “wisewoman,” “herbalist,” “mystery-singer”) in the European languages. (That’s another article.) But in the face of this and other evidence, modern orthodoxy seems determined to restrict use of the word to the meaning of the Latin malefica: magical harmdoer.


I found Witches and Neighbors to be extremely problematic on the question of gender. Although the testimony of trials, executions, demonologies, broadsheets, art, literature, folklore, chronicles, and letters points to a pronounced expectation that witches were female, often poor, usually old, Briggs asserts that witchcraft was “neither gender nor age specific...” Even his own estimate that 25% of those executed were male still yields a ratio of three women to one man. We know that in many regions the ratio ran higher than nine to one, and more than eight to two in most. Some historical and trial records list all of those burned in mass hunts as female. The famous statement from the Chronicler of Trier comes to mind: “In the year 1586 the diocese of Trèves was so scoured and purged of sorcerers and witches that in two villages, only two women were left alive.”

The witch-hunters themselves (Bodin and de Lancre) are quoted as saying that women were ten or fifty times more likely to be witches than men, but are discounted as being “simply wrong about the facts.” I’d be the last to argue for diabolist judges’ grip on reality. Rather, their bias was a crucial force in shaping the outcome of the trials; it made them far more likely to try and convict women. Not only were more females tried to begin with, but their proportions among those executed were even higher. There were exceptions to this general rule, in places where witch-executions were relatively few, such as Iceland and Finland. Other exceptions occurred in some of the most severe mass hunts in Germany -- but there, too, the pattern of accusation began with stereotypical female witches (often old and poor) and spread to include more men and higher class people. As a critical mass of these more privileged people was reached, sympathy for the victims and a reaction against the persecution set in -- only for the process to repeat itself a decade or a generation later.) Some historians have noted that a large proportion of men who went to the stake were linked to previously-convicted mothers, wives, or other female kin. Probably others were targeted as gays, as suggested by the recurrent theme of same-sex lovemaking in the so-called sabbats.

Briggs writes, “For persecutors and general populace alike then, the stereotype of the old woman as witch had no more than a marginal purchase on their minds.” This is puzzling enough for anyone familiar with the trial records or demonological literature and art, but his next comments are self-contradictory: “Some old women who found themselves accused complained of their special vulnerability, and where statistics are available they bear this out to an extent, in that older women and widows are heavily over-represented among the sample. (emphasis added)

Briggs disallows the age factor on the grounds that accusations typically go back decades in time, when the “witches” were younger. But this is precisely what demonstrates the increased vulnerability of old/er women; stale charges from long ago were activated as a woman aged, and the danger increased after menopause. Briggs seems determined to minimize the far-reaching changes that the mass hunts wrought on women’s standing. He declares the ages 40-64 to be a time of wealth, prestige, and responsibility: “While this was most obviously true for men, it was bound to affect women as well.” This bald assumption of a male norm does not even pretend to offer any supporting data, or to explain away the strong case made (most notably by Carol Karlsen) for increased persecution of women who inherited or stood to inherit wealth, or who practiced professions.

Briggs' own discussion of the Winningen trials in the mid-1600s shows that male rivalries sometimes resulted in the accusation of wives, rather than the contending men. (Examples could be multiplied from other sources, especially for Germany and Denmark.) Briggs explains the women’s greater vulnerability to witchcraft charges with an offhand comment that wives tended to get involved in their husbands’ quarrels. But why would the husbands, as the principals, not be accused instead, or at least first? Briggs also suggests that male cunning folk “sometimes [appear] to come in for harsher treatment.” He offers no substantiation for such a statement; in fact the book refers to several cases of cunning women who underwent witch trials, but no males. A relative immunity of males is consistent with Ginsburg’s study of the benandanti, which shows the men functioning as witch-finders and the women accused as witches. [16] Similar dynamics are observable in Germany and England.

In Lorraine as elsewhere, men were able to utilize witchcraft accusations as an all-purpose eraser of personal responsibility for battery and adultery. “It was even possible for a husband who admitted ill-treating his wife to use witchcraft as an excuse; Dieudonné George le petit Colin explained a period of six weeks when he was constantly beating his wife as the work of Claudatte Henri, who had then secretly offered a soup which cured him. It could also be given as a reason for adultery, as it was by the mayor of St Maurice, Jean de Fribourg. Pierrotte Roy had been his mistress for several years, while he neglected his wife and even threatened her with a knife; then, when he apparently wanted to return to his wife, he told her he thought he had been bewitched.”

Men’s use of witchcraft accusations as a weapon against women recurs throughout the literature. One of the most dramatic expositions is Tiziana Mazzali’s 1988 study of the Poschiavo hunts. She shows husbands and their families among “the most persistent accusers” in these Swiss-Italian records. She found so many cases of husbands (many of them batterers and heavy drinkers) denouncing their wives that she concluded it was an easy way for them to get rid of unwanted wives. [17]

Briggs thinks that New England “magistrates, ministers and juries had treated the occasional accusation with sensible caution” and usually weighed cases in a “scrupulous manner.” (Does he mean that they were justified in executing forty or so witches in Connecticut and Massachusetts?) It’s worth recalling Levack’s observation that this region’s rate of witch trials exceeded that of Essex, England’s most fervent witch-hunting district. [18] Sadly, Briggs wilfully disregards Carol Karlsen’s incisive study of gender bias in the New England persecutions. [19] In looking for “a special cause” for the Salem outbreak, he completely sidesteps the gender and race dynamics she documents, in favor of struggles between powerful and lesser families.

The book makes some interesting observations on the “strain-gage” theory, which posits that witch-hunting was fueled by political and economic pressures, by religious conflicts, wars, plagues, and so on. Briggs notes that some of the worst German persecutions (in 1627-31) coincides with the height of the German Catholic Reformation -- but took place “in areas hardly touched by the conflict.” Briggs writes that the theory doesn’t explain why hunts were less severe in regions that experienced the same problems and pressures. He notes that wars and heavy plague outbreaks are correlated, not with increased hunts, but near-cessation of witch trials. This observation should not be surprising. People couldn’t afford to indulge in scapegoating accusations when their survival was seriously threatened. In crisis they were forced to deal with reality.

Witches and Neighbors sums up with a barrage of psychological explanations involving “bad mother” archetypes, “oedipal tensions,” and younger men’s attempts to detach from their mothers. Notions of witches killing and eating babies, it is suggested, have to do with “oral aggression” anxieties. Briggs thinks human nature is hard-wired to witchcraft concepts, one of many behaviors “determined by natural selection.” He writes, “It is even worth asking the apparently strange question whether human beings are born with a specific inherited mechanism for detecting witches...” (Does Briggs then believe in the reality of magical harmdoers?) He further suggests that “among the set of programmed social skills, developed by evolution to meet our basic needs for survival and reproduction, there are some which might incidentally predispose us to identify other people as malevolent secret enemies.”

This “evolutionary psychology” explanation approaches Middelfort’s notorious hypothesis that witch hunts were a “functional” system which stabilized society and ensured harmonious relations, rather than a displacement mechanism that avoided dealing with dangerous realities. Unfortunately, this favorable interpretation of the hunts is not unique. Levack agrees (“the prosecution of witches did help to protect a community form general corrupting influences and sinister forces”) [20] and so does Hans Sebald (“witchcraft [persecutions] served as an instrument for preserving a style of social interaction that was fair to everyone”). [21] Briggs does not go so far, but he comes too close for comfort. It is discouraging to see these ideas have not yet died a well-deserved death.



1] Lea, Henry Charles, _Materials Toward a History of Witchcraft_, New York, 1957, p 431

2] References to these early medieval witch-burnings and lynchings can be found in Lea and Fournier (see below) as well as Kieckhefer, Richard, _European Witch Trials: Their Foundation in Popular and Learned Culture_, London, 1976, and Muchembled, Robert, ed, _Magie et Sorcellerie en Europe du Moyen Age à nos Jours_, Paris: 1992 (Armand Colin), among numerous other sources.

3] On the fiscal evidence, see Monter, William, _Witchcraft in France and Switzerland: The Borderlands during the Reformation_, Ithaca: 1964 (Cornell); on Savoy, see Brocard-Plaut, Michele, _Diableries et Sorcelleries en Savoie_, Editions Horvath, 1986

4] Mandrou, Robert, _Magistrats et Sorciers en France au XVIIe Siecle: Une Analyse de Psychologie Historique_, Paris: 1980 (Editions du Seuil)

5] Lea was the first to discuss this, but Carlo Ginsburg elaborates on it in _Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath_, New York: 1991 (Pantheon)

6] See H.C. Lea and Hansen, Joseph, _Quellen und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte des Hexenwahns und der Hexenverfolgung im Mittelalter, Hildesheim: 1963. (But watch out for the Lamothe-Langon forgeries discussed by Norman Cohn in _Europe’s Inner Demons_.)

For more recent coverage of the early inquisitorial hunts, some starting points are Ginsberg (1991); Muchembled’s 1992 anthology (see above), and Bondí, Carlo, _Strix: medichesse, streghe e fatucchiere nell’Italia del Rinascimento_, Lucarini, 1989.

Discussion of the missing Inquisitorial archives for many Italian cities can be found in Romeo, Giovanni, Inquisitori, esorcisti e streghe nell'Italia della Controriforma, Florence: Sansoni Editore, 1990

7] de Cauzons, Theodore, _La Magie et la Sorcellerie en France_, Paris: 1908 (Librairie Dorbon-Ainé) pp 308-9; Lea, op cit, pp 185-92.

8] Ewen, _Witch Hunting and Witch Trials, London:Kegan Paul, 1929, pp 40-1

9] See Sackville-West, Vita, _Joan of Arc_, New York: 1991 (Doubleday) for details on this little-discussed topic.

10] Ginsberg, Carlo, _Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the 16th and 17th Centuries_, Penguin: 1985

Bonomo, Giuseppe, _Caccia alle Streghe: La Credenze nelle Streghe dall secolo XIII al XIX con particolare referimento all’Italia_, Palumbo, 1959. This important work discusses numerous cases of Italians rising up against inquistorial witch hunts in the mid-1400s and early 1500s.

Cirac Estopañan, Sebastian, _Los procesos de hechicería en la Inquisition de Castilla la Nueva, Madrid, 1942_, remains a valuable and rich source on witch persecutions, including some burnings, by the Spanish Inquistion.

11] Mandrou (1980)

12] See Sebald, Hans, _Witchcraft: the Heritage of a Heresy_, New York: 1978 (Elsevier)
and, for a broader scope of German hunts,
Hans-Jürgen Wolf: Geschichte der Hexenprozesse – Holocaust und Massenpsychose vom 16.-18. Jahrhundert, Erlensee: EFB-Verlag, 1995

13] Fournier, Pierre-François, _Magie et Sorcellerie_, Editions Ipomée, 1977

14] Muchembled, Robert, _Sorcières, Justice et Société au 16e et 17e Siecles_, Paris, 1987 (Editions Imago)

15] Naudé, _Le Mascurat_ in Mandrou, op cit, 135-6

16] See Ginsberg (1985)

17] Mazzali, Tiziana, _Il Martirio delle Streghe: Una Nuova Drammatica Testimonianza dell’inquisitione laica del seicento_, Milan: Xenia Edizione, 1988

18] Levack, Brian, _The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe_, New York: Longman, 1987

19] Karlsen, Carol, _The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England_, 1988 (WW Norton) This excellent study also includes an interesting selection of English data.

20] Levack, op cit, p 110

21] Sebald, op cit, p 178


Review of Brigg's Witches and Neighbors. Copyright 1998 Max Dashu.

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