As someone who reads my fair share of Oxford’s Very Short Introduction series, I believe I am able to tell the good from the bad. Since I just finished Malcolm Gaskill’s own contribution to the series, I knew that it was that time of the year where I review it. Since at this point I am growing mildly weary of reviewing these books, since they are so difficult to quantify, before I even picked up Gaskill’s text, I was already unsure on how I would go about in reviewing it. Thankfully, by the time I finished the book, this concern had vanished.
Why it vanished is simple—because Gaskill’s little introduction was superb.
In under one-hundred-thirty pages, Gaskill throws the reader into what the basic of idea of witchcraft, its historical situation (how it manifested and evolved), and how it both appealed to the common peasant as well as the lordly, all while navigating the elaborate social-web which witchcraft fond itself enamored. Gaskill skillfully delineates between cultural sensitivity while fleshing out the varying, and often conflicting stances which the legal system held on witches and witchcraft during the ancient, medieval, early modern, and contemporary period, often switching between example periods in order to highlight her main focus without unnecessarily complex prose.
Of course, it being a Very Short Introduction, with the emphasis on ‘very,’ he cannot hope to encapsulate anything other than the most fundamental premise of the study of the history of witchcraft. Even so, Gaskill manages and his chapters, though short, manage to convey the fear which witchcraft held within predominately Christian society (Ch.1), how heresy operated to enforce strict pious codes of conduct, and how those codes mutated over time, such as the abolishment of the ‘ordeals’ as a presumptuous test of God (Ch.2), and why people turned to witchcraft in the first place along with the rationale for witches persecutions (Ch.3). In the second half of his book, Gaskill then moves on to the debates which attempted to locate witchcraft within the spiritual spectrum and whether it was at all compatible with Christly teachings (Ch.4), while swiftly moving on to how the condemnation of such witches was legally conducted (Ch.5). Finally, he elucidates the economic and social factors which exacerbated witch-hunts and why the hunts started in the first place (Ch.6), before detailing the progression of how witch-craft was gradually de-criminalized (Ch.7); the final chapter, meanwhile, is a sobering take on witch-craft in popular culture accompanied by a passionate plea for pluralism and multi-cultural understanding.
I will not pretend that I have no problems with Gaskill’s text. For instance, his reliance on Wittgenstein’s analytical philosophy is a strike in my book, as I am steeped in the continental tradition and not prone to entertain the ideas of philosophically heretical idealists (to take an overly harsh, mildly sarcastic tone). Additionally, his lackluster form of progressivism at the end of the book—where he gives a caution against racist reductionism at ‘Third-World’ witch-hunters while extolling understanding as a bulwark against the repetition of history—comes off as an overly metaphysical solution to something, religion, which has a fairly simple solution (atheism, non-organized religion). He does not brand himself as a materialist, and that is good, because as excellent as his introduction is, it is indelibly marked by rampant idealism.
Regardless, Gaskill’s text, politics and philosophy aside, should be the starting point for anyone intrigued by the study of witches or witchcraft. It provides an accessible entry point into what has become a pool of discord in the popular imagination; cutting through the pulp and trash of the witch-y world—both academic and non-academic—Gaskill presents a dizzying subject in a non-dizzying manner. With the many texts out there which purport to explain the history of witches, why settle for something inferior and wordy when you can buy Gaskill’s book on the cheap and still have one of the best (short) introductions there is to the topic?
Witchcraft: A Very Short Introduction
146 pages. Published by Oxford U.P. $8.38 (Paperback), $6.15 (Kindle), $12.25 (Audible audiobook). 2010.