Tuesday, April 11, 2017

An Examen of Witches by Henry Boguet (Review)

After spending far longer reading Boguet’s text on witchcraft than I had originally intended, I finally finished it, rather pleased with the contents, though let down with myself for taking so long to complete it. In a nutshell, Boguet is concerned with the practice of witchcraft; he spends the duration of the book arguing for and against the legitimacy of various practices of witchcraft—as a witch-hunter, he is, of course, concerned with witchcraft’s theological underpinnings insofar as it relates to Christianity.

                Focused primarily on France, specifically the county of Burgundy, Boguet text is a case study on the trials of several witches who were accused of various crimes. In detailing each offense, Boguet pays attention to detail (at least as he saw it) and provides both literary and biblical citations as to why he views certain aspects of witchcraft as he does; it is a call-back to an old form of argument in its theological-philosophical rigidness and lip-service to the opposing viewpoint.

                Over the course of several dozen chapters, Boguet tackles subjects as diverse as by what means witches harm people, to why they harm people, and in what way Satan gains followers and by what measure one if guilty of conspiring with the Evil One. If you read it like I, as a piece of abstract literature, then it is a fascinating read in how it deals with witchcraft accusations as set against the social and religious backdrop of late medieval France. If you were to read it literally, however, then the text becomes far more unpleasant with the author’s fundamentalist viewpoint and liberal application of capital punishment.

                Since the book is divided into two sections, one where Boguet deals with witchcraft proper, and another where he addresses how a judge should conduct their selves when handling a witch’s trial, each section feeds off one another. Reading the second section after the first will give the reader a deeper awareness of how the secular and ecclesiastical collide. So though Boguet was a bit of a historical eccentric, his text nonetheless provides an intriguing insight into how the morally righteous viewed their actions and place in a world supposedly drowned in Sin.

                If I had to comment on any single facet, however, I think it would be this: as a piece of abstract literature, Boguet’s book is a finger on the vein of witchcraft paranoid France.

                By this I mean that Boguet’s text unintentionally records a lot of activity which was encoded as witchcraft but clearly meant something else. When a son accuses his father of witchcraft and the father adamantly denies while pleading his son to stop, is this not Freudian family drama? When the naked bodies of young boys are found and their clothes neatly piled nearby, is this not evidence of a serial rapist? Why is it when a person hears voices in their head, it is Satan and not a mental illness? And so on. Often, Boguet talks of certain witchcraft aspects when a much more obvious reality exists; just one which is perhaps more difficult to swallow.

                Boguet’s text is merely one viewpoint among many medieval witch hunters, but it is an interesting one nevertheless, whatever its merits. When studying the history of witchcraft, one needs more than academic summaries on the subject, one needs to read the actual texts themselves in order to gain an understanding of where our ancestors were coming from when they decided to wage war on Satan. It may not be glorious or believable to our modern, refined mind, but for better or worse, our forefathers lives were filled with witchcraft and magic and a great deal of present-day situations can be located within different accusations. To ignore this is to ignore history, so let’s keep an open mind if for no other reason than it being an attempt to understand ‘why’ and ‘how’ the ‘what’ happened.

An Examen of Witches
Henry Boguet

328 pages. Published by Dover. $14.95 (Paperback). 2009.