The Witchcraft Sourcebook (Review)

To get straight to the point—any study of historical witchcraft would be incomplete without The Witchcraft Sourcebook. Collecting documents which illustrate the cultural understanding of witchcraft, the Sourcebook brings together artifacts from the ancient all the way to the modern. Wide ranging in its focus, by the time one finishes this compact collection, they will undoubtedly know a great deal more than when they began.

                I started this book with but the scantest information on historical witchcraft. I knew that during the medieval and early modern period many innocent people were accused, tortured, and burnt at the stake. I knew that religious frenzy and paranoia drove the accusations, as well as to a degree ignorance. But beyond these bare surmises, I had no clue as to the philosophic, theocratic, or social dimension; the exact minutia of the witch-hunts, what constituted a witch and so forth, all of that was a mystery to me. Now, at the end, although I am, obviously, still no expert on these matters, I feel filled in on what transpired. I feel informed.

                This sensation of understanding what happened came about thanks to the tight organization of the Sourcebook. Totaling eight sections with each section chronicling a specific topic pertinent to witchcraft—whether it be the legalistic or artistic representation of it—each section builds on what the previous section established. The end result is that the reader is introduced to an idea’s very best offerings, while using those texts to then build a narrative which frames each ensuing idea; so though much is abridged, skimmed, and sacrificed in order so that the reader is exposed to the most relevant documents, one nevertheless manages to end up with a finely constructed platform for future study.

                As a survey, then, the Sourcebook cannot cover everything, but it does carry the heavy hitters when it comes to what witchcraft was as well as presenting those skeptics which tried to give guidance to those fanatics clamoring for the blood of Satan. It includes sections on how demonic possession was perceived in light of witchcraft in general, but also dramatic and classical representations of witchcraft and how such representations influenced public opinion. Though mostly focused on Western Europe, Eastern Europe does feature on occasion with the end result being a fairly level handed treatment of the vast material available.

                What many will find most handy in this book is its focus on gender. After all, as one of its blurb’s says, of the more than one-hundred thousand people persecuted for witchcraft in the three and a half century scare, many of those persecuted were women. Needless to say, what this gross disproportion is seen, one needs to investigate why so many women were attacked and why men were largely ignored. The Sourcebook takes up this investigative cause and provides the reader with the background information necessary to understand why women were so targeted, as well as in what manner men could, though not always, protect themselves from accusations. Suffice it to say, it has to do with a Biblical hermeneutic and how patriarchy functioned in rural communities.

                Newcomers will want to take note on how each section is prefaced with an introduction clarifying the idea presented, while each chapter comes packed with an additional introduction setting the time and place for the text and its author. So as intimidating reading some of these texts may be when one has no experience in understanding the ancient, medieval, and early modern epoch, Editor Brian P. Levack fills one in on everything needed to understand the context of each chapter and why each chapter is important to the idea explored.

                To conclude, yes, I would heartily recommend this book to anyone who asked me where to begin when researching historical witchcraft. Whether one simply wishes to know a bit more about the period of the witch-hunts, or to better understand the entire context before launching a protracted engagement with historical witchcraft, the Sourcebook will help. While it can get a bit weary reading chapter after chapter should one read straight through, since the topic matter can blend together after a while, even this is a hallmark of its rigorous construction, and should be enjoyed for its handy intertextuality. All in all, I am glad I spent the time and money on this digestible and fascinating history.

The Witchcraft Sourcebook
Ed. Brian P. Levack
348 pages. Published by Routledge. 2004.