Witchcraft in Europe 400-1700: A Documentary History (2nd ed.), edited by Alan Charles Kors and Edward Peters

23 March 2008

One of my side interests in history is the history of witchcraft persecutions in Europe and North America. I have a few other books that I may end up re-reading and reviewing, but at the moment they don’t quite justify a separate category for this blog. Perhaps they will, one day.

Witchcraft in Europe 400-1700: A Documentary History (2nd ed.), edited by Alan Charles Kors and Edward Peters

The first edition of Witchcraft in Europe was a collection of translated primary sources dating from A.D. 1100 to 1600, the span of time which saw the rise of executions for heresy and witchcraft by Europe’s church-based inquisitors and secular authorities. The second edition greatly expands on the first one, including not only new documents from a wider range of sources but also relevant bibliographical citations from contemporary historical scholarship on the witch-craze. And the result is a very hefty volume, chock-full of snippets from both religious and secular authors — all of which form an interesting picture of how the ‘authorities’ regarded the strange phenomenon of ordinary men and women who appeared to be in league with the Devil.

The texts one might expect to find in a book like this are, of course, included. There is a long set of passages from Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger’s Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches), one of the ‘classic’ instructional texts used by the authorities who presided over the trials. Other familiar works, like Cotton Mather’s ‘A Discourse on Witches’ and Nicholas Remy’s Demonaltry present contemporary opinions on witches and their practices, often in lurid detail. There are accounts of trials and confessions and executions, extensive scholarly debates on what exactly constituted ‘witchcraft’ and what distinguished witches from heretics, and several illustrations of paintings and woodblock prints that show popular conceptions of the diabolical pacts made by fallen women. Yet Witchcraft in Europe also shows the other side of the argument, with selections from works like Johann Weyer’s De praestigiis daemonum (On the Illusions of the Demons), Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft and Fredrich Spee’s Cautio criminalis, which illustrate the strong doubts and misgivings that more than a few individuals had about whether witches even existed. And conveniently, every single text in the book has a short editorial passage before it that explains the context of the text and gives some useful biographical or historical information about its author.

I know that this book is used as a base text in many university courses that spend some time discussing witchcraft, and it’s fairly easy to see why. As a comprehensive selection of texts, I can’t think of a better individual book. If Witchcraft in Europe ever goes into a third edition, I have a feeling I’ll probably end up buying it as well.


  1. […] this in a little late for a Sunday. I have a few other books I could add to my review list of other books on witchcraft, though I don’t happen to have any of them to hand at the moment. Possible notes for a future […]

  2. […] and sociological studies of witchcraft and popular belief in magic in pre-Reformation Europe have to consider a very basic question: what […]

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