Witchcraft and the Inquisition

Robin Briggs

  • Unclean Spirits: Possession and Exorcism in France and England in the Late 16th and Early 17th Centuries by D.P. Walker
    Scolar, 116 pp, £9.95, March 1981, ISBN 0 85967 620 X
  • The Witches’ Advocate by Gustav Henningsen
    Nevada, 607 pp, $24.00, November 1980, ISBN 0 87417 056 7

The proliferation of books on the history of European witchcraft, which has been such a feature of the past fifteen years or so, is itself an interesting phenomenon. The relationship between these scholarly writings and the popular interest in the occult is far from easy to assess; with a few regrettable exceptions, their tone has been rigorously sceptical, seeking to uncover the social and intellectual roots of what they unequivocally see as a delusion. In contrast to earlier rationalists such as Joseph Hansen, H.C. Lea or R.H. Robbins, however, modern specialists are inclined to take popular beliefs much more seriously. If the recent occultist vogue has done nothing else, it has at least undermined confidence in a steady progress from superstition to rationality. Earlier simplifications once discarded, and the history of persecution studied in detail, it becomes impossible to accept any of the ‘conspiracy theories’ which lay the blame primarily on the cupidity of judges, the credulity of clerics, or the cruelty of the Inquisition. It is now plain, moreover, that witchcraft commonly gave rise to great divergences of opinion, not hard-and-fast orthodoxies, even if the balance of such opinions may have differed as between regions, confessions and social or professional groups. One of the greatest common merits of the two books under review, so different in many respects, is that they emphasise the extent and severity of these disagreements. In this respect, as in many others, the study of witchcraft enables us to penetrate to an exceptional depth beneath the surface of early modern society; the imaginary nature of the crime renders it a peculiarly sensitive barometer of shifts in attitudes at various levels. This alone would be a more than sufficient justification for the attention given to the subject. In addition, it is notable how many of the recent contributions not only produce striking new evidence, but tend to raise as many questions as they solve; the subject is far from being exhausted.

The discussion of witchcraft is still some way from being properly integrated into the study of European history in general, and it is here that Professor Walker’s book on possession and exorcism is most helpful. This handsomely produced, if expensive version of his 1979 Northcliffe lectures is mostly devoted to quite well-known cases, such as that of Marthe Brossier in France, and the activities of John Darrel in England. Economically written, with telling quotations and a good deal of quiet humour, these must have been entertaining and instructive lectures; readers should not undervalue Unclean Spirits on account of its lightness of touch, still less its author’s over-modest claim to have ‘only scratched the surface’. Apart from giving a crisp and convenient account of some important cases, he demonstrates very effectively how the arguments over possession and exorcism linked up with the religious conflicts of the 16th century. Naturally this was most apparent in France, where the rivalry was between Catholic and Protestant, so that the successful use of consecrated host or holy water in an exorcism had powerful propagandist overtones. The cases of Nicole Obry at Laon in 1566, of four demoniacs at Soissons in 1582, and of Marthe Brossier, who arrived in Paris in 1599, all fit this pattern; indeed, the Laon case seems to have been a direct model for both the others.

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