Robin Briggs

Robin Briggs is a senior research fellow at All Souls College, Oxford and author of Witches and Neighbours: The Social and Cultural Context of European Witchcraft. A second edition of Early Modern France 1560-1715 was published in 1998.

Venom: Saint-Simon and Louis XIV

Robin Briggs, 26 November 1998

At the end of a work comparing the first three Bourbon kings, the duc de Saint-Simon invites us to make a final judgment between them, and to be persuaded that the precise truth has guided every stroke of his pen. With characteristic dexterity, he couples this nuanced claim to objectivity with the suggestion that it has only been achieved by subordinating his feelings of ‘just gratitude’ towards Louis XIII. It was that king who had raised the memorialist’s father, his personal favourite for some ten years, to the rank of duke and peer, so we should not be wholly surprised to find Saint-Simon challenging conventional opinion by rating him higher as both person and king than either Henri IV or Louis XIV.‘

Witchcraft and the Inquisition

Robin Briggs, 18 June 1981

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.

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