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Oedipus was innocent

Malcolm Bull, 10 March 1994

Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come: The Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith 
by Norman Cohn.
Yale, 271 pp., £20, October 1993, 0 300 05598 6
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... his hypothesis is widely applicable. It should, however, be of some relevance to those who, like Norman Cohn, are concerned with the dynamics of persecution. Cohn’s classic, The Pursuit of the Millennium, posited a connection between millenarian thought and the persecuting impulse, and one of the ways in which ...

Apocalypse Now and Then

Frank Kermode, 25 October 1979

The Second Coming: Popular Millenarianism 1780-1850 
by J.F.C. Harrison.
Routledge, 277 pp., £9.95
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... Thanks to​ the work of Norman Cohn, Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm, Keith Thomas and others, we have, over the past few years, acquired a lot of information about millenarianism as a social and historical force. The belief that the end is nigh, or that a new series of times is about to begin, is very ancient, but it is also modern ...

Malise Ruthven discusses the Beirut massacre

Malise Ruthven, 4 November 1982

... social group can perceive itself as threatened by the people whom it exploits and persecutes. As Norman Cohn has written in his masterly study of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Warrant for Genocide, ‘what these people see as the enemy is in fact the destructiveness and cruelty in their own psyches, externalised. And the greater the unconscious ...

Common Ground

Edmund Leach, 19 September 1985

A Social History of Western Europe 1450-1720: Tensions and Solidarities among Rural People 
by Sheldon Watts.
Hutchinson, 275 pp., £7.95, October 1984, 0 09 156081 0
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Kinship in the Past: An Anthropology of European Family Life 1500-1900 
by Andrejs Plakans.
Blackwell, 276 pp., £24.50, September 1984, 0 631 13066 7
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Interests and Emotion: Essays on the Study of Family and Kinship 
edited by Hans Medick and David Warren Sabean.
Cambridge, 417 pp., £35, June 1984, 0 521 24969 4
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... Confessions and Accusations’ included contributions concerning European history from Norman Cohn, Peter Brown, Keith Thomas and Alan Macfarlane, all professional historians. They were fully integrated with the contributions of the anthropologists. Since that date it has become increasingly common both in this country and elsewhere for ...
The Name of the Rose 
by Umberto Eco, translated by William Weaver.
Secker, 502 pp., £8.95, October 1983, 0 436 14089 6
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... such an emperor led to all sorts of extraordinary charismatic outbursts, familiar from the work of Norman Cohn. Fra Dolcino, one of the chiliasts Cohn mentions, figures prominently in Eco’s book. The story is supposed to be told by an old Benedictine monk, Adso of Melk, writing near the end of the 14th century. As a ...


Rosalind Mitchison, 21 January 1982

Enemies of God: The Witch-Hunt in Scotland 
by Christina Larner.
Chatto, 244 pp., £12.95, September 1981, 0 7011 2424 5
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The Enlightenment in National Context 
edited by Roy Porter and Mikulas Teich.
Cambridge, 276 pp., £19.50, September 1981, 0 521 23757 2
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... The ‘craze’ was a short one, coinciding with the late wave of the general European scare. Norman Cohn has established that the existence of a witch scare in the early 14th century is an invention of historians. Witchcraft, in theory and in suppression, was a growth at the end of the 14th century, died down in the early 16th century to return in ...


Peter Burke, 18 March 1982

The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought 
by John Friedman.
Harvard, 268 pp., £14, July 1981, 0 674 58652 2
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Apparitions in Late Medieval and Renaissance Spain 
by William Christian.
Princeton, 349 pp., £16.80, September 1981, 9780691053264
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... or not induced by drugs), to which the authorities had given an unfavourable interpretation. As Norman Cohn showed in Europe’s Inner Demons (1975), the perception of witches – like that of saints, visions and other cultures – was governed by ancient stereotypes. The history of stereotypes, and collective perceptions, is a rapidly growing subject ...

Enemy of the Enemies of Truth

Frank Kermode: The history of the footnote, 19 March 1998

The Footnote: A Curious History 
by Anthony Grafton.
Faber, 241 pp., £12.99, December 1997, 0 571 17668 2
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... The books may nowadays be mentioned with respect by such learned and adventurous historians as Norman Cohn; and if one wants to see where an educated 17th-century scholar or amateur looked for information about the history and theory of music, his Musurgia Universalis of 1650 is a good place to start. But Kircher’s career offers sad testimony to the ...

Where’s the omelette?

Tom Nairn: Patrick Wright, 23 October 2008

Iron Curtain: From Stage to Cold War 
by Patrick Wright.
Oxford, 488 pp., £18.99, October 2007, 978 0 19 923150 8
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... In Europe’s Inner Demons, Norman Cohn described the medieval witch craze as a ‘supreme example of a massive killing of innocent people by a bureaucracy acting in accordance with beliefs which, unknown or rejected in earlier centuries, had come to be taken for granted, as self-evident truths’. Of course popular beliefs had to fall into line with the bureaucracy’s position, and Cohn provides plenty of examples to show that they did: rural and small-town societies were rich in resentments, ancestral curses and fears of the unknown ...

Broom, broom

Leslie Wilson, 2 December 1993

The Virago Book of Witches 
edited by Shahrukh Husain.
Virago, 244 pp., £14.99, October 1993, 1 85381 562 4
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... in cursing. The only thing all witches had in common was that ‘she ys deveelishe of her tonge.’Norman Cohn argued that the witch’s Sabbat was a projection of the witchhunters’ own minds, comparing it to the orgies of which the ancient Romans accused the Christians and the Christians, in their turn, accused dissident groups: meetings ‘at which ...

The vanquished party, as likely as not innocent, was dragged half-dead to the gallows

Alexander Murray: Huizinga’s history of the Middle Ages, 19 March 1998

The Autumn of the Middle Ages 
by John Huizinga, translated by Rodney Payton.
Chicago, 560 pp., £15.95, December 1997, 0 226 35994 8
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... Huizinga saw the Malleus maleficarum as the outcome of ‘medieval thought’ rather than – as Norman Cohn and others have shown – of conditions peculiar to the later 15th century and the two centuries that followed. Another example is medieval saints. For Huizinga they were ‘timeless’, whereas shifting models of sainthood are now a busy subject ...

On the Rant

E.P. Thompson, 9 July 1987

Fear, Myth and History: The Ranters and the Historians 
by J.C. Davis.
Cambridge, 208 pp., £22.50, September 1986, 0 521 26243 7
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... wished to find precursors for the anti-hegemonic ‘hippy’ culture of the late 1960s, and Norman Cohn (whose membership of the CP Historians Group has gone unrecorded) wished to clobber that culture, and to show the way in which millenial Ranting led on to totalitarianism. So the old bugaboo was dug up and dressed in modern jeans. What is silly ...
Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust 
by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen.
Little, Brown, 622 pp., £20, March 1996, 0 316 87942 8
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... glorious page in our history’. An enterprise of this kind needs a rationalisation, which is why Norman Cohn entitled his classic history of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Warrant for Genocide. What about the perpetrators? Goldhagen makes the valid claim that there has been relatively little scholarly interest in them. True, there are studies of ...

Mailer’s Muddy Friend

Stephen Ambrose, 1 September 1988

Citizen Cohn 
by Nicholas von Hoffman.
Harrap, 483 pp., £12.95, August 1988, 0 245 54605 7
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... terrible to behold. The tale is told in the form of a biography of one of the minor players. Roy Cohn was a personification, but not a creator, of the rot that has spread through the élite of American life since World War Two. He was Jewish, son of a New York State Supeme Court judge, a mama’s boy (he lived with his mother until she died when he was ...

Make for the Boondocks

Tom Nairn: Hardt and Negri, 5 May 2005

by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri.
Hamish Hamilton, 426 pp., £20, January 2005, 0 241 14240 7
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... one has its own multitudes of the faithful, armed and ready for great encounters still to come. Norman Cohn, the historian of millennial thought, traces the idea back to Zoroaster (Zarathustra), who added the idea of a happy ending to previous visions of disaster: ‘a glorious consummation of order over disorder, known as “the making ...

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