Book review: The Enemy Within: 2,000 Years of Witch-Hunting in the Western World

THE ENEMY WITHIN: 2,000 Years of Witch-Hunting in the Western WorldBy John DemosViking, 336pp, £17.99

JOHN DEMOS HAS BUILT A formidable reputation with his five scholarly books on early American history. His new book, The Enemy Within, is very different. Not only is it intended for a broad readership, but its putative subject, as indicated by the subtitle, is no less than "2,000 years of witch-hunting in the western world." Demos tells us in his introduction that the plan for the book came from his publisher, but he does not really explain why he accepted the challenge. To paint so vast a picture requires a broader brush and rather more intellectual arrogance than Demos has at his disposal. As he dispatches three-quarters of his time span in a mere 70 pages, so that he can get down to the detailed discussion of events in early America that takes up most of the book, it could be said that he has ducked the challenge.

The institution of what we would call a "witch hunt" is only tangentially related to the practice of witchcraft. Demos understands that any group can be demonised; he mentions the cases of the Knights Templar, the Waldensians and the Cathars, but he could have mentioned many more. He makes a strange muddle of the fact that belief in witches was considered heresy by the fathers of the early church, partly because he appears not to understand that medieval witch hunts directed themselves toward the detection of heretics as the real enemies within and paid scant attention to charlatans. Only people baptised as Roman Catholics could be prosecuted as heretics; the enemies the Inquisitions addressed themselves to were those who infiltrated believers' most secret souls. The Dominican order, known punningly as "domini canes," or hounds of the Lord, was founded in the 13th century specifically to hunt down Cathars.

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This reader would have been intrigued to find out what Demos, with his in-depth understanding of the events in Salem, would have made of the judicial murder of Joan of Arc, whom the British would have tried as a witch if only Anne of Burgundy, Duchess of Bedford, deputed to examine her, had not testified that she was a virgin. Joan was tried as a heretic instead, found guilty and burnt alive at the age of 19. Like the teenagers in Salem, Joan could cite spectral evidence. Whether her voices would be classed as saints from heaven or goblins damned depended on her judges. The British burned her; 25 years later the French retried her and declared her saint and martyr.

Many of the female saints of the early church behaved in ways that in a different setting would have brought an accusation of witchcraft. Many had relationships with birds and beasts identical to those that witches were thought to have. The seventh-century saint Melangell, for example, sheltered a hare beneath her skirts as she knelt praying in a wood and when the following hounds caught up they fell back whining; later, witches would be thought to inhabit the bodies of hares.

Moreover, Demos is ill equipped to explain why it is that the most frightful witch hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries occurred in Protestant Europe, where the authority of the papacy had been rejected and minority sects and millennial cults were springing up everywhere. He disposes of the most diligent witch-hunters in Europe in a few brief synoptic paragraphs that add little to our understanding of why 9 million – or was it 50,000? – people were tried as witches between 1550 and 1700.

It is still a sin for a Catholic to consult a witch or a necromancer, but under Catholicism there was no systematic attempt to drive such practitioners out of the community. Even on the eve of a great witch hunt the merry wives of Shakespeare's Windsor occasionally availed themselves of the services of the Witch of Brentford, who had nothing worse to fear than being beaten out of the house by an angry husband. In much of the western world witches and witchcraft are as much a part of the regular business of life as they were in premodern times. In rural Italy to this day a woman who suspects her husband of infidelity will consult a strega, who will give her a fascino, a charm to stop him from straying. In 2003 the charismatic life coach Carole Caplin was described as having "cast a spell" over the better educated wife of the British prime minister. In hanging Caplin's "magic crystals" round her neck Cherie Blair was probably a victim of false science rather than guilty of superstition, but in its early days experimental science too was heresy. Women's magazines now run advertisements for fortune tellers and other charlatans, who exploit with impunity, the gullible.

Demos's account of the travels of the Malleus Maleficarum, the Hammer of Witches, compiled by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger and first published in Latin in Strasbourg in 1487, with many more Latin editions in 40 years, is marred by his own faith in text as authority. Early printings are a strange selection of texts partly because of the vicissitudes of financing book production; Malleus Maleficarum is a good example of a book that every institution had to own, rather than a book everyone wanted to read. Demos might have been inspired to reconsider if he had known a little more about the "eccentric Catholic intellectual" Montague Summers, who revived it in 1928.

In the last portion of The Enemy Within Demos includes a series of brief essays on American witch hunts – the various anti-Masonry scares, the persecution of the Bavarian Illuminati, the anarchists following the Haymarket riot, the different Red scares and McCarthyism, and the child sex-abuse panic. Demos keeps asking himself whether these episodes could be correctly described as witch hunts.

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The real question is whether what happened in Salem in 1692 is an aspect of the same process. No witch-finder general orchestrated the events in New England. Demos includes an overview of contemporary interpretations of "what happened at Salem" under 20 headings, an ideal format for undergraduate course notes but hardly suitable for a book.

Demos is oddly hampered by being unable to avail himself of studies of non-western witchcraft, such as GM Carstairs's classic Death of a Witch (1983), which carefully traces the process by which a poor old Mewari woman incurred the suspicion of the other inhabitants of her tiny village in India, capitulated to their version of her character and motives, and was ultimately beaten to death. Demos is probably right in blaming base misogyny for the predominance of women among those persecuted as witches, but such reflections will not help us to understand why, how and when modern governments will resort to witch-hunting as a way of shoring up their own authority. The issue is important because once again we find ourselves enmeshed in a "war on terror", in which the principal strategy is the fomenting of terror. The imagined enemy in our midst is now the Islamic fundamentalist. Miscarriages of justice proliferate.

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In Australia last year the Indian-born doctor Mohammed Haneef was held in solitary confinement for at least 11 days on a charge of assisting terrorism because months before, when he left England, he had given the Sim card from his mobile phone to a relative. When he was finally charged, his visa was revoked. Rather than allow himself to be deported, Haneef opted to remain in detention until his case was heard. He was released after three weeks when it was realised that the information laid against him was demonstrably false. The case is now the subject of an inquiry, but what seems clear is that, in their eagerness to find a scapegoat, investigators both in Britain and Australia overinterpreted and misrepresented what turned out to be an innocent circumstance. The real enemy within is fear itself.

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