The Witch by Ronald Hutton

The Witch: A History of Fear from Ancient Times to the Present
Ronald Hutton
Yale University Press, 2017

wp36 the witch hutton

Review by John Kruse.

Ronald Hutton — for the rare reader who isn’t already aware of him — is a professor of history at Bristol University. Hutton is as well known for TV appearances as for his writings on folklore, pagan religions, druidry, shamanism and folk festivals. This book, his study of the history of witchcraft, was awaited with anticipation because of his reputation for academic rigor combined with a balanced approach to his esoteric subjects.

I must start with a word of warning for potential readers. Hutton spends as much time comparing and contrasting other academics’ ideas on his subject as he does examining the evidence himself. Be prepared for a very scholarly format, and a great deal of reference to previous books and journal articles. It can be a bit daunting and, if you don’t have access to the sort of library holding these materials, a bit frustrating as well.

That said, if you are looking for a comprehensive overview of the practices of witchcraft and popular views about witches over the centuries, this weighty book is a good starting point. Hutton surveys witchcraft across the globe and from the earliest times, taking in the ancient Near East, African and Native North American cultures. After the first few chapters, though, his focus narrows to (mainly Western) Europe and a lot of his evidence on witch trials and on fairy lore is specifically British.

Hutton suggest five characteristics that help define a “witch.” Four beliefs are customary: that witches exist; that they can cause harm to individuals by uncanny means; ; that witches work within an inherited tradition; and that they are evil, but can be resisted. Hutton also introduces the concept of “service magicians” or what one might call “good witches,” magical specialists who fought against malicious witchcraft. Hutton’s definition of the word “witch” is based in history and folklore, and is quite distinct from that espoused by modern, nature-based religions, which he describes as “thoroughly worthwhile.”

The Witch contains fascinating information about the evolution of witch beliefs during the middle ages in Italy, France, and Germany. This period provided the foundations for many images (broomsticks and sabbats, for example) associated with witchcraft to this day. Of particular interest was the section on the “hosts of the night” who would visit homes, blessing or cursing the inhabitants dependent upon whether or not food and drink were left out for them.Hutton suggests these beliefs as the origin of the British idea of fairies who visited homes and would reward or punish according to whether the house was tidy.

Hutton describes the fact that the medieval church was a good deal more tolerant than its successors. Hutton suggests that this reflects the dominance and power of Catholicism in the middle ages, and notes that the Great Witch Hunts occurred during the chaos and uncertainty of the Reformation period.

I especially enjoyed the chapter on witches and ceremonial magic: I’m interested in spells for conjuring fairies but these are clearly linked to the work of magi like John Dee and may be traced back to Egyptian magical practices.

Turning to chapter 8 on fairies — my main reason for reading the book — Hutton offers an overview of the evolution of English fairy belief from 1200-1600 and examines the association between fairies and witches. His sketch of the development of British ideas as to the nature of fairies draws on a wide range of literary as well as folkloric sources, but underplays the native roots of the belief and is inclined to ascribe too much to quite late continental imports.

As for the relationship with fairies claimed by some witches, I believe that Hutton gives undue prominence to accounts given under duress by defendants in witch trials. The claims of special healing powers from the fairies are fairly unusual and I wonder if there are better explanations. Hutton also speculates whether a belief in fairies made a society less susceptible to a belief in satanic witches. Ireland might be cited in favor of this proposal, but the evidence is very complex; leaving this as a subject deserving of further study.

All in all, Ronald Hutton’s The Witch is an erudite and demanding read, packed with information and resources for further study.

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