Of Satan’s imps, wasting sicknesses and mass hysteria: a careful account of the occult and its discontents from ancient days to the present.
Best known as a chronicler of the colonial era, Demos (History/Yale Univ.; Circles and Lines, 2004, etc.) recalls a bout in graduate school with the witch hunts at Salem and elsewhere, which led to an early monograph. This more synthetic account examines the European roots of that episode while acknowledging that there is scarcely a culture anywhere that does not have a category of person who believes that he or she is especially attuned to the otherworld and able to manipulate it—and some category of person whose sworn duty it is to oppose such interventions. As Demos observes, in antiquity it was the Christians who were accused of cannibalism (thanks to the metaphor of carnal sacrifice in the Mass) and black magic; in early Lyons, France, good polytheists dragged Christians professed and suspected from their homes and administered frontier justice accordingly. The Christians returned the favor when it came their turn to rule. Demos reckons that, by the medieval era, the societies that were most susceptible to witch hunting on an organized basis were “small, chronically struggling state entities” with like neighbors, mistrustful and ever watchful for enemies within, especially those who might be associated with the devil. Strong centralized governments, conversely, tended to suppress anti-witch hysteria. France, for instance, saw little witch hunting in the early modern period save on the periphery, in places such as Brittany and Normandy. In Europe, he reckons, 100,000 to 200,000 witchcraft trials were conducted, and thousands died. In America, the numbers were fewer but the punishments just as severe. Demos traces witch hunting into the present in a political guise: the Red Scare, McCarthyism and so on.
Timely and provocative, with case studies and conclusions that are sure to come as news to most nonspecialist readers.