Document Type

Book Review

Publication Version

Published Version

Publication Date

Summer 2006

Journal or Book Title

Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft





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When Alan Macfarlane and Keith Thomas reinvigorated the study of historical European and particularly English witchcraft in the early 1970s, they were heavily influenced by studies of witchcraft in Africa, particularly the work of E. E. Evans-Pritchard done decades earlier. While they did not primarily [End Page 121] write comparative histories (only the final section of Macfarlane’s book is explicitly comparative), they drew on anthropological models to help them understand how belief in and fear of witches might have functioned in early modern English society. A door could have been flung open between the study of European and non-European systems of witchcraft. Instead, as histories of the European witch hunts proliferated in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, most scholars avoided broad, comparative arguments. Instead they stressed the particular nature of witchcraft in early modern Europe, with conceptions of “the witch” deeply rooted in Christian theology and demonology. Now Wolfgang Behringer, a major scholar of early modern witchcraft, wants to redress this tendency. His focus is witch-hunting—legal or quasi-legal actions taken against those supposed to have performed some type of maleficent magic against their neighbors. He begins not in Europe but in modern South Africa, where in 1990 a hunt claimed thirty victims. Throughout the 1990s, he notes, witch-hunting actually increased in South Africa and other parts of the African continent. He therefore contends that a purely Eurocentric, predominantly Christian conception of witchcraft is “no longer acceptable” (p. 3), nor is the comfortable notion that witch-hunting is an essentially “closed chapter in the history of mankind” (p. 8).


This is a book review from Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft 1 (2006): 121, doi:10.1353/mrw.0.0032. Posted with permission.


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