The best books on the history of European magic and witchcraft

Martha Rampton Author Of Trafficking with Demons: Magic, Ritual, and Gender from Late Antiquity to 1000
By Martha Rampton

The Books I Picked & Why

Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries

By Carlo Ginzburg, John Tedeschi, Anne C. Tedeschi

Book cover of Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries

Why this book?

In 1575, the Roman Inquisition came across some disturbing rumors of villagers who called themselves benandanti, meaning “good walkers.” These men and women of the agrarian district of the Friuli in northeastern Italy were thought to be special because, as the folk narrative goes, they were born with the amniotic membrane (or the “caul”) covering their heads. When the individuals reached adulthood, on certain Thursday nights of the year, an angel summoned them from sleep, and, travelling out of their bodies in the form of mice, cats, and other small animals, they flew into the clouds to fight malevolent witches (malandanti). The benandanti fought with bundles of fennel while the witches wielded sorghum stocks. If the “good walkers” were successful in defending the crops, it would be a good year; if the witches won, the harvest would be abysmal and the witchy “evil walkers” would destroy the wine, often by urinating in the casks. The Catholic Inquisition considered the nocturnal activities of the benandanti to be nothing short of heresy and witchcraft.

Although the earliest accounts of the “good walkers’” journeys had no trace of Satanic witches' gatherings and no renunciation of Christianity, over time the benandanti were themselves convinced that their visionary experiences were a product of demonic illusion. Ginzburg argues that the tradition of nocturnal battles has deep roots in pre-Christian shamanistic fertility cults and that processions of the dead were widespread across central Europe as far back as six thousand years ago. I pick this book because of the author’s sensitivity to complexity; he does not simplify historical processes by casing one group as the “bad guys” clashing with and manipulating their “victims.” It is a brilliant depiction of how, throughout a period of over a hundred years, two cultural factions in one society can understand a reality so differently. In addition to Ginzburg’s analysis, Night Battles contains the Inquisition’s trial records. 

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The Golden Ass

By Apuleius, Sarah Ruden

Book cover of The Golden Ass

Why this book?

The students in my Magic and Witchcraft class always love this exuberant tale. It is both whimsical and deadly serious. Even its comic elements expose societal injustice and human cruelty. The book is irreverent in the extreme, but its resolution is profoundly spiritual. Apuleius of Madura was a renowned Platonic philosopher who lived in the aristocratic world of late second-century Rome. His picaresque story (called Metamorphoses in Latin) is the only classical novel to survive in its entirety. The premise of the story is that a man named Lucius has an illicit fascination with magic. While he is visiting a friend in Thessaly, he secretly watches a woman transform herself into a bird using magic potions. When Lucius tries to do the same, he mistakenly turns himself into an ass. The only way he can resume his human shape is to eat a fresh rose, but before he gets the chance, he is stolen and condemned to live the life of a donkey.

During the course of his metamorphosis, Lucius-the-ass has many wild escapades and misadventures. He is beaten, starved, overworked, sentenced to death, attacked by rabid dogs, and forced to have sex with a female convict. In his travels, he witnesses the adulteries, thefts, abhorrent circumstances, heartbreaks, and witchcraft of the lower classes of Roman society. The beleaguered ass eventually finds salvation in the practice of mysteries quite different from the magic that got him into trouble. I pick this book because it is a high-spirited exposé of human relations and demonstrates that even in the worst of circumstances redemption is possible. The Golden Ass is at home in the classroom as well as being a great “beach read.”

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The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe

By Brian P. Levack

Book cover of The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe

Why this book?

The Witch-Hunt is the place to start for anyone interested in European witch-hunts, witch trials, and beliefs about diabolic magic. The book is a concise history of magic and witchcraft in England and across the continent from 1450 to 1750. Levack touches on everything anyone needs to know about the topic, yet the book is more than a survey. The author provides in-depth information and myriad graphic details about the accusations, trials, tortures, and executions of thousands of people, largely women. Witchcraft was ubiquitously thought to be a crime and moral abomination, and it was prosecuted by both secular and church courts. But the specifics of witch-hunting in various locales differed according to complex factors such as religion, economics, social class, legal codes, the centralization of the government, and gender. Levack explains the geographical distribution of witch-hunts and how they spread and eventually ended.

The fourth edition of the book includes a chapter on modern witch-hunts in the US and Africa. I pick this book because it is a thorough and readable survey of the full scope of the oppression of those suspected of using the magic arts and serving the Devil in early modern Europe. It is important for us to understand how fear and manipulation contributed to a situation where approximately ninety-thousand people were persecuted and half that number were executed.

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The Saga of the Volsungs

By Anonymous, Jesse L. Byock

Book cover of The Saga of the Volsungs

Why this book?

The Volsung saga is a heroic Old Norse tale about the origins and decline of the royal clan of the Volsungs and the fantastic deeds of Sigurd the dragon-slayer. Snorri Sturluson, an Icelandic poet and historian, recorded the story around 1220, but the material dates to events that took place centuries before. The saga is full of beings and happenings that would have been considered demonic in Christianized Europe, such as giants, werewolves, sorcery, magic wolf skins, and the consumption of dragons' blood to learn the language of birds. However, within the mythic Norse world, these things were otherworldly and magical, but not necessarily malevolent. The saga was a source for J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings—right down to the dwarfs, a cursed magical ring, and a treasure-guarding dragon—and an inspiration for Richard Wagner's epic music drama, the Ring Cycle. Also, the story of the Sword in the Stone comes straight from the pages of the saga.

I pick this book because it is simply a riveting fantasy, and the most spectacular plot elements involve magic. Second, as is often the case in Scandinavian and Germanic literature, women are featured largely as Valkyries and magical beings who interpret dreams; prophesy through runes; shape-shift into crows, she-wolves, and old hags; and work hand-in-hand with the god Odin as “wish maidens.” I recommend Jesse Byock’s translation because the prose is animated, and he brings the characters and the mythscape alive. Byock’s introduction provides a thorough explanation of the history, literature, and epic traditions of medieval Iceland. 

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The Formation of a Persecuting Society: Authority and Deviance in Western Europe 950-1250

By Robert I. Moore

Book cover of The Formation of a Persecuting Society: Authority and Deviance in Western Europe 950-1250

Why this book?

Robert Moore’s history of the growth of institutional persecution in the tenth through thirteen centuries is a classic in medieval history. Moore demonstrates that the oppression of various “undesirables” in society, such as Jews, heretics, lepers, and homosexuals, fits into a pattern of state-building. Particular groups were not targeted for harassment, expropriation, segregation, expulsion, and mass execution because they caused a real threat. On the contrary, they were defenseless, and by playing on common people’s ignorance and stirring up fear, the centralized powers of state and church were able to scapegoat those groups as polluted, deviant, and dangerous.

Having established the powerless as the “other,” the ruling elite were then able to bring them down and appear to be the saviors of the Christian social order. This book does not focus on witches per se, but it explains how in the central Middle Ages governing mechanisms and bureaucratic procedures created a template for persecution that was used as a blueprint for the witch-hunts of the early modern era. I pick this short accessible book because it is just plain scary how it mirrors the ways in which central governments approach minority groups to this day and how persecution can become a cultural system. Moore shows that the medieval common people were willing to accept the stereotypes created by those in power and join in the abuse of people labeled as devious, lascivious, conspiratorial, and child killers. 

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