Book review: The Enemy Within: 2,000 Years of Witch-Hunting in the Western World – Scotsman.com
With such a broad subject as witch-hunting in the Western world, it is a pity that this book was not broadened still further to include the whole world.
Book review: The Enemy Within: 2,000 Years of Witch-Hunting in the Western World
Published Date: 08 November 2008
By Germaine Greer
THE ENEMY WITHIN: 2,000 Years of Witch-Hunting in the Western World
By John Demos
Viking, 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 sub title, 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.
The review itself has come in for criticism. Letters – Witch Hunts – NYTimes.com:
I have not yet read John Demos’s new book on witch hunting (“The Enemy Within,” Oct. 12), but your reviewer, Germaine Greer, reveals an astonishing lack of up-to-date knowledge concerning a topic that has undergone a revolution among historical researchers over the last 40 years.
And I have a minor quibble of my own, when later in the review Greer says: Book review: The Enemy Within: 2,000 Years of Witch-Hunting in the Western World – Scotsman.com:
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.
Interesting stories, but rather spoilt by the anachronistic references to “the British” — it was the English, surely? The story of St Melangell is interesting, though rather tangential to the main topic. I’ve blogged about that elsewhere at SAFCEI: Saints and animals.
But to return to witch-hunting, I’d like to see more comparative studies between the Western world and elsewhere. Perhaps they will prove or disprove my hypothesis that witch-hunting seems to increase in societies where premodernity meets modernity, as in early modern Europe, and much of Africa at the present day. Maybe it’s just that I’ve been over influenced by the title of the collection of essays by Comaroff & Comaroff: Modernity and its malcontents: ritual and power in post-colonial Africa (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), ISBN: 0-226-11440-6, Dewey: 303.4, but the comparison is long overdue.