The most striking aspect of this book is why a celebrated historian and broadcaster would write such a book. It is true that Lipscomb is a leading light and outstanding communicator in her field, but it is a bit like William Shakespeare putting in a script for EastEnders.
Another anomaly is while the book is beautifully illustrated by Martyn Pick the number of illustrations is half the book. Given the complex nature of the subject, you would have thought Ladybird would have given more space for analysis. On the other side, the book is an entertaining, straightforward but minimal introduction to the subject.
Even a gifted writer like Lipscomb clearly is uncomfortable with explaining a complex historical issue in such a short space. She does slay some of the more apparent myths that have developed about the subject. Lipscombe is correct that the witch trials were not carried out by “ecclesiastical authorities but by judicial courts. This is a good point, but it does not explain the fact that the worldview of the ruling elite carrying out what amounts to legal murder was backward and medieval.
The book is not without exciting information who knew that “men could be witches too. Across Europe, 70–80 per cent of people accused of witchcraft were female – though the proportions of female witches were higher in certain areas: the bishopric of Basel; the county of Namur (modern Belgium); Hungary; Poland; and Essex, England. But one in five witches were male across Europe, and in some places, males predominated – in Moscow, male witches outnumbered women 7:3; in Normandy 3:1”.
In Lipscombe’s defence, she does believe that “causality is not simple.”, But given her limited space, her arguments are not fully developed. Many of the witchhunts carried out were in times of famine, war and plague but many were not. She correctly states that war, disease and famine did create the social and political conditions to carry out a near genocide against large sections of the population.
Perhaps Lipscomb most crucial point is made on page 22 under the heading The Dawn of Modernity she makes this point, “most people lived in small village communities and depended on each other. They lent, borrowed, gave and forgave. It was only the way to get along. But in tough times, people turn in on themselves. They start to look after number one. A neighbour who would not offer help or charity, who enriched himself by expanding his farm as others were forced to give up theirs, or who begged for handouts when everyone was suffering could foster resentment, bitterness and suspicion. These feelings were the product of a transition from old to new ways. In grand socio-economic terms, what was happening was a shift towards capitalism. The witch-trials were the blood red finger of modernity”.
I know Marx said that capitalism came into the world dripping with blood but blaming it for the witch-trials is a bit much. As Lipscomb points out the trials and their decline was the product of the transition from Feudalism to capitalism. But the trials were more a product of Feudalism, than early Capitalism and their fall was a product of the development of more scientific ways of thinking which brought about the decline religious doctrine.
As the Marxist David North explains “Until the early seventeenth century, even educated people still generally accepted that the ultimate answers to all the mysteries of the universe and the problems of life were to be found in the Old Testament. But its unchallengeable authority had been slowly eroding, especially since the publication of Copernicus's De Revolutionibus in the year of his death in 1543, which dealt the death blow to the Ptolemaic conception of the universe and provided the essential point of departure for the future conquests of Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), Johann Kepler (1571-1630) and, of course, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642). Intellectually, if not yet socially, the liberation of man from the fetters of Medieval superstition and the political structures that rested upon it, was well underway”.
I very rarely do not recommend a book to be read so I will not break this tradition. The book has severe political and historical limitations. Also who exactly is it aimed at? On the plus side, it is gloriously illustrated. So read it don’t read it you pay your money you take your choice.