All the known theories and incidents of witchcraft in Western Europe from the fifth to the fifteenth century are brilliantly set forth in this engaging and comprehensive history. Building on a foundation of newly discovered primary sources and recent secondary interpretations, Jeffrey Burton Russell first establishes the facts and then explains the phenomenon of witchcraft in terms of its social and religious environment, particularly in relation to medieval heresies.
Russell treats European witchcraft as a product of Christianity, grounded in heresy more than in the magic and sorcery that have existed in other societies. Skillfully blending narration with analysis, he shows how social and religious changes nourished the spread of witchcraft until large portions of medieval Europe were in its grip, “from the most illiterate peasant to the most skilled philosopher or scientist.” A significant chapter in the history of ideas and their repression is illuminated by this book. Our enduring fascination with the occult gives the author’s affirmation that witchcraft arises at times and in areas afflicted with social tensions a special quality of immediacy.