Books and Code · A Miscellany

Witchcraft, by Charles Williams (A Review)


This succeeds as a sober but readable history of the phenomenon of witchcraft hysteria. Williams traces the development of the Christian ideas of the phenomenon as a reaction against paganism, folk medicine, and proto-scientific thinking while adopting a conscious agnosticism as to the existence of witches as defined by these ideas. Despite acknowledging the lack of evidence and all the other caveats one might consider, Williams ultimately concludes that where there is smoke there is fire. Two cases he offers as most representative are Gilles de Rais and La Voisin. Insofar as these are not rank hyperbole, they show very little of a real tradition of witchcraft. If anything, they show an attempt by the mentally unstable to live up to an invented mythos–the 80s death metal of the Middle Ages.

What the book shows is a systematic building up of bullshit that feeds on itself in the same way that stories of alien abductions do today. Only someone like Charles “I Want to Believe” Williams could take such a reasoned look at the evidence and conclude that the likelihood of the existence of real witchcraft was ever probable. He concludes:

If ever the image of the Way of Perversion of Images came into common human sight, outside the Rites of the Way, it was before the crowds of serious Christians who watched a child, at the instance of pious and intelligent men, scourged three times round the stake where its mother was burned.

Indeed! And we actually have copious evidence that this actually did happen. There is no doubt about that point.