Books and Code · A Miscellany

More on Williams’ Witchcraft book


Sorina over at The Oddest Inkling tweeted a link to a great review of Charles Williams’ Witchcraft over at the Vintage Novels blog. I read and reviewed the book in May, but Vintage Novels’ review prompted me to further explain my reaction to the book which I’ve copied here for my own future reference.

I read Witchcraft back in May and while I appreciated Williams’ treatment of the subject, I found the case made for the existence of a continuous, coherent occult tradition extremely flimsy.

The early section on pre-Christian paganism and folk belief was solid as were the historically late sections on de Rais and La Voisin, but the threads connecting these are extremely tenuous and better explained as pious inventions that were emulated by psychopaths and hucksters rather than the other way around.

I found Williams’ credulity eye-rolling and ironic because it is the same credulity that the pious had throughout the period Williams discusses. That credulity imagined into existence the very thing it wanted to not exist–not just in the figures of one or two actual moral monsters like de Rais who took inspiration for their crimes from the lore built up over the centuries by believers, but in the undisputed fact that the vast majority of moral monsters documented in this book were people who killed and tortured in the name of anti-witchcraft belief.

While the comparison with modern witchhunts regarding sexual abuse is an apt one, it should be noted that the existence of deviant sexual behavior does not require an elaborate occult religious tradition (what Williams calls Goetia), the evidence for which is effectively non-existent. What is documented here is a religious tradition that builds up an elaborate occult mythology over time through legitimized trumped-up accusations and theological speculations. It is a bizarre reaction to remain credulous while reading case after case of people getting tortured and killed over extremely unlikely witchcraft practice only to get to de Rais hundreds of years later and point and shout “See! It IS real!”

It is not clear that witchcraft was a “great evil” that the Church had to address, although I concur that the Church did indeed make “grievous mistakes.” Among those mistakes is inadvertently inventing witchcraft and killing a whole lot of people over it. And it didn’t stop at Salem as Williams does–many lives were ruined in the 1980s and 90s “satanic ritual abuse” moral panic.