Witchcraze (review)

by Jenny Gibbons

_Witchcraze_ by Anne Llewellyn Barstow

_Witchcraze_ is a testament to the brain's ability to ignore evidence. Barstow gathers a solid collection of generally accurate data -- and then she ignores it.

Barstow's theory is that the Burning Times were caused by misogyny. Patriarchal men feared and hated the power of women healers, and so they tried to destroy them. Unfortunately, she doesn't notice that none of her evidence supports this theory. The beginning and end of the Burning Times don't correlate to any particular shifts in women's rights. Areas that hunted Witches fiercely aren't noticeably more sexist than areas that didn't. A significant number of the Witches killed were men, up to 95% in one country. There never was a time or a place where the majority of Witches were healers. In most countries, only around 20% of accused Witches were healers or mid-wives. Barstow does do a fine job of showing that many Witch trials were misogynist (not a particularly difficult task, given the sexism of the times). However she never shows that this sexism caused the persecutions in any way.

Worse, Barstow is so fixated on her own theory that she ignores and dismisses any alternate explanation. Since the "Witch-hunting is misogyny" theory can't handle a country where almost all Witches were men, she insists that Iceland (where 95% of the Witches executed were men) didn't have a "real" persecution. Now, since Barstow believes that Ireland, Russia, and Spain had "real" persecutions, and Iceland killed more Witches than all of them combined, I'm at a loss to explain what she means by a "real" persecution. Her own evidence suggests dozens of different explanation for the trials, but Barstow pays little attention to them.

The most reprehensible aspect of the book, however, is its sexual and ethnic stereotyping. Time and again, Barstow ignores sensible explanations for the trials. Instead, she clings to ridiculous stereotypes. A few examples: Spain killed few Witches because Spanish men are too chivalrous to attack women. Barstow ignores the fact that it was the Spanish Inquisition which squelched the trials, and that when the Inquisition lost control of Witch trials, her "chivalrous" Spanish men happily killed several hundred Witches. Germany, she says, killed lots of women because Germans are nasty people with a legacy of persecution (not because Germany, unlike almost all other European nations, did not have a higher court to moderate the persecution -- local courts often killed 90% of all the accused, compared to 30% for most national courts, and Germany was a country composed entirely of local courts).

And the sexism is mind-boggling. Barstow ignores and dismisses male Witches consistently. She savages male doctors who blamed illnesses on Witchcraft, then exonerates wise women who did the same thing. The most extreme example, again, is Iceland. Barstow simply ignores it. She won't discuss a country where almost all of the victims were men, not women.

I said, at the beginning, that most of Barstow's information is accurate. The major exception to this is her listing of executions in various regions, which is extremely unreliable. Some areas (like Iceland) are omitted. Individual trials appear up to three times, in different categories. Several of the figures come from older, out-dated research and have been disproven by more recent information. For example, Barstow shows that just over 26,000 Witches died in the various regions of Germany. Yet she claims that 50,000 German Witches were killed. Why is the national death toll twice as high as the sum of the regional death tolls? Because her regional numbers come from recent, well-researched studies. Her national estimate comes from an older work, an inflated figure that our latest research doesn't support.

In summary, Barstow's book has been largely ignored by academics -- and for good reason. There is a huge discrepancy between the quality of her evidence (which is generally good) and her analysis (which is inaccurate and stereotypical). I highly recommend that you skip this book. It's insulting and misleading.