Saturday, December 01, 2007

Book review:

By John M. Morris, PhD.

Andrew McCall The Medieval Underworld New York: Barnes & Noble (reprint), 1993. 319 pp., n.p.

This classic study, first published in 1979, pictures the incredible chaos that swept through Europe in the late Middle Ages, as the older Catholic paradigms were collapsing and wave after wave of craziness were taking their place. McCall introduces us to the world of prostitutes, homosexuals, religious heretics, Jews, and sorcerers and witches that appeared in great waves during the Tenth to Fifteenth Centuries in Europe, horrifying the church fathers and attracting great crowds, only to end up on the gallows or the chopping block.

My primary interest was in the sorcerers and witches, who were savagely attacked by the powers that be, and often driven out of the cities or sent to the executioners, although many were able to live fairly peaceful lives through this period. McCall's descriptions of the witches are quite different from those pictured in one of my favorite texts, "The Witch Cult in Western Europe," now sadly discredited and largely forgotten (I loaned my copy to a friend, who has since disappeared with it). In this earlier study, witches are pictured as joyously gathering in their covens to celebrate the sabbats and the esbats, keeping cats, toads, and other animals as pets, and, most importantly, acting as healers and comforters in their communities.

In McCall's study, however, witches are accused of cursing their neighbors out of spite, and are put on trial for heresy. Punishments were varied but often included horrible tortures, with their forced confessions to hideous deeds, and execution of the alleged witches. McCall's book, however, helps to put the witch trials into some kind of focus, since the witches were only one group to be attacked during those fanatical centuries. I would hope that our own century will be better. It could hardly be worse.

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