Satanism and Witchcraft (review)

by Jenny Gibbons

_Satanism and Witchcraft: A Study in Medieval Superstition_ by Jules Michelet.

S&W is one of those hoary old books that never seems to go out of print. Written in the 19th century, it is a vivid, passionate description of medieval Witchcraft. Michelet saw Satanism and Witchcraft as the religion of the oppressed peasantry, a revolt against the crushing depredations of the feudal lords and predatory church officials. Rather than laying his theories out in a dry, academic manner, Michelet illustrates them through the "life" of a typical 14th century Witch. He describes her world and the events which drive her to embrace the Prince of Darkness. As a result, S&W reads more like poetry than history.

Sounds great, huh? Well, there's one teensy problem: S&W is basically a work of fiction. I can't even say that it contains a lot of errors, because that implies that it actually includes some accurate facts. S&W is a gripping book, but it doesn't bear the faintest resemblence to anything that happened on this planet.

Recently, the Sci-Fi Channel helped me come up with a good analogy for S&W. S&W is to Witchcraft Studies as "One Million Years B.C." is to paleontology. "One Million Years B.C." has cave-woman Rachel Welch running around in a fur bikini and mascara, constantly menaced by giant desert-dwelling brontosauruses. It's a hilarious combination of wildly incongruous objects. Cave-men and dinosaurs rub elbows; animals from all time periods happily roam the desert together. Fun? Yes. Science? No.

S&W is a lot like that. Michelet takes Witchcraft, the Inquisition, feudal law, and a bunch of other medieval-ly sorts of things from ten different centuries (several of which are actually not part of the Middle Ages...). Then he smooshes all of them into a great story about a 14th century woman. You'll notice that his book doesn't contain any dates -- that's because there's no time when all his various objects could co-exist. Like, when did cave-men eat t-rexes? His heroine isn't a typical victim of the Witchcraft trials, any more than Rachel's bikini and mascara are standard Paleolithic garb.

How did this book happen? I mean, no one can feel too vexed with Ray Harryhousen for making "One Million Years B.C." He wasn't a scientist, and he wasn't trying to create an accurate depiction of ancient life. Michelet *was* a historian, and he *does* call this a work of fact, not fiction. What happened?

Forger Etienne de Lamothe-Langon. (See the thread on inquisition/witch hunts for more on LL). Michelet drew most of his information on Witchcraft from the fictional Witch trials that Lamothe-Langon invented. So it's no surprise that his book doesn't contain many accurate facts -- it was based on a work of fiction, not historical evidence.

Does this mean I recommend you don't read S&W? Not at all! It's a great book! Michelet is witty, biting, insightful, and a joy to read. The story is a compelling tale of a woman's dawning perception of her oppression, and what she did about it. This unnamed Witch is a *much* better heroine than Rachel, who constantly needs to be rescued by Ugh the Cave-Man. So my advice is, pop some pop-corn and curl up in a chair with this critter. Is it history? No. Is it fun? Oh yeah!

In addition, us compulsively serious sorts can study the book from a historiographical point of view. S&W is one of the major sources of the mythology of the Burning Times. Reading it helps you see where many of our misconceptions came from.