The Disenchantment of the World

Religion and the Decline of Magic

by Keith Thomas
Scribner’s, 716 pp., $17.50

Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England

by Alan MacFarlane
Harper & Row, 334 pp., $2.95 (paper)

Witchcraft at Salem

by Chadwick Hansen
Signet, 252 pp., $1.25 (paper)

Magistrats et Sorciers en France au 17e Siècle

by Robert Mandrou
Plon, 583 pp., 45 frs.

The European Witch-craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries

by H.R. Trevor-Roper
Harper & Row, 246 pp., $1.95 (paper)

Antichrist in Seventeenth Century England

by Christopher Hill
Oxford University Press, 201 pp., $5.50

In 1938, the great French historian Lucien Febvre issued a call for a reorientation of historical studies, with much greater attention paid to what he called “L’histoire des mentalités collectives,” defined as an inventory of the mental baggage of past generations and a sympathetic effort to understand their beliefs and modes of reasoning. Over thirty years have now gone by, but it is only during the last decade that there have been signs that Febvre’s advice is beginning to produce results.

In 1961, Robert Mandrou published Introduction à la France Moderne: Essai de psychologie historique 1500-1640, in which he discussed not only the physical and social environment of the average man, but also his psychic attitudes, his “outillage mental,” his fundamental beliefs, his ideas about morality and capitalism, his sports and pastimes. At the end Mandrou inserted a long section on “Evasions,” classified as nomadism, imaginary worlds, satanism, and suicide. Nothing could be further from the traditional emphasis in historical writing on the deeds of the elite as statesmen, bureaucrats, diplomats, soldiers, priests, and thinkers.

Meanwhile, Edward Thompson and others were subjecting popular culture to sensitive and sympathetic analysis in an endeavor to reveal what the laboring classes were really like and what they believed, as opposed to what their betters thought they were like and assumed they believed. The Enlightenment is now being turned on its head, and the squalid lives and half-baked ideas of Grub Street scribblers are being given as much attention as the grandiose intellectual constructs and the rich and elegant careers of the great philosophes. In England, America, and France, the three countries where most serious history is conducted, much rethinking is taking place about the history of science and its relationship to rational thought.

Most of the basic assumptions of the science of earlier ages have turned out to be wrong, and many of the more distinguished scientists have been found to be full of absurd or irrational notions. Boyle was a great believer in the medicinal properties of stewed earthworms and human urine (the latter taken both internally and externally), and was anxious to interview miners to obtain details of the “subterraneous demons” they had met with. Even Newton spent a vast amount of time on the elucidation of the Book of Revelation and on complex calculations of the measurements of the Temple of Solomon.

The last important development that is relevant here is the attempt to bring history into closer contact with the social sciences. For some years now historians have been conducting successful raiding parties into sociology, and have brought back valuable loot from Weber and Durkheim, and have even found a few nuggets among the dross piled up by more recent sociological schools. It was only a matter of time before some enterprising young historians would lead a search party into anthropological territory to see what men like Malinowsky and Evans-Pritchard might be made to contribute.

These three trends—an awakening interest in “mentalités collectives,” popular literature, and …

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Letters

Witches & Beggars May 4, 1972