Monday, September 15, 2008

Book Review: "The Enemy Within"

Distinguished Yale historian John Demos tries his hand at popular history with The Enemy Within: 2,000 Years of Witch-Hunting in the Western World (just out from Viking). In his preface, Demos calls this a "broad-gauge summary and synthesis of the entire subject," noting "synthesis itself was an unfamiliar process for me. I have previously made my way as a historian of very specific times, places, and events. My aim in all my other projects has been depth more than breadth. Those priorities are reversed here; the coverage is nothing if not broad."

That's certainly true. In four large sections, Demos examines various phases of witchcraft history and witch-hunting: Europe in the early modern era, the American colonies prior to Salem, the Salem events themselves, and America in modern times. Each of those sections contains a broad overview chapter, bookended by vignettes focusing on specific cases, characters, or objects (Cotton Mather and Rebecca Nurse or profiled, for example, as is the Malleus Maleficarum).

Through the first three segments of the book, Demos is on firm ground as he surveys the general trends in witch-hunting across the centuries through the crisis at Salem. His historiographical analysis of that phenomenon is fascinating, although it suffered much from the lack of scholarly apparatus in the text (just because a book is being written for a popular audience doesn't mean it can't have footnotes, I say, for the umpteenth time - or at least a thorough bibliography).

In the final section, Demos extends the witch-hunting metaphor to the present day, testing various possible "witch-hunts" (the Anti-Masonic movement, the Red Scare, McCarthyism, &c.) against its criteria to see which fit. As final chapters often do, this part of the book seemed forced and somewhat strained: even Demos admits that not all of his examples work well. His conclusions, at least, do work: for all that the reality of witches may be more "fictive than actual," the psychological impulses at the root of witch-hunting are "all too real. More than anything else," he concludes, "this constitutes the enemy which has through the centuries exacted such a terrible toll. To reduce its power is no easy task. Yet by deepening knowledge of both self and society, we create at least an opening for change. To that most important process 'history' offers its own hopeful, if uncertain, contribution."

Like Demos as a writer, as a reader I tend to prefer narrower studies to works of broad synthesis - I think much of my (minor) discomfort with this book stems directly from that mindset. That said, this is fundamentally a strong book, by one of the foremost authorities in witchcraft scholarship. I think it does just what it's meant to do.