cover image Witches and Witch Hunts

Witches and Witch Hunts

Milton Meltzer. Blue Sky Press (AZ), $16.95 (160pp) ISBN 978-0-590-48517-3

Meltzer (Never to Forget: The Jews of the Holocaust) crams a lot of ideas and insights into this ambitious, unusually meaty survey of witch-hunts from medieval Europe to 20th-century America. Some of his perceptions are piercing in their simplicity and acuity: for example, he posits that a believer in witchcraft is not satisfied by an explanation of how some misfortune has occurred; the believer wants to know why the misfortune has befallen him or her. Meltzer supplies superb documentation, as in a letter smuggled out of a 17th-century German prison describing exactly how its author had been forced to confess to witchcraft and to implicate others. However, Meltzer leaves an uncharacteristic number of gaps, both small and large. There are incomplete statements of fact (e.g., he writes, ""When Christianity became the state religion back in the early fourth century,"" while referring to Europe in general); and some material is inadequately analyzed (e.g., he balances a discussion of the prejudice directed at midwives by citing a 17th-century English midwife's handbook, but he doesn't indicate the influence or reception of that book). In the contemporary sections, the comparisons of Inquisition-style witch-hunts with the persecution of Jews under Hitler and of Communists under McCarthy are sketched out rather than closely reasoned--they form a starting point rather than a conclusion. Given the breadth of Meltzer's thesis and his wide variety of perspectives (feminist, anthropological, etc.), it is perhaps not surprising that depth suffers; fortunately, what is presented has color and bite, more than enough to get readers thinking on their own. Ages 8-14. (Sept.)