Tracy Borman at Literary Review:
What was a witch? This deceptively simple question has prompted fierce debate among scholars for many years. There are several possible sources of the word, including the Old English wicca (meaning sorceress) and the German wichelen (meaning to bewitch or foretell). Although definitions vary, most describe a witch in a negative way, as someone who wishes to do harm to others. As Ronald Hutton, a leading witchcraft scholar, points out in his new study, this is both inaccurate and unhelpful. By taking the longer view, he provides a convincing alternative, arguing that for many centuries before it rose to notoriety, witchcraft meant something altogether more positive. It is an argument that will resonate with the hundreds of thousands of Wicca and pagan devotees today.
Most histories of witchcraft focus on the early modern period, and for good reason. This was when witch-hunts took centre stage, becoming intertwined with the intense religious and social strife that was sweeping across Europe and resulting in a rash of high-profile witchcraft cases. The beginning of serious official action against witches was signalled by a papal bull issued in December 1484 by Pope Innocent VIII. The bull, which was widely printed and circulated, decried those who had ‘abused themselves with devils … and by their incantations, spells, conjurations, and other accursed superstitions and horrid charms, enormities and offences, destroy the offspring of women and the young of cattle, blast and eradicate the fruits of the earth, the grapes of the vine and the fruits of trees’. In order to stop such evil, Innocent VIII gave great powers to the inquisitors responsible for rooting out such ‘heretical depravity’.