Anne Llewellyn Barstow, Witchcraze (HarperCollins, 1994)
[originally posted 11Jul2001]
I mentioned on a discussion board a couple of weeks ago that I’d started this book, and was immediately told by three different feminists to drop it as fast as possible. So as I continued on, I did a little outside research, and what I found was appalling, to say the least. After reading enough of the book to find myself agreeing with its naysayers, it got added to the pile for the Fifth Annual Gahan Wilson Bookburning (named for Gahan Wilson’s late and much-lamented book review column in the now-defunct Twilight Zone magazine; September’s column was his reviews of those books he’d read over the year that deserved to be converted into heating material).
One reviewer notes drily that Barstow’s work is used in at least one classroom of his acquaintance to show “an example of poor scholarship.” To be a bit more specific (and offensive), Barstow’s thesis is that the European witch hunts of the sixteenth century were powered by misogyny, and she routinely ignores in her interpretations (though to her credit she does report) some findings that would counter her thesis. Unfortunately, she does so in the same breath as presenting differing sets of statistics without justifying the differences (e.g., how many witches were executed in Spain? According to the national total, the number is close to fifty thousand; if you add up the regional totals, the number is closer to twenty-six thousand. One independent essay explains this as Barstow getting her figures from two sources, but this reviewer is inclined to wonder, if she used two different sources, why she didn’t bother to check for, if not accuracy, at the very least continuity). All of it is presented, but only some of it is worked into the interpretations she gives.
The most offensive sin committed here is one of omission. Barstow ignores almost completely (two one-sentence references and a footnote, none of which mention any deaths taking place there at all) the witchcraze in Iceland. Some studies allege that Icelandic witchcraze was responsible for more deaths than those in Russia, Ireland, and Spain combined. Barstow addresses all three of these countries, and considers the persecutions of witches in those countries “real,” but contends that Iceland did not have a “real” witchcraze. Why? Because 95% of witches executed in Iceland were male.
This isn’t scholarship, and should not be presented as such. It’s two hundred pages of male-bashing with contradictory statistics that the author doesn’t even try to reconcile. But the book’s true offensiveness lies less in its poor scholarship and egregious male-bashing than it does in the hearts and minds of those who consider it an important contribution to historical nonfiction. Far and away at the top of the “worst books read this year” list. (zero)