My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is, as it promises to be, an un-sensationalising account of the history of witchcraft from Roman times until the end of the Salem Witch trials in the late 1600s.
I read it in the hope of unwrapping something more of the mystery of Charles Williams, the man himself, but quickly became drawn into the drama as he tells it, particluarly, through historical documentary evidence from trials.
Williams handles the material carefully. It is almost impossible to disentangle fact from fiction in this particular aspect of history, where hysteria and confession under torture were commonplace. He nevertheless outlines atrocities on both sides of the conflict between witchcraft and the church and secular authorities throughout the ages and makes it clear that he senses evil at work in both the prosecutors and the prosecuted. He doesn’t enter his opinion into the debate on whether witchcraft is material or illusory, but proponents of both views come under his scrutiny.
Surprisingly and unfashionably, the Spanish Inquisition comes out in a more favourable light when compared to other Inquisitions across Europe at the time, and King James I is commended for his intelligent handling of the issue in England. The medievals and the philosophical movement of the 1600s also seem to embody something closer to Williams own sympathies, while he draws the centuries in between as a full-scale war, a morass of perversion and confusion, touching every level of society and the church and fuelled by an unhealthy obsession with the Devil and sin. Ultimately, in Williams’ reckoning, it was the skeptics who saved Europe from insanity.
I did not obtain from this book much illumination to apply to the growing interest in Wiccan practice in our own times: Williams is talking about something quite different when he speaks of witchcraft. However, it speaks pertinently to the handling of our society’s spectres – real or imagined – in which a spark of truth ignites a profane fire that quickly gets a life of its own. Proponents of the “war on terror”, for instance, would do well to heed its lessons.
As far as the mystery of the author goes, there are precious few hints about his own spirituality, although a brief mention of the Zohar provides recognisable elements that are also found in his novels.
Ultimately, I was surprised not to find more of his penetrating vision of underlying spiritual realities in his description of the conflict. But I’m coming to realise that this is Williams to the core: the historical plane, to which he limits his analysis, incarnates and reflects all others such that there is virtually no need to be initiated into mysteries other than the open secret of Love.