Commentary Magazine


Europe's Inner Demons, by Norman Cohn

Europe’s Inner Demons: An Enquiry Inspired by the Great Witch Hunt.
by Norman Cohn.
Basic Books, 302 pp. $12.50.

To be against Norman Cohn is to speak up for sin. No other recent scholar has been as resourceful as he in the attempt to expose, and by exposing eliminate, ignorance, prejudice, intolerance, and hysteria from our society. In The Pursuit of the Millennium, the book which established his reputation when it was published in 1957, Professor Cohn sought to uncover the medieval roots of the fanaticism supplying the drive of 20th-century totalitarian movements. The prompt and lasting response to this work indicates that he had struck a nerve. His second book, Warrant for Genocide: The Myth of the Jewish World Conspiracy and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (1967), assembled into a spellbinding tale the pieces of one of the most pernicious of modern mass delusions. Now, in his latest study, he returns to the Middle Ages, still eager to demonstrate the damage done to the innocent by superstition and paranoia in high and low places. Europe’s Inner Demons reconstructs the web of warped perceptions which made possible the disgraceful witch hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries. In the manner of his earlier volumes it combines skillful detective work with a broad paradigm intending to explain what happened, and why. Like the others, it is wholly admirable in its controlled outrage at those who inflict injustice, and its sympathy with those who suffer it. As one of the “Studies in the Dynamics of Persecution and Extermination” sponsored by the Columbus Center at the University of Sussex, for which Professor Cohn is general editor, the book is, again like its predecessors, resolutely present-minded. The destructive urges of our own society sound a constant undertone to the events of the past. Whether or not this is a good thing depends on the purpose for which one reads the book.

Professor Cohn’s rather casual way with the immensely complex facts of medieval religious movements has not gone uncensured by the experts. Nor has it escaped their notice that he tends to force his thesis on events. Worse, his dominant concern with the persecutions of our own day and his preoccupation with hysteria and obsession often tempt him into sensationalizing his material. In the case of The Pursuit of the Millennium it has been noted that the most extreme evidence contained in his sources seems always the most credible to him. This is also true of Europe’s Inner Demons. It is the inevitable consequence of pressing the modern parallels of historical phenomena. Professor Cohn insists on these parallels. Both Millennium and Demons illustrate, he says in the preface to the latter, “the urge to purify the world through the annihilation of some category of human beings imagined as agents of corruption and incarnations of evil. . . . What is more, it is with us still; and in the minds of some readers this book, like its predecessor, will prompt reflections not only about the distant past, but about certain aspects of 20th-century history too.” Such a perspective, however, as every historian knows, is likely to distort.

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In Europe’s Inner Demons Professor Cohn investigates the origins and transmission of what he calls “the fantasy” about witches: the delusion “that there existed, somewhere in the midst of the great society, another society, small and clandestine, which not only threatened the existence of the great society, but was also addicted to practices which were felt to be wholly abominable in the sense of anti-human.” This fantasy is composed of four distinct notions: there are persons who practice maleficium (i.e., injure others by occult means); there are persons who have bound themselves to the Devil; some people—mostly women—fly through the air to nighttime rendezvous where they do horrible and disgusting things; there is a secret society of such people.

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How, when, and why did these originally separate notions come together to form the stereotype of the witch? The juncture occurred, Professor Cohn thinks, in the 15th and early 16th centuries when inquisitors and other ecclesiastical officials, as well as secular magistrates, combined traditional popular notions about weird beings and powers into one integrated image of the witch as a member of a Devil-worshipping, night-flying, cannibalistic, and orgiastic sect bent on undermining Christian society. Evidence for the existence of such a sect came from witch trials. It was extracted from people, mostly women, many of whom genuinely believed themselves capable of working spells, receiving demon incubi, and flying through the air. By themselves these guileless self-delusions would never have generated large-scale witch hunts had they not been fused in the twisted minds of their inquisitorial prosecutors with fantasies about the power and fascination of Satan, about sexual orgies enjoyed at sabbaths and synagogues, and about infanticide and the eating of baby flesh. Thus the great witch scare of the 16th and 17th centuries was the product of an amalgamation of folk superstitions with the bizarre religious hallucinations of educated and influential men who conducted the trials and wrote the books. The whole story is, Professor Cohn says, “a supreme example of a massive killing of innocent people by a bureaucracy acting in accordance with beliefs which . . . had come to be taken for granted, as self-evident truths.”

This summary does less than justice to Professor Cohn’s presentation, which contains many good things, particularly in the early chapters where he demonstrates the inadequacy of older theories of witchcraft, and where he traces the development through time of the separate elements of the ultimate witch fantasy. It is in his attempt to supply an explanatory paradigm that Professor Cohn fails to make himself credible. For one thing, he is not able to connect convincingly the disparate components of the witch fantasy into its final composition in the late 15th century. As a speculative reconstruction of a process by which the witch craze might have been generated, the book has much interest. As a paradigm it has little force. For another thing, he does not always keep his argument under tight control. He melodramatizes, as he repeats with evident relish the scabrous and largely fictitious tales about the activities of witches. He can be as willful in interpreting his evidence as some of the older scholars whose hypotheses he attacks. He accepts source testimon/?/ when it suits him, rejects it when it doesn’t. For instance. it is essential to his argument that many people actually believed that they could do the things with which their accusers charged them. But his proof texts are open to many questions. Some are ambiguous; others relate to witchcraft in Africa and, even if credible in themselves, belong to a different context; still others depend on recent attempts to reexperience witch fantasies with the aid of psychedelic drugs. Much of this won’t wash.

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But the real flaw of Professor Cohn’s book lies elsewhere, in the underlying sentiments which make the argument itself, and the conclusions to be drawn from it, more important for him than the evidence. Professor Cohn has revived the sensationalizing approach of such rationalist scholars as the older Soldan, Hansen, Paulus, and the recent Trevor-Roper. These men saw in witchcraft and its persecution only the mental detritus of a dark age in Europe when superstition and credulity produced a febrile mood in which mass hysteria lay always just beneath the surface.

The historiography of witchcraft has moved a long way from this approach. Recent scholarship is low-keyed in its attitude to phenomena. It proceeds from the concerns of social historians and anthropologists. It tends to see the presence of witchcraft, and also the opposition to it, as integral parts of rural and town life in medieval and early modern Europe. Most of the witching business was rather unexciting. The great hunts and trials need to be explained, of course. But if they are to be understood at all, this can be done only against the background of the altogether ordinary role witchcraft played in daily life in the villages and towns.

Professor Cohn is of course aware of recent research. But I suspect it is not of much interest to him. He is after deeper things than village conjurers and cunning women. In a revealing postscript entitled “Psychohistorical Speculations” he suggests what he suspects may ultimately explain all medieval and modern Satanic fantasies. The witch stereotype Europeans created for themselves embodied, he says, “their innermost selves—their obsessive fears and also their terrifying desires.” These are the “inner demons” of Professor Cohn’s title: the suppressed tendency to cannibalistic infanticide deeply embedded in infantile fantasies as projected onto parents, in parents’ secret wishes to destroy their offspring, and in sibling rivalry; also repressed erotic drives surfacing as dream visions of orgiastic rites presided over by the Devil in the shape of a goat. Cohn thinks that beneath all these fantasies may be an unconscious resentment against Christianity as a strict religion and against Christ as a stern taskmaster. However that may be (in point of fact the evidence of 16th-and 17th-century Catholic and Protestant visitation records shows clearly that most people paid very little attention to Christian ethics), our inner demons give us no peace until we have projected them onto innocent and defenseless fellow creatures who by being persecuted allow us to exorcise, or at least tolerate, our horrifying secret obsessions.

Such a hypothesis, if generally accepted, would once again demonize the study of witchcraft. But it is to be hoped that it will not do so. Like witchcraft studies, psychohistory has emerged from its early simplistic phase; the crude Freudian model that used to hold it captive is no longer respectable. Everyone is still fascinated by the reconstructions of psychohistorians, but their views now hold only limited appeal for social historians who work with more flexible hypotheses and more objective methods. The next decade is likely to see much interesting work done to illuminate the still obscure chapters in the history of witchcraft and demonology. Professor Cohn’s study is out of tune with this sober scholarly enterprise, although I have no doubt that much of it will be duller to read than his provocative, and provoking, new book.

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