The History of Witchcraft – Montague Summers
The Mystic Press – 1988
Originally published in 1926, this is the first full book on witchcraft by Montague Summers. Monty is a hero of mine. He was a Roman Catholic priest (of sorts) who spent most of his life reading, translating and writing books about witchcraft, black magic and vampires. Apart from his very apparent erudition, the most striking element of his work is his earnest belief in the topics he’s writing about.
His writing can get a little irritating at times; he seems to believe that anything that can be found in certain books must be true. The criteria he uses for determining the truth value of an account is whether or not he likes the book wherein he has found said account. After discussing the necromancy of the Witch of Endor, he exclaims that; “The whole narrative undoubtedly bears the impress of actuality and truth.” For anyone who doesn’t know, the Witch of Endor was a hag who performed a necromantic ritual in front of King Saul. Now, Saul died approximately 3000 years ago, but the source that this information comes from, the First Book of Samuel, was only written about 2600 years ago. This means that even if the story ever had any basis in truth, it was still dragged through four centuries of oral re-telling before it was ever written down. Aside from that, it’s a fucking mental story that even the Church Fathers struggled to believe. But, it suits what Monty is saying, and so therefore it is undoubtedly true.
There is, of course, the possibility that Montague Summers knew that books disproving the supernatural are far less likely to sell and entertain, and thus he may have written the most sensational accounts possible in order to make a living for himself. I’m not saying he was a charlatan, but at times he seems incredibly credulous, and I’m not sure that I can believe that a person as well-read as he could possibly be so stupid.
And he really is very well informed on this topic. This book is comprised of a series of paraphrased accounts of witches, sabbats, and possessions from other, more ancient texts. The last chapter here is basically a list of every play in the canon of English literature that deals with witchcraft. One of the nicest features of this book is that each chapter has a detailed notes section that gives the source of nearly every account given. Summers seems to be the leading authority on witch-lit; nearly half the books on witchcraft in my library were either translated or introduced by our Monty. (And most of the other half are his originals)
I don’t want to ruin the fun for anyone who’s going to read this, so I’ll just mention a few parts of this book that made me chuckle.
First of all, Summers really hated Protestantism. He points out that Scotland and England were full of that heresy, and hence also full of witches. Good old Catholic Ireland however, had barely any witches, and the witches that did show up there were all prods. He also claims that prods disrespectfully refer to the Holy Communion wafers as ‘Jack-in-the-box’. LOL
Secondly, this book introduced me to Fascinus, my new favourite Roman God. I hadn’t heard of this particular chappy before, and there was something in Summer’s peculiarly awkward mention of him that made me want to look him up.
Summers also gives a satisfying account of my old friend Tanchelin. Apparently Tanch used to go around claiming to be God himself, and his followers “regarded this lunatic wretch with such an excess of veneration that the dirty water from his bath was actually collected in phials and solemnly distributed among them.” The fun didn’t last long however, as apparently “a priest maddened by the outrages and profanities of this hellish crew, scattered the heretic’s brains upon the deck of his royal barge.” I have to say, this Tanchelin character becomes more interesting every time I come across him. That priest sounds fucking cool too.
Overall, this book was quite enjoyable. Whatever about the author’s ludicrous beliefs, this account is well written and well referenced. The subject matter is very depressing when you stop to remember that this isn’t a work of Gothic fiction. I had intended to review it with its companion piece, The Geography of Witchcraft, but 1000+ pages on witchcraft over two weeks would be too much for me. I’ll save that one for Halloween. I’ll give this one a 7.5/10 and recommend it to anyone with any interest in witchcraft.