Author: PG Maxwell-Stuart
Trade Paperback, 282 pages
Publisher: Tuckwell Press
Publication date: August 2001
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Satan's Conspiracy: Magic and Witchcraft in 16th Century Scotland is not a Scottish Witch Trials 101 book, but a scholarly work, and as such of more interest to someone with a background in the subject than the casual reader. PG Maxwell-Stuart is a honorary fellow at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, and this book is an attempt to draw together trial transcripts and history to provide a basis for scholars of Scottish witchcraft. A quick test...if you can read this line
"Thow art commonlie haldin throw the haill contrie quhair thow duallis for ane commoun notorious wiche in respect of ye deilling in sic caussis"
this may be the book for you. (If you can name the case and the context, you may not need it!)
Anyone interested in the study of this area would find this book both useful and interesting, but full appreciation does require a familiarity with 16th Century Scottish history and the ability to read Scots (Maxwell Stuart does translate some of the obscurer terms, but if you can't "hear" what is being said in your head you will have difficulty with large parts of the book.) However, an aspect of the book that the average reader would probably find interesting is the examination Maxwell-Stuart makes of witchcraft and magic.
The first chapter deals with the relationship that the witches had with the community and society as a whole, as well as the different ways their activities were perceived. He suggests that witchcraft was seen as a "preternatural" power rather than a "supernatural" one, and thus perceived to be less in the realm of gods and demons and more in the realm of personal, unusual ability. One notes that according to trial statements, witches would often invoke the Trinity in charms and would sometimes claim visitations from Jesus as well as spirit guides, s¨thean (fairies) and the Devil, suggesting that witches didn't share a worldview, but did share believed paranormal powers and the power to communicate with the spiritual world. He defines a witch as "someone capable of exercising preternatural powers for both maleficient and beneficient purpose".
He also looks at the causes for the persecution of people perceived as "witches", and points out that these were varied and not necessarily the same as the causes on the Continent. "It is worth remembering that prosecution of witches might provide a local community with an opportunity to cut the Gordian knot of local dispute and return to...a kind of social cohesion." There is an interesting chapter on "Magic and Treason" and individual case-studies of trials and the circumstances surrounding them. His conclusion that "both Kirk and state...made conscientious endeavours to try the crime of witchcraft with as much judicial fairness and accuracy as they brought to other capital offences" certainly challenges common beliefs on the subject.
Little of this information may come as a surprise to those with knowledge of the area, and I can't vouch for the accuracy of his statements (coming to the book as one with little background in the subject.) However, this is a great departure for someone like me who had previously heard little more than the "Burning Times" simplified account, and I found the book to be fascinating. It inspired me to read more on the topic and gave me plenty to think about regarding the history of my own country and the history of witchcraft.
Reviewed by Vash