Charles Williams was one of the Inklings and good friends of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Although his works are less known, perhaps due to his untimely death at forty-five, they have their own attraction.
Witchcraft is a study of the art of sorcery through the ages. It does not give a glamorous description or any salaciousness that seem to be hallmarks of contemporary studies on the subject. In his own words:
These pages must stand for what they are -a brief account of the history in Christian times of that perverted way of the soul which we call magic, or (on a lower level) witchcraft, and with the reaction against it. That they tend to deal more with the lower level than with any nobler dream is inevitable. ...No one will derive any knowledge of initiation from this book; if he wishes to meet 'the tall, black man' or to find the proper method of using the Reversed Pentagram, he must rely on his own heart, which will, no doubt, be one way or other sufficient. I have not wished to titillate or to thrill; so far as I can manage it, this is history, and...accurate history.
Williams begins with pagan times and records the acts of witchcraft in ancient Greek and Roman times. He quickly moves on to the middle ages when there was a great conflict with the practitioners of Witchcraft and authority.
Interestingly, it was not the Church-inquisition notwithstanding- that diligently sought out and persecuted those convicted of witchcraft, it was the secular court. However, it is important to remember that "secular" did not hold the connotations that it does now. The court still grounded itself in religious principals.
Something else to understand: The culture of that time produced different motives than they do now. Today we have serial killers or societal deviants that engage in criminal activity and we say they have a chemical imbalance or some type of psychosis. They didn't view things that way hundreds of years ago. Things were seen on a spiritual level. Not only were serial killers, perverts- what have you, accused of witchcraft, the perpetrators of certain crimes committed them believing themselves to be practicing witchcraft.
The crimes these criminals committed in order to attain supernatural power for themselves and over others were sordid indeed and if you read them you wouldn't protest the punishment that was meted out to the people who engaged in such horrible acts.
But this isn't to say that people weren't falsely accused. Throughout Europe there seemed to be a hysteria against witchcraft that caused persecution far greater than there could have been witches. After all, all one had to do was accuse someone, then the accused was tortured until they confessed. If they did confess they received absolution, thus saving their soul from damnation. They were still executed, but with the blessings of the Church bestowed upon them.
I thought about this from a Christian perspective. In Roman times, Christians were compelled to renounce their "pagan, atheistic faith" or be tortured and killed. In this past century in Communist countries being a Christian prevented one from getting an education, owning land or getting a job. A friend of mine from Hungary shared with me that her grandmother was a member of the Communist party. On joining she had to agree that no living relative went to church or professed the Christian belief in any way. (Interestingly, on her death bed she told her children to baptize the grand children).
In modern times, throughout Asia and Africa, Christians are persecuted for their beliefs. Converting from Islam to Christianity brings the death penalty.
So here comes the Middle Ages. Europe is owned by the "Holy Roman" Church. If I were Satan and I wanted to force people to renounce Christ how would I do it? How about torture people until they confess to being witches? Because if you're admitting to being a witch what are you also doing? Renouncing your faith in Christ. What does John 16:2 say?
...in fact, the time is coming when anyone who kills you will think they are offering a service to God.
The strangest part I found was the involvement of children and how many accused others, including their own family members of being witches. Why would a child do that?
Williams devotes whole chapters to different countries: England, Spain, Germany. There's some bizarre tales of the court of France prior to the French revolution. Apparently the king's mistress practiced "Black Sabbath's" to maintain her hold over the king as well as killing off any potential threats to her position.
The last chapter is left for America and the Salem witch trials. It all started with hysterical children. Why did they do it? Did they understand what they were doing? And why did adults give them any credence? It's easy to believe that a malevolent Spirit simply possessed a whole community-all believing they were serving God. Satan must have been laughing his head off.
On record the pastors and judges who were involved later recanted and asked pardon for the offenses they committed against innocent people. Not that that brought anyone back to life but at least they lived to regret their actions.
This book is strange, horrific and utterly fascinating. If you would like greater insight into the psychic of the mind and how it operated throughout history, this is a good book for it.