Satan: A Biography

Ronald Hutton applauds this new account that combines a historical chronology of the Devil with a sensitive understanding of the demonically possessed

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Reviewed by: Ronald Hutton
Author: PG Maxwell-Stuart
Publisher: Amberley Publishing
Price (RRP): £14.99 (paperback)

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This is the latest of a succession of wide-ranging books by Peter Maxwell-Stuart, covering between them several themes in the history of magic and witchcraft in Europe. Satan: A Biography shares with the others a good knowledge of its field, based on both the primary and secondary sources, and a lively and accessible style, charmingly laced with Scots expressions such as ‘outwith’ and ‘anent’ which signal the author’s patriotic allegiance.

This is actually two books in one, the first being that which the title advertises: a survey of the way in which the figure of Satan has been developed and redeveloped in the western imagination, from his origins in near eastern theology to his present place in that of Christian fundamentalism. This is deftly and precisely done, and is the best short chronological summary of the subject that is currently available.

Wedged in the centre of it is the second book, more interesting to a specialist, which considers in some depth, and mostly but not exclusively from British material, the way in which early modern people experienced demonic visitation and possession.

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Maxwell-Stuart’s trademark as a scholar is his insistence that the confessions of alleged witches and the claims of alleged demoniacs be taken seriously as personal statements. Here he suggests, with an impressive care and sensitivity, that many different kinds of experience may have lain behind their accounts of the Devil: real-life encounters, dreams, drug-taking, trances and illnesses. All are set within an early modern world picture which accepted the supernatural literally as part of everyday life. It is an engaging new exercise in the contemporary project of attempting to understand past societies in something like their own terms.