Norman Cohn

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Professor Norman Cohn
12 January 1915 - 31 July 2007
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10 August 2007

THIS WEBSITE HAS BEEN SILENT for the best part of a year but news of the recent death of the historian Professor Norman Cohn means that it would be quite wrong to allow that silence to continue. For without Norman Cohn's example and the extraordinary richness of his his investigations into the role played in history by collective fantasies, many of the articles and essays collected here would never have been written.

As a tribute to one of the greatest of all modern historians, I am publishing on this website (after a discussion his son, the writer Nik Cohn), a shortened version of one of the key chapters in his study of the origins of the great European witch-hunt, Europe's Inner Demons. I hope it will encourage more people to embark on a reading of the book itself – and indeed of Norman Cohn’s other works. To read the extract, click here.

The Telegraph obituary can be read here. For the text of the Guardian obituary (to which is appended my own brief tribute) click here. The Independent obituary, which was written by historian William Lamont and includes a note by John Gray, can be read here. For a larger version of the splendidly illustrated Guardian piece, click on the image below (and press F11 to view full screen):

Guardian obituary of Norman Cohn
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Because Norman Cohn has exercised such a profound influence on my own work I find it difficult to contemplate his death without a sense of personal loss. As wrote in the preface to The Secret of Bryn Estyn:

One of the questions I am frequently asked is why I have taken such an interest in the problem of false allegations. There are many answers to this question but one of them is relatively simple. Thirty-five years ago, when I was an undergraduate reading English literature at the University of East Anglia, I stumbled upon a book by the historian Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium. This was Professor Cohn’s widely acclaimed study of the role played in mediaeval European history by millenarian fantasies – by the belief that there would come a time when all those who were unbelievers or ‘impure’ would be vanquished, and the ‘pure’ who remained would reign with Christ over a utopian kingdom which would last for a thousand years.

The extraordinary range and power of Cohn’s book led me to read his other work – his book about conspiracy theories and modern anti-semitism, Warrant for Genocide, and, when it appeared in 1975, Europe’s Inner Demons, his study of the great European witch-hunt of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. All three books seek to establish the role played in history by collective fantasies and all three are concerned with ‘the urge to purify the world through the annihilation of some category of human beings imagined as agents of corruption and incarnations of evil’ (Europe’s Inner Demons, p xiv).

The topic which fascinated Professor Cohn, and continued to do so throughout his scholarly career, came to fascinate me as well – not least because it seemed to me that without studying the role of collective delusions in history we could scarcely begin to understand our own nature and our own culture. But this interest also had a more practical and more worldly aspect. The Paladin paperback edition of Europe’s Inner Demons, which appeared in 1976, bore on its cover these words of Anthony Storr: ‘This is a book of real stature which I hope will have wide impact. Only if we begin to understand the horrifying recesses of the human imagination can we prevent the recurrence of those dreadful, irrational persecutions which have so disfigured human history.’ Without my fully realising it at the time, these words influenced me deeply and I have since taken it for granted that the principal reason why we should study the witch-hunts of the past is to enable us the better to recognise and oppose the witch-hunts of the present and the future.

Towards the end of his life, even at the age of 92, Norman Cohn was lucid and his intellectual curiosity remained undimmed. Indeed I understand that he was contemplating the production of another short book - or long essay - under the title 'The dangers of purity'. That he did not live to see this project through is a tragedy that leaves us all the poorer.

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While updating this site to include the extract from Europe's Inner Demons I have taken the opportunity to post a piece of my own, Presumptions of innocence, which is closely related to Norman Cohn's argument and which has not previously been published.

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