The best history books on the European witch craze

Joel F. Harrington Author Of The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honor and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century
By Joel F. Harrington

The Books I Picked & Why

Witchcraft: A Very Short Introduction

By Malcolm Gaskill

Book cover of Witchcraft: A Very Short Introduction

Why this book?

I have read dozens of books on this subject and this is by far the best succinct overview I have come across. The author has written extensively on English witchcraft and knows the broader field inside out. It is truly amazing how much he is able to cover (clearly and vividly) in such a short space, from historic origins up to the present day. There is also a very helpful bibliography so readers can pursue certain topics in more depth.


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Witch Craze: Terror and Fantasy in Baroque Germany

By Lyndal Roper

Book cover of Witch Craze: Terror and Fantasy in Baroque Germany

Why this book?

A truly innovative and fascinating psychological perspective on the imaginative workings behind early modern witchcraft cases. It’s common knowledge that women were much more likely than men to be accused, but Roper shows us that it’s not always for the reasons we suspect. Written in sparkling prose by one of the world’s preeminent experts on the subject and illustrated by numerous arresting images.


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The Astronomer & the Witch: Johannes Kepler's Fight for His Mother

By Ulinka Rublack

Book cover of The Astronomer & the Witch: Johannes Kepler's Fight for His Mother

Why this book?

The fascinating and moving story of the famous astronomer’s reluctant defense of his obstreperous mother, where not just his reputation but her life are at stake. We get an in-depth sense of how the combination of local animosities and popular superstitions gradually gather momentum over time until some tipping point brings them into the legal arena. I especially liked Rublack’s sympathetic portrayal of a famous scholar struggling with his own origins and sense of familial duty. A personal, family story, as early modern witchcraft cases often were. 


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Witches and Neighbours: The Social and Cultural Context of European Witchcraft

By Robin Briggs

Book cover of Witches and Neighbours: The Social and Cultural Context of European Witchcraft

Why this book?

Whether or not, as Tip O’Neill said, all politics are local, all witchcraft accusations certainly are. Briggs has dug deeply into the archives of various Lorraine villages to unearth an astounding variety of beliefs about magic, sexuality, neighborliness, and social order—all tied to the phenomenon of the witch craze. Like Roper, he gets at the emotional, even therapeutic, impulses behind accusations that lead people in small face-to-face societies to turn on each other.  It’s certainly weird and disturbing, but not always in the ways we have come to expect. Sometimes difficult to obtain in the U.S., but worth the pursuit.


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The Last Witch of Langenburg: Murder in a German Village

By Thomas Robisheaux

Book cover of The Last Witch of Langenburg: Murder in a German Village

Why this book?

As advertised, a late case of witchcraft (although not as late as Salem thirty years later—further proof of American backwardness in Europeans’ eyes). A kind of seventeenth-century "Law and Order,” where we follow one case of alleged poisoning from the beginning to the end, from the different perspectives of practically everyone involved.  Another heart-wrenching family drama among people known to each other all their lives. I especially liked the nuanced treatment of the legal investigator and other specialists for the prosecution. Perhaps a bit too lengthy, but I found it easy to glide over a few specialized sections in favor of detailed dramatizations of several key confrontations. 


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