The best history books on the European witch craze

Who am I?

I am the Centennial Professor of history at Vanderbilt University. I have been reading and teaching about witchcraft and the occult for over thirty years. This is a topic that never fails to engage people of all backgrounds and has generated a plethora of books, some good, many not. I look for authors who understand the passions, psychology, and experiences of both accusers and supposed witches, while also exploring what it is about certain societies that leads to such claims being taken seriously, often with fatal results. The books I picked vividly convey the reality of the witch craze, while also asking some probing questions about persecutions in general.  


I wrote...

Book cover of The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honor and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century

What is my book about?

In The Faithful Executioner, Harrington vividly re-creates a life filled with stark contrasts, from the young apprentice's rigorous training under his executioner father to the adult Meister Frantz's juggling of familial duties with his work in the torture chamber and at the scaffold. With him we encounter brutal highwaymen, charming swindlers, and tragic unwed mothers accused of infanticide, as well as patrician senators, godly chaplains, and corrupt prison guards. Harrington teases out the hidden meanings and drama of Schmidt's journal, uncovering a touching tale of inherited shame and attempted redemption for the social pariah and his children. The Faithful Executioner offers not just the compelling firsthand perspective of a professional torturer and killer, but the testimony of one man's lifelong struggle to reconcile his bloody craft with his deep religious faith.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Witchcraft: A Very Short Introduction

Joel F. Harrington Why did I love 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.

By Malcolm Gaskill,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Witchcraft as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Witchcraft is a subject that fascinates us all, and everyone knows what a witch is - or do they? From childhood most of us develop a sense of the mysterious, malign person, usually an old woman. Historically, too, we recognize witch-hunting as a feature of pre-modern societies. But why do witches still feature so heavily in our cultures and consciousness? From Halloween to superstitions, and literary references such as Faust and even Harry Potter, witches still
feature heavily in our society. In this Very Short Introduction Malcolm Gaskill challenges all of this, and argues that what we think we know…


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

Joel F. Harrington Why did I love 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.

By Lyndal Roper,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Witch Craze as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A powerful account of witches, crones, and the societies that make them

From the gruesome ogress in Hansel and Gretel to the hags at the sabbath in Faust, the witch has been a powerful figure of the Western imagination. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries thousands of women confessed to being witches-of making pacts with the Devil, causing babies to sicken, and killing animals and crops-and were put to death. This book is a gripping account of the pursuit, interrogation, torture, and burning of witches during this period and beyond.

Drawing on hundreds of original trial transcripts and other rare…


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

Joel F. Harrington Why did I love 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. 

By Ulinka Rublack,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Astronomer & the Witch as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) was one of the most admired astronomers who ever lived and a key figure in the scientific revolution. A defender of Copernicuss sun-centred universe, he famously discovered that planets move in ellipses, and defined the three laws of planetary motion. Perhaps less well known is that in 1615, when Kepler was at the height of his career, his widowed mother Katharina was accused of witchcraft. The proceedings led to a criminal trial
that lasted six years, with Kepler conducting his mother's defence.

In The Astronomer and the Witch, Ulinka Rublack pieces together the tale of this extraordinary…


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

Joel F. Harrington Why did I love 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.

By Robin Briggs,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Witches and Neighbours as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Witches and Neighbours is a highly original and unconventional analysis of a fascinating historical phenomenon. Unlike other studies of the subject which focus on the mechanisms of persecution, this book presents a rich picture of witchcraft as an all-pervasive aspect of life in early modern Europe. Robin Briggs combines recent research with his own investigations to produce a brilliant and compelling account of the central role of witchcraft in the past. Although the history of witchcraft can only be studied through records of persecutions, these reveal that trials were unusual in everyday life and that witchcraft can be viewed as…


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

Joel F. Harrington Why did I love 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. 

By Thomas Robisheaux,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Last Witch of Langenburg as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

On the night of the festive holiday of Shrove Tuesday in 1672 Anna Fessler died after eating one of her neighbor's buttery cakes. Could it have been poisoned? Drawing on vivid court documents, eyewitness accounts, and an early autopsy report, historian Thomas Robisheaux brings the story to life. Exploring one of Europe's last witch panics, he unravels why neighbors and the court magistrates became convinced that Fessler's neighbor Anna Schmieg was a witch-one of several in the area-ensnared by the devil. Once arrested, Schmieg, the wife of the local miller, and her daughter were caught up in a high-stakes drama…


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The Lion and the Fox: Two Rival Spies and the Secret Plot to Build a Confederate Navy

By Alexander Rose,

Book cover of The Lion and the Fox: Two Rival Spies and the Secret Plot to Build a Confederate Navy

Alexander Rose Author Of Empires of the Sky: Zeppelins, Airplanes, and Two Men's Epic Duel to Rule the World

New book alert!

Who am I?

A long time ago, I was an early-aviation historian, but eventually realized that I knew only half the story—the part about airplanes. But what about airships? Initially, I assumed, like so many others, that they were a flash-in-the-pan, a ridiculous dead-end technology, but then I realized these wondrous giants had roamed and awed the world for nearly four decades. There was a bigger story here of an old rivalry between airplanes and airships, one that had since been forgotten, and Empires of the Sky was the result.

Alexander's book list on Zeppelin airships

What is my book about?

From the author of Washington’s Spies, the thrilling story of two rival secret agents — one Confederate, the other Union — sent to Britain during the Civil War.

The South’s James Bulloch, charming and devious, was ordered to acquire a clandestine fleet intended to break Lincoln’s blockade, sink Northern merchant vessels, and drown the U.S. Navy’s mightiest ships at sea. Opposing him was Thomas Dudley, an upright Quaker lawyer determined to stop Bulloch in a spy-versus-spy game of move and countermove, gambit and sacrifice, intrigue and betrayal.

Their battleground was the Dickensian port of Liverpool, whose dockyards built more ships each year than the rest of the world combined and whose merchant princes, said one observer, were “addicted to Southern proclivities, foreign slave trade, and domestic bribery.”

The Lion and the Fox: Two Rival Spies and the Secret Plot to Build a Confederate Navy

By Alexander Rose,

What is this book about?

From the New York Times bestselling author of Washington's Spies, the thrilling story of the Confederate spy who came to Britain to turn the tide of the Civil War-and the Union agent resolved to stop him.

"Entertaining and deeply researched...with a rich cast of spies, crooks, bent businessmen and drunken sailors...Rose relates the tale with gusto." -The New York Times

In 1861, soon after the outbreak of the Civil War, two secret agents-one a Confederate, the other his Union rival-were dispatched to neutral Britain, each entrusted with a vital mission.

The South's James Bulloch, charming and devious, was to acquire…


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