The best books on witch hunting in Britain and Europe

Malcolm Gaskill Author Of Witchfinders: A Seventeenth-Century English Tragedy
By Malcolm Gaskill

The Books I Picked & Why

Witch Hunting and Witch Trials

By C L'Estrange Ewen

Book cover of Witch Hunting and Witch Trials

Why this book?

This was the book that got me started over thirty years ago, and which I still turn to today. It’s an absolute mine of information, specifically relating to the written indictments for witchcraft which survive in great numbers for the Home Assize Circuit – that is, the courts that heard felonies in south-eastern England.

Ewen doesn’t provide much in the way of analysis. There is a substantial, very useful, introduction, but the really incredible thing about this book is how Ewen managed to comb through the archives, then held in the Public Records Office in London, and find almost all of the witchcraft indictments hidden there. He was an amazing researcher, who provided raw data for subsequent generations of historians.

Among many findings that can be drawn from his research are that, outside the peculiar spike in trials in the mid-1640s (the subject of my book, Witchfinders), English witch-trials peaked in the 1580s, especially in the county of Essex. We also learn that less than a quarter of indicted witchcraft suspects were convicted, suggesting considerable scepticism, at least in the value of testimonies presented as evidence in court.

I’ve chosen this book as an example of the importance of the archive for the historical study of witchcraft. My other recommendations highlight other key themes.

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Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England

By Alan Macfarlane

Book cover of Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England

Why this book?

Originally published in 1970, this was another foundational text for me and other witchcraft scholars of my generation.

It grew out of Macfarlane’s doctoral thesis focusing on Essex, which had been supervised by Keith Thomas, whose own great book, Religion and the Decline of Magic (much of which dealt with witches), came out the following year. Even then, the historian Macfarlane was on his way to becoming an anthropologist – a transition visible on every page of this fascinating book.

But its overriding character is that of a work of sociology. Social science models helped to impose interpretative order on the kind of archival information dug up by C. L’Estange Ewen, and connected a rise in witchcraft accusations to a number of strains in late-sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century English life, especially economic strains.

Although their interpretations differ in substance and emphasis, Macfarlane and Thomas are still associated with a paradigm of suspicion where poor people begging at the houses of wealthier neighbours were turned away, generating dangerous feelings of resentment (on one side) and guilt (on the other). The so-called ‘charity refused’ model remains a compelling idea for explaining how and why some people came to believe that others were trying to harm them using witchcraft.

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Witch-Hunting in Scotland: Law, Politics and Religion

By Brian P. Levack

Book cover of Witch-Hunting in Scotland: Law, Politics and Religion

Why this book?

The distinctive selling-point of this work is summed up by its sub-title: a focus on law, politics and religion as causal factors, not just for humdrum witchcraft accusations but for major, sustained witch-hunts. Brian Levack has made a huge contribution to our understanding of witch-hunting, and here brings his specialist expertise to bear on Scotland, which experienced the most intense, and devastating panics anywhere in the British Isles (and worse even than most places in continental Europe).

Historians have long learned not to see witch-hunts as hysterical spasms of pre-Enlightenment ‘superstition’. Demonology was a serious subject in the sixteenth and seventeeen centuries, and was logically coherent within the mentalities of the time. Witchcraft, then, wasn’t some insane sideshow to the dominant legal, political and religious issues of the day, but central to those issues.

Embedding witchcraft in these mainstream contexts is essential to understanding what it once meant, not just to ordinary villagers, but to the best educated, most powerful men in the state. Levack’s book is so important because he takes witchcraft seriously, just as the people he’s writing about took it seriously – from the top to the bottom of society.

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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?

This builds on the archives, on the sociology and anthropology, and on the politics, law and religion discussed so far, but its emphasis is on communities – what has been called (by my research supervisor, Keith Wrightson) ‘the politics of the parish’. If witch-hunting was shaped by the structures and relationships of the state, as in Levack’s book, it also belonged to the local political world of ordinary people, who helped each other out and joined forces to resist perceived enemies in their midst. And there was no enemy more frightening than the witch, who was the anti-neighbour, anti-mother, anti-Christian – the anti-everything, except envy, malice and spite.

Briggs is a superb historian. I remember reading this book when it came out, and being blown away by it. It takes the reader deep into a world of social obligations (and their breaches) and networks of people, mostly in economically fragile farming communities. Here, witches reflected the anxieties of their neighbours, who therefore, in a sense, made witches: you can’t have one without the other.

Witches and Neighbours is not a geographically comprehensive book: it concentrates mainly on the borderlands between France and Germany. But it is a powerfully insightful one, and beautifully written as well – full of neat formulations and memorable phrases.

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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?

This tour de force by another great historian, Lyndal Roper, adds another three crucial dimensions of the history of witchcraft: emotion, psychology and gender. And a theme that combines all three – a theme that runs through the book – is that of fantasy. Witchcraft was not just a crime or a theological construct or a paranoid fear: it was an outlandish confection of the imagination, but one that had real meaning for some confessed witches. Witchcraft was a dream of power for otherwise powerless people, especially poor, elderly, marginal women.

Like all the best historians of witchcraft, Roper explains witchcraft without explaining it away by condescending to her subjects. If Briggs’s Witches and Neighbours takes us into the heart of the community to see what witchcraft meant there, Roper goes even further: into the hearts and minds of people, especially the witches themselves, whose own life-stories were intertwined with narratives of demonism and witchcraft.

One lasting impression from Witch Craze: although demonologists, jurists, judges, clerics and magistrates were all male, and at least three-quarters of accused witches female, when the fine grain of accusations is examined, one sees how women feared and detested other women, especially anxious mothers who feverishly thought that post-menopausal women envied them. The truth is that much the conflict that sparked off witchcraft accusations, and in court made witchcraft a viable crime, was generated between competing, self-defensive mixed-sex households.

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