The best books on witchcraft in history

Marion Gibson Author Of Witchcraft: The Basics
By Marion Gibson

Who am I?

I’ve been researching and writing histories of witchcraft for over twenty years because I wanted to know why people would confess to a crime that they couldn’t have committed. I especially wanted to know about women’s stories of witchcraft, and I found that fiction really helped me to imagine their worlds. I’m a Professor at Exeter University and I’m working on two new books about witchcraft trials: The Witches of St Osyth and Witchcraft: A History in Thirteen Trials. I’m trying to feel every word and give the “witches” the empathy they deserve.

I wrote...

Witchcraft: The Basics

By Marion Gibson,

Book cover of Witchcraft: The Basics

What is my book about?

Witchcraft: The Basics explores the phenomenon of witchcraft in history and fiction, from its earliest definitions in the Middle Ages through to its resonances in the modern world. It looks at case studies of witch trials in Britain and America, witches in Shakespeare and other literature, the scholarly field of Witchcraft Studies, witches as neo-pagans and activists, and witches in film and TV.

The books I picked & why

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The Last Witches of England: A Tragedy of Sorcery and Superstition

By John Callow,

Book cover of The Last Witches of England: A Tragedy of Sorcery and Superstition

Why this book?

The immersive and tragic history of a witch trial in Bideford, Devon, England in 1682 puts the “witches” back at the centre of their story and tries to imagine their world with sympathy and insight. This is a very well-researched book, drawing on documents from the town and printed news pamphlets about the trial, as well as on the author’s wider knowledge of witchcraft and demonology (the study of devils and witches). It evokes the sinister atmosphere in the town very effectively. The story is well told, pacy, and easy to follow, and I learned a lot about the women and their world – telling details that I thought might have been lost to history, but are rediscovered and thrillingly told here.

White Is for Witching

By Helen Oyeyemi,

Book cover of White Is for Witching

Why this book?

A scary, clever novel about witchy women that takes in big themes: mental and physical illness, grief, racism, nationalism. Oh, and a haunted house with its own voice. The themes are tragic, but the telling is often funny. It’s the story of Miranda, a young white woman who suffers from the eating disorder “pica”, her friend Ore, a black Cambridge student who both loves and fears Miranda, and Miranda’s family and community: the Silvers, father, brother, and Miranda’s dead mother; the Eastern European kids at school; the Yoruba cook; Miranda’s terrifyingly magical ancestors. Like me, you might have to read it again to completely unpick the plot, and it’s worth it.

Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch

By Rivka Galchen,

Book cover of Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch

Why this book?

A surprisingly funny novel about a real-life witchcraft trial in seventeenth-century Germany that darkens as it goes on. The “witch” is Katharina Kepler, mother of the famous mathematician and scientist Johannes Kepler, who really was accused of bewitching her neighbours. The novel takes inspiration from the history book about her trial by Ulinka Rublack (also recommended) but it goes on its own journey with the evidence. Mostly narrated in Katharina’s voice, it’s moving and inventive, lifting the story out of the past and making it very immediate for the reader. As well as enjoying the writing, I learned a lot about how slow and achingly uncertain witchcraft trials could be. And isn’t that a great title?

Deadly Words

By Jeanne Favret-Saada,

Book cover of Deadly Words

Why this book?

A brilliant anthropological account of witchcraft in the Normandy countryside in the 1960s. If it sounds dull, believe me, it isn’t! Jeanne Favret-Saada started her study of magical beliefs among French farmers thinking that she might find some superstitious vestiges of the sort that were laughed at by Parisian intellectuals. Instead, she found a complex, shifting world of theories and suspicions, as gripping as any detective novel. As she was drawn into the world of witchcraft, Jeanne found herself believed to be able to lift curses and began to fear that she herself might have been bewitched.

Her book is about how we tell stories of witchcraft – and indeed tell stories of anything. It made me question whether we could ever write a really solid, factual history of witchcraft: the story of a crime that didn’t exist, told by people who weren’t sure what had happened anyway. I think we can, but this book should make you question everything you read in witchcraft histories.

The Witchfinder's Sister

By Beth Underdown,

Book cover of The Witchfinder's Sister

Why this book?

A thoughtful and well-researched novel about the “Witchfinder General” Matthew Hopkins, who hunted witches in eastern England during the mid-seventeenth century Civil War. Or rather, it’s not about Matthew but about his fictional sister, Alice. Focusing on Alice is a clever and thought-provoking way of telling a famous story, making us look harder at the women involved in the witch hunt and how they might have felt about their experiences. How did women feel about witchfinders in their families and among their friends? Did they really suspect other women of witchcraft? Were they able to avoid becoming complicit in witch-hunting?

It’s a lively and horrifying story that has a really convincing seventeenth-century feel and it made me uncomfortable. What would I have done if a witch-hunt had come to my village? What would you do?

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