My favorite books on witchcraft in history

Why am I passionate about this?

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.

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The books I picked & why

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

Marion Gibson Why did I love 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.

By John Callow,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

"Fascinating and vivid." New Statesman
"Thoroughly researched." The Spectator
"Intriguing." BBC History Magazine
"Vividly told." BBC History Revealed
"A timely warning against persecution." Morning Star
"Astute and thoughtful." History Today
"An important work." All About History
"Well-researched." The Tablet

On the morning of Thursday 29 June 1682, a magpie came rasping, rapping and tapping at the window of a prosperous Devon merchant. Frightened by its appearance, his servants and members of his family had, within a matter of hours, convinced themselves that the bird was an emissary of the devil sent by witches to destroy the fabric of their lives.…

Book cover of White Is for Witching

Marion Gibson Why did I love 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.

By Helen Oyeyemi,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked White Is for Witching as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Haunting in every sense, White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi is a spine-tingling tribute to the power of magic, myth and memory.

High on the cliffs near Dover, the Silver family is reeling from the loss of Lily, mother of twins Eliot and Miranda, and beloved wife of Luc. Miranda misses her with particular intensity. Their mazy, capricious house belonged to her mother's ancestors, and to Miranda, newly attuned to spirits, newly hungry for chalk, it seems they have never left. Forcing apples to grow in winter, revealing and concealing secret floors, the house is fiercely possessive of young…

Book cover of Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch

Marion Gibson Why did I love 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?

By Rivka Galchen,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The startling, witty, highly anticipated second novel from the critically acclaimed author of Atmospheric Disturbances.

The story begins in 1618, in the German duchy of Württemberg. Plague is spreading. The Thirty Years' War has begun, and fear and suspicion are in the air throughout the Holy Roman Empire. In the small town of Leonberg, Katharina Kepler is accused of being a witch.

Katharina is an illiterate widow, known by her neighbors for her herbal remedies and the success of her children, including her eldest, Johannes, who is the Imperial Mathematician and renowned author of the laws of planetary motion. It's…

Book cover of Deadly Words

Marion Gibson Why did I love 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.

By Jeanne Favret-Saada,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Deadly Words as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This 1980 book examines witchcraft beliefs and experiences in the Bocage, a rural area of western France. It also introduced a powerful theoretical attitude towards the progress of the ethnographer's enquiries, suggesting that a full knowledge of witchcraft involves being 'caught up' in it oneself. In the Bocage, being bewitched is to be 'caught' in a sequence of misfortunes. According to those who are bewitched, the culprit is someone in the neighbourhood: the witch, who can cast a spell with a word, a touch or a look, and whose 'power' comes from a book of spells inherited from an ancestor.…

Book cover of The Witchfinder's Sister

Marion Gibson Why did I love 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?

By Beth Underdown,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Witchfinder's Sister as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'The number of women my brother Matthew killed, so far as I can reckon it, is one hundred and six . . .'


'A compelling debut from a gifted storyteller' Sarah Perry, author of The Essex Serpent

When Alice Hopkins' husband dies in a tragic accident, she returns to the small Essex town of Manningtree, where her brother Matthew still lives.

But home is no longer a place of safety. Matthew has changed, and there are rumours spreading through the town: whispers of witchcraft, and of a great book, in which…

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By Lisa Redfern,

Book cover of Crossing: A Chinese Family Railroad Novel

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Why am I passionate about this?

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What is my book about?

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