The best books about witch hunts

2 authors have picked their favorite books about witch hunts and why they recommend each book.

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The Witchfinder's Sister

By Beth Underdown,

Book cover of The Witchfinder's Sister

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?


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.

Witchfinders

By Malcolm Gaskill,

Book cover of Witchfinders: A Seventeenth-Century English Tragedy

If you mention witches, most people think fantasy novels, but this is a factual history about the real life witch-hunts that took place across the East of England in the 17th Century. It unpicks the brutal and most likely self-serving crusade of the original Witchfinder General, Mathew Hopkins and the religious hysteria of the time. It is a worthy counterbalance to classic horror films such as Witchfinder General and to all the varied and imaginative fiction that has been written about witches and witchery over the centuries, my own included.


Who am I?

I’ve always loved fantasy. My mother told me fairy stories and I read every book of myth and legend in my local library. I’ve continued to read and love books of fantasy and magic. I guess it’s not surprising that all four of my novels and most of my short stories have a speculative aspect to them. Having grown up with the traditional view of the aged, ugly crone luring children away to their doom, I especially love stories of witches that come at the topic of witchcraft from a different angle. I live in the East of England, where the infamous witch-hunts of the seventeenth century took place.


I wrote...

Witchlight

By J.S. Watts,

Book cover of Witchlight

What is my book about?

Witchlight is the first novel in my Witchlight trilogy and where it all begins. Holly has been mortal all her life. Now at thirty-eight, her fairy godfather arrives to tell her she’s a witch, and suddenly she's having to come to terms with the uncertainties of an alarmingly magic-fuelled world. Magic is not like it is in the books and films, and Holly starts to doubt whether her fairy godfather, Partridge Mayflower, is the fey, avuncular charmer he appears.

When appearances are magically deceptive, Holly cannot afford to trust those closest to her, including herself. Accidents start to happen, people die, Old Magic is on the hunt, but in the age-old game of cat and mouse, who is the feline and who is the rodent?

Witchcraft

By Malcolm Gaskill,

Book cover of Witchcraft: A Very Short Introduction

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.


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...

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

By Joel F. Harrington,

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.

Serpent & Dove

By Shelby Mahurin,

Book cover of Serpent & Dove

This book has all you can ask for: A great story, likeable characters, and an enemies-to-lovers romance that will make you swoon. The French setting was a refreshing take, and both the romance and the plot moved in a fluid way. The characters were layered and the story kept me on the edge of my seat.

Who am I?

I love all things Fantasy and Romance, so Romantic Fantasy is my favorite genre (both to read and to write)! The possibilities in the genre are truly endless. There are so many worlds and settings to explore. Do you prefer High Fantasy or Urban? Paranormal or Thriller? There’s a story for every taste, as long as there are strong romantic and fantastical elements. But the beauty of Romantic Fantasy is that it’s not all about the romance. It’s a healthy mix of complex characters, fast-paced plots, and of course, swoon-worthy romances. I hope you will enjoy these books as much as I did!


I wrote...

Blessed Fury: Urban Fantasy Romance

By C.S. Wilde,

Book cover of Blessed Fury: Urban Fantasy Romance

What is my book about?

Once you face the devils, there’s no going back. Guardian angel Ava Lightway has spent a century watching over her charges, whispering the words of the gods in their ears. But her peaceful existence ends when she’s assigned to Liam Striker, a supernatural detective with no memory of his past. Keeping death away from her new partner is an impossible task. Ava has never failed a charge, and she doesn’t plan on starting now. But even if their investigation doesn’t destroy her, succumbing to Liam’s smoldering touch just may.

Read the sizzling, breath-taking tale of angels gone bad! This is a forbidden romance featuring a sinning rogue and the angel who'll stop at nothing to help him. Perfect for fans of dark supernatural romance.

A Kind of Spark

By Elle McNicoll,

Book cover of A Kind of Spark

This book is gripping. From the first sentence I was hooked as the autistic heroine showed me what life is like when no one understands you. When no one thinks like you. And when almost everyone underestimates you. I have learned so much from this book and am grateful for it. I love Addie. I love how empathetic she is as she campaigns for a memorial for the accused witches executed by her village centuries earlier. And I love her passion for sharks and her desire for them to live free and natural lives. I am certain that she would not visit aquariums because she knows how cruel captivity is. She is a bright, brave soul and I highly recommend that you read her story.


Who am I?

I love writing and illustrating all sorts of children's stories. The only thing my stories have in common is that none of their heroes eat meat, drink milk, or take part in the egg and spoon race. I write the kind of stories I want to read. I don't want to read about sex or violence. And I don't want to read foul language. I want something meaningful, something with a concluding note of optimism. Consequently, well-written children's stories often appeal to me. In fact, I've come to the conclusion that these are not just children's stories, they're good stories that anyone can enjoy.


I wrote...

Little Chicken Classic - Luke Walker: animal stick up for-er

By Violet Plum, Miranda Lemon (translator),

Book cover of Little Chicken Classic - Luke Walker: animal stick up for-er

What is my book about?

Eight-year-old Luke Walker is confident, outspoken, and defiant. He's a maverick, as brave as Robin Hood, and as logical as Commander Tuvok. Determined to do the right thing, Luke has to disobey, vandalise, lie, steal and sabotage. He thinks aloud, he acts aloud, and he doesn't suffer fools. He's a hero. He's a role model. He's a self-declared outlaw who will stop at nothing to save and protect animals, even if it means he gets into trouble. And it usually does.  

This Little Chicken Classic contains all sixteen funny and exciting chapters from the first two Luke Walker books.

Death in Salem

By Diane E. Foulds,

Book cover of Death in Salem: The Private Lives Behind the 1692 Witch Hunt

Diane Foulds, a descendant of one of the victims condemned to death during the Salem Witch Trials, thoroughly researched many of the people involved in the events that led to the execution of 19 innocent victims. I am not a descendant, but these events have fascinated me since childhood, because they were so outlandish and led to such unnecessary tragedy. In this book you will learn about not only the victims, but the ‘afflicted’ young girls whose wild, unfounded accusations and theatrics during the trials convinced the judges that many people were witches. It is easy to connect with each individual, as the book centers on them, to understand why the entire episode was character-driven. It is even easier to sympathize with the victims and appreciate how they suffered. 


Who am I?

I write historical and biographical novels, and have had a fascination with the Salem witch trials since childhood. With my first visit to Salem, I felt a strong connection to my surroundings and its history. When I walked through the House of the Seven Gables for the first time, I felt I’d been there before. Three past-life regressions brought me back to 17th century Salem. In my biographical novel For The Love Of Hawthorne, I delved deeply into the soul of my favorite author, his devoted wife, and the shame his family suffered at the hand of his ancestor Judge Hathorne. The story came from my heart, as I lived their story along with them. 


I wrote...

For The Love Of Hawthorne

By Diana Rubino,

Book cover of For The Love Of Hawthorne

What is my book about?

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s courtship of Sophia Peabody lasted three years because he insisted on keeping it secret. But she knew they were destined for each other. When they married in 1842 “we became Adam and Eve in our Garden of Even” she wrote in her journal. But not all was paradise in their Eden—Nathaniel bore a burden that plagued his family since 1692. His ancestor Judge Hathorne condemned nineteen innocent victims to death during the Salem witch trials. His heinous deeds brought shame and guilt upon the family. In her last moments on earth, Sarah Good cursed the judge and his descendants from the hanging tree. Nathaniel’s belief in this curse haunted him until Sophia made it her quest to save him. 

Witch Hunting and Witch Trials

By C L'Estrange Ewen,

Book cover of Witch Hunting and Witch Trials

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…


Who am I?

I am an Emeritus Professor of Early Modern History at the University of East Anglia and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. I taught history for many years at several UK universities, and I was the Director of Studies in History at Churchill College, Cambridge. I am the author of six books, including Hellish Nell: Last of Britain’s Witches and Witchcraft: A Very Short Introduction. His latest book, The Ruin of All Witches: Life and Death in the New World, will be published in November by Penguin. I live in Cambridge, England, and I am married with three children.


I wrote...

Witchfinders: A Seventeenth-Century English Tragedy

By Malcolm Gaskill,

Book cover of Witchfinders: A Seventeenth-Century English Tragedy

What is my book about?

By spring 1645, two years of civil war had exacted a dreadful toll upon England. People lived in terror as disease and poverty spread, and the nation grew ever more politically divided. In a remote corner of Essex, two obscure gentlemen, Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne, exploited the anxiety and lawlessness of the time and initiated a brutal campaign to drive out the presumed evil in their midst. Touring Suffolk and East Anglia on horseback, they detected demons and idolaters everywhere. Through torture, they extracted from terrified prisoners confessions of consorting with Satan and demonic spirits.


This is the chilling story of the most savage witch-hunt in English history. By the autumn of 1647 at least 250 people—mostly women—had been captured, interrogated, and hauled before the courts. More than a hundred were hanged, causing Hopkins to be dubbed ‘Witchfinder General’ by critics and admirers alike. Though their campaign was never legally sanctioned, they garnered the popular support of local gentry, clergy, and villagers. While Witchfinders tells of a unique and tragic historical moment fuelled by religious fervour, today it serves as a reminder of the power of fear and fanaticism to fuel ordinary people’s willingness to demonize others.

Witches and Neighbours

By Robin Briggs,

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

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…


Who am I?

I am an Emeritus Professor of Early Modern History at the University of East Anglia and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. I taught history for many years at several UK universities, and I was the Director of Studies in History at Churchill College, Cambridge. I am the author of six books, including Hellish Nell: Last of Britain’s Witches and Witchcraft: A Very Short Introduction. His latest book, The Ruin of All Witches: Life and Death in the New World, will be published in November by Penguin. I live in Cambridge, England, and I am married with three children.


I wrote...

Witchfinders: A Seventeenth-Century English Tragedy

By Malcolm Gaskill,

Book cover of Witchfinders: A Seventeenth-Century English Tragedy

What is my book about?

By spring 1645, two years of civil war had exacted a dreadful toll upon England. People lived in terror as disease and poverty spread, and the nation grew ever more politically divided. In a remote corner of Essex, two obscure gentlemen, Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne, exploited the anxiety and lawlessness of the time and initiated a brutal campaign to drive out the presumed evil in their midst. Touring Suffolk and East Anglia on horseback, they detected demons and idolaters everywhere. Through torture, they extracted from terrified prisoners confessions of consorting with Satan and demonic spirits.


This is the chilling story of the most savage witch-hunt in English history. By the autumn of 1647 at least 250 people—mostly women—had been captured, interrogated, and hauled before the courts. More than a hundred were hanged, causing Hopkins to be dubbed ‘Witchfinder General’ by critics and admirers alike. Though their campaign was never legally sanctioned, they garnered the popular support of local gentry, clergy, and villagers. While Witchfinders tells of a unique and tragic historical moment fuelled by religious fervour, today it serves as a reminder of the power of fear and fanaticism to fuel ordinary people’s willingness to demonize others.

Witch Hunt

By S.M. Reine,

Book cover of Witch Hunt: An Urban Fantasy Mystery

Who’s ever been blamed at work for something they didn’t do?  Well, the Office of Preternatural Affairs takes it to a whole new level when they suspect one of their agents, Cèsar Hawke, of murdering a woman. I mean, she was found dead in his home…but he claims he’s innocent. And he’s going to hunt down a shaman who can speak to the dead to prove it.

This wickedly fun story takes the urban fantasy detective trope and infuses it with humor, danger, and twists & turns.


Who am I?

I’m an avid fantasy reader and enjoy stories filled with magic, danger, and a mix of humor and romance thrown in. When I’m not writing my own fantasy novels, you might catch me tucked away in a corner, reading a book, and fueling my imagination. Since my own book, The Wayward Wizard, features a secret organization trying to intercept the supernatural, I knew similar stories would make a perfect list to share with fellow fantasy readers.


I wrote...

The Wayward Wizard

By Alesha Escobar,

Book cover of The Wayward Wizard

What is my book about?

Jack Crowley is the last person a secret government agency wants to call for help.

He spends his days selling New Age trinkets to humans and his nights drinking with a street-hustling alchemist. Not exactly the law and order type. But when monsters from our childhood nightmares become flesh and blood, snatching people from the streets, he’s one of the few wizards alive who can uncover who’s behind it.

The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe

By Brian P. Levack,

Book cover of The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe

The Witch-Hunt is the place to start for anyone interested in European witch-hunts, witch trials, and beliefs about diabolic magic. The book is a concise history of magic and witchcraft in England and across the continent from 1450 to 1750. Levack touches on everything anyone needs to know about the topic, yet the book is more than a survey. The author provides in-depth information and myriad graphic details about the accusations, trials, tortures, and executions of thousands of people, largely women. Witchcraft was ubiquitously thought to be a crime and moral abomination, and it was prosecuted by both secular and church courts. But the specifics of witch-hunting in various locales differed according to complex factors such as religion, economics, social class, legal codes, the centralization of the government, and gender. Levack explains the geographical distribution of witch-hunts and how they spread and eventually ended.

The fourth edition of the book…


Who am I?

I’m a scholar, a teacher, and an activist for gender equity. I earned my Ph.D. in medieval history at the University of Virginia. Since then, I've taught at small liberal arts colleges where I’ve had the flexibility to diversify the courses I teach. Among those courses are ancient, medieval, and Islamic history, the History of Magic and Witchcraft, Latin, and Gender and Sexuality Studies. My current gig is at Pacific University Oregon where I established a Gender and Sexuality Studies minor, founded the Center for Gender Equity, and developed an exchange program with Lady Doak college in India for exploring issues regarding gender. I've recently published two books on the intersection of magic, gender, and ritual.


I wrote...

Trafficking with Demons: Magic, Ritual, and Gender from Late Antiquity to 1000

By Martha Rampton,

Book cover of Trafficking with Demons: Magic, Ritual, and Gender from Late Antiquity to 1000

What is my book about?

Trafficking with Demons: Magic, Ritual, and Gender from Late Antiquity to 1000 explores how magic was perceived, practiced, and prohibited in western Europe throughout the first Christian millennium. During this period, magic was thought to play a natural and rational role in the functioning of the cosmos. Christian theologians claimed that the pagan gods and goddesses were in fact evil demons, and the essence of magic was transactional dealings with those demons. I examine the competition between pagans and Christians as the new religion spread across Europe, and I chronicle the ways in which rituals facilitated conversion. My book challenges long-held views that women monopolized ritual magic during this period. Women had specialties including love magic, healing rites, birth magic, and several nocturnal and chthonic rites. 

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