The best books about witch trials

6 authors have picked their favorite books about witch trials and why they recommend each book.

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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.

Storm of Witchcraft

By Emerson W. Baker,

Book cover of Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience

Any list of books about women in Early America has to include one of the many books about the Salem witchcraft trials. After all, many of the key accusers and almost all the accused and executed in Salem in 1692 were women. Baker presents a more comprehensive view of the trials than most historians. He does not engage in armchair psychologizing but instead tells a balanced and well-researched story that includes new information about many of the participants in the trials, judges as well as those accused of witchcraft and those who testified against them.


Who am I?

Nearly 200 years passed between the first English settlements and the American Revolution. Yet Americans today have a static view of women’s lives during that long period. I have now published four books on the subject of early American women, and I have barely scratched the surface. My works—Liberty’s Daughters was the first I wrote, though the last chronologically—are the results of many years of investigating the earliest settlers in New England and the Chesapeake, accused witches, and politically active women on both sides of the Atlantic. And I intend to keep researching and to write more on this fascinating topic!


I wrote...

Liberty's Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800

By Mary Beth Norton,

Book cover of Liberty's Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800

What is my book about?

An examination of American women’s lives during the late eighteenth century, Liberty’s Daughters is based primarily on their own writings, especially correspondence and diaries. It describes their experiences before, during, and after the revolutionary war—as wives and mothers, as patriots and loyalists, as single or married, as free or enslaved, as rural or urban residents. It covers white women’s increasing involvement in politics before the war, and their role in managing family property while their husbands were away in the army or serving in Congress. It also looks at how the war affected the lives of enslaved women in the South, allowing some of them to run away to seek freedom.

The book reveals the changes in women’s lives after Revolution, as young women began to attend newly founded academies (high school equivalents) and sought more personal independence in marital relationships. The first American feminist, Judith Sargent Murray, began to write and publish her ideas during and after the war; she was the American counterpart to the more famous Mary Wollstonecraft in England. The book argues that the Revolution had a major impact on women, and women likewise had a major impact on the Revolution.

A Delusion of Satan

By Frances Hill,

Book cover of A Delusion of Satan: The Full Story of the Salem Witch Trials

I read this book because Salem was founded by another ancestor of mine, Roger Conant. He first settled in Plymouth but could not abide the Pilgrims’ fanatical creed. He was a Puritan but not a religious separatist. Most Puritans had dreams of reforming the Church of England, starting in America. Fortunately, Conant died before the Salem Witch Trials began, for he would have been shocked at these developments. (Unfortunately for him, the town stuck his statue in front of the Witch Museum.) Frances Hill’s book is a blow-by-blow account of how the hysteria of some adolescent girls captured the minds of Massachusetts’ residents, including educated people, causing the death of 20 innocent people. It is also a study of Puritan culture, as it went more and more “off the rails.”


Who am I?

During my childhood in Canada, I was fascinated by the “Wild West” and the fact that my maternal grandmother, who lived with us, was born in Wisconsin in 1876, when Jesse James was still robbing trains. I became an international multimedia producer, and I always took an entertainment-based approach to my work, grounded in research. After I retired, I began to search for my roots, uncovering interesting stories of my ancestors. Besides accessing websites and books, I traveled to where they lived to gain insights, meet historians, and distant cousins. I also engaged expert genealogists to prove my lineage back to the Mayflower and Puritan settlers of New England. That allowed me to join the Mayflower Society.


I wrote...

Guns and Gods in My Genes: A 15,000-mile North American search through four centuries of history, to the Mayflower

By Neill McKee,

Book cover of Guns and Gods in My Genes: A 15,000-mile North American search through four centuries of history, to the Mayflower

What is my book about?

Through vivid descriptions, dialog, poetic prose, analytical opinion, photos, and illustrations, McKee takes readers on an on-the-road adventure. He discovers stories of his Scots-Irish ancestors in Canada and then turns south, following the trail of his maternal grandfather, a Methodist preacher who married a woman in Wisconsin and ventured through the Wild West. McKee slowly uncovers his American grandmother’s lineage—ancestors who were involved in almost every major war on North American soil.

The trail finally leads him to Connecticut where he discovers ancestors who descend from a Pilgrim who arrived on the Mayflower in 1620, as well as other Puritan forebearers—heroes, villains, rascals, and ordinary godly folk. In his search, he exposes myths and uncovers facts about the true founding of America. It is estimated that about 35 million of us descend from the original Plymouth Pilgrims and many more of us have Puritan blood in our veins.

The Last Witches of England

By John Callow,

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

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.


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.

Witch Craze

By Lyndal Roper,

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

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.


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.

In the Devil's Snare

By Mary Beth Norton,

Book cover of In the Devil's Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692

While there is no one all-encompassing reason the 1692 panic proceeded as it did, Norton’s account presents the terrors and violence of the earthly warfare that dominated so many lives at that time, influenced everyone one else, and which had been largely ignored by previous accounts of the trials. 


Who am I?

After years of sporadic interest in the 1692 trials, Roach became obsessed with the subject after a 1975 trip to Salem itself. Her resulting history, The Salem Witch Trials: a Day-by-Day Chronicle of a Community Under Siege, called “a virtual encyclopedia of the entire affair,” and “a Bible of the witch trials,” led to her stint as a sub-editor for the Records of the Salem Witch-Hunt, and membership in the Gallows Hill Group that verified the site of the 1692 hangings, one of Archaeology magazine’s Top Ten discoveries of 2016. Her most recent book to date presents biographies of a half dozen of the major players in the tragedy, giving voices to women who, save for the tragedy, would likely have been lost to history.


I wrote...

Six Women of Salem: The Untold Story of the Accused and Their Accusers in the Salem Witch Trials

By Marilynne K. Roach,

Book cover of Six Women of Salem: The Untold Story of the Accused and Their Accusers in the Salem Witch Trials

What is my book about?

Six Women of Salem is the first work to use the lives of a select number of representative women as a microcosm to illuminate the larger crisis of the Salem witch trials. By the end of the trials, beyond the twenty who were put to death and the five who perished in prison, around 200 individuals had been accused, at least seventy had been "afflicted," and the populations of over 20 communities drawn into that ruinous and murderous vortexordinary folk as well as the religious, judicial, and governmental leaders. All this adds up to what the Rev, Cotton Mather called “a desolation of names.”

The Templars, the Witch, and the Wild Irish

By Maeve Bridget Callan,

Book cover of The Templars, the Witch, and the Wild Irish: Vengeance and Heresy in Medieval Ireland

This book is an eye-opener. Callan investigates a sudden unexpected sequence of heresy trials that shook the Irish church in the fourteenth century. She uncovers all manner of badly behaving churchmen – from the mendacious to the cavalier – and highlights the experience of the women who were so often their victims. Callan argues that the heresy trials often mark out differences other than theological within the Irish church – and shows that two centuries after the Norman invasion, ethnic and cultural differences continued to destabilise its always fragile communion.


Who am I?

Like anyone else who takes an interest in Ireland, I’ve been fascinated by the long and often very difficult history of the island’s experience of religion. Where I live, in county Antrim, religious imagery appears everywhere – in churches and schools, obviously, but also on signboards posted onto trees, and in the colourful rags that are still hung up to decorate holy wells. This book is the fruit of twenty years of thinking about Christian Ireland - its long and difficult history, and its sudden and difficult collapse.


I wrote...

The Rise and Fall of Christian Ireland

By Crawford Gribben,

Book cover of The Rise and Fall of Christian Ireland

What is my book about?

The Rise and Fall of Christian Ireland is an account of the sudden emergence, long development, several divisions, and sudden decline of Irish Christianity. It’s a book about how Christianity shaped the Irish, and vice versa. It’s a story of success, showing how for one and a half millennia, Irish Christians created and participated in a culture from which there emerged some of the most iconic artefacts in their religion’s history, such as the Book of Kells.

But it’s also a story of failure, of violence, division, and abuse, not least as the extraordinary effort to create a Christian state in the Republic foundered over the course of a single generation and created one of the most liberal of European cultures.

The Crucible

By Arthur Miller,

Book cover of The Crucible

How do witch hunts start? How do they keep? Who keeps them churning until all parties involved are dizzy, and only the accusers are innocent?

A group of girls in 1692 are caught dancing around a fire in the woods, trying to conjure spirits or cast spells. They discover they can escape retribution by blaming the slave, Tituba, which starts a slew of false accusations. Whenever the so-called prosecution comes close to the truth, whenever evidence is about to expose the girlselaborate lie, they scream, fall to hysterics amidst befuddled men, as if some witch is tormenting them, and so point out a fresh victim for the witch hounds to pursue. The biggest lark is that none of them are witches, and the only craft the girls weaved was condemning innocent lives to torture and eventually death. You have to wonder whos to blame here: Abigail…


Who am I?

I grew up reading dark fiction, and the only two books I kept from that period were The Wicked Heart and Whisper of Death, both by Christopher Pike. Though both were categorized as horror, the first is a crime mystery that partly follows the murderer, while the latter feels like an episode out of The Twilight Zone. I never cared for pure horror, and a book doesn’t have to scare me for me to find them enjoyable. What I often wanted was a tangible sense of dread paired with insight into the human psyche, which I believe makes for a more potent reading experience. 


I wrote...

Lesath

By A.M. Kherbash,

Book cover of Lesath

What is my book about?

Amateur journalist Greg travels to a remote mountain area to investigate rumors of a sinister building only to find himself imprisoned there. As he tries to escape, he evinces symptoms of a strange affliction and struggles to remain conscious while maintaining an uncertain hold on reality.

A Case of Witchcraft

By Robert Rapley,

Book cover of A Case of Witchcraft: The Trial of Urbain Grandier

This nonfiction about a French priest who was burned at the stake in 1634 reads like fiction. Although I knew the story and how it ends, Rapley’s writing is suspensful and dramatic. The author keeps close to Grandier, whose character flaws contribute to his death. Grandier’s enemies are given their separate situations and in some cases are treated with generosity. Though the writing is not emotional, I was dismayed and hardly able to believe this actually happened. 


Who am I?

"Write what you know" is worn-out advice you'll find on many a website, but I prefer to write what I want to know. Researching for background information is a far cry from studying the history of dates, places, and politics. For instance, you won't read in a history book that forks weren't used at the table in the Renaissance. That people didn't have zippers or right/left shoes, but they did have buttons. Noblemen wore high-heeled shoes. Women poisoned themselves with makeup of white lead (ceruse). Even with diaries, autobiographies, and social history books, trivial information of daily life is hard to find. 


I wrote...

Béjart's Caravan

By Bonnie Stanard,

Book cover of Béjart's Caravan

What is my book about?

For history buffs and lovers of the theater. Traveling medieval actors take part in burlesque shows on and off stage in French villages. The locals regard them as ne’er-do-wells, if not shiftless swindlers, and at times the actors live up to their reputation. Molière's body makes an appearance when Argon digs it up to get a relic to cure his voice. Argon's problem pales compared to that of his parents (major stockholders of the company) who underestimate a poisonous elixir and tangle with deceptive nobles. 

"Written by an author who understands the time and place, this is a delightful book filled with memorable and often rather over-the-top characters... the author excels in describing the vibrant settings and the complexity of her characters." - Wishing Shelf

Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch

By Rivka Galchen,

Book cover of Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch

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?


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.

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