The best witchcraft books

53 authors have picked their favorite books about witchcraft and why they recommend each book.

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Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England

By Alan Macfarlane,

Book cover of Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England

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…


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.

Witchcraft in Old and New England

By George Lyman Kittredge,

Book cover of Witchcraft in Old and New England

Nearly a century old now, this was one of the first books to open up this subject for me, and to connect witch-beliefs (and trials) in England and colonial America. It’s more of a collection of essays than a coherent monograph, but they’re thoughtful essays, and, crucially, not excessively lofty. Kittredge was at pains to understand witchcraft in the past rather than judging it from the vantage point of an enlightened present.

They are chapters on image magic, shape-shifting, diagnostic tests, witches’ sabbats, and many other subjects – all discursive explorations, drawing in examples from here and there, and presented in the leisurely style of the gentleman scholar. There’s some strong narrative, too, especially in the chapter on James I, which stands up as an account of how changing thinking about witchcraft, and its relationship to politics and religion, affected policy and legal practice. All in all, it’s stuffed with…


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...

The Ruin of All Witches: Life and Death in the New World

By Malcolm Gaskill,

Book cover of The Ruin of All Witches: Life and Death in the New World

What is my book about?

In the frontier town of Springfield in 1651, peculiar things begin to happen. Precious food spoils, livestock ails, property vanishes, and people suffer convulsions as if possessed by demons. Disturbing dreams and visions proliferate. Children sicken and die. As tensions rise, rumours spread of witches and heretics, and the community becomes tangled in a web of distrust, resentment, and denunciation. The finger of suspicion falls on a young couple with two small children: Hugh Parsons the prickly brickmaker and his troubled wife, Mary. It will be their downfall.

This book tells the dark, real-life folktale of witch-hunting in a remote Massachusetts plantation, where dreams of love and liberty, of a 'city upon a hill', gave way to paranoia and terror, rage and violence. Drawing on unique, previously untapped source material, Malcolm Gaskill brings to life a frontier past in which lives were steeped in the divine and the diabolic, in omens, curses, and enchantments.

Witchcraft, Magic, and Religion in Seventeenth-Century Massachusetts

By Richard Weisman,

Book cover of Witchcraft, Magic, and Religion in Seventeenth-Century Massachusetts

This is another sociologically inflected study, which broadens the context of belief behind witchcraft accusations. Like all the best work of the last forty years, it helps us to grasp the internal logic of witch-beliefs in the minds of intelligent and actually very sophisticated people, rather than falling back on the old chestnuts of hysteria, prejudice and the madness of crowds.

Weisman constantly reminds us that a supposed superstitious consensus (in contrast to the sceptical consensus of the modern world) simply didn’t exist. So much of the furious energy of thinking about witches was generated by disagreement and doubt. We’re also presented with conflicting and complementary opinions about witches, both from below in the neighbourhood, and from above among ministers and magistrates. In the end, as Weisman points out, however enduring beliefs about witchcraft may have been, as a crime it could not survive condemnation of the proofs, including so-called…


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...

The Ruin of All Witches: Life and Death in the New World

By Malcolm Gaskill,

Book cover of The Ruin of All Witches: Life and Death in the New World

What is my book about?

In the frontier town of Springfield in 1651, peculiar things begin to happen. Precious food spoils, livestock ails, property vanishes, and people suffer convulsions as if possessed by demons. Disturbing dreams and visions proliferate. Children sicken and die. As tensions rise, rumours spread of witches and heretics, and the community becomes tangled in a web of distrust, resentment, and denunciation. The finger of suspicion falls on a young couple with two small children: Hugh Parsons the prickly brickmaker and his troubled wife, Mary. It will be their downfall.

This book tells the dark, real-life folktale of witch-hunting in a remote Massachusetts plantation, where dreams of love and liberty, of a 'city upon a hill', gave way to paranoia and terror, rage and violence. Drawing on unique, previously untapped source material, Malcolm Gaskill brings to life a frontier past in which lives were steeped in the divine and the diabolic, in omens, curses, and enchantments.

Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande

By E.E. Evans-Pritchard, Eva Gillies,

Book cover of Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande

In translucent prose, Evans-Pritchard shows how the belief in witchcraft and oracles held together with the world-view of the Azande people of the former Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. They reinforced each other, so that if a prophecy failed to identify a witch, it was attributed to a fault in the performance of a ritual, and the power of ritual was reinforced rather than undermined. The Azande were empiricists and discussed the evidence of witchcraft in rational exchanges with Evans-Pritchard. He recreates their dialogue convincingly, often giving them the upper hand. When they asked him to explain why a granary collapsed on a particular person at a particular time, he said, “bad luck.” They replied that “luck” was a shallow concept in comparison with witchcraft, which could be identified with certain individuals and traced in the body.


Who am I?

I am an emeritus professor from Harvard and have spent decades trying to develop an anthropological mode of understanding history. Far from being “one damned thing after another,” as Henry Ford allegedly put it, history is an attempt to understand the human condition. It brings us into contact with people in the past, showing us how they thought, felt, and acted. For many decades, anthropologists have endeavored to do the same thing, concentrating on people separated from us by space rather than time. By applying anthropological insights to historical research, I think it is possible to make the past come alive to modern readers, while at the same time making it interesting and even amusing.


I wrote...

Pirating and Publishing: The Book Trade in the Age of Enlightenment

By Robert Darnton,

Book cover of Pirating and Publishing: The Book Trade in the Age of Enlightenment

What is my book about?

This book tells the story of how the world of books operated during the crucial era that established modern views of the world. World-views are the main concern among anthropologists, and the five recommended works overflow with ideas about how ethnographic insights can be applied to history.

Pirating and Publishing makes use of those insights in order to get inside the way publishers thought and behaved in a wild-West kind of environment without copyright or inhibitions by entrepreneurs determined to cash in on the growing demand for literature. More than half the books that circulated in France during the second half of the eighteenth century were pirated. Produced outside France and smuggled across the border, they reached readers through an elaborate underground. To show how this literary underworld functioned, Pirating and Publishing uncovers plots, coups, and skulduggery typical of capitalism in a wild and woolly era, when writers defied censors and their publishers made and lost fortunes by taking risks and outwitting the book police.

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.

Witch

By Lisa Lister,

Book cover of Witch: Unleashed. Untamed. Unapologetic.

If you are witch-curious or trying to reclaim the word from the long-nosed, wart-faced, evil images that have been forced upon us by a misunderstanding society, Witch is a fun read, filled with wit and wisdom for beginning witches. “Witch” is a powerful woman, a wise healer, who lives with the cycles of Mother Earth. This book helps women remember, reconnect, and reclaim the word “witch” and the power that comes with it.


Who am I?

As a practicing Hedge Witch, I’m fascinated by the marriage of science and the mystical. Now, I’m alchemizing confidence, coherence, and clarity for soulful writers to pursue the books of their dreams. I am the author, illustrator, and designer of Mama Bear Says™ and the Book Witch of planners and journals for your sacred words. I live at the edge of the wild woods and love to graze on wild berries, sit by a cozy hearth, and watch the magic of the animals who meander through these lands. The magic of the natural world and the healing power of Mother Earth sits as a priority in my life. These are the books on my magickal bookshelf.


I wrote...

Mama Bear Says Pocket Wisdom

By Heather Dakota,

Book cover of Mama Bear Says Pocket Wisdom

What is my book about?

Mama Bear Says is an illustrated pocket oracle to encourage and support your spiritual journey. Mama Bear's nurturing wisdom comes down through the ages, as her gentle guidance holds you when life gets chaotic, and obstacles appear.

Use this book for your spiritual practice or as a divination tool. Intuitively color the repeating illustrations for a special meditation. Mama Bear has a big lap and wide arms to hold us all. Ask for her support, and she'll be there to hear about your pain and sorrow and with her loving embrace transform your hurts into happiness and joy.

Deadly Words

By Jeanne Favret-Saada,

Book cover of Deadly Words

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…


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 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 Worst Witch

By Jill Murphy,

Book cover of The Worst Witch

On her first day at the Academy, each pupil was given a broomstick and taught to ride it, which takes quite a long time and isn’t nearly as easy as it looks. 

I love an underdog story, and this certainly fits the bill. Mildred is the worst witch at Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches. She can’t seem to do anything right, whether it’s casting a spell or—you guessed it—flying a broom. If she’s going to survive witch school, she’s going to have to do it in a more . . . unconventional way. The first in a series, this enchanting book is perfect for younger readers who aren’t quite ready for Harry Potter but want all of the magical fun. It features beautiful illustrations by the author.


Who am I?

I’ve always been a lover of enchanted items—particularly brooms. Maybe this is because my grandfather used to handmake his own brooms (I can still remember that magical and musty smell of his workshop). It took me a long time to write my own “broom book,” with something different and distinctive to say. The books on my list are some that inspired me along my journey. In addition to being a writer, I teach creative writing and art therapy, which means I’ve logged many hours leading lit circles with kids. I feel it has given me a pretty good handle (pardon the pun) on what makes a child’s imagination soar.


I wrote...

Spell Sweeper

By Lee Edward Födi,

Book cover of Spell Sweeper

What is my book about?

Even at wizard school, brooms aren’t for flying... Most wizarding students spend their days practicing magic—but not Cara Moone. She’s on the fast track to becoming a spell sweeper, cleaning up messes left behind when “real” wizards spell-cast. That makes Harlee Wu, Dragonsong Academy’s star pupil and so-called “Chosen One,” one giant chore creator, and Cara’s sworn enemy—or she would be if she knew Cara existed. But when one of Harlee’s spells causes a slime-spewing rip in the fabric of magic that may end all spellcasting forever, Cara realizes it’s going to take more than a magic broom to clean up the mess. 

Ghostbusters meets wizard school in this humorous and magical underdog story.

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