The Penguin Book of Witches

Between Halloween and the ridiculous pseduohistory of Fox’s Sleepy Hollow, I’ve had a thirst recently to read about witches. One that I was handily able to slake with the brand-new Penguin Book of Witches edited by Katherine Howe.

If you ask someone of my generation about witch-hunts, the first thing that comes to mind is probably the scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The dunking, burning, and carrying-on all seems very medieval,especially if you still think of the middle ages as a time of superstition and irrational thought. (And historians have been fighting the good fight against that one for years.)

In fact, all the major European witch-hunts were post-medieval. Though some of the most famous witch-hunting treatises, like the Malleus Maleficarum (or Hammer of the Witches), come from the fifteenth-century, the trials and persecutions don’t really take off until sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The most famous North American case, the infamous trials at Salem, took place in 1692, five years after Newton published his masterwork, the Principia Mathematica.

In the Penguin Book of Witches, Howe focuses on the Anglo-American history of witch-trials. The book is collection of original sources, starting with a 1582 trial record from St. Osyth in England, building up to the Salem trials, and finishing with the last sparks of witch-hunting more than a hundred years later. There are nine post-Salem cases in the Penguin Book of Witches, and the last comes from 1813 (though it’s not a trial).

The book’s introduction and annotations make a strong argument that witch-hunts, particularly in colonial North America, were expressions of anxiety by communities in precarious circumstances, whether living close to economic ruin or feeling surrounded by foreignness – Howe has some telling examples where witchcraft becomes awkwardly synonymous with being not white, British-descended, and Protestant.

The core problem, theologically and judicially, was that the Bible, though awfully clear that “Thou shalt not suffer a witch live” (Exodus 22:18), doesn’t actually say anything about what witchcraft is. And so, as Howe’s selections show, judging the evidence of witchcraft ends up being something akin to a supernatural Rorschach test where you can see almost anything as supernatural if you look hard enough. Where the poor, the disliked, and the different were the ones who were accused, that was enough to put them in mortal danger.

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