Friday, May 29, 2009

Book Review: "Witchfinders"

In Witchfinders: A Seventeenth-Century English Tragedy (Harvard University Press, 2005), historian Malcolm Gaskill chronicles the largest single witch hunt in English history, which infected the East Anglia region from 1645 through the fall of 1647. Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne, who served as "witchfinders" during much of the outbreak, serve as Gaskill's focal points, although he is forced to depart from them often when they disappear from the archival record.

Given its subject matter, and the intensity of the witchcraft scare, I didn't think it possible that this book could be unabsorbing. But Gaskill has forced so much detail into the narrative that I had a hard time slogging through it (at least 250 people were accused of witchery, and I think Gaskill must mention just about all of them by name, rank, and background). While Witchfinders will surely become the authoritative text on the subject, and there is no question that anyone researching the East Anglia outbreak should examine it closely, as a text for the general reader it is perhaps a bit much.

The most interesting sections of the book were those where Gaskill examined the cultural background in which the witchcraft craze occurred - ongoing military, political, religious and social conflict throughout the period unsettled the towns and cities which saw witchcraft accusations, and local/hyper-local rivalries played the same role here that other scholars have documented at Salem and in other witchcraft outbreaks throughout history. Gaskill's treatment of the witchfinders' interrogation techniques and tactics (which in some sense brought about the end of the whole mess after a while) is also quite interesting.

The final chapters, about the ultimate downfall of the witchfinders' reputations and the long-term development of their reputations in historical and cultural memory, were riveting, and make the book worth reading in and of themselves. And Gaskill has documented his meticulous research in fifty pages of notes, which anyone interested in yet more detail could certainly plumb to great effect.

Well designed and well illustrated, this is on the whole a great feat of scholarship covering a lamentable period of human history.