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Book reviews >

Witchfinders: A seventeenth-century English tragedy

John Murray £20 (0-7195-6120-5)
Church Times Bookshop £18

THE Devil raged in England in 1645, at least according to Puritans, and never more so than when the King's forces advanced on Puritan strongholds in East Anglia. Godly ministers, magistrates, and the self-appointed knew that they must act to root out the evil in their midst; and in 1645 this meant witches.

Gaskill presents the story of two witchfinders among the Puritan minor gentry in Essex, Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne. In the midst of civil war and apocalyptic fervour, they mounted a campaign of interrogation and intimidation across East Anglia which, by 1647, produced more than 100 execu-tions. The victims included the Royalist Vicar of Brandeston, who conducted his funeral service from the banned Book of Common Prayer at the gallows.

What did it all mean? Witches were "allegories expressing deep-rooted subconscious fears about patriarchy and the state, and their deaths fulfilled fantasies about restoring male authority and order", says Gaskill; yet he notes that this was England's only witch-hunt "worthy of the name".  So was it the result of superstition and prejudice, or of the stresses produced by poverty and war?

Gaskill's researches suggest an answer: witchcraft was, above all, the charge exploited by Puritans to intimidate or murder their opponents - Roman Catholics, Laudians, or sectaries. This gripping book tells who said what about whom, why disturbed people were coerced into incriminating themselves, how local grudges were paid off, and how the legal system was subverted by mass hysteria.  

Pointing to mass executions of witches in sub-Saharan Africa and in India even today, Gaskill infers that "in our ideas, instincts and emotions we are not very different at all" from our 17th-century
ancestors. It is a disturbing conclusion; but does it really follow from the evidence?

Professor Clark is Hall Distinguished Professor of British History at the University of Kansas, USA.

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