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A Seventeenth-Century English Tragedy

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$31.00 • £26.95 • €28.95

ISBN 9780674025424

Publication Date: 10/31/2007

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384 pages

2 halftones, 35 line illustrations, 2 maps

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[A] thoroughly researched and well-written work… Informed by wide reading in 17th-century sources of all sorts, Witchfinders presents to readers a vividly drawn portrait of an alien world in which bugs and mice could become Satan’s messengers, women credibly describe having sexual intercourse intimacy with the Devil and at least 250 people could be jailed for witchcraft… The book’s virtues are many, among them Gaskill’s superb evocation of the East Anglian landscape traversed by [John] Stearne and [Matthew] Hopkins. He provides a useful account of how the writings of the Huntingdonshire cleric John Gaule and the pointed questions posed by some skeptical Norfolk gentlemen combined to end the witchfinders’ power. And he closes with a thought-provoking conclusion about his story’s similarities to witchfinding in Africa and India today. England’s circumstances in 1645–47, he also suggests, are perhaps analogous to our own.—Mary Beth Norton, The New York Times Book Review

Malcolm Gaskill has produced an absorbing account of a critical phase in the history of witchcraft persecution… It is a fine achievement. He has scoured local and national archives for every scrap of surviving evidence and presented his findings in an intelligent, meticulously documented, and highly readable way. The East Anglian landscape, the hardships of rural life, and the hideous drama of trials and executions are all evoked vividly… This is as persuasive an account of the whole grisly episode as we are ever likely to get… The entire episode is a striking example of what can happen when popular prejudices are unrestrained by the strict rule of law.—Keith Thomas, The New York Review of Books

In Witchfinders, [Gaskill] presents a riveting account of the hunt for witches in East Anglia during the mid-1640s as civil war between King Charles I and Parliament was raging across England… Gaskill recounts with graphic detail the accusations, the interrogations, and prurient searches for devil’s marks—‘secret nipples suckled by unseen imps’ and the rest—the tortures and executions.—Michael Kenney, The Boston Globe

[A] full-blooded account of the most notorious witch hunt in English history.—Peter Steinfels, The New York Times

This is a serious and scholarly account of the most chilling witch-hunt in English history… It is fascinating. Gaskill presents a compassionate, measured view dispelling several myths along the way… Far from depicting the witchfinders as sadistic bounty hunters, Gaskill argues they belonged to a different breed: sincere fundamentalists responding to a genuine and general unease. This is a story of fanaticism and zeal, but also of ordinary folk falling foul of their neighbours. To Gaskill our 17th century ancestors were not so different from ‘the provincial nobodies of the 20th century who engaged in genocide, demonstrating to the world the banality of evil.’ Terrible times make witchfinders of us all.—Marianne Brace, The Independent on Sunday

In the space of a few weeks in the summer of 1645, 150 women from villages in the area around Dedham Vale were identified as witches and sent for trial. Many of them were then hanged after bogus confessions had been forced out of them by torture… This chilling book makes it plain that it didn’t take much for your neighbours to mark you out as a witch… Malcolm Gaskill’s book is a terrifying parade of innocent people sent to their deaths by what are nowadays fondly known as ‘closeknit communities’ …Wherever people feel at the mercy of forces beyond their control, they will look for scapegoats and they will find them among the odd and the solitary. Gaskill notes that in our ideas, instincts and emotions, we are not so very different from our 17th Century ancestors.—Craig Brown, The Mail on Sunday

Most Americans know about the infamous Salem witch trials of 1692, but a more lethal outbreak of witch hysteria infected England from 1645 to 1647, during the country’s devastating Civil War. It all began when Goodwife Rivet got sick and her husband blamed her mysterious affliction on the bewitchment of a one-legged octogenarian named Bess Clarke. Two ‘witchfinders,’ Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne, interrogated the widow Clarke, and she proudly confessed to ‘carnall copulation’ with Satan. She also informed them that her pet rabbit was possessed. After seeing Clarke hanged, Hopkins and Sterne then launched a two-year campaign to eradicate witches. Often using torture, they interrogated 300 suspects, more than a hundred of whom were executed (predominantly old women, as in Salem). In Witchfinders: A Seventeenth-Century English Tragedy, historian Malcolm Gaskill chronicles this chilling tale of hysteria and scapegoating, bolstering his narrative with exhaustive research and meticulous detail.—Chuck Leddy, The Washington Post

Gaskill has produced a wonderfully detailed, well-written and judicious account of a tragic yet fascinating episode in our social and religious history.—Saul David, The Daily Telegraph

In his extensively researched book, Gaskill puts Hopkins and the witchhunting craze in context, examining the social and political conditions of those tempestuous times, conditions which not only allowed Hopkins to go about his gruesome business in north Essex then across East Anglia, but actively encouraged him to do it. Separating fact from ficton and debunking a few myths along the way, Gaskill leaves us with the impression of Hopkins not so much as a hate-figure, but as an embodiment of his times, a product of very peculiar and particular circumstances.The Essex Chronicle

A must…a lucid companion piece to the classic horror movie Witchfinder General.The Guardian

[Gaskill] tells the story of the hunt in full and accurate detail, for the first time, and with uncommon skill. The book is structured as a classical tragedy, and the lurid events recreated as literary docudrama… Nobody before Gaskill has brought back to life so richly the East Anglian landscape of 300 years ago, with its forests, fens, sandhills and clay vales. He recreates, one by one, the communities within it and the patterns of authority, rivalry and hatred they embodied in 1645. Better than anybody before, he demonstrates that the Civil War was England’s experience of the horrors that have beset parts of the Continent until the 1990s: of neighbours who had lived peacefully for generations despite differences turning savagely on each other as soon as traditional order collapsed. Hopkins and Stearne feature not as throwbacks to barbarism but misguided proponents of modern science, trying to find technical ways of supplying objective evidence of witchcraft. The final twist in Gaskill’s patiently researched tale is that England’s greatest witch-hunt was ended not by reason so much as by accounting. Locals realised that the detection, gaoling and trial of suspects cost more than they could afford. His book is both a solid contribution to knowledge and a splendid example of history as gripping literature.—Ronald Hutton, The Independent

Gaskill shows [witchfinder Matthew] Hopkins as a man of his time, a religious zealot who tapped into his neighbours’ deepest prejudices, and treats the entire episode as a cautionary tale about ideology run amok.Maclean’s

Malcolm Gaskill’s brilliant new study rewrites the history of the 1640s witch craze. Founding his account on broad-ranging archival research, Gaskill has reconstructed an astonishingly detailed picture of the demonically possessed world of 1640s East Anglia—of the motives and belief-systems of the witch-finders, and their victims’ piteous fate… In the vivid three-dimensionality of its dramatis personae, the eloquence of its writing, and the richness of its evocations of vanished worlds of landscape and belief, Gaskill has produced a book that is more than an equal of Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s Montaillou. In summoning up this lost world of Stuart England, Gaskill displays a masterly wizardry all his own.—John Adamson, The Sunday Telegraph

Gaskill vividly shows how the barbarity and fanaticism of civil war could spill over into the administration of justice… He thinks our ancestors were mostly decent and intelligent people who could sink to the worst cruelty and credulity at times of crisis. He writes with sympathy, respect and deep human understanding.—John Guy, The Sunday Times

Malcolm Gaskill explores the efforts of two Christian crusaders as they tried to root out witches in early modern England. The witchfinders used biblical justification to legitimise brutality and bloodshed, seizing on insecurities and offering to restore the ‘moral balance.’Financial Times

This is a book more focused on description than analysis. Far from being a criticism, the statement identifies the book’s great strength. Malcolm Gaskill has mined the archives, pamphlet literature, and other sources for the largest (indeed the only truly large) witch hunt in early modern England: that conducted by the notorious witchfinders Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne mainly in 1645 and 1646. Gaskill presents a straightforward narrative of the many trials in which these two men were involved, with extensive digressions to provide necessary context and background information. The events he recounts are gripping, and so is the prose in which he tells his story. Gaskill’s target audience quite obviously includes the general reader, as well as the student and the scholar, and he has produced an extremely readable book. Tension between popular and academic history is to some degree unavoidable, but Gaskill handles it well, and to good effect… Gaskill stresses that England in the mid-seventeenth century was, for numerous reasons, a society in turmoil, and that the world for many was turned upside down. The great strength of his book is that it captures this world, evocatively conjuring it into life for the general reader, and reminding the expert that the numerous factors that may have underlain witch trials never operated in isolated but rather interconnected and overlapped to create the conditions from which particular trials might erupt… Gaskill gives us perhaps the most complete account of these events that is possible, and by moving into the probable, he presents a rich and useful insight into the world in which witchfinders were able to operate.—Michael D. Bailey, American Historical Review

Gaskill skillfully traces the movements and motives of Hopkins and Steame, basing much of his argument on contemporary writings and county records; where there are gaps, he offers plausible suppositions. He fits the witch-hunters into the political, economic, religious, and social environment of mid-seventeenth-century England and explains why they enjoyed active popular support. Through Gaskill’s highly readable, meticulously researched, and astute analysis, the reader comprehends how village folklore meshed with Puritan mentality and the fantasies of two undistinguished gentlemen, thereby producing a horror more disquieting than any traditional witch tale.—Robert B. Luehrs, History: Reviews of New Books

Of all the studies on the history of witchcraft that have appeared in recent years, this must surely be one of the most compelling. To a field and an episode that have often been melodramatized, if not sensationalized, Malcolm Gaskill brings an enviable sense of balance. He also writes with a novelist’s instincts for place and mood and for details of character, emotion, landscape, and weather, creating a wonderful evocation of East Anglia during the first Civil War… Gaskill takes us through case after case…writing with great sensitivity and compassion about the human and social dynamics involved, the conditions of imprisonment and trial, and the harrowing ends of those convicted… Indeed, Gaskill writes with such evenness and calm authority about the personal and collective turmoil that his book never fails to convince. It succeeds in two contrasting directions simultaneously: it accounts for an episode previously treated as singular and odd as the almost-to-be-expected outcome of prevailing historical conditions, and yet it never loses sight of the unique human tragedies from which it was made.—Stuart Clark, Journal of Modern History

What makes Gaskill’s telling of this story special and interesting is that he has written his historical account into a marvelous narrative. The book reads like a novel. That is not meant as a criticism… There should be more history written like this. Witchfinders should be of interest to several groups of readers. It is a book that a general reader could enjoy. But it is also quite valuable to students and scholars who want to learn more about the history of English witchcraft. It would be a book useful to those studying history, history of art, or even English literature.—Jane Davidson, Sixteenth Century Journal

Witchfinders tells the gripping and important story of England’s biggest witch-hunt. The available information is perhaps without parallel in its detail, density, and inherent pathos. And Gaskill puts it together with very great skill. The result is a ground-level, step-by-step portrayal of a sort not seen elsewhere in the enormous literature on witchcraft history.—John Demos, author of Circles and Lines: The Shape of Life in Early America

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