So here we are with the summer solstice fast approaching (no idea if that's big for witches or not) and me feeling like I must do better. Obviously it really doesn't matter when you read a book, and this one is a serious examination; primarily of the Salem witch trials, with no whiff of trick or treat about it. However there is something about the point when Autumn starts to unmistakably gives way to winter - Halloween, or spring giving a promise of summer - Walpurgis night, which encourages superstition, and makes it easier to understand how some of these things could happen or be truly believed. Or so I find.
Katherine Howe is the direct descendant of 3 accused Salem witches so it's not surprising that they are the main focus of this book but to put them in context you have to look further back - and she does. Belief in witches, and the legal framework for dealing with them, was something that the puritans took to the new world with them when they left Britain. 'The Penguin Book of Witches' is a collection of court documents and contemporary accounts of witch trials with a useful commentary on each incident.
The Salem trials turned out to be one of those things that I thought I knew about until I started reading and realised that once seeing a film version of 'The Crucible' isn't the same thing. Seeing 'The Witch of Edmonton' last year at the RSC was rather more helpful, it's very illuminating with regards to early modern attitudes towards, as well as implicit belief in, witches. Back in Salem what's really shocking is the size and reach of the trials - so many people were accused and convicted on what looks to modern eyes the flimsiest of evidence. It's also a surprise to see just how ready people were to believe the accounts of young children without taking any account of their general suggestibility. It's also fascinating to see how the defendants reacted; some seemed to embrace the accusations, others argued against or mocked the authority of the court. A futile but brave choice.
It's a fascinating look at some of the less appealing traits of human nature, and the more powerful for Howe's choice to deliver her material without sensationalism. Well worth reading (anytime).