Friday, June 12, 2015

The Penguin Book of Witches - edited by Katherine Howe

There is a slight sense of shame attached to this book; I got it in time for Halloween last year when I thought it would make appropriate reading. I didn't manage to read it. Then I thought I'd read it for the 30th of April which is (for those who might not know) Walpurgis night, when witches are meant to fly and have their sabbaths on mountain tops. Wikipedia says it's still a thing in Northern Europe but May Day in the UK isn't really a huge deal (bank holiday celebrations and the possibility of Morris dancers aside). Anyway I read the book in time, but did I write about it? No, obviously I did not. 

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). 


  1. I lived in and around Boston, Massachusetts, most of my life. We went to Salem, MA, a lot and one of the places that I thought was most moving was the Salem Witch Museum. They had life-size scenes of what happened when one was accused of being a witch. The stages would light up one by one as the trial proceeded. It gave me the chills to think these things really happened.

  2. Diane Purkiss writes about Scottish witches in the early modern period in her book on fairies, 'Troublesome Things': it's really interesting. She's written another book on witches, which I haven't read but would like to. It sounds as if it would make a good companion to the Penguin book.