Witch hunters

Malcolm Gaskill. Witchfinders: a Seventeenth Century English Tragedy. John Murray, 2005.

This is the first serious historical study of the English Civil War period witch-finders Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne and the circumstances which led to their rise and fall. Hopkins in particular has become a folkloric bogeyman, often transposed in time to an earlier period, and in legend he was himself hung or drowned as a witch.

The reality is more prosaic and more disturbing than fiction, and Gaskill shows how their role developed out of the petty feuds and fears of village life, and how people ended up confessing to impossible crimes. Witchcraft is built out of the interactions between the accusers and the accused, and becomes an explanation for all sorts of odd experiences. Both accusers and accused could interpret things like aware sleep-paralysis and its hallucinations as evidence of demonic activity, and it seems that at least some of the accused may have had fantasies of themselves being witches based on such experiences.

Gaskill invites us to look at our own society's capacity to engage in witchhunts and notes how prevalent quite literal witch-hunts are in parts of the Third World. In our society witch-hunts occurred in connection with the Satanic abuse scares, and some recent court cases have centred around the activities of professionals who claimed to have the ability to detect child abusers and baby killers.

Matthew Hopkins died in his bed, witch hunting is still alive. -- Peter Rogerson


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