The Penguin Book Of Witches Proves Truth Is Scarier Than Fiction

Photo: Courtesy of Penguin.
The Penguin Book of Witches is out just in time for Halloween — complete with a cover sporting a classic silhouette of a broomstick-riding witch in front of a full moon. But, don’t mistake this deftly curated and exhaustively annotated anthology for a frivolous read. Collecting nearly three centuries’ worth of primary sources, the tome offers a cornucopia of fascinating and often unsettling texts.
Particular gems include excerpts from King James I’s (yes, the King James of bible fame) Daemonologie, which contains what is likely the earliest description of goth on record (“For as the humor of melancholy in the self is black, heavy, and terrene, so are the symptoms thereof in any persons that are subject thereunto, leanness, paleness, desire of solitude.”). There's also mention of a 1584 book from skeptic Reginald Scot, whose pity for the (almost invariably) women accused of witchcraft reads as uncannily modern; and, of course, extensive transcripts from the notorious Salem witch trials of 1692.
Advertisement
The excerpts were chosen with evident care and attention by editor Katherine Howe, who is a direct descendent of three of the accused Salem witches. And, they are fascinating windows into early ideas about gender, class, and social roles — and, most obviously, the penalties women (especially the poor and indigent) suffered for breaking too severely with prevailing cultural norms. Some of the most compelling cases Howe presents include the 1662 Tryal of Witches in Bury St. Edmunds, England, a sinister precursor to the Salem trials that, Howe notes, “directly informed the prosecution” thereby establishing witchcraft as a legal issue as much as a spiritual one and by allowing “spectral evidence” as legally admissible in a court proceeding.
Less historically impactful but equally disturbing are the bevy of other cases from the colonies that Howe gathered: Margaret Jones, one of the first witches to be executed in Massachusetts; Eunice Cole, a widow and “quarrelsome woman” who would be repeatedly jailed for witchcraft throughout her life; Elizabeth Knapp, an adolescent female servant whose purported demonic possession reads more like an overworked, brutally exploited domestic worker seeking respite in the only way available to her; Goodwife Glover, an Irish laundress who spoke Gaelic rather than English and who was convicted in a language she could barely speak. Most of the accused, whether or not they were executed, were women who either refused or were unable to behave in accordance with the limited roles available to them; in most cases, they were undone by the gossip and malice of their entire community.
Photo: REX USA/c.CPL Archv/Everett.
But, the real value here is in Howe’s engaging, thorough, and thoughtful annotations, which contextualize each of the excerpts in relation to each other and to the era in which they took place, and which highlight the ways in which conceptualizations of the witch — from helpless dupe of Satan to active, malevolent agent — shifted across time, reaching their apotheosis in the panic of the Salem witch trials but by no means ending there. “Witch hunt” is a phrase that persists even now, carrying with it the connotation of unjust persecution by a governing body — but Salem could not have happened without the complicity of its townspeople, a lesson we citizens living under an unjust government might do well to remember.
Howe is careful to note that academic treatises of the Salem panic in particular and witchcraft trials in general often say more about the culture doing the examining than the culture being examined. It’s comforting to theorize the afflicted girls’ fits and subsequent accusations were the result of ergot poisoning, cold weather, or Puritan extremism gone horribly awry — all root causes that allow the trials and their repercussions rest at a firm distance from our ostensibly more enlightened era. But, Howe offers today’s readers no such out. One of the book’s final selections is a chilling 1741 newspaper editorial on the hanging of 17 black New Yorkers and the burning at the stake of 13 more in retaliation for a series of fabricated crimes; the writer connects the Salem panic to the New York massacre in words that echo with a terrible prescience: “I entreat you not to go on to destroy your own estates by making bonfires of your Negroes, and thereby perhaps loading yourselves with greater guilt than theirs.”
Advertisement
At every step Howe reminds us that we are not so far removed from our ancestors as we might like to imagine ourselves, and that “unreason, paranoia, and irrational fear” in the face of difference are legacies we carry with us to this day.
Advertisement