James Morrow is the author of The Last Witchfinder, an historical novel about the birth of the scientific worldview, centred around one woman’s audacious crusade to bring down the Parliamentary Witchcraft Act of 1604.
“We tend to regard belief in witches as a rather low order of credulity, something belonging to the medieval period or perhaps even the dark ages. The startling and instructive fact is that demonology overlaps and to some degree participates in modernity. The Witchcraft Statute of James I remained on the books until 1736. Several prominent members of the Royal Society, including Henry More and Joseph Glanvill, believed wholeheartedly in witchcraft, and even Robert Boyle speculated that the famous démon de Mâcon affair might have proved the reality of evil spirits. Add to this the bedeviling circumstance that the various “proofs” of Satanic compact – swimming the witch, pricking her imp-teats – boasted a certain weird Aristotelian logic, and we can begin to understand why the legal extermination of alleged Satanists lasted nearly three centuries.”
1. Masks of the Universe by Edward Harrison (1985)
In a remarkable feat of encapsulation, physicist Edward Harrison frames the evolution of human thought as a succession of increasingly efficacious world-pictures, beginning with the magic universe of Paleolithic peoples and proceeding through the mythic universe of ancient Mesopotamia, the geometric universe of classical Greece, the Christian universe of medieval Europe, the demon-driven universe of the Renaissance, and the mechanistic universe of the Enlightenment. After reading Harrison, you will never again regard the 15th and 16th centuries as the apex of humanism: “The supposed Renaissance was a disordered interlude between sane universes … a witch universe created by leaders with fear-crazed minds, an age in thralldom to a mad universe on the rampage, which would have destroyed European society but for the intervention of science.”
2. The European Witch-Craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries and Other Essays by HR Trevor-Roper (1969)
This classic work is in fact an extended essay, bound into the same volume with some of the author’s other historical pieces. Against all odds, Trevor-Roper manages to condense the narrative of the Renaissance, Reformation, and Counter-Reformation campaigns against supposed witches into a mere 100 pages. As horrid fact follows upon horrid fact and one grotesque statistic yields to the next, the appalled reader finds himself awhirl in the maelstrom that was the “witch universe”. The story Trevor-Roper tells is largely a cavalcade of villains, among them Nicholas Rémy, a beloved and respected French lawyer who consigned 2,500 innocent people to the flames, and Benedict Carpzov, the Lutheran scholar who, before ascending to his heavenly reward, read his Bible cover-to-cover 53 times, took Holy Communion at least once a week, and underwrote the deaths of 20,000 presumed heretics.
3. Religion and the Decline of Magic by Keith Thomas (1971)
Keith Thomas’s weighty but never ponderous chronicle places witchcraft beliefs in a larger context: the great banquet of credulity at which nearly all folk feasted during the period that historians now call early modern Europe. Beyond demonology, the zeitgeist nourished astrology, magical healing, love charms, fortune-telling, ghosts, fairies, omens, and ancient prophesies. Thomas notes that that the most momentous system to emerge amidst this bacchanal, experimental science, represented a sea-change that not even by its most devoted practitioners fully grasped at first: “The methods of the scientists were different from those of the magicians … They gradually lost their attitude of reverence for the hermetic wisdom of the past and came to recognise that there was no precedent for their achievement.”
4. The Crucible by Arthur Miller (1953)
Is there anything quite so aesthetically dreadful as a bad production of The Crucible? I think not. Yes, all drama is melodrama, but in writing a tragedy about the Salem witch trials, Miller was running the risk of eschatological soap opera – which is indeed what happens when this play is ill-mounted or indifferently acted. Should you ever hear of a favourably reviewed Crucible, however, don’t hesitate to attend: properly staged, Miller’s critique of religiosity is a religious experience. If no such theatre-going opportunity lies at hand, your next best option is the printed text. True, the author occasionally departs from the historical facts, and his decision to frame the story as a dress-rehearsal for McCarthyism feels heavy-handed in retrospect. But this is a beautifully structured work, full of searing moments and resonant speeches.
5. A Delusion of Satan by Frances Hill (1995)
At least once a decade we seem to get a new theory of the Salem witch trials. Interpretations have thus far embraced the sociological (it was all about antagonistic neighbours settling scores with each other), the psychological (the putatively possessed children were seeking attention), the political (Reverend Parris encouraged the proceedings to consolidate his power), the anthropological (the villagers were projecting their fears of Indians onto each other), and even the pharmacological (the hysterical girls had eaten bread contaminated with ergot). Francis Hill, a London-based journalist, returns us to the heart of the problem: the psychotic theologies and Manichean madness that contaminated Christianity for nearly 300 years. The author is refreshingly unimpressed by Judge Samuel Sewall’s famous apology for his role in the Salem murders. As Hill sardonically paraphrases his mea culpa, “Innocent people may have died and guilty ones escaped; the whole thing was deeply regrettable; everyone meant well; no one was to blame.”
6. Thinking with Demons by Stuart Clark (1997)
Stuart Clark’s monumental tome defies easy categorisation, but if forced to apply a label, I would call it a social constructivist account of the “witch universe”. The author cheerily deprives the reader of any cosy post-Enlightenment notions that the ascent of science automatically spelled the doom of demonology. Cartesian mechanical philosophy not only allowed that evil spirits might exist, it practically required the world to harbor such entities. Clark clarifies that witchcraft was never regarded as “miraculous” phenomenon. An enchantress was simply somebody who had successfully petitioned Satan to manipulate the laws of nature on her behalf.
7. The Bewitched by Peter Barnes (1981)
How could a practice as cruel and irrational as the campaign to exterminate witches have lasted for nearly three centuries? In this astonishing historical play, centered on the pitiable figure of King Carlos II, Peter Barnes vividly dramatises humankind’s lamentable willingness to cede common sense and simple decency to the spurious expertise of political leaders, ambitious clerics, and opportunists of all stripes. The play’s best speech, which Barnes puts in the mouth of his physically damaged but morally intact hero, is a ringing indictment of those who regard themselves as intrinsically fit to rule over the minds and bodies of allegedly lesser beings: “Now I see Authority’s a poor provider. No blessings come from ‘t. No man born should ha’ t’, wield ‘t. Authority’s the Basilisk, the crowned dragon, scaly, beaked, and loathsome.”
8. Malleus Maleficarum by Heinrich Krämer and James Sprenger
In 1484 Pope Innocent VIII, whose name must now be counted the paragon of misnomers, deputised two Dominican friars to go on a fact-finding mission throughout northern Europe, ferreting out evidence of Satanic compaction among ordinary citizens. Thus it was that Heinrich Krämer and James Sprenger became the Lewis and Clark of demonology, intrepid explorers trekking across the dark continent of Renaissance witch beliefs. Saturated with misogyny, the resulting tome, the notorious Hammer of Witches, reveals far more than any sane person would want to know about the detection, examination, and prosecution of suspected heretics. Edward Harrison said it better than I could: “The Malleus Maleficarum possesses a hypnotic power. The aghast and sickened reader, after returning from the nightmare universe of Krcommit;;mer and Sprenger, will never again be quite the same person.”
9. Witchcraft in Europe 1100-1700: A Documentary History, edited by Alan C. Kors and Edward Peters (1972)
Anyone interested in studying primary sources pertaining to the witch persecution era would do well to start with this classic compendium by two renowned historians. With perspicacity and discernment Kors and Peters have assembled court records, papal letters, confessions, sermons, pamphlets, Malleus Maleficarum excerpts, and the arguments of such celebrated skeptics as Montaigne, Hobbes, and Spinoza. The most moving document in the book is the famous 1628 letter that Bamberg mayor Johannes Junius smuggled to his daughter prior to his execution for sorcery. “Now, dear child, here you have all my confession, for which I must die. And they are all sheer lies and made-up things, so help me God. For all this I was forced to say through fear of torture…”
10. Witches and Neighbours: The Social and Cultural Context of Witchcraft by Robin Briggs (1996)
My novel The Last Witchfinder is largely a dramatisation of Edward Harrison’s argument that, had not an emergent experimental science undermined Renaissance supernaturalism, the ever-expanding “witch universe” would have ultimately sucked the whole of European civilization into its maw. Oxford historian Robin Briggs offers a different perspective on the same era: “If we in the industrialised world mostly take witchcraft less seriously than our ancestors did, this arguably owes more to social changes than to any massive spread of Enlightenment values.” Although I dissent from Brigg’s thesis, I salute his rigorous and thoughtful scholarship, and so I append Witches and Neighbours to my top 10 list without hesitation.