Book Review: The Penguin Book of Witches

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From a manual for witch hunters written by King James himself in 1597, to court documents from the Salem witch trials of 1692, to newspaper coverage of a woman stoned to death on the streets of Philadelphia while the Continental Congress met, The Penguin Book of Witches is a treasury of historical accounts of accused witches that sheds light on the reality behind the legends.

Bringing to life stories like that of Eunice Cole, tried for attacking a teenage girl with a rock and buried with a stake through her heart; Jane Jacobs, a Bostonian so often accused of witchcraft that she took her tormentors to court on charges of slander; and Increase Mather, an exorcism-performing minister famed for his knowledge of witches, this volume provides a unique tour through the darkest history of English and North American witchcraft.”

-Synopsis from the back of the book


The Penguin Book of Witches by Katherine Howe offers “chilling real-life accounts of witches, from medieval Europe through colonial America.” I was nothing short of delighted by this anthology of  primary documents including letters, warrants, depositions, examinations, testimonies and other legal documents. That might sound odd, but the history of witchcraft is something I studied during my undergrad and it has always been a topic of interest to me, and this book is a gold mine of information. I wouldn’t exactly call it easy reading, but Howe’s narrative is compelling and definitely gave me some new perspectives to consider.

I especially loved this quote from the introduction:

“Histories of witchcraft have often revealed more about the time in which the historian was writing than about witchcraft the individual living in the early modern world, from the sixteenth through the middle part of the eighteenth centuries, witchcraft was a legitimate, but dangerous, category for explaining reality. Witchcraft intersected, contained, and sometimes overwrote other important social questions – most notably of gender, class, inequality, and religion – but to treat it merely as a proxy for those other ideas, because those other ideas have persisted into our own time while witchcraft has not, strips away the explanatory power that witchcraft held for the people who were touched by it. An idea, even today, does not have to be empirically verifiable for it to matter.”

-Katherine Howe, The Penguin Book of Witches

The Penguin Book of Witches is the perfect book for anyone with an interest in historical documents related to witchcraft in Europe and early colonial America. I am definitely going to have to add this one to my personal library!

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