10 Best Books About Witch Hunts Update 05/2022

Sylvia Plath says in Witch Burning: “It is easy to blame the dark,” she says. Stories about witch hunts show us how the dark is given a name; they also show us how anxious we are and how we look for someone to blame. All those good ideas about women suckling their pets! Witch hunts are just a metaphor now, but we still find ourselves drawn to them. Witch-finders in the White House might like to tweet that they’re the ones being hunted, but in reality, people who don’t have a voice or who anger their neighbors are the ones being chased. They are the people who are least to blame: the shrew, the slut. There have been a lot of witch hunts because most of the time, they have been about controlling women’s sexuality and their tongues. A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf: “I think we are on the trail of a lost novelist or poet.” When one reads about “a witch being ducked, a woman possessed by devils, and a wise woman selling herbs,” Woolf says, “I think we are on the trail of a lost poet.” A lot of these voices belong to women, and they’re coming back to life.

In the books, we go back in time to times when people were in trouble and people were blaming each other. They show us the Reformation, the English civil war, Puritan New England. I came up with the idea for my new book, The Wheelwright’s Daughter, when I read about a landslide in rural Herefordshire in 1571. Part of Marcle Ridge was ripped down. It became famous, and it’s still called “The Wonder” on the OS maps that show where it is. In 1586, William Camden wrote that the hill woke up from a deep sleep and roared for three days. When I saw this figure, I thought he was a great person to show how scary the Reformation was. How might it have been thought of, how might people have looked for a person to blame? In the Brexit era, when climate disaster was looming and populism was on the rise, it was impossible not to see how modern Britain looked like the book. The books and stories below are all different, but they all follow the threads of the witch-hunt in a unique way.

The Discoverie of Witches by Reginald Scot (1584)

“Truely, I do not deny that there are witches,” Scot says in his Epistle to the Readers, before he spends 560 pages writing about them. Wicked people make up excuses for why they do what they do, but he takes them apart one by one and says that they’re not in love with the devil; they’re just charlatans. The witches in Macbeth and Puck in A Midsummer’s Night Dream were both drawn from Scot. King James I burned the book. It was impossible for me not to give Scot a small part in my book. This is how it worked:

The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson

The Pendle witch trials of 1612 led to the deaths of 12 people, including the mysterious Alice Nutter, who was not known to anyone. A lot of stories came from my grandmother, who lived in Lancashire. Winterson’s strong Alice made me want it to be true. The book is full of magic, with talking heads, raining teeth, and deals with the devil. There is also a hard look at power and how it can be used for bad. Winterson’s stark, poetic writing makes this book stay with you even after you finish reading it.

Circe by Madeline Miller

When I read Miller’s book, I thought I knew about the witch who turned Odysseus’s men into pigs. I didn’t know that Circe had her own story, though. When she is banished to Aiaia, she is part-god and part-herbalist. She learns how to do magic on her own, and she is a daughter of the sun. She needs it, because the gods can also be witch-hunters. A lot of important people like Daedalus and Odysseus are in Circe’s story as she grows as a sorcerer and learns what it means to be a human.

The Faerie Queen by Edmund Spenser

Sir Guyon bravely hunts down the witch Acrasia in the “Bowre of Blisse” in the second book. With her sex, Acrasia makes men woozy and turn them into pigs, but her bower is full of music and happiness. This is how the story goes: All the birds are singing the same thing: “Gather the rose of love while there is still time.” However, Sir Guyon trashes Acrasia’s bower, and she gets tied up. I keep going back to Spenser’s Elizabethan masterpiece because of its ambiguity. It lingers wistfully over the garden that it hates.

Religion and the Decline of Magic by Keith Thomas

How did magic and witchcraft become a part of how people thought about the world? That’s what Thomas shows in his book. Ursula Clarke hoped William Metcalfe would “waste like the dew against the sun” in 1667. Lodowick Muggleton said curses did him more good than if a man had given him 40 shillings, so he cursed. You can read it again and again because it’s 800 pages long. It’s worth the time.

The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown

“Once, I didn’t believe in the devil at all,” Alice Hopkins says, before she has to move in with her brother Matthew Hopkins, who is collecting names. We follow Alice as she tries to record and understand her brother’s cruelty. “Turn over the stone,” she says. “You’ll find another history, one that is trying to get away.” We need more stories like this.

The Crucible by Arthur Miller

Miller’s play would not be on a list of witch-hunt books without it. McCarthyism is slammed by the play through the story of the Salem witch trials of 1692-93. Trump, and Nigel Farage, and a lot of other people are also in the play. “A warning of tyranny to come or a reminder of tyranny just past”: Miller said this when the play suddenly became popular in some place. There is a pause in our breath when we read or watch Miller’s writing, which makes us think that witch hunts didn’t happen now.

Lois the Witch by Elizabeth Gaskell

Orphan Lois Barclay moves to New England in 1691, and when she gets there, she finds that the ground is just as shaky as the water. Well, she could. Gaskell shows us a community that is afraid of its own forests and people. I like how she doesn’t make fun of or criticize the people in the story. She puts the reader in the middle of the panic and lets them feel it spread. There are a lot of Gaskell’s novels, but the novella is a small, bright piece of art.

I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem by Maryse Condé

This is what Tituba says about her own life: that it began when her mother was taken from a slave ship called “Christ the King.” The Puritans don’t like Tituba, but we think of her as a witch because she doesn’t want to live in the United States: “A huge, cruel land where the spirits only make bad things!”

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The years before Salem, Hester Prynne and her “witch child” walk out of the Boston prison house with their mother. Scarlet letter: On her chest, she has the shameful letter. Hester has made it herself, and it is beautiful, clever, and it changes as the book goes on. Hawthorne’s “luminous romance” and its tragic heroine, who was punished for having sex with a man, still haunt the literature of witch hunts.

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