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This review is from: Witchfinders: A Seventeenth-century English Tragedy (Paperback)
Gaskill presents an approachable account of seventeenth century self-appointed witchfinders Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne. Both are driven by godly ambition and duty to rid society of witches. Although Gaskill presents a broad history of witchcraft there are certain gaps and one could argue that the book is not entirely about Hopkins and Stearne. Between 1563 and 1736, witchcraft was an offence punishable to the point of execution. However, Gaskill focuses on the relentless persecution of men and women suspected of being witches during the civil war of the mid 1640s in the East Anglain counties. It is important to acknowledge that the usual suspects were women. Nevertheless no one regardless of position held in ecclesiastical circles would escape a witchcraft trial should such suspicions arise. For example, the Reverend John Lowes vicar of Brandeston, was executed by hanging for witchcraft. Public executions were a source of entertainment for the masses. It is important to acknowledge that Gaskill does not credit Hopkins with finding Lowes to be a witch, instead suggesting that he may have read about Lowes in a pamphlet one of many cursing witches. Moreover, Lowes had caused offense with his anti-Calvinist views as early as 1615.
To have a neighbourly dispute followed by death or sickness of people or animals, or to be rumoured to have imps or small animals was enough for one to be accused of witchcraft. Furthermore, the witchfinders could not have managed without those who spread the rumours about suspected witches. When an accusation arose, the suspect in question was visited by Hopkins or Stearne accompanied by 'watchers/ searchers, who would strip the suspect to find teats which supposedly fed the imps or small animals. The watchers would stay at the suspect's house all night to see if they would allow the imps or animals to suckle them (such 'teats' could have been piles or polyps). The suspect would be deprived of sleep with their feet tied underneth them to force a confession from them. Swimming the suspects was another way of establishing whether or not they were witches. If the suspect floated then this established them as a witch!! This book for me says more about the background of superstition there must have been around the seventeenth cenury than about Hopkins and Stearne. It seems that the general population was caught in a frenzy which was hard to dispel. It is unknown how many interrogations were held by Hopkins and Stearne, Gaskill suggests about three hundred of whom around a hundred were executed. Moreover, in his epilogue,Gaskill demonstrates that although the Witchcraft Act was repealed in 1736, until the twentieth century suspected witches continued to be scratched, swam and even murdered. In fact there was a lynching as late as 1945. Furthermore, witch-hunts in sub-Saharan Africa are endemic. In fact it is widespread throughout Africa. For instance it is reported by The Ministry of Home Affairs in Tanzania that as many as 5,000 suspected witches were murdered between 1994 and 1998. In addition, between 1985-95 in South Africa's Northern Province which is poverty-stricken, two hundred lynchings of witches were recorded although the real number is believed to be much higher. This prompts Gaskill to raise the question as to how different the contemporary human mentality is from the seventeenth century mentality. It's really quite ghastly.