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3.9 out of 5 stars
3.9 out of 5 stars
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on 30 September 2005
Having a large interest in the local history of East Anglia I immediately became absorbed into this book. The writing style is a perfect balance of facts, quotes, political background information in relation to the Civil War, religious views of the times and objective research by the author, making this a joy to read. The pages turned a lot faster than normal for a book set in this era!
The book follows the rise AND fall of the famous Witchfinders, Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne from their large scale witch hunts in the 1640's. Starting in their local area of Manningtree in Essex and spreading, like the contempory and proverbial plague, through into Suffolk, Norfolk, Huntinghdonshire and Cambridgeshire and further, with ultimate influence on the witch hunts in America.
The personal details of the witchfinders characters and views along with their methods of finding witches is just compelling reading. Most of the time the reader will feel many emotions, from suprise and incredulity at the so-called confessions of witches to utter disbelief and revulsion at how people such as judges and jurors sentenced these confused and often poor women AND men for execution from such peculiar methods of proof from the witchfinders.
The book concludes, telling of how the two main witchfinders ended their days, and what legacy they left behind in society. With a neat little conclusion on how far humanity has come and that some countries still use witch hunts.
An excellent read! 5 Stars!
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on 10 April 2012
Perhaps I was expecting too much from this book, but I found it very disappointing. By focussing almost exclusively on the activities of Hopkins and Stearne and their unfortunate victims, the author has ignored much of the background to witchcraft which might have shed more light on the issue. How, for example, did British witchfinding fit in with European witchfinding practices, which were far more widespread? How did the idea originate of identifying witches by searching for "teats" which Satan's agents - bugs and mice etc - suckled on? Did people use the accusation of witchery to try to get rid of unproductive members of society? Why is the notion of witchcraft so widespread - most countries and most civilisations seem to have embraced it. These matters are hinted at but never developed. Much of the book is devoted to quoting or paraphrasing reports of those accusing witches or of witches' "confessions". This gets tedious after a while, and I kept waiting for some analysis of the information, some summary, some inspirational thoughts.
So little is known about Hopkins and Stearne - their activities alone cannot sustain an entire book.
There were a few comments at the end of the book which opened the debate out a little, but I would have liked a lot more. In fact I obtained more hard information from a ten-minute scan of Wikipedia articles.
The subject of witchcraft and its origins is potentially fascinating, and I would love to read a decent book on it. This isn't it.
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on 27 August 2011
The book starts of with a broad history of 16th century England covering mainly political & religious issues. The narrative throughout the book is largely following the so called savage witch hunt of 1645 - 1647 instigated by the 2 famous protagonists Matthew Hopkins & John Stearne.
The author & his research know more about Hopkins' father & other siblings than about the man himself. Throughout the book the information on Hopkins in very sketchy to put it mildly, which will come as a major disappointment to many readers, the fact is no one actually knows hard facts about the witch finder and unfortunately never will. The research on John Stearne is even worse. Giving the author credit, he manages to follow Stearne's witch hunt & journey from 1645+, but information regarding his past is non existent.
The author takes great liberties, constantly suggesting that Hopkins 'may have' done this this or been there, that 'it bears the hallmarks of' Hopkins 'probably' visited such & such etc.
The author waxes lyrical about religious issues from the 1st chapter & this theme continues throughout the entire book. I found this extremely tedious, mr Gaskill I get the message loud & clear, there's no need to consantly remind the reader that England was a very godly society in the grip of civil war, imo this is just lazy filler.
After labouring through the entire book I would suggest that that the 'mass murderer' Hopkins was in truth responsible for perhaps under 100 executions. After 1645 many so called witches were aquitted during trial despite the best efforts of the well paid witch finders to have them liquidated. The whole book concludes with Hopkins death & Stearne's disappearance into historical obscurity. Apparently witch hunts continued after 1647 but on a reduced scale.
Overall an informative but very dry boring read. Only for the hardcore Hopkins buff.
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on 6 July 2014
I thought this was a well written and well researched book. Its content adheres closely to the primary sources paying attention to the details. Unfortunately, for me that’s its drawback. There’s very little attempt to explain or contextualise the strange practices that are referred to. And there is a lot of repetition - one witche's confession is very like any other and here they are reeled off interminably. There’s little sense of time and place just a chronological re-writing of the sources. The English Civil War and the religious conflicts of the time serve as a backdrop to the ‘action’ and there’s presumed knowledge of these topics on the part of the author.

A fascinating subject that twenty-first century historians can say so much about. Sadly there’s none of that here.
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on 23 January 2014
I felt stunned and in a state of shock that this could have happened in my own, civilised, supposedly law-abiding country. Of course there were circumstances around that influenced events (the English Civil War, poor weather, poor harvests, starvation, etc.) but it really IS an English tragedy.

If your only brush with this subject is the Vincent Price film, read this. The truth is just so much more horrible. Very well-written, entertaining and informative. I have also bought this book for friends.
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on 26 December 2012
If you like non fiction history this book is excellent
Very well researched,and includes lots of reference from original documents
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on 17 January 2015
The book gives a very interesting account of the witch trials, but it is too long. After having read the first 20 accounts of how potential witches were watched and interrogated and finally convicted, number 21, 22 etc are not really that interesting. The book has a good distance to its subject and includes remarks about the political climate in which the witch trails took place (probably a main cause of them). Had it been half as long, it would have received double the stars.
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on 27 June 2014
Many excellent reviews of this book have already been posted, but it was such a pleasure reading this book that I wanted to add my opinion. This is an outstanding book. The writing style made the reading almost effortless. I almost regretted finishing. I would recommend the book to anyone of any interest level, even students of writing who want to see how such a book should be written. To call it outstanding would not be enough.
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on 25 July 2010
This is a fascinating period of history and a fascinating character. However this is the first book that I've read about the period that had me skipping bits in order to find out about Hopkins. The narrative reads like a list of trials and this quickly gets boring when there is little over-rding narrative or characterisation of Hopkins or Stearne to keep it bouncing along. I gave up halfway through after finding myself searching for information about Hopkins that was few and far between. Disappointing
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on 5 June 2011
This is a book that I began to read at least three times but gave up halfway through. Either I or the book has something lacking. However, it is certainly a scholarly read and will certainly be of interest to those who have a taste for 17th-century witch hunts. As an allegory to modern day witch-hunts (as some reviewers have suggested), the more discerning reader will probably think "crapperooney". Still, a very worthy book, and one that I may one day finish reading.
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