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Witchfinders: A Seventeenth-century English Tragedy Paperback – 24 Apr 2006

3.9 out of 5 stars 20 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: John Murray; Reprint edition (24 April 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0719561213
  • ISBN-13: 978-0719561214
  • Product Dimensions: 13.3 x 2.5 x 19.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 83,677 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


Gives the ordinary reader a visceral sense of mid-seventeenth-century England ... satisfyingly complex (Selina O'Grady, Literary Review)

Very highly recommended (The Cauldron)

an 'evocative travelogue...setpieces of rich description' (TLS)

Gaskill has become an expert on the Great British witch-hunt ... a completely readable non-fiction book on a gripping subject.' (Suffolk Journal, Norfolk Journal, The Essex Magazi)

The incessant peculiarity of the accusations could easily make the stories told in this book seem quaint rather than horrific. But Gaskill avoids this trap by describing each case in a vivid manner, making one aware at all times of the human tragedy. His description of a hanging, for instance could leave no reader unmoved (Craig Brown, Book of the Week, Mail on Sunday)

It is a riveting subject, engagingly told, and worth a read. (Catholic Herald)

The book is a timely warning for those who think that witch trials are a matter of history. (The Times)

This is a terrible tale marvellously told ... This is how history should be known. (the oldie)

He's a very lucid and human writer, very good at setting the social context, helping you understand how the phenomenon of witchfinders came out of the dislocation of the civil war. (Independent on Sunday)

Gaskill tells the story of the witch-hunt in full and accurate detail, for the first time, and with uncommon skill ... His book is both a solid contribution to knowledge and a splendid example of history as gripping literature (Ronald Hutton, Independent)

Malcolm Gaskill patiently untangles the history of East Anglian witchcraft (Guardian)

'Lucid and humane' (Hilary Mantel)

Written with sympathy, respect and deep human understanding. (The Sunday Times)

Wonderfully detailed, well-written and judicious ... tragic yet fascinating (Daily Telegraph)

A must ... a lucid companion piece to the classic horror movie Witchfinder General. (Guardian)

A brilliant new study ... In the vivid three-dimensionality of its dramatis personae, the eloquence of its writing, and the richness of its evocations of vanished worlds of landscape and belief ... Gaskill displays a masterly wizardry all his own (John Adamson, Sunday Telegraph)

'A splendid example of history as gripping literature.' (Independent)

'Fascinating' (Daily Mail)

'Superb, chilling' - Alastair Sooke (Daily Telegraph)

'A sophisticated examination of East Anglia's mania in the 1640s' - Rosemary Goring (Glasgow Herald)

'A chilling history of the witch-trials' (History Today)

'A fascinating history of the infamous witch-hunts and their main protagonist, Matthew Hopkins. This book is easily labelled as essential for anyone with an interest in the macabre... less obviously, it's also a good expose (and timely reminder) of how large-scale tragedies can occur once the right mix of circumstances are present' (Irish Times)

'[Gaskill's] meticulously researched book paints a vivid picture of a horrific period in English history and its causes' (Lucy Land, Essex Life & Countryside)

Book Description

'The most chilling witch-hunt in English history ... fascinating' Independent on Sunday

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
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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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
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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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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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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