Katherine Howe, editor,,
The Penguin Book of Witches
(Penguin, 2014)

Katherine Howe, who put together this valuable and wonderful book, is an expert on witches in America. A professor of American Studies at Cornell, she is the descendent of three women accused of witchcraft in Salem and has written the novel Conversion, an updating of Arthur Miller's masterpiece about the Salem trials, The Crucible, which she set in a Massachusetts Prep School.

In The Penguin Book of Witches, she has gathered together all of most important primary sources on witchcraft in early America. She begins, though, with some background, starting with a discussion of references to witches in the Bible, of which, she declares, there really aren't very many.

In fact, the Bible is strangely quiet about witchcraft. It confirms that witches exist, but most of the telltale details -- the identifying characteristics that set a witch apart from a run-of-the-mill person, and the powers that a witch is supposed to have -- do not appear.

Of course, the phrase, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" does appear but, as the author notes, it appears without any context, "any illumination or explanation, wedged between a guideline about dowry payment and a prohibition against bestiality." The author comments that "witches are declared not allowed yet all of Exodus 22 remains silent on on the definition of what or who a witch is or what activities might constitute witchcraft."

And yet, inconclusive as those statements are, all hell broke loose as a result of them. The trial that set the pattern for those to come was the one that convicted Ursula Kemp in 1582 in England. Fortunately for history, a transcript survives and is printed here. It struck Reginald Scot as such an injustice that he wrote The Discovery of Witchcraft, which wqas largely an attack on Justice of the Peace Brian Darcy, who tried and executed Ursula Kemp. Sections from that book are included here as well.

But the attack could not stand. King James I, whose King James Bible carrieds prohibitions against witchcraft, set out to refute Scot's book by writing -- or having written -- the Daemonologie, a sort of Wikipedia of witchcraft, a book of rules and descriptions, "which has been called 'neither original nor profound'," but since the credited author was the King of England and therefore an expert on all things, became the rulebook by which the accused witches were tried and judged.

The founding documents in place, the book moves to America and provides transcripts of the most and best documented cases. We read the questions and the answers, see how guilt was assumed beforehand and how impossible it was for an accused woman to defend herself. The fictions we've all read were horrifying enough but the actual cases are much more terrifying, especially when we consider how hysterias of various sorts still plague the society we live in and the lengths to which we're apparently willing to go to resolve them. It would not be difficult for us to lose control and bring on another unhealthy dose of repression.

By assembling, editing and presenting these documents, Katherine Howe has not only presented us with a fine and valuable book, she has done us a great favor.

book review by
Michael Scott Cain

25 October 2014

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