Katherine Howe’s new book The Penguin Book of Witches is an excellent read if you’re ready to accept that black hats, broomsticks and cauldrons filled to the brim with all manner of concoctions are not witchy truths. The collection of historic writings and recollections about the infamous witch trails of the seventeenth century is fascinating and completely different from the books on witchcraft this reader has managed to devour in the last few years.
You don’t have to be a huge fan of getting lost in Salem, Massachusetts each October to enjoy Howe’s book. You really just have to be a fan of history with a healthy thirst for filling in a few blanks. The texts Howe collected and editorialized in this book are actual originals to the time period she’s examining. There are moments when you will be asking yourself if this was really the way that people spoke. In the end though, human truths win out: We are an animal quick to judge, blame, and condemn those that are different than the majority. That’s the real lesson Howe imparts through her work. While a large part of the book reprints the original treatises that were written in the seventeenth century, she provides thoughtful and necessary summaries before each so that the reader doesn’t get too lost in the linguistic differences.
While witchcraft was an accusation, and sometimes death sentence, The Penguin Book of Witches does show that there were people more rational than afraid who spoke against the quick judgement and condemnation that were handed down in communities in America. Howe discusses the religious bias that was woven through the witch trails that saw the deaths of so many accused witches – primarily women, though some men were among their numbers. She also acknowledges the very real socioeconomic discrimination and gender violence that the period was known for. Single women seeking help from their communities, women with midwife education and medical training, an idle threat of retribution for a perceived wrong: all were vulnerable to being called before a town hall and tried for witchcraft.
In the end, Howe’s collection of original documents and modern editorialization is a sobering look at what fear and instability can do to communities through the demonization of anyone thought of as different. You will close the book with a broader understanding what we are capable of doing to each other. You may also find yourself interested in checking out the extensive recommended readings that Howe provides should you want to know more about the caricatures with black hats and broomsticks that Hollywood has spoon fed us with for years.
What’s the last nonfiction book you picked up for fun? Tell me in the comments below!
The Penguin Book of Witches is available in paperback and e-book from Penguin Classics.