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WITCH, WICCE, MOTHER GOOSE: The Rise and Fall of the Witch Hunts in Europe and North America

By Robert Thurston, published by Longman at £20.00. 213pp. Hbk. ISBN: 0582438063 (Reviewed by Brian Hoggard)

This book has an eye-catching title which is a clever bit of marketing, but the word Wicce occurs only a couple of times in the whole book and likewise with the 'Mother Goose' bit. In fact, let's start this review by ditching the first bit of the book's title and sticking with it's subtitle, 'The Rise and Fall of the Witch Hunts in Europe and North America'. I feel happier now as this is what the book is about. It's a history book!

For the last thirty years or so research into the period of the witch-trials (broadly the 16th and 17th centuries) has grown enormously and there have been numerous attempts to explain why this phenomena occurred. Each big new theory has subsequently been revised by a flurry of publications and, to be honest, it can be hard to keep up with all the latest studies and developments these days.  This book provides a relatively concise overview of the period and the principal debates involved. This is actually a really good thing, because until now there hasn't really been a book that summarises the work of all the principal scholars of witchcraft into a readable narrative on the whole period. 

Apart from the introduction and conclusion the book comprises five chapters (really these are independent essays) with extensive references, a good bibliography, a short web directory and a thorough index. The chapter topics are well chosen. The first one deals with the period 700 - 1500 and traces some of the more distant precursors to the larger witch hunts. It looks at the way that law and religious perceptions changed in ways that began to permit the kind of thinking that later characterised the period of the witch-trials.The second chapter reviews the whole issue of women's role and involvement in the witch-trials. This deals with the hot potato of misogyny and also reviews the work of feminist approaches to the witch-trials in the light of the latest research. This is a very interesting and balanced account (albeit necessarily fairly concise) of these issues.  The third chapter deals with the spread of the witch-trials.  The fourth with victims of the trials and the fifth with the decline and end of the trials. 

Historians of witchcraft have always struggled (and continue to struggle) with questions like 'why did the witch-trials spread?', 'why more women than men in most areas?', 'why did the witch-trials end?' and have always sought to explain why communities could turn in on themselves and begin accusing eachother of witchcraft, often resulting in torture, death, disruption and fear. There are still no absolute answers to any of these questions but most of the factors that might have impacted on these issues have been researched by historians and so it is possible to make well informed comments on highly probable causes and most likely reasons. In order to explain the witch-trials a very large number of issues need to be discussed, namely the whole social, cultural and religious backgrounds of the areas and periods in question in addition to whatever specific events may have triggered local witch-hunts! - so this is a very complex task to set out in writing and it is one which Thurston has managed to present very well.

He has tried to present the essence of the debates and research in a way that isn't too wordy and academic, and most of the time he is very successful. In one or two places things get quite dense in the information sense but never overly so. This book demonstrates how well Thurston has absorbed all the available research into the history of witchcraft and how well he has synthesized it all into a readable single volume - quite an achievement. There are not really any new theories or big ideas in here, just a very well written distillation of all the best research available. This book will be an excellent single volume introduction or reference work for any level of reader on the history of witchcraft. It seems ideally suited for that role. If that is what it does become then subsequent editions might benefit from having an appendix which individually reviews the major books and papers which have contributed to the current levels of understanding on this topic - something more than simply an annotated bibliography is what I have in mind there. Just a suggestion!

An excellent book. If you only buy one reference book on the history of the witch-hunts of the early modern period then you could do a lot worse than buy this one.  Robert Thurston has saved you a lot of trouble!