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This 'Book Of Witches' Casts A Fascinating, Sobering Spell

In William Perkins' 1608 A Discourse of the Damned Art of Witchcraft, he opens with a list of the reasons such a treatise is necessary, beginning with one that now reads as far more astute that he intended: "First, because witchcraft is a rife and common sin in these our days, and very many are entangled with it."

Indeed witchcraft was a common sin, for a list of distinctly secular sociopolitical reasons that often overlapped. But in The Penguin Book of Witches, whose dry title belies a fascinating collection of primary sources surrounding three centuries worth of witch trials, editor Katherine Howe has her eye firmly on Perkins' second concept: that witch hunts were above all a pervasive fracture of government and community, a failure that carried a body count.

Howe brings academic insight to the curation of these pieces, with deft introductions to the range of material she presents. Separated by era, the documents run from curiosities (an arrest warrant for a suspected witch), to the unexpected (King James authored a witch-hunting manual!) to exhaustive depositions that bring home the dreadful force and blindness to logic that accompanied the trials. Beginning with English antcedents and the early Colonial era, the book builds to the fever pitch of Salem, and charts the aftershocks of fear through the early 18th century.

Some factors are common throughout the documents themselves — hatred for women who broke the social codes, economic scarcity that made every lost crop a curse from the devil himself. But as Howe herself notes, academic study of the witch hunts always says as much about the era in which the scholarship is being conducted as about the hunts themselves. She also points out that many of the scholarly conclusions as to what underscored the witch hunts are exculpatory, to some degree: it was agricultural ignorance, or it was a mold outbreak, or it was something else comfortingly remote from a contemporary audience.

And the most haunting truth that emerges in The Penguin Book of Witches is that there's no such reassurance to be found. The reasons behind the accusations were certainly varied, but in their simplest form, the witch hunts happened when government seized the chance to prove its authority by persecuting those outside community protection.

There are unsettling, inescapable parallels to the recent police violence in Ferguson, Mo.; the book includes several dissenting voices that bring into sharp relief the past — and present — struggle to present nuance amid propaganda, or critique governing bodies amid social unrest. From illiterate Tituba, whose confession parroted a book of English folklore and whose body was marked with bruises, to churchgoer Martha Corey, whose very incredulity at the accusations was considered a mark of guilt, every document reveals another feature in the telling landscape that emerges.

Erudite, insightful, and resonant, The Penguin Book of Witches is often grim, but provides invaluable historical context, and makes fascinating reading about a past that all too well illuminates the present.

Genevieve Valentine's latest book is The Girls at the Kingfisher Club.

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Genevieve Valentine