Review: Witch Hunt

Witch Hunt: History of a PersecutionWitch Hunt: History of a Persecution
by Nigel Cawthorne

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Witch Hunt: History of a Persecution / 0-7858-1858-8

I own and have read an extensive collection of books dealing with the history of witch hunts throughout the world in general and the Spanish Inquisition specifically, and I can honestly say that if you can only pick a single book to read on the topic, this is the one to read.

Cawthorne organizes his material painstakingly within the book, with each chapter dealing with a different country or geographical region. This puts to bed the common and mistaken notion that "only" Catholics/Protestants/Spaniards/what-have-you engaged in this systematic murder of innocents. Cawthorne carefully points out that witch hunting was both a Protestant and a Catholic obsession - something that many authors fail to do, usually as a result of focusing only on one geographical region or period of history. Indeed, here we have all the evidence we need that just about everywhere in Europe engaged in witch hunts, regardless of the political and religious inclinations of each individual region.

Cawthorne has copious, carefully organized detail - in some cases, details that are difficult to find elsewhere. He cites his sources meticulously, with the final result being a very readable, very informative book. Did you know that a statue of the Virgin Mary in Madrid had arms covered in spikes and that she was capable of "hugging" her victims when a lever was pulled? You might not have, if Cawthorne hadn't found and presented this information. He also carefully links the witch hunts to other historical events, rather than falling into the too-common failing of treating historical events in a vacuum. For instance, did you know that one of the last major witch hunts in Germany incorporated the use of large ovens into the removal of the dead bodies? Witch hunts (which usually included Jewish victims) in Germany were, in many respects, practice for the Holocaust to come later.

This book is not light reading. The subject matter is horrible and Cawthorne does not soften it. But the writing is easy to follow, the level of detail is astounding, and the overall work is unimpeachable. I highly recommend this book.

~ Ana Mardoll

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