Non-Fiction, Reviews

Witchfinders: A Seventeenth-Century English Tragedy by Malcolm Gaskill

I decided I wanted to read this book on a bit of an impulse. I’d read Witches: James I and the English Witch Hunts by Tracy Borman and been left unsatisfied, so wanted to read something else to supplement my knowledge of English witches and those that persecuted them. I love these kinds of old Gothic stories, and the stories of witches are even better because they are real, and happened in England, which makes them seem even more real.

And yet, we know relatively little about these witches – and that is where the problem lies. Those accused of witchcraft left only their confessions and other official documents. We have no records of their actual personal experience – what it felt like to be accused, how it affected daily life and relationships, what happened to those who were acquitted. This is frustrating for the reader, because there is so little room for visceral human experience in this story.

2007 John Murray paperback edition

2007 John Murray paperback edition

Once I was about half way through Witchfinders I knew I wasn’t going to be fulfilled by it. Borman’s book lacked detail and had some storytelling issues, but it was still entertaining, and I wanted to keep reading. Gaskill’s book, however, was just too matter of fact, too list-like. It was interesting, but not entertaining per se. Frankly I got a bit bored.

Even a little speculation would be worthwhile – some examination of the daily lives of the women and what would have happened to them and their families because of the witchfinders. Did those that were acquitted (and there were few) go back to normal life? Were they ostracised?

Basically I felt that this was a rather flat, unemotional book that didn’t cover anything new. If you know nothing about Matthew Hopkins and the witch trials, then it will be very informative; but that’s it. There is little in the way of human experience, beyond the facts of things like watching, the arrests, and trials, and I felt distinctly unsatisfied by the whole experience. This book is good for someone new to the topic and time period, but for nothing beyond that.


Published in 2007 by John Murray Publishers.

[I would normally provide a link here to buy this book from Foyles, but it’s not listed on their website.]