A History of Magic and Witchcraft

Sabbats, Satan and Superstitions In The West

By Frances Timbers

Published by Pen & Sword History

We all share common perceptions of witchcraft; indeed I personally believe the roots of the modern image of witch began with Shakespeare and continue to the present day as evidenced by the modern version of Halloween. Credit (if that is the appropriate word) can also be given to King James in his 1603 book ‘Demonology’. For instance, he wrote: ‘To some others at these times he [the Devil] teacheth, how to make Pictures of wax or clay: that by the roasting thereof, the persons that bear the name of, may be continually melted or dried away by continual sicknesse.’

The history of witchcraft then reveals as much about the present as the past. Witness the vicious online witchhunts if anyone should say the wrong thing (see ‘So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed’ by Jon Ronson for more on this. We now live in a culture where the internet has made the most vicious behaviour socially acceptable).

This is the best book I’ve read on the history of witchcraft. Historian Frances Timbers explores the history of witchcraft with fresh eyes, exploring and sometimes debunking myths, for instance, the burning of witches actually took place from 1550 to 1660, not during what are wrongly called the Dark Ages.

She writes wisely that:

‘Witchcraft and magic are perennial topics that are as relevant today as they were in the persecution era. The concept of magic and witchcraft existed long before the so-called witch craze and continued long after. The examination of magic and witchcraft offers a window into the past, in which we can examine the mental, social, and religious ideas of our forefathers. The story of witchcraft illuminates the lives of ordinary people in the past and shines a light on the fascinating pop culture of the premodern world. Witchcraft is a metaphor for oppression in age in which persecution is an everyday occurrence somewhere in the world. Fanaticism, intolerance, prejudice, authoritarianism, and religious and political ideologies are never attractive. Beware the witch hunter.’

Very well put indeed!

As an Irishman I found the persecution of Dame Alice Kyteler, an Anglo-Norman lady from Kilkenny in the 14th century, to be of particular interest. I see sadly that my native land did not change much over the centuries.

This book is a great antidote to misogynistic writers like Montague Summers, and is a great companion piece to the work of fine writers like Ronald Hutton.



Steve Earles is author and co-author of numerous projects, including To End All Wars: The WWI Graphic Anthology, available summer 2014 (http://toendallwarscomic.wordpress.com/writers/).