Reviewed by krista schwimmer
The cover of this book, along with the title, is enough to grab the attention of any curious reader. Glossy, embossed black hands circle and point index fingers directly at the title itself. All of this is set against a fire engine red background.
I also was drawn in by the expanse the book covers: 2000 years. Reading the back flap about the author, John Demos, I discovered he is a Samuel Knight Professor of History at Yale University and has written other historical articles and books on witchcraft in New England.
The book is divided into four main parts, working chronically from early “witch-hunting” all the way into the 20th century. Interestingly, he begins with the story of the martyrs of Lyons, in A.D. 177. How the early Christians were demonized, he shows, have parallels with the later demonizing of so called witches.
Part two of the book focuses on early America and witch-hunts; part three, on the infamous Salem period, and part four, on modern American witch-hunts such as the red scare. He ends the sweep of his examination with the Fells Acres Day School scandal.
The book is interlaced with a broad look at the witch-hunts and very specific, often poignant historical stories, such as that of Rebecca Nurse. For me, this has both an effect of educating me about the historical reality, as well as deepening my empathy for the victims. He also seeks to show how the word witch-hunt came about, and how in today’s world it means more than the hunting of witches. He suggests, in his introduction that “the key link between literal and figurative witch-hunts is the search for enemies within.”
I was also fascinated by the various theories he examines on the cause of the American witch-hunts, as well as a look at the kinds of people most likely to be accused of witchcraft. Although the reasons vary from “divine retribution” to an “acid trip” to “the coming of capitalism,” just who was accused does not. John Demos states: “The bare facts are thunderously clear. The vast majority of accused witches were female; the Europe-wide proportion was approximately 80 percent.”
Included in his book are also penetrating looks at some of the infamous perpetrators of the witch-hunt movement: men such as Heinrich Kramer, author of the infamous “Malleus Maleficarum” or “The Hammer of Witchcraft,” and the Reverend Cotton Mather. It is Kramer’s book that becomes a medieval best seller and manual for prosecuting witches. In this manual, Demos says “child-murder and sex are recurrent preoccupations.”
What John Demos finds “most striking,” however, “is something else again: the flat-out, unblinking misogyny in which the entire work is drenched.” (Honestly, folks, if you have never even looked at Malleus, you must! What a woman could do to a man’s penis and where she would keep them – incredulous!)
The portrayal of Mather is a bit more complex with Demos showing his early life full of promise. At a young age, Cotton Mather mastered seven different languages; at 15, he graduated from Harvard. Still, Demos does not let him off the hook, showing his great responsibility in igniting the fuel for the Salem trials and executions.
All and all, I highly recommend this insightful, well-written, historical examination of one of the great nightmares in women’s history. Although I initially bought this book because of my interest in understanding the witch-hunts, I realize it has some relevance today at both a global and a local level. For instance, one can see parallels between today’s terror against Muslims and the terror ignited by religious zealots such as the Reverend Cotton Mather of Salem. On a more local Venice level, with the escalation of the RV parking problems and the demonizing of some of the poor, this book may help us all reflect on the hidden enemy within before we regret, like Salem community did itself, persecuting those who are not the true threat to our community at all.