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Review: Witchcraft: A History in Thirteen Trials

Who doesn’t love a good witch story?

 

Gibson’s Witchcraft made me furious.

 

And I loved every second of it.

 

Marion Gibson takes her readers on a wild ride through the history of witch trials. From fifteenth-century Austria, where a crazed, incel-like monk (Gibson’s words, but I’m here for them) went on a rampage, burning women at the stake to Stormy Daniels’ highly public defamation trial against Donald Trump, the author charts the development of witchcraft as a legally-punishable crime across time and space. As she states in the Introduction, “In telling this seven-century story, Witchcraft: A History in Thirteen Trials shows how the demonological idea of the witch originated and grew, changed over time, but did not die. Instead, it was repurposed so that witches continue to be put on trial globally.” That is, the book does not delve into dis/proving the existence of witches (though it does, on occasion, explore the beliefs and practices of certain self-identified witches). Rather, its focus is explaining how certain Christian-based legal systems (cough, cough, British Empire, cough) used the idea of witches and Satan to vilify anyone who did not fit into their prescribed social role.

 

Witchcraft is all over the place – geographically speaking, that is – and Gibson finds ways to take what most of us know, or think we know, about witch trials and make it fresh. For instance, readers might be familiar with the names Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne, the Salem settlers first accused of witchcraft. But did you know that the accusations didn’t actually start there, but with an enslaved girl named Tatabe, who was stolen from her indigenous community in South America as a child before being trafficked to Barbados and then Massachusetts? The same girls who accused Good and Osborne claimed Tatabe, who labored in their home, cursed them before eventually adding Good and Osborne into the mix.

 

One of the things this book does so well is tease out the racial, gender, and class tensions that, historically, have fueled witch trials, especially in places where European colonizers have controlled indigenous populations. Settlers from across Europe, for instance, used allegations of witchcraft to assert power over the Sámi people (tribes indigenous to extreme northern Europe), and the impact that Native American Powwow magic had on Pennsylvania Dutch settlers. Chapter 12 shows the devastating impacts of Pentecostal missionaries (among other factors) on communities across sub-Saharan Africa. “The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF),” she notes, “estimated in 2012 that around twenty thousand ‘witch children’ were homeless in the Congolese capital, Kinshasa, even though accusing a child of witchcraft is illegal there.” In contemporary America and parts of Europe, the witch has evolved into a symbol of counter-culture or liberation, but that didn’t stop Stormy Daniels’ political enemies from using “witch” terminology to demean and discredit her.

 

The material covered in the book is fascinating and presented in a way that will make the reader unable to set it down. What really got me, though, is how easy it is to identify with all the women whom history has persecuted – and prosecuted – as witches, since the patriarchal need to control women is ever-present. (In fact, Gibson notes that in his decision to strike down Roe v. Wade, Samuel Alito ***ACTUALLY QUOTED*** a seventeenth-century judge who sentenced multiple women to burn at the stake for alleged witchcraft). “As witchcraft history repeated itself in the removal of women’s legal rights, it was also deliberately inverted to portray the removers of those rights as victims.” Damn.

 

Despite the heavy material, I don’t think you’ll walk away discouraged. Gibson tells this story in a victim-forward way that puts the women at the center of the narrative, right where they belong, while exposing the weak-minded men who feared them.


Available from Scriber on January 16, 2024.

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