As the author notes, ‘The early-modern European witch-hunts were neither orchestrated massacres nor spontaneous pogroms. Alleged witches were not rounded up at night and summarily killed extra-judicially or lynched as the victims of mob justice. They were executed after trial and conviction with full legal process’.
In this concise but highly-informed account of the persecution of witches Gregory Durston demonstrates what a largely ordered process was the singling-out or hunting-down of perceived offenders. How a mix of superstition, fear, belief and ready explanations for ailments, misfortune or disasters caused law, politics and religion to indulge in criminalisation and the appearance of justice. Bearing echoes of modern-day ‘othering’ and marginalisation of outsiders he shows how witchcraft became akin to treason (with its special rules), how evidentially speaking storms, sickness or coincidence might be attributed to conjuring, magic, curses and spells. All this reinforced by examples and detailed references to the law and practice through which a desired outcome was achieved.
In another resonance with modern times, the author shows how decisions were often diverted into the hands of witch-hunters, witch-finders (including self-appointed Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins), witch-prickers and other experts as well as the quaintly titled ‘cunning-folk’ consulted by prosecutors and ‘victims’.
Crimen Exceptum (crimes apart). Part of Durston’s Crime History Series. A straightforward and authoritative guide. Shows the rise and fall of prosecutions. Backed by a wealth of learning and research.
‘A range of specialist tests developed to establish that a suspect truly was a witch. These included “swimming”, “pricking”… identifying a witch’s teat, requiring her to recite the Lord’s Prayer or other well-known passage of scripture… and any positive results obtained from the various techniques, such as scratching a suspect or boiling a victim’s urine… to break a spell or to identify who had cast it.’
‘An excellent overall history of English witch trials replete with fascinating examples drawn from pamphlets and trial records. The book is written in fluid prose, understandable to the legal layperson. I cannot recommend Crimen Exceptum highly enough to anyone interested in the factual background to witchcraft prosecutions in England.’– Catherine Meyrick, author of historical fiction (full review on Catherine’s blog).
‘Presented in an accessible fashion … good and evenhanded discussions of some technical issues. Durston also makes good use of early eighteenth-century newspaper reports about witchcraft, a source hitherto little drawn on by historians of witchcraft.’– Social History.
Gregory J Durston is a barrister-at-law who has taught in law schools in England and Japan. He was for many years Reader in Law at Kingston University, Surrey and is currently an adjunct professor at Southern Cross University School of Law and Justice, New South Wales, Australia. He is the author of the Crime History Series which includes Fields, Fens and Felonies and Whores and Highwaymen (both Waterside Press).