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  • Title: A History of Magic and Witchcraft: Sabbats, Satan and Superstitions in the West
  • Author: Frances Timbers
  • Publisher: Pen and Sword Books
  • Publication Date: 3rd April 2019

Copy received from publisher for review purposes.


Description:

Broomsticks and cauldrons, familiars and spells: magic and witchcraft conjure vivid pictures in our modern imaginations. The history of magic and witchcraft offers a window into the past, illuminating the lives of ordinary people and shining a light on the fascinating pop culture of the pre-modern world.

Blowing away folkloric cobwebs, this enlightening new history dispels many of the misconceptions rooted in superstition and myth that surround witchcraft and magic today. Historian Frances Timbers brings together elements of Ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, Christianity, popular culture, and gender beliefs that evolved throughout the middle ages and early modern period and contributed to the construction and eventual persecution of the figure of the witch. While demonologists were developing the new concept of Devil worship and the witches’ sabbat, elite men were actually attempting to practise ceremonial magic. In the twentieth century, elements of ceremonial magic and practices of cunning folk were combined with the culturally-constructed idea of a sect of witches to give birth first to modern Wicca in England and then to other neopagan movements in North America.

Witchcraft is a metaphor for oppression in an 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!

My Thoughts:

The study of witchcraft is something that I find fascinating, especially the origins of the ideas behind myth and fable that have evolved over many years to form the images we know now, and so when I saw this book I was delighted to build upon the knowledge that I already possessed.

With an engaging level of detail, A History of Magic and Witchcraft explores the many different ideas of witchcraft, the practices, the acceptance of information that has long been considered the truth about this such as witch trials and the subsequent executions, but also the subjugation of the masses through the fear of witch-hunts. It is also interesting to discover that Frances Timbers has, through so much research, found out that in some areas the percentage of men executed outnumbered that of the women. An exploration through the various ages and interpretations of witches give readers a glimpse into the ever changing mindsets and terminologies prevalent at the times as well as practices.

I particularly enjoyed reading chapter seven, The Tree of Life and Death, Persecution through Prosecution. In this chapter there are details of how prosecutions were held in the various parts of Britain, France and The Holy Roman Empire (“present day Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, Alsace, Lorraine, northern Italy, and parts of Poland and the Czech Republic all came under the jurisdiction of the Holy Roman Emperor”). The history of the Scotland was a section that I found intriguing and found myself taking notes to look up certain things later for more research.
The role of the Inquisitions is also discussed in this chapter, as are the methods used to extract information from the witches whilst they were in gaol.

Torture was used as a means to extract information from the accused, and the author does caution readers “the extreme violence directed towards witches needs to be viewed in context. Certainly, torture is sadistic, but it was not particularly misogynistic. Authorities were torturing witches not women. And torture was not reserved just for suspects of witchcraft.” Therefore highlighting that during this time period that the examination methods used were not thought of as outlandish. The tools and methods used are detailed in this section, as are the punishments meted out, with note about how it differed between the different locations. Witches in England were hanged and not burned at the stake, unless she was guilty of killing her husband by witchcraft “which was considered petty treason”. However on the Continent and in Scotland, witches were burned at the stake, although interestingly if they confessed they were shown a form of mercy and garrotted before the fire was lit, the obstinately uncooperative were burned alive in public as a deterrent to others. Death was not the only punishment for witchcraft, excommunication from the church was seen as the damaging spiritually, but there was also penance, either privately or publicly.

For readers looking to do further reading or build upon the information here, the author has included a hefty reading list which covers each of the sections with in the book, and I will definitely be adding a few of these to my bookshelf! If you’re looking for something that’s different from other books out there about magic and witchcraft, then I would highly recommend this. It gives the reader lots to think about and asks then to really consider what they already knew, reassess what they already know and view it with fresh eyes after reading some of the information in this book.

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  • Title: Madness, Murder and Mayhem: Criminal Insanity in Victorian and Edwardian Britain
  • Authors: Kathryn Burtinshaw and John Burt
  • Publisher: Pen & Sword History
  • Publication Date: 2nd October 2018

Copy received from publisher for review purposes.

Description:

Following an assassination attempt on George III in 1800, new legislation significantly altered the way the criminally insane were treated by the judicial system in Britain. This book explores these changes and explains the rationale for purpose-built criminal lunatic asylums in the Victorian era.

Specific case studies are used to illustrate and describe some of the earliest patients at Broadmoor Hospital – the Criminal Lunatic Asylum for England and Wales and the Criminal Lunatic Department at Perth Prison in Scotland. Chapters examine the mental and social problems that led to crime alongside individuals considered to be weak-minded, imbeciles or idiots. Family murders are explored as well as individuals who killed for gain. An examination of psychiatric evidence is provided to illustrate how often an insanity defence was used in court and the outcome if the judge and jury did not believe these claims. Two cases are discussed where medical experts gave evidence that individuals were mentally irresponsible for their crimes but they were led to the gallows.

Written by genealogists and historians, this book examines and identifies individuals who committed heinous crimes and researches the impact crime had on themselves, their families and their victims.

My Thoughts:

A fantastically intriguing and insightful read, the pages of this book are filled with information that has been thoroughly researched and collated by two experienced and respected historians and genealogists.

I think it would be fair to say that this book was a great starting point for me wanting to know more about asylums and health care in the 1800s in Britain, especially after reading chapters about the creation of specific facilities for the treatment of those deemed criminally insane. The case histories used in each section of the book make for fascinating reading, and it’s interesting seeing how society and medical professionals saw and understood those who had mental illness or committed crimes because of mental illness.
The sections on mentally weak habitual criminals and idiots and imbeciles really opened my eyes and had me asking so many questions after reading the case histories. The ideas at the time were often that poor parenting and poverty were the cause of some mentally weak people. A former governor and medical officer of Holloway Prison commented ‘some criminals are of bad or degenerate stock’ and ‘different to skilled criminals who would not have recruited associates of low intelligence’, and I do think that this is a very powerful way to see people. The arguments that took place at the time of how to define individuals makes for interesting reading, and it was often felt that it would be in infringement to lock people up because of what was deemed to be a low intellect. Which was in contrast to those who were of the belief that segregation and strict birth control would contain those with learning disabilities. Alarming really when you consider the views of the Eugenics Education Society at the time.

The theme of poverty is covered along with infirmity and illegitimacy, which involved societal issues such as employment, sickness and disability. These were contributors to the break down of families and often lead to families being admitted to workhouses. However, fear of workhouses was catalyst enough for many, these ‘prisons for the poor’ were to be avoided and so many would descend into a spiral of poor mental health trying to keep themselves away from the workhouse and keep their families clothed, homed and fed.

An absolutely fascinating read and one I would highly recommend!

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Author: Martin Connolly

Published: 1 September 2016
Reviewed: 10 September 2016

5 out of 5 stars
Copy supplied by Pen and Sword in return for an honest review

 

Description:

A female thief, with four husbands, a lover and, reportedly, over twelve children, is arrested and tried for the murder of her step-son in 1872, turning the small village of West Auckland in County Durham upside down. Other bodies are exhumed and when they are found to contain arsenic, she is suspected of their murder as well. The perpetrator, Mary Ann Cotton, was tried and found guilty and later hanged on 24 March 1873 in Durham Goal. It is claimed she murdered over twenty people and was the first female serial killer in England.
With location photographs and a blow by blow account of the trial, this book challenges the claim that Mary Ann Cotton was the ‘The West Auckland Borgia’, a title given to her at the time. It sets out her life, trial, death and the aftermath and also questions the legal system used to convict her by looking at contemporary evidence from the time and offering another explanation for the deaths. The book also covers the lives of those left behind, including the daughter born to Mary Ann Cotton in Durham Goal.

My Thoughts & Review:

Timed to coincide with the launch of ITV’s  latest drama “Dark Angel” this publication reports the life of Mary Ann Cotton, a convicted serial killer in England in the 1800s.
I’ve long held a fascination with Mary Ann Cotton, the psychology behind serial killers is an area of interest for many and indeed when you consider the number of convicted female serial killers it is genuinely intriguing.

Martin Connolly takes a methodical approach to recounting the history of this notorious figure, extensive research has been done and is presented openly and concisely through official documentation to ascertain a chronological timeline of the events.  The inclusion of maps and photos of the local area allow the reader to physically see how and where Mary Ann lived.  The census entries along with records of birth, marriage and deaths are also good additions of the research that is presented.
By also including reports from the local newspapers at the time of the events, Connolly presents the less factual side to the tale, however he remains staunchly impartial throughout, refusing to speculate and offering plausible explanations for events wherever possible.

An utterly fascinating read, well presented and one I will be purchasing the paperback copy of asap!

You can buy a copy of Mary Ann Cotton – Dark Angel here.

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