Katherine Howe will discuss The Penguin Book of Witches at The Mark Twain House & Museum Visitor Center on Thursday evening, October 23rd, at 7:00 p.m. This event is free and open to the public. Reservations are recommended, and can be made online or by calling 860-280-3130. Location: 351 Farmington Ave. in Hartford.
Today, Hartford Books Examiner welcomes Katherine Howe.
Ms. Howe is both a New York Times bestselling author and the editor of The Penguin Book of Witches (Penguin Classics, $17.00), which was published last month. She is a direct descendant of three accused Salem witches. Ms. Howe’s previous titles include The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, The House of Velvet and Glass, and the young adult novel, Conversion. She teaches in the American Studies program at Cornell University and splits her time between Massachusetts and upstate New York.
Early response to The Penguin Book of Witches has been enthusiastic. Brunonia Barry, New York Times bestselling author of The Lace Reader, noted: “Fascinating and insightful. With her usual skill, Katherine Howe navigates the winding path leading to Salem’s hysteria and beyond. A must-read for anyone who wants to know not only what happened but also how and why.” Further, David D. Hall, Harvard Divinity School, praised, “An informative and engaging series of texts that Katherine Howe introduces in a crisp and well-informed manner … it allows us to grasp more fully the continuities that mark the history of witch-hunting on both sides of the Atlantic.”
From the publisher:
Chilling real-life accounts of witches, from medieval Europe through colonial America, compiled by the New York Times bestselling author of The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane and Conversion
From a manual for witch hunters written by King James himself in 1597, to court documents from the Salem witch trials of 1692, to newspaper coverage of a woman stoned to death on the streets of Philadelphia while the Continental Congress met, The Penguin Book of Witches is a treasury of historical accounts of accused witches that sheds light on the reality behind the legends. Bringing to life stories like that of Eunice Cole, tried for attacking a teenage girl with a rock and buried with a stake through her heart; Jane Jacobs, a Bostonian so often accused of witchcraft that she took her tormentors to court on charges of slander; and Increase Mather, an exorcism-performing minister famed for his knowledge of witches, this volume provides a unique tour through the darkest history of English and North American witchcraft.
Now, Katherine Howe offers readers an intimate glimpse inside The Penguin Book of Witches …
1) What was the genesis of THE PENGUIN BOOK OF WITCHES? How did you come to edit it, and why were you attracted to this project?
My first novel, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, came out in 2009, and told a story about the Salem witch trials from the perspective of a woman who was a witch the way the colonists understood witches to be. The idea for that book came from my interest in the vast difference between the Halloween, pointy-hat conception of a witch today and the real history of witchcraft belief in English North America. I found that my readers were fascinated with learning more about the real history behind the fiction, but most of us don’t know where to look if we want to read original historical documents about witchcraft. The Penguin Book of Witches is designed for any reader who wants to learn more about the fascinating true story behind the pointy hat.
2) Why is it important to learn the real stories behind how people used to think and talk about accused witches?
Sometimes we have a tendency to look back on beliefs that were held by people in the past and shake our heads over how naïve they were. I think belief in witchcraft can be like that. The temptation is to dismiss early modern belief in witchcraft as a superstition, or a delusion, or a holdover from the Middle Ages. But the truth is that belief in witchcraft served many different purposes for many different strata of society. Witchcraft could explain everyday difficulties and unfairness for common people. It could be used to reinforce the power of church and state. It propped up systems of gender and class hierarchy. Witchcraft was a small part of a larger intellectual and religious system that was in place long before Salem, and stayed in place long after. To some extent, it’s arguably still in place today.
3) Why do you think that witches and witchcraft continue to have such a strong hold on contemporary pop culture?
A central anxiety about witches in the early modern period concerned their grasp for unwarranted power. Witchcraft was thought to be dangerous because it represented a method whereby disempowered people – usually women – could exchange their souls for extra powers granted by the Devil. They could inflict pain or death on people (including children) using technique rather than physical force, they could pose economic threats to household goods and cattle, and their very existence represented a challenge to the power of the church. The very traits that made witches dangerous in the early modern world make them intoxicating in the present world. Who doesn’t want a greater sense of personal autonomy and power today? I think witches are an object of envy on the one hand, and pity on the other, as we grow increasingly aware of the historical injustices of witch trials.
4) What are your favorite documents or stories in THE PENGUIN BOOK OF WITCHES?
It’s hard to choose just a few. I really enjoy Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft, as he is one of the first skeptical voices to wonder, for example, if witches trade their souls for special powers from the devil, why is it that so many of the women tried as witches are poor and powerless? I’m also partial to Grace Sherwood, who is one of the few Southern witches. She went on trial after Salem, in Virginia in 1705, and that colony was so unaccustomed to holding a witch trial that they rescheduled her ducking for a day with better weather, lest she catch cold. I really like Moll Pitcher, too, my last case study, as she represents a fascinating transition of the form of the witch from the cultural to the mythical.
5) Were there particular documents or stories that surprised you or that you found unexpected in some way?
I was most curious to look at the shape of witch belief after Salem. That trial spun so far out of control that after that point witchcraft largely moves out of the court system, never to return. In fact, by 1735 the anti-witchcraft statute in England is changed to outlaw the pretense of being a witch, rather than the practice of being a witch. But the wording of that shift suggests that belief in witchcraft didn’t go away at all. It just became less threatening to the power structure. Looking at both the direct aftermath of Salem, which was a whirlwind of disavowals, distancing, and in some cases, apology, together with a persistent cultural belief in witchcraft makes for a fascinating juxtaposition.
6) What do you love most about THE PENGUIN BOOK OF WITCHES, and what do you hope that your readers will love about it?
I love that The Penguin Book of Witches puts women at the center of the narrative, and looks at what witchcraft meant to different levels of society. Many other fine primary source readers exist about witchcraft, but most of them focus exclusively on Salem, or they focus on the male-dominated power structure of early Modern English life, or they put English witchcraft in a broader Atlantic world context, including Continental Europe and Africa. The Penguin Book of Witches has a simultaneously broader and narrower focus. This volume traces the origins of English belief in witchcraft in the 1500s, tracks its movement to English colonial North America, and follows its dynamic path all the way to the end of the eighteenth century. This volume looks not only at what those in power had to say, like King James or Cotton Mather, but also at what witch trials felt like for the women who were caught up in them, whose lives and livelihoods were at risk. Belief in witchcraft spanned many different levels of society, and meant different things at those different levels. The Penguin Book of Witches considers questions of class and gender, legality and culture, to create a picture of what witchcraft meant in the English world over two hundred years of change. Some of the reading will be challenging. But any reader who wants to know the truth behind the pointy hat will love this book.
With thanks to Andrea Lam, Publicity Assistant and Penguin Random House, for providing this Q&A for use on HBE.
Don’t forget: Katherine Howe will present The Penguin Book of Witches at The Mark Twain House & Museum Visitor Center this Thursday evening, October 23rd. More information can be found here.