By Louisa Chisholm-Kelly
The Witch: A History of Fear, from Ancient Times to the Present by Ronald Hutton
Here at POTN we are often asked how to separate the history of paganism from the reconstructionism of Wicca and the misinformation of the internet. We always have the same answer: Ronald Hutton.
This suggestion, however, always comes with a caveat; take it slowly, a piece at a time, and expect to need to re-read it. His books are jam packed with information, but they are written in an academic fashion. Breaking it down into single chapters, or even pages, can really help to let the information sink in.
Ronald Hutton is a Professor of History at the University of Bristol; he holds a laundry list of qualifications, and is hailed as a leading authority on history of the British Isles in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; on ancient and medieval paganism and magic; and on the global context of witchcraft beliefs. He is also a leading historian on the ritual year in Britain and of modern paganism.
The Witch was first published in 2017. It has been described by Ronald Hutton as the culmination of decades of historical and societal research.
This particular book moves away from Hutton's previous offerings in that it takes in much more than just Britain and Europe. Instead of focusing on a narrow slice of the history of witchcraft, he begins by zooming out to trace the hysteria from other continents and as far back in time as is possible. It's an important aspect that more local historians don't usually concentrate on - the simple premise that it had all happened before, and that it all happened again. Witch hunts didn't begin and stop in Middle Age Europe, and they are still happening in parts of the world today.
By taking a critical look at all religions, societal movements and the historical aspects of fear and control, what Hutton manages to weave into this book is an academic answer for the age-old question of Why? Why do witch hunts happen? Why do they pop up in certain places at certain times? Why do they keep happening?
This book really is filled with reams of historical information, making it both indispensable and difficult to digest. Even if it took a lifetime to read it, one page at a time, it would be worth it. With misinformation and conjecture at an all time high, the only way to sort the wheat from the chaff is to listen to the people that have made it their life's mission to seek the truth. Those that have been academically recognised and praised for it. Hutton is at the very top of that list.
Along with his other books, this should be on every witch and pagan's bookshelf.