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Book examines terror of witch hunts in America, Europe

Witches today conjure up images of innocent fall decorations or an easy Halloween costume for kids, but that wasn’t the case in much of recorded history. Witch hunts in Europe and North America spanned four centuries, with the first recorded trial in Ireland in 1324 and the last legal execution in Switzerland in 1782.

Robert Thurston (history) places these hunts, trials, tortures and deaths in historical and social perspective, beginning with the Bible and ending with fairy tales, in Witch, Wicce, Mother Goose: The Rise and Fall of the Witch Hunts in Europe and North America, published by Longman, an imprint of British publisher Pearson Education.

A professor at Miami since 1988, Thurston earlier specialized in Russia and the Soviet Union. While teaching courses in Western civilization he became drawn to parallels between the persecution of witches and Soviet mass repressions.

"Comparisons with Soviet history – and, for that matter, with another of my interests, lynching in the American South – provided a number of valuable perspectives on what happened to the witches," says Thurston.

Estimates of the number of women and men killed in the witch hunts range from 60,000-100,000, with some historians preferring numbers reaching into the millions. Seventy-five to 80 percent of those killed were women.

How the persecutions could occur, why they occurred in some regions more prominently and how and why the hunts ended are discussed in the book, intended for a general audience.

Thurston acknowledges some theories attribute the hunts to mistrust of unattached women, those living outside normal societal convention, but expands this to encompass other mar-ginalized peoples, including the Jews through much of European history.

"The ‘we’ and ‘they’ mentality appears in the earliest written records of civilization," he writes.

Covering Europe and America and offering new trials and histories from extensive sources, the book offers a new look at one of the most disturbing and controversial episodes in Western history.

Date Published: 10/25/2001
Volume: 21   Number: 13

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