Those hanged for witch­craft are invari­ably unmar­ried or wid­owed old women, often of an eccen­tric bent. To prove their wicked­ness, almost any­thing will do. Some have odd birth­marks, oth­ers dab­ble in folk reme­dies, or have had the ill luck to quar­rel with a farmer just before his horse died. Some are sim­ply men­tally ill. One scene, in par­tic­u­lar, is haunt­ing: a teenaged girl who is clearly delu­sional insists that Mathew must ‘swim’ her to deter­mine if she’s pos­sessed by the devil, “swim­ming’ being a form of tor­ture in which the vic­tim is bound hands to feet and tossed in the water. Those who float are guilty; those who sink, drown as innocents.

Under­down skill­fully inter­weaves the mores and mind­set of 1644 Eng­land with Alice’s some­times quite mod­ern insights. Reflect­ing on her brother’s obses­sion with women, sin, and sex, she observes, “It was the thinnest of tricks: if a thing fright­ens you, to call it some­thing else.”

Of course not all the men Alice encoun­ters are focused on per­se­cut­ing witches. Some merely patron­ize and demean her while hold­ing out the car­rot of mar­riage like some great prize and fret­ting over the state of her “del­i­cate” health.

Read­ing THE WITCHFINDER’S SIS­TER hun­dreds of years after the real Mathew Hop­kins did his evil work, one would wish to find scape­goat­ing, misog­yny, and pro­jec­tion a thing of the past. Sadly, as any­one fol­low­ing cur­rent events well knows, this is not the case.

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