Witchfinder General

While Salem, Massachusetts is the best-known site of witchcraft charges in US history, the accusations and interrogations there in the 1690s actually occurred as the peak period of witch-hunting in the West was winding down. One of the most famous witch-hunters in English history had been active fifty years earlier. Styling himself the “Witchfinder General,” Matthew Hopkins traveled to various towns in the 1640s, promising local officials to identify and rid communities of demonic collaborators in their midst. Accusations of witchcraft, interrogations, torture, and executions often followed. Hopkins’s activities and the vocal opposition that they eventually prompted (which coincided with the tumultuous years of the English Civil War) help reveal how and why witch-hunting gained such steam in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, while also pointing to factors that would ultimately contribute to its decline. The seminar will be devoted mainly to participants’ discussion of preassigned materials, which will include a 50-minute documentary film and excerpts from primary sources authored by Matthew Hopkins and one of his chief critics, John Gaule.