Book Review: Witch Hunts: A Graphic History of the Burning Times, Rocky Wood et al. (2012)

December 4th, 2013 12:21 pm by Kelly Garbato

Season of the Witch

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: The publisher sent me a free copy of this book for review at my request.)

“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” – Exodus 22:18

While the term “witch hunts” often conjures up images of the Salem Witch Trials, the truth is that those American colonists persecuted for witchcraft were but a drop in the bucket. From the mid-1300s through the 1700s, tens of thousands of people were imprisoned, tortured, and executed across Europe for the crime of heresy, including practicing witchcraft. In Witch Hunts: A Graphic History of the Burning Times, Rocky Wood, Lisa Morton, and Greg Chapman offer a succinct yet chilling account of the witch trials in graphic novel format.

Driven by fear, superstition, greed, and misogyny, religious and “secular” authorities alike found new and inventive ways to interrogate and kill these hapless victims, whose property was routinely confiscated and redistributed among the nobility, offering a powerful motive to accuse the innocent of consorting with the devil. In more extreme cases, this strategy backfired (or rather, progressed to its natural conclusion): entire towns were laid to waste as citizens were murdered en masse and others fled: “Finally, in 1593, the executions in Trier ended only when the city and its people were too impoverished to continue, the population had too much diminished, and food became scarce because farmers had been among those burned at the stakes.” (page 86)

Likewise, misogyny was a driving force as well; a majority of those tried and executed for witchcraft were women – including Joan of Arc, who was convicted of heresy for wearing men’s clothes. (After the first offense, she was imprisoned for life, as only repeat offenders could receive a death sentence. She resumed dressing as a man after an English Lord tried to rape her, in what was likely a trap devised by her enemies. Yet another piece of history I don’t remember hearing about in high school!) The authors recount the life’s work of one Henricus Institoris, also known as Kramer, the Dominican priest who co-authored the witch hunting bible Malleus Maleficarum, i.e., “The Hammer of Witches.” Kramer ordered that women accused of sorcery – overwhelmingly young and “buxom” – be stripped naked prior to their interrogations, which he frequently performed himself, alone behind closed doors. As the authors so charitably note, “The Inquisitor clearly had a passion for helpless, unclothed victims.” Had Karmer been born in different time and place, he might have become another Ted Bundy or Arthur Shawcross. Kramer proved so extreme that he was formally denounced by the Inquisition in 1490.

The illustrations by Greg Chapman are stark and often grotesque – appropriate for the subject matter, in other words. While Witch Hunts: A Graphic History of the Burning Times might prove useful in introducing high school readers to this shameful chapter in human history (one of many), I suspect that parents and teachers might object to the nudity. (The subjects of which are primarily attractive young women. It’s difficult at time to tell whether this accurately reflects history – see, e.g. the previous paragraph – or is just in keeping with current cultural norms. Some of the panels are oddly reminiscent of a 90s S&M scene.)

The authors also take care to note that, while the mass hysteria that swept Europe during the height of the witch trials may be long past, women and men are still being condemned to death for witchcraft to this day. Saudi Arabia, for example, still classifies witchcraft as a crime punishable by death; 74% of those charged are women.

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