Witch-finders & the Spook’s Apprentice

When Mr. Pond asked for suggestions for the All Hallows’ Read, I immediately thought of Joseph Delaney’s YA dark-fantasy series alternately called the Wardstone Chronicl

es, or Spook’s in the UK, and The Last Apprentice series in the US. (If that’s not confusing enough, the first novel will be released as a film under the title Seventh Son, projected to hit theaters one year from now, October 2013.)

Following the exploits of a pair of witch-finders in 17th century England –John Gregory, better known as “The Spook”, and his apprentice Tom Ward – there are eleven titles in the book series so far, and well worth reading if you like your fantasy tinged with creepy, scary things that go bump in the night. The first book – subtitled The Spook’s Apprentice in the UK, and Revenge of the Witch in the US – got me wondering if the main characters are anything like historical witch-hunters. So I headed to the library and did a little research.

“From the ancient world to the threshold of modern times in the eighteenth century, people all over the western hemisphere took for granted the presence among them of witches, magicians, sorcerers, diviners, cunning folk – all practicers of magic in some kind” (Maxwell-Stuart, 32).

Although witches were known for doing both good (e.g. finding lost items or identifying new water wells) and evil (e.g. worshiping Satan, causing disease and death), in the unsettling era of the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation, the general social sentiment turned against practitioners of all magical crafts. Bad harvests, unexplained illnesses and economic upheaval were rife in Europe during this time. Many communities blamed witchcraft for all ills. The Catholic publication Malleus Maleficarum (1487) compiled by Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, gave Church authorities sweeping powers to eliminate witchcraft from society. And the new Protestant denominations were even more vigorous in their persecution of witches than the well-known Catholic Inquisition. Witch-hunts “illustrated the anxieties and fears of a society in the process of political, economic and social transition” (Mendoza, 879).

Historians currently estimate that the number of people who died during the European witch-hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries ranged from 40,000 to 100,000, most of whom were women, particularly widows and spinsters. According to Guiley, every town and county in Britain had its own professional witch-finder who was paid on a per-person basis for every suspected witch found guilty. Witch-finders roamed the countryside offering their services, many of them clergy-men who competed with one another to condemn the most witches. Most employed torture to coerce confessions, and thus increase their own earnings (394). Ironically, however, “if professional witch-finders were not available, communities hired witches and wizards themselves” (Guiley, 394), presumably to employ their magic to protect the community from rival witches.

Methods for identifying witches ranged from pricking the suspect’s body in order to discover “devil’s marks” (an odd-shaped mole, perhaps) to performing ordeals by water that resemble present-day water-boarding. But as the reviewer Malcolm Gaskill points out, “However repugnant witchfinders seem today, their campaigns were usually sincere” attempts to fight Satanic forces threatening to destroy humanity (128). But by 1700, legal proceedings against witches were dwindling in England, and as the general sentiment of society moved away from belief in witchcraft, some witch-hunters themselves fell afoul of the law.  In 1750, Thomas Colley was executed for raising a lynch-mob against a 70-year-old couple he claimed were witches. The wife died when Colley ducked her in a pond performing an ordeal by water (Ankarloo and Clark, 194-196).

In Delaney’s fictional series, John Gregory and young Tom Ward truly wish to confront evil and protect society. “The Spook” possesses all the bizarre instruments of his trade, and he even has a witch imprisoned beneath his garden. Some of his master’s methods leave Tom a bit queasy, for not all those accused are actually witches… and not all actual witches behave as expected. Tom shows a particularly 21st century sympathy for his targets that I doubt most real-life witch-finders had.  Yet Delaney infuses his fiction with history. Mingling actual events – such as the Pendle witch trials of 1612 – with the real countryside and folklore of his native Lancashire, Delaney creates a dark and complex series that questions the nature of good and evil. Delaney’s characters are not black and white, and it may take readers several volumes to make up their minds about The Spook, Tom Ward and Alice (a young witch). All in all, the series portrays both witches and witch-finders realistically – some are good, some evil, but most are somewhere in-between. And though Tom Ward is a witch-hunter, while another favorite fictional character of mine is a young wizard, I’d like to think that Tom and Harry – had they ever met – could have been friends.


Further Reading:

Barstow, Anne Llewellyn. Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts. San Francisco: Pandora; HarperCollins, 1994.

Gaskill, Malcolm. “Review of P.G. Maxwell-Stuart’s Witch Hunters…” Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft (Summer 2006), 127-130.

Guiley, Rosemary Ellen. “Witch-Finder.” The Encyclopedia of Witches, Witchcraft and Wicca. 3rd ed. New York: Facts on File, 2008, 394.

Maxwell-Stuart, P.G. Witch Hunters: Professional Prickers, Unwitchers & Witch Finders of the Renaissance. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Tempus, 2003.

Mendoza, Abraham O. “Witch-hunting in Western Europe.” World History Encyclopedia. Ed. Alfred J. Andrea and Carolyn Neel. Vol. 13: Era 6: The First Golden Age, 1450-1770. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2011, 879-881.

Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. Bengt Ankarloo and Stuart Clark, Eds. Philadelphia : University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.

About Kris Swank

Kris Swank is Library Director at Pima Community College, Northwest Campus, and studies fantasy literature at the Mythgard Institute. She has contributed to Tolkien Studies, Mythlore and Silver Leaves journals, has published fantasy poetry, a Minoan murder mystery, and co-authored an epic fantasy short story for the Swedish music CD, Radio Rivendell Compliation, Vol. 2: The Book of War.

3 thoughts on “Witch-finders & the Spook’s Apprentice

  1. For a pretty hilarious take on witch-finders, witches, and the Apocalypse generally, you should check out Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens. Some fact, some fiction, many mixed characters, and much clever humor!

  2. Hmm, I’ve never read the Delaney books OR Good Omens. Though I did just read Elizabeth George Speare’s The Witch of Blackbird Pond, which was excellent.

    Your final paragraph makes the Delaney books sound interesting. Combining good and evil–sometimes both great good and shocking evil, at least as defined by succeeding time periods–is just plain human, and I like it when an author can portray this well.

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