History Weekends 2018: 5 minutes with Suzannah Lipscomb

Witchcraft beliefs have been around for thousands of years, but there was one instance in history when witches were perceived to be especially dangerous: medieval Europe. At our York and Winchester History Weekends this autumn, Suzannah Lipscomb will explore why so many people were persecuted for the charge of witchcraft between 1450 and 1750

Suzannah Lipscomb.

We caught up with Suzannah Lipscomb ahead of her talk, Witchcraft, at our History Weekends in York and Winchester this autumn…

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Q: What can audiences look forward to in your talk at our History Weekends in York and Winchester?

A: I’ve always found it fascinating that witchcraft beliefs have been around for thousands of years, but there was one moment in history when witches were perceived to be especially dangerous: in Europe between 1450 and 1750, when huge numbers of people were persecuted, prosecuted, and executed for being witches. In this talk I’ll try to solve the gory and captivating question of why it happened then.

Q: Why are you so interested in this area of history?

A: It’s hard not to be interested in the witch hunt! Tens of thousands of people were believed to be in league with the devil – conjuring up storms, killing livestock, and maiming their neighbours through evil, magical power. This idea was so credible that the educated elites of society – even a king – believed it too and, shockingly, allowed the suspects to be tried through courts of law and face capital punishment if found guilty.

Moments of aberrant behaviour tell us a great deal about humanity, and the horror of the witch trials gives us an insight into the darker, deeper recesses of human prejudice, fear, and wickedness – and still has much to teach us today.

An illustration of a group of supposed witches being beaten in front of King James VI and I, c1610. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Q: Tell us something that might surprise or shock us about this period of history…

A: One in five ‘witches’ – those prosecuted for witchcraft in the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe – was a man. And, yes, they were called ‘witches’ too.

Q: What is your favourite ‘little-known fact’ from history?

Most of the women who ever lived left no record to posterity.

Q: Which three historical figures would you invite to a dinner party and why?

A: Anne Boleyn (I’d love to get a first-hand read on her character), Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Catherine the Great. What I couldn’t learn from these three women probably wouldn’t be worth knowing.

Q: If you had to live in any historical time period, which would you choose and why?

A: Much as I’d like to spend a few months in the 16th, 13th or late 19th centuries, I’m immensely grateful to be living in the modern age with all the benefits of anaesthesia, contraception, women’s education, dentists, national healthcare, a varied diet, and so on. As a woman, there is no way I could have got a higher degree and taught in a university, owned my own house and earned my own money, and made my relationship choices with freedom in any other era.

Q: Which history book(s) would you recommend (excluding your own)?

A: For really good narrative history:

  • Any Simon Schama
  • Helen Castor, Elizabeth I: A Study in Insecurity (2018)
  • Andrew Roberts, Napoleon the Great (2015)
  • Dan Jones, The Templars: The Rise and Spectacular Fall of God’s Holy Warriors (2017)
  • Edvard Radzinsky, The Last Tsar: The Life and Death of Nicholas II (June 1993)
  • Alex von Tunzelmann, Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire (2008)
  • Stephen O’Shea, The Perfect Heresy: The Life and Death of the Medieval Cathars (2001)
  • Saul David, Operation Thunderbolt: Flight 139 and the Raid on Entebbe Airport, the Most Audacious Hostage Rescue Mission in History (2017)
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Suzannah Lipscomb will be speaking about witchcraft at our Winchester History Weekend on Saturday 6 October and at our York History Weekend on Saturday 20 October. To find out more about her talk and to book tickets, click here.