ADDRESSES: Office—Churchill College, University of Cambridge, Cambridge CB3 0DS, England. E-mail—[email protected]
CAREER: University of Cambridge, Churchill College, Cambridge, England, lecturer and director of studies in history.
Hellish Nell: The Last of Britain's Witches, Fourth Estate (London, England), 2001.
SIDELIGHTS: Malcolm Gaskill is a social and cultural historian of England, specializing in the seventeenth century and the history of witchcraft. His publications reflect his interest. Crime and Mentalities in Early Modern England takes a close look at the crimes of murder, witchcraft, and counterfeiting in early modern England; Hellish Nell: The Last of Britain's Witches provides a history of spiritualism and psychical research, and a biography of Helen Duncan, a medium convicted under the Witchcraft Act in 1944; and Witchfinders: A Seventeenth-Century English Tragedy recounts the witch hunts that took place in East Anglia between 1645 and 1647, culminating in the executions of more than one hundred people accused of witchcraft.
In Crime and Mentalities in Early Modern England, Gaskill refutes the common notion that those accused of witchcraft generally were widows, and weak members of the community. Instead, he says, accusations of witchcraft were leveled at a wide range of people—often as a means of attacking a neighbor or community member with whom there had been some other conflict. According to Randall McGowen in the Journal of Modern History, Gaskill's studies "produce many interesting insights and much useful information about crime and society in early modern England."
Witchfinders gives a detailed account of the East Anglia witch hunts led by Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne. Gaskill uncovers the fact that the ongoing civil war in England had left local law enforcement authorities stretched very thin. It was for this reason that Hopkins and Stearne were accepted as witchcraft investigators when they volunteered. The two men were deeply religious, in the Puritan tradition, and genuinely believed they were serving God and country when they drew admissions of guilt from their subjects. The pair were skilled interrogators who were very good at asking leading questions to get the accused to incriminate themselves. If that tactic failed, they would begin to exert physical and psychological pressures, depriving their suspects of sleep and watching them constantly. They were responsible for the extermination of many people convicted of witchcraft, but their time in power ended when it was discovered they were charging the taxpayers a very high price for their services. Reviewing Witchfinders for the London Sunday Times, John Guy said, "Gaskill vividly shows how the barbarity and fanaticism of civil war could spill over into the administration of justice…. He writes with sympathy, respect and deep human understanding."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Review, August, 2005, review of Witchfinders: A Seventeenth-Century English Tragedy, p. 127.
History Today, April, 2001, Janet L. Nelson, review of Crime and Mentalities in Early Modern England, p. 70.
Journal of Modern History, September, 2002, Randall McGowen, review of Crime and Mentalities in Early Modern England, p. 632.
Sunday Times (London, England), May 8, 2005, John Guy, review of Witchfinders.
Channel 4 Web site, http://www.channel4.com/ (March 6, 2006), interview with Malcolm Gaskill.
Malcolm Gaskill Home Page, http://www.malcolmgaskill.net (April 17, 2006).
University of Cambridge Department of History Web site, http://www.hist.cam.ac.uk/ (March 6, 2006), biographical information on Malcolm Gaskill.