03 July 2019

BOOK: Gregory J. DURSTON, Crimen Exceptum: The English Witch Prosecution in Context. (Sherfield on Loddon: Waterside Press, 2019). ISBN 9781909976658, £22.50

(Source: Waterside Press)

Waterside Press has published a new book on witch prosecutions in early modern England.


As the author notes, ‘The early-modern European witch-hunts were neither orchestrated massacres nor spontaneous pogroms. Alleged witches were not rounded up at night and summarily killed extra-judicially or lynched as the victims of mob justice. They were executed after trial and conviction with full legal process’.

In this concise but highly-informed account of the persecution of witches Gregory Durston demonstrates what a largely ordered process was the singling-out or hunting-down of perceived offenders. How a mix of superstition, fear, belief and ready explanations for ailments, misfortune or disasters caused law, politics and religion to indulge in criminalisation and the appearance of justice. Bearing echoes of modern-day ‘othering’ and marginalisation of outsiders he shows how witchcraft became akin to treason (with its special rules), how evidentially speaking storms, sickness or coincidence might be attributed to conjuring, magic, curses and spells. All this reinforced by examples and detailed references to the law and practice through which a desired outcome was achieved.

In another resonance with modern times, the author shows how decisions were often diverted into the hands of witch-hunters, witch-finders (including self-appointed Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins), witch-prickers and other experts as well as the quaintly titled ‘cunning-folk’ consulted by prosecutors and ‘victims’. 

Crimen Exceptum (crimes apart). A straightforward and authoritative guide. Shows the rise and fall of prosecutions. Backed by a wealth of learning and research. 


Gregory J Durston is a barrister-at-law who has taught in law schools in England and Japan. He was for many years Reader in Law at Kingston University, Surrey and is currently an adjunct professor at Southern Cross University School of Law and Justice, New South Wales, Australia. He is the author of 
Fields, Fens and Felonies and Whores and Highwaymen (both Waterside Press).

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