Beyond the Book: Background information when reading The Last Witchfinder

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The Last Witchfinder

A Novel

by James Morrow

The Last Witchfinder by James Morrow X
The Last Witchfinder by James Morrow
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2006, 544 pages

    Paperback:
    Mar 2007, 560 pages

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Beyond the Book

This article relates to The Last Witchfinder

Print Review

James Morrow describes himself as a 'scientific humanist'. His earlier works tend to question religious viewpoints, from organized religions all the way through to atheism. For example, in the first volume of his Godhead Trilogy, written in the 1990s, the 2-mile long corpse of God is discovered floating in the ocean and the Vatican dispatches a supertanker to tow the corpse to a tomb in the Arctic, meanwhile a group of atheist extremists plan on destroying the body, as it proves they were wrong. In the second volume, God's body is now part of a religious theme park and God is put on trial, in a parody of C.S. Lewis's, God in the Dock.

The Last Witchfinder is his first foray into (relatively) straightforward historical fiction, although it does have one key 'fantastical dimension', in that the narrator of the story is Newton's Principia Mathematica, which Morrow describes as a "sentient book living outside the bounds of time and space", a device he used in order to be able to incorporate a contemporary perspective, and avoid the "bane of historical fiction: characters who are implausibly aware of what their lives will mean to their descendants."

About the Witchhunts
The period of the 'Great European Witch-hunt's' started around 1450. There are many theories as to why the witch-hunts started in the first place (which are neatly outlined at this website - which I should add belongs to a Catholic College); but the flames were certainly fed by Pope Innocent VIII's 1484 papal bull, in which he condemned an alleged outbreak of witchcraft and heresy in the Rhine River valley and deputized the authors of Malleus Maleficarum (a judicial case-book for the detection and persecution of witches that translates as The Hammer of Witches) to root out all witchcraft in Germany. Persecution died out in the early 1700s with the Age of Enlightenment. The last execution in England was in 1716, in Germany in 1738 and in Switzerland in 1782. Estimates vary greatly as to the numbers who were killed, but the current best estimates appear to be around 30-50,000, predominantly women.

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This "beyond the book article" relates to The Last Witchfinder. It originally ran in April 2006 and has been updated for the March 2007 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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