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John C Adams Reviews

Pagan Britain and The Witch by Ronald Hutton

Book name: Pagan Britain, The Witch

Author: Ronald Hutton

Publisher: Yale University Press

Format: ebook, print

Genre: Nonfiction

Publication Date: 2015 (Pagan Britain), 2020 (The Witch)

Rating: 5/5


Pagan Britain by Ronald Hutton


Growing up in England, moving around almost all my life to different regions or visiting family, it would be easy for me to assume that I know my home. And it is true that so many of the monuments and locations described here are very familiar from childhood visits to family in Devon, to living in rural Northumberland for the last eighteen years.


However, it is one thing to visit a place and to imbibe its history and feel. It's another to relish 400 pages of forensically thorough historical research, photos, drawings and maps.


In a way, Pagan Britain by Ronald Hutton pieced it all together for me. Reading it was a very personal experience - far more than I had anticipated from the fact of it being a chronological history of the archaeology (and then more recent documentary evidence) of sites of note.


Pagan Britain helped me to make sense of how the country in which I've lived all my life had originally formed its own sense of national identity through producing burial mounds such as long and round barrows, superhenges and cave art.


I also enjoyed the later chapters on the pagan legacy and Ronald Hutton's reflections upon how our view of this period of history is informed through our own values and mores. These brought distant periods of history right up to date, dwelling on how (consciously or otherwise) academics impose our own priorities and attitudes upon modern theories of the ways in which ancient communities built and used their most impressive monuments.


The detail Pagan Britain contained on opposing views in archaeology and the development of non-academic theories of why the ancient henges were created and how they were used were exhaustive, but they were presented with an objectivity and rigour that was very welcome. The illustrations and photos helped to bring it all to life.


The cover of Pagan Britain by Ronald Hutton shows a photograph of Stonehenge with a full moon.
Pagan Britain by Ronald Hutton

Thank you for reading my review of Pagan Britain by Ronald Hutton. I've also included my review of another of his books, The Witch, below.


The Witch by Ronald Hutton


This non-fiction book is subtitled 'A History of Fear from Ancient Times to the Present'.


I first came across the author and historian Ronald Hutton fourteen years ago when he appeared as a guest in Tales from the Green Valley, a BBC TV show featuring a year-long project to re-establish a working Elizabethan farm in Wales using genuine techniques.


Ronald Hutton provided good-natured expert analysis of the Christmas traditions of the time, and it was apparent that he really knew his stuff. You can read my review of that TV show here.


I was delighted to receive a copy of The Witch as a birthday present from my teenage daughter (make of that what you will). I was intrigued when I realised that the author was the same expert on pagan custom and history I'd enjoyed watching a decade and a half earlier.


The cover of The Witch by Ronald Hutton shows a drawing of a witch on a broomstick.
The Witch by Ronald Hutton

The starting point in reading my daughter's gift was therefore that Ronald Hutton would demonstrate the same thoroughness of expertise and knowledge here, and I wasn't disappointed.


The Witch is divided into three sections - deep perspectives (on global, ancient and shamanic contexts in the history of witchcraft), continental perspectives (including the legacy of the Egyptians, the reception of witches in the Middle Ages and the early modern patchwork including the Shakespearean age) and, finally, a section on British perspectives on witches and their relationship with fairies, Celticity and animals.


It would probably be helpful for me to point out that Ronald Hutton's book is a history of how witches (including shamans and service magicians, so the term here is used for both male and female practitioners) are perceived by the wider societies in which they reside, rather than a history of witchcraft itself.


To that end, excellently researched and thoughtfully presented though The Witch is, readers seeking a practical history of how witchcraft has been practised or even a how-to manual would be best advised to seek out other titles. On the other hand, as histories of witches and their treatment go, it is impeccably argued and detailed.


I'm a great believer in academics presenting their findings impartially and being careful to explain objectively the limitations of their sources, be honest about the extent of our current knowledge, and highlight areas where further research would help.


This, as well as the diligence of decades of in-depth research, is where Ronald Hutton's strength lies. He gets right down into the detail, lays it out and provides a justified conclusion, all in very cool, precise language which doesn't force on the reader a particular point of view based on preconceived notions.


Not all histories are created equal! Instead, he goes where the facts take him and gives the reader space to reach their own conclusions as they make that journey with him.


For all the research and detail, this was far from being a dry read. It was fascinating and informative, and I enjoyed The Witch by Ronald Hutton immensely.


My review of The Witch previously appeared on the Horror Addicts website.


You can buy Pagan Britain by Ronald Hutton as an e-book here or The Witch as an ebook here. You can subscribe to my blog here.


If you’ve enjoyed this review, you might be interested in reading my review of The Circus of Dr Lao by Charles G Finney here. Or you might like to take a look at my review of Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake here.


If you fancy something different, you might like to take a chance on my review of Life Isn’t Binary by Meg-John Barker and Alessandra Iantaffi here.