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Book Review – The Witches’ Ointment by Thomas Hatsis

I was thoroughly taken by this title when I was first researching my stock list and even more so when it arrived – I have a particular soft spot for clean, simple, olde worlde cover designs. However at a little over 200 pages (excluding notes, bibliography and so on) it struck me as fairly dense for such a specific subject and, assuming it would therefore be fairly academic, detailed and, well, dry I postponed tackling it until I was in a position to give it the due time and attention. Ah, assumptions. Shame on me.

It is detailed, and it is academic (in the sense of being well researched and factually informative) but the approach, style and tone are engaging, accessible and diverting. Hatsis looks at various recorded cases, stories, records and anecdotes featuring the preparation, use or sale of substances that were or could have been so-called witches’ ointments (whether actually referred to as such or not) alongside the relevant social, political and religious influences in play to assess (insofar as possible) the likely truth behind the tales.

Perhaps one of the more interesting things for me was in relation to cases and accounts from the witch trials – understandably most works tackling that subject matter are specific to the time period, locations and issues directly involved. However seeing accounts across a much broader timeline and incorporating other elements and considerations put it in new context for me, and certainly challenged me to rethink some of my previous understandings of the topic.

Perhaps most importantly though, this book was a genuine delight to read – the author’s wit, humour and wordplay throughout elevated it from the fascinating to the sublime and, as it incorporates elements of historical, legal and medical as well as social, political, religious and occult aspects, far from being niche I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in any of the above.