Interview with Malcolm Gaskill

The historian discusses ‘glimpsing the nightmares’ of early colonial Americans in his Wolfson prize-nominated book on witchcraft, and why he took early retirement from academia

May 26, 2022
Malcolm Gaskill

Malcolm Gaskill is emeritus professor of early modern history at the University of East Anglia. His most recent book, The Ruin of All Witches: Life and Death in the New World, billed as examining a “dark, real-life folktale of witch-hunting” when the finger of suspicion pointed at a struggling young couple in the then remote frontier settlement of Springfield, Massachusetts, during America’s early colonial era, was last month shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize.

When and where were you born?
In 1967 on the Chantry estate in Ipswich. When I was three, we moved to Gillingham, Kent, so that’s where I spent my youth.

How has this shaped who you are?
The Medway towns always lacked the self-conscious identity of, say, Merseyside or Tyneside, yet they’re rich in history, mainly because of Chatham Dockyard, where my grandfather worked and my parents met. I grew up feeling that Medway had been on a kind of home-front front line during the war, showered with flying bombs and incendiaries.

What's distinctive about your research on witchcraft, or approach, in The Ruin of All Witches?
Never much good at crunching numbers, I was always more interested in understanding what witchcraft had meant to 17th-century people – getting under their skin, feeling their fear and rage, glimpsing their nightmares. And that’s really what The Ruin of All Witches is about: a bewitched and haunted community in crisis, discharging pent-up toxic emotions at a pair of unfortunate wretches, who come to epitomise their neighbours' collective failure to measure up to the ideals of godliness and charity. 

Having studied witchcraft in early modern England, what led you to shift focus to America for this book?
The Ruin of All Witches was born of two previous books: Witchfinders, the story of the East Anglian witch-hunt of the mid-1640s; and Between Two Worlds, a survey of the English colonisation of North America in the 17th century. It never felt like a huge shift of focus because, despite the altered geographical location, the people and their culture under scrutiny were English or – in Springfield, Massachusetts – Welsh.

What does witchcraft reveal about colonial American society in this formative period?
People emigrated for personal gain, someone else’s gain (eg, the Crown or a company), to spread the gospels to Native Americans, and to build a model spiritual society to inspire decadent old England to change its ways. But witchcraft accusations reveal the limits of their success. Neighbours competed for land and other increasingly scarce resources, and they loathed their own capacity for envy and rancour. Failure to build the new Jerusalem naturally incurred the wrath of God, who as well as inflicting floods and blights and plagues, sent his craven servant, the devil, to tempt the sinful to their own destruction.

What sort of audience were you aiming for with the book?
Essentially, the book is a straightforward narrative aimed at that semi-mythical creature “the general reader”. Hopefully, its only demand is that readers reserve their judgement of pre-modern believers in witches and suspend their own disbelief of the same. I wanted to show how witch trials, far from being knee-jerk reactions to inexplicable misfortune, took a long time to gather momentum and were even then often thwarted by scepticism about what constituted viable evidence. I was also keen to reconstruct a faraway world of enchantment – the kind of setting that Tolkien insisted was essential for fairy tales.

Your research drew on the Springfield city archives. What did you learn about the city in your time there?
It was amazing to handle English records that William Pynchon, the founder of Springfield, had brought to America in 1630, and which had travelled only a mile in nearly four centuries. That thread of continuity fired my imagination. And when I wasn’t sitting in the archives, I was walking and surveying. Historians should go to the places they write about, and downtown Springfield helps one to visualise a lost world because so much of the modern street plan corresponds to the original layout of home lots and lanes branching off Main Street. Today, Springfield is a big city – but its beginnings were humble and precarious.

You’ve written about Springfield today as a place of deserted downtown streets, blighted by loss of industry, unemployment and drugs, but with a rich history and enduring spirit. How did people in the city react to that?
Springfield’s fortunes have been mixed. People were divided about my admission that being alone and travelling on foot there made me afraid: some were defensive and dismissive of the impressions of a timid Englishman abroad; others were more sympathetic and saw that mostly I was expressing admiration for the city’s history and the resilience of its people.

You retired from academia at the age of 53. Why?
Some wondered if I’d been at my wits’ end, but that wasn’t it at all. Like many academics, I disliked the managerial rhetoric and creeping commodification of higher education, largely resulting from student fees. But the most compelling reason for leaving was simply that I had done the same thing for 27 years, taught similar courses again and again, and said everything I felt I had to say about early modern England. It was time for a change.

How are you finding life as a scholar without a full-time academic post?
I have no regrets: I’m free to read and write what I like, and I have more time to do it. I may yet return to witches, but right now I’m researching fugitive POWs in wartime Italy. I should stress, though, that I’m only able to do this because my wife has a job and we can manage on her salary. I’m very fortunate. Then again, she works full time, often overseas, which means I spend a lot of time looking after our three children.

When were you, or are you, happiest?
I’d like to say when the children were born, but I was also terrified and exhausted. So, I think it would have to be later, in 2017, when my wife and I finally got round to getting married. All my closest family and dearest friends were there. I walked out of the registry office to thunderous applause, thinking that in that moment I couldn’t be any happier.

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

CV

1986 bachelor’s degree in history, University of Cambridge

1989 PhD in history, Cambridge

1993 lecturer in early modern history, Keele University

1994 lecturer in British history, Queen’s University Belfast

1995 senior lecturer in early modern history, Anglia Ruskin University

1999 fellow and director of studies in history, Churchill College, Cambridge

2000 Crime and Mentalities in Early Modern England published

2005 Witchfinders published

2007 reader in early modern history, University of East Anglia

2011 professor of early modern history, UEA

2014 Between Two Worlds published

2020 emeritus professor of early modern history, UEA

2021 The Ruin of All Witches published


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