What Were The Witch Hunts?

The witch-hunters of early modern Europe and America saw thousands tortured and sentenced to death, but what was a witch-hunt and why did this notorious practice happen?

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Imagine for a few minutes you’re a peasant in 17th-century Europe: a widow who lives in the small abode your husband left in his will. You tend a small plot of land on which you grow a number of root vegetables as well as a few herbs that have traditional medicinal properties. You’re a God-fearing woman who attends church as regularly as your old bones allow and you believe in the devil even if you don’t put much stock in the stories of witches who attend to Satan in the woods at night, smearing their backs with ‘devil’s ointment’ and putting hexes on livestock. 

Recently you’ve seen people from your community being led away by the bishop’s men to the courthouse, accused of paganism, if the gossip is to be believed. You don’t think you have anything to fear. That is, until armed men garbed in the bishop’s colours turn up at your house one morning to take you away. You comply without so much as a word of verbal resistance; it’s all a mistake, of course. This will soon be cleared up, you think, as you’re taken through the village’s main thoroughfare, past the houses of friends and neighbours who peer suspiciously at you from their houses. You feel embarrassed at first but then remember assuming that the miller’s wife, who had been taken away in this manner too, was found guilty of witchcraft. That’s when you start to feel afraid.

The courthouse room is presided over by three judges with a clerk who takes the proceedings. Your name is added to the record before the accusations against you are laid out by the court: your neighbour, whom you’ve known for many years, has reported you to the church authorities for turning her cow’s milk sour. She and her farmer husband have accused you of bringing the unseasonable wet weather that caused their harvest to fail and stirring carnal desires in their two maiden daughters, with love potions made from your herbs. You have no need for a lawyer or representation of any kind in this court, you’re told, as witchcraft is deemed to be an exceptional crime in which God will defend the innocent. 

Of course, you deny being a witch and all wrongdoing. It’s absurd, you say, you’ve never seen eye to eye with your neighbours, who might just be mean enough to accuse you of witchcraft to get rid of you. Your denial is noted but the court considers witchcraft an extremely serious crime, so offers you clemency in return for a full confession. You stand firm and deny the charges, so are taken below to the cells for further questioning. Here, an appointed magistrate has you stripped and searched for magical charms concealed on your body. Your thumb is placed in a vice-like device and pressure applied as, once again, you’re asked if you will confess to being a witch. You survive this first day of questioning without buckling under excruciating pain, only to fall foul of the torturer’s rack. As the lever turns and your limbs splay, then pop, your eyes roll in agony – a sure sign that you seek Satan’s aid. A confession is ultimately extricated and you’re sent on a cart along with five other witches to a pyre the very next day, where you burn to death.

Witch-hunting didn’t start in the Reformation period but it’s here that history remembers it best: between the tectonic struggle of the mighty Catholic and Protestant churches, striving to purge their flock of heresy and prove unassailable piety over the rival faith, anyone from the low-born to the noble could be next in line to be crushed. Only those from the very highest echelons of society were truly safe. So how did this seemingly insane state of affairs come about?

Much of what couldn’t be explained by science in early recorded history was put down to ‘magic’, a means for ancient societies to understand, if not influence or control the world around them. Ancient Egyptians practised magic alongside more traditional medicine to promote health, protect themselves from evil spirits and communicate with their gods. The ancient Greeks used magic wands and symbols in all aspects of medicine and religion, while the Mesopotamians (what is now a large part of the Middle-East) recorded magical spells on clay tablets. Magic was generally indistinct from religion in many civilisations at this time, with the exception of Rome, where from 438 BCE onward practising magic, much like being a Christian, was made a crime punishable by death. Pagan Roman law looked to witchcraft as a source of many of the civilisation’s ills, particularly epidemics and bad harvests. Over the course of several centuries thousands were executed. 

In the centuries leading from antiquity to the witch-hunting boom, those in power considered witchcraft a silly superstition as frequently as a dangerous threat to society. The 8th-century Christian king of Italy, Charlemagne, scoffed at the belief in witchcraft and actually ordered the death penalty for those who pursued the burning of witches. Similarly, the 11th-century Danish court under King Harold considered the belief in witchcraft more dangerous than witchcraft itself and gave severe punishments to witch-hunters.

Through the Middle Ages, witchcraft was mostly tolerated or merely scoffed at and infrequently punished, often with a less punitive jail term or fine, depending on what the witch was accused of. This changed in the 12th century when the Roman Catholic Inquisition was formed, initially to tackle secular faiths that had split off from the church and threatened the power in Rome. The early 14th century saw the Inquisition expand its remit and occasionally deal with users of magic where a sect had adopted witchcraft as a part of its doctrine, such as the Cathars of France – whom Rome decried as a church of Satan.

By the late Middle Ages, it had become increasingly perilous to openly practise anything but the Catholic faith. Shortly following a Papal bill issued by Pope Innocent VIII in 1484 that explicitly condemned devil-worshipers who had slain infants, two inquisitors were authorised to investigate witchcraft in Germany. They were Jacob Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer, who were quick to yoke a new invention, the printing press, and publish what would become an infamous and influential tome on dealing with witchcraft and witches: the Malleus Maleficarum – ‘Hammer Against Witches’. This treatise sought to reinforce the existence of witchcraft, educate officials in finding and prosecuting them and to lay the burden of its evils on women. It was widely read but within a few years the Catholic Church had distanced itself from this book, primarily because it had become popular with the secular faiths it sought to exterminate. But with the dawn of Protestant Reformation, the book and its ilk became the linchpin for the witch-hunting boom, as the Protestant Church endorsed these tomes precisely because they were outlawed by Rome.

As the creation of Protestant churches swept across Europe, witch-hunting took place in earnest, encouraged by many royal houses like Denmark and Scotland. Fuelled by religious persecution, the hysteria among the people came in waves marked by a spike in executions. A witch could be accused of causing disease, death, disaster (natural or otherwise), for living in a remote location, being thought strange or foreign or simply being in the wrong place and time. The motives of the accuser could be equally arbitrary, from genuine belief that a witch brought some misfortune upon the community, to even more sinister motives, such as a means of social control by the authorities or to confiscate the property of the accused. In the witch-hunting boom in Scotland that lasted up until the 18th century, those practising witchcraft went from being thought superstitious crackpots to dangerous devil-worshippers: they had sold their souls to Satan and held anti-Christian services called a witches’ Sabbath. Witchcraft was legislated against in 1563 and over the course of the next 150 years or so, the ‘witch-prickers’ went about their business of pricking the body of a person accused of witchcraft: if they didn’t bleed, it was viable evidence for the court to try them. 

Torture was a common means of extracting information from those who weren’t immediately cleared by the courts. Although the height of the witch trial era was marked by general disregard for real evidence and irrational hysteria, torture wasn’t a completely arbitrary practice and there was a certain method to be followed: generally speaking, the torture came in several degrees of increasing intensity and brutality, observed and recorded by a clerk. The idea was to extract a confession and have the accused repeat the confession outside of the torture: the accused was presumed guilty and often, even those convinced of their innocence would admit to anything after the prolonged agony of cruel and unusual punishments – it was a rare occasion for torture leading to an acquittal.

England brought in serious penalties for witches under the Witchcraft Act of 1542, amended in 1562 and 1604 to repeal certain statutes, such as the ‘benefit of clergy’, which spared anyone who could read a passage from the Bible. One of the most famous witch trials in England were of the Pendle witches in 1612, which saw ten people, mostly women, sent to the gallows. King James I was driven by Protestant theology and was particularly interested in witchcraft and its eradication. Thus, those who refused to attend the Church of England to partake in holy communion, such as the devout Catholics of the Pendle Hill region in Lancashire, immediately popped up on the radar of local Justice of the Peace, Roger Nowell. Further probing by Nowell revealed that several of these local non-conformists already considered them witches of a kind, providing healing and potions for the community – a common trade in the 17th century. After summoning three members of the Device family, Nowell was told that the Chattox family – who competed for their trade in the potion and charm business – had murdered four men from the area. The Chattoxes were summoned and accusations and counter-accusations flew throughout the community, resulting in ten people being hanged.

Similar stories played out in the rest of Europe and the North-American colonies. German heiress Merga Bien, heavily pregnant at the time, was convicted of murdering her husband by witchcraft and that her unborn child had been fathered by the devil. She was burned at the stake. Anna Kolding was one of several people who bore the brunt of a Danish minister looking to shift blame for under-supplying the royal ships on a journey across the North Sea. She was accused of summoning storms, found guilty and was burned at the stake. 

In the 18th century, a more rational and scientific age finally arrived. Pioneering astronomers and scientists like Galileo and Newton had laid the groundwork for an empirical generation who sought to verify the nature of the world by observation rather than superstition. A dim view was now taken of those who still believed in witchcraft and persecuted ‘witches’, and this brought with it a far less punitive culture. During the reign of George II, the Witchcraft Act of 1735 made it explicitly illegal for anyone in Britain to claim that they or anyone else had magical powers and were a witch. Other countries quickly followed suit, finally signalling the end of two centuries of madness. Although nearly 70,000 people are thought to have been executed during the brutal witch-hunts of the early modern age, only around 12,000 of these executions have been officially recorded. 

Witch-hunting hasn’t been totally consigned to the past, though, and still happens today: in rural parts of India, Africa and Saudi Arabia, which has active legislation against sorcery, people are still executed for witchcraft. But for most countries, there are important lessons to be learned from the hysteria and abandonment of rationale that marks the period of witch hunting.

Originally published in All About History 8

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