Persecution of witches

“Persecution is the systematic mistreatment of an individual or group by another individual or group. The most common forms are religious persecution, ethnic persecution and political persecution, though there is naturally some overlap between these terms. The inflicting of suffering, harassment, isolation, imprisonment, internment, fear, or pain are all factors that may establish persecution. Even so, not all suffering will necessarily establish persecution. The suffering experienced by the victim must be sufficiently severe. The threshold level of severity has been a source of much debate.”

The 16th century was a time of religious upheaval caused, in part, by the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation. As the shockwave of religious division extended across Europe, fear spread that the Day of Judgement had arrived. Catholics viewed the rift as a sign that the antichrist was increasing his presence in the world, while Protestants saw the corruption of the Catholic church as proof that the devil had infiltrated the land.

Rising concerns about the influence of magic and the devil were due the revolution of print, which saw an influx of texts from all over the world, such as the Malleus Maleficarum, urging people to take action in the battle with witches and magic.  No one was safe from an accusation of witchcraft, even clergymen. However, women bore the brunt of the accusations – particularly elderly spinsters, widows, and those living alone. In fact, 80% of those tried in Britain were women.  Begging, a standard method of survival, lay at the root of many witchcraft allegations, and beggars were often blamed for misfortunes that occurred after they were refused help. More often than not, accusations of witchcraft resulted from neighbourly disagreements, inextricably bound to a deep-rooted fear of malevolent magic and the devil.

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Stories of continental witch trials spread, and, as the new witchcraft laws filtered down through society, some took it upon themselves to lead the witch hunts, gathering evidence before trial as self-proclaimed ‘witchfinder generals’. The most notorious of these in England was a Puritan called Matthew Hopkins who launched an unprecedented campaign of terror against suspected English witches during the 1640s.  These led to some 300 trials and the deaths of around 100 people in eastern England. Hopkins was by no means the only witch detector, but his reputation spread far and wide and he had a profound impact on those around him. One source from the time commented: “It is strange to tell what superstitious opinions, affections, relations, are generally risen amongst us, since the Witchfinders came into the Country.”

Although the use of torture to extract a confession was illegal in England, Ireland and Wales, it was permitted in Scotland, and less ‘formal’ types of torture were often used by men such as Hopkins at a local level, often presided over by a magistrate or local constable. One such method was sleep deprivation, whereby the accused would be forced to walk back and forth until exhausted and then denied rest. In Scotland, thumb screws and leg crushers were also used.  Another type of trial was ‘swimming’ the accused to prove their guilt. The victim’s right thumb would be tied to their left big toe and they would be thrown into a nearby pond or river. If they sank, they were innocent; if they floated, they had been rejected by the water as a servant of the devil, in a type of reverse baptism.

Scotland, which has traditionally been regarded as more zealous in its persecution of witches than its southern counterparts, and tried 2,500 people, with an execution rate of around 70%.  By the late 17th century – thanks to a combination of judicial scepticism, low prosecution rates and the costs of pursuing a case through the courts – the number of accusations of witchcraft had plummeted. Many people turned instead to ‘cunning folk’ (‘wise’ men and women who practised ‘good’ witchcraft) and healers to combat the malevolent forces they believed to be at large. Witchcraft was finally decriminalised in Britain in 1736 – though people were still being accused of it as late as the 19th century.

Here is a brief timeline we found at www.womenshistory.about.com showing persecution around the world towards witches and witchcraft in general.

Witchcraft persecution timeline

B.C.E. The Hebrew Scriptures addressed witchcraft, including Exodus 22:17 and various verses in Leviticus and Deuteronomy.
about 200 – 500 C.E. The Talmud described forms of punishments and execution for witchcraft
about 910 The Canon Episcopi was recorded by Regino of Prümm describing folk beliefs in Francia, just before the beginning of the Holy Roman Empire. This text influenced later canon law. It condemned maleficium (bad-doing) and sorilegium (fortune-telling), but argued that most stories of these were fantasy, and also argued that those who believed they magically flew were suffering from delusions.
about 1140 Mater Gratian’s compilation of canon law, including the Canon Episcopi (see “about 910” above), also included writings from Hrabanus Maurus and excerpts from Augustine.
1154 John of Salisbury wrote of his skepticism about the reality of witches riding in the night.
1230s An Inquisition against heresy was established by the Roman Catholic Church.
1258 Pope Alexander IV accepted that sorcery and communication with demons was a kind of heresy. This opened the possibility of the Inquisition, concerned with heresy, being involved with witchcraft investigations.
late 13th century In his Summa Theologiae, and in other writings, Thomas Aquinas briefly addressed sorcery and magic. He assumed that consulting demons included making a pact with them, which was by definition, apostasy. He accepted that demons could assume the shapes of actual people; the demons’ acts are thus mistaken for those actual people’s.
1306 – 15 The Church moved to eliminate the Knights Templar. Among the charges were heresy, witchcraft and devil-worship.
316 – 1334 Pope John XII issued several bulls identifying sorcery with heresy and pacts with the devil.
1317 In France, a bishop was executed for using witchcraft in an attempt to kill Pope John XXII. This was one of several assassination plots around that time against the Pope or a King.
1340s Black Death swept through Europe, adding to the willingness of people to see conspiracies against Christendom.
about 1450 Errores Gazaziorum, a papal bull, identified witchcraft and heresy with the Cathars.
1484 Pope Innocent VIII issued Summis desiderantes affectibus, authorizing two German monks to investigate accusations of witchcraft as heresy, threatening those who interfered with their work.
1486 The Malleus Maleficarum was published.
1500-1560 Many historians point to this period as one in which witchcraft trials — and Protestantism — were rising
1532 Constitutio Criminalis Carolina, by Emperor Charles V, and affecting the whole Holy Roman Empire, declared that harmful witchcraft should be punished by death by fire; witchcraft that resulted in no harm was to be “punished otherwise.”
1542 English law made witchcraft a secular crime with the Witchcraft Act.
1552 Ivan IV of Russia issued the Decree of 1552, declaring witch trials were to be civil matters rather than church matters.
1560s and 1570s A wave of witch hunts were launched in southern Germany.
1563 Publication of De Praestiglis Daemonum by Johann Weyer, a physician to the Duke of Cleves. It argued that much of what was thought to be witchcraft was not supernatural at all, but just natural trickery.The second English Witchcraft Act was passed.
1580 – 1650 Many historians consider this the period with the largest number of witchcraft cases, with the period of 1610 – 1630 being a peak within this period.
1580s One of the periods of frequent witchcraft trials in England.
1584 Discoverie of Witchcraft was published by Reginald Scot of Kent, expressing skepticism of witchcraft claims.
1604 Act of James I expanded punishable offenses related to witchcraft.
1612 The Pendle witch trials in Lancashire, England, accused twelve witches. The charges included the murder of ten by witchcraft. Ten were found guilty and executed, one died in prison and one was found not guilty.
1618 A handbook for English judges on pursuing witches was published.
1634 Loudun witch trials in France. Ursuline nuns reported being possessed, victims of Father Urbain Grandier, who was convicted of sorcery. He was convicted despite refusing to confess even under torture. After Father Grandier was executed, the possessions continued until 1637.
1640s One of the periods of frequent witchcraft trials in England.
1660 Another wave of witch trials in northern Germany.
1682 King Louis XIV of France prohibited further witchcraft trials in that country.
1692 Salem witch trials
1717 The last English trial for witchcraft was held; the defendant was acquitted.
1736 The English Witchcraft Act was repealed, formally ending witch hunts and trials.
1755 Austria ended witchcraft trials.
1768 Hungary ended witchcraft trials.
1829 Histoire de l’Inquisition en Franceby Etienne Leon de Lamothe-Langon was published, a forgery claiming massive witchcraft executions in the 14th century. The evidence was, essentially, fiction.
1833 A Tennessee man was prosecuted for witchcraft.
1839 Matilda Joslyn Gage published Women, Church and State which included the figure of nine million executed as witches.
1862 French writer Jules Michelet advocated a return to goddess worship, and saw women’s “natural” inclination to witchcraft as positive. He depicted witch hunts as Catholic persecutions.
1921 Margaret Murray’s The Witch Cult in Western Europe was published, her account of the witch trials. She argued that witches represented a pre-Christian “old religion.” Among her arguments: the Plantagenet kings were protectors of the witches, and Joan of Arc was a pagan priestess.
1954 Gerald Gardner published Witchcraft Today, about witchcraft as a surviving pre-Christian pagan religion.
20th century Anthropologists look at the beliefs in different cultures on witchcraft, witches and sorcery.
1970s Modern women’s movement looks at the witchcraft persecutions using a feminist lens.
December 2011 Amina Bint Abdul Halim Nassar was beheaded in Saudi Arabia for practicing witchcraft.


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