After working as a chemist at a biotechnology company, I enjoy writing about science, travel, and gardening.
Witch Trial Origins
The first witch trials occurred in Europe during the middle ages. The Waldensian heresy within the Christian church instigated an effort to eliminate differences in doctrine. Established in 1173, the group was then labeled as heretics in the year 1215.
The Waldensian community believed in extreme poverty as the defining characteristic of the Christian faith. Also known as the "poor men of Lyon," the word "Valdensis" became another name synonymous with "witch."
The vigorous persecution of the Waldensians led to more hunts by the Catholic church to weed out heresies and initiated an era of witch-hunting and trials throughout Europe.
What Started the Witch Trials?
The Inquisition launched by the Roman Catholic Church in the 1400’s sought to rid Europe of heretics that did not conform to the teachings of the Catholic Church. Adherents of Catharism, a dualistic religion which claimed the devil and God were equal, opposing powers, were specifically targeted.
As the Inquisition gained power, Cathars fled to Germany from France. Under torture, many Cathars admitted to attending assemblies led by Satan (known as Sabbats), where Satan appeared in the form of a goat. Confessions of setting spells on neighbors, causing storms, or having sex with animals were also obtained. Some “witches” even admitted to flying on poles: an idea which later became the archetypical witch-on-a-broomstick.
Where Did Witch Trials Take Place?
The majority of witch hunts took place in France, Scotland, and in German speaking areas of Europe. There was also an intense period of witch hunting in Essex, England from 1560-1680.
During the Reformation, the number of executions skyrocketed with witchcraft hysteria: mass executions were performed as entire communities panicked and accused large numbers of citizens of sorcery. In Geneva, Switzerland, 500 accused witches were burned at the stake 1515.
Jean Bodin published a book titled On the Demon-Mania of Sorcerers in 1580, a tome that led to the use of torture, entrapment, and the testimony of children against parents in the quest to eliminate witchcraft from Europe.
Over a 160 year time span, approximately 50,000-80,000 witches were executed in Europe. 80% of the victims of the witch hunts were women. Ireland and England offered legal protection to defendants, which lowered the death rates of accused witches in those countries. In the whole of Ireland, only four witches were executed.
How Were Witches Hunted?
Pope Innocent VIII was convinced that Satanists in Germany were destroying crops and aborting infants. He appointed two friars (Henry Institorus and James Sprenger) to write a report on the evils produced by witchcraft. The resultant report was called Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches) and is the classic witch hunting manual. The manual claims that witches were able to:
- Cause miscarriages (“slay infants yet in the mother’s womb”)
- Cause the death of the offspring of livestock
- Cause crop failures.
- Cause disease in animals and people.
- Cause impotence
- Prevent women from conceiving.
The actual text of the manual states that witches have "slain infants yet in the mother’s womb, as also the offspring of cattle, have blasted the produce of the earth, the grapes of the vine, the fruits of the trees, nay, men and women, beasts of burthen, herd-beasts, as well as animals of other kinds, vineyards, orchards, meadows, pasture-land, corn, wheat, and all other cereals;
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these wretches furthermore afflict and torment men and women, beasts of burthen, herd-beasts, as well as animals of other kinds, with terrible and piteous pains and sore diseases, both internal and external;
they hinder men from performing the sexual act and women from conceiving, whence husbands cannot know their wives nor wives receive their husbands."
How Were Witch Tests Performed?
After blessing a body of water, a priest would have a suspected witch thrown into the pool. If the accused floated, they were considered a witch and were pulled out for their execution. If the accused sank, they were considered innocent. Many times, the “innocent” drowned and died, because they were not pulled from the water in time.
As the accusers did not understand basic physiology, they did not realize that the human lungs carry hold about a liter of air: enough to keep most bodies from sinking. This is why scuba divers must wear weight belts to dive! Those who did sink had managed to gasp enough air out of their lungs to allow their bodies to sink: and often gasped in as much water and drowned once they were submerged.
Anyone who had a variety of pets and appeared to communicate with them was suspect for witchcraft. Any elderly woman with a few well-loved pets was under suspicion: the evidence of these “familiars” could be used in a trial against the accused.
Any skin blemish (mole, wart, or otherwise) was looked upon as the sign of the Devil. Woe to an accused witch who had a skin condition!
Confession Under Torture
Many accused witches were deprived of sleep for extended periods of time. In a confused, altered state, they often made fantastical claims and confessions. Violent torture techniques were also used to elicit confessions: the witches’ collar (a collar with spikes driven into the mouth), and thumb screws (which crushed fingers in a slow, painful manner).
Accusation by Another Witch
Many witches would name friends as witches, in an attempt to save their own lives. This rapidly increased the number of people accused, tried, and executed.
The son of a preacher, Matthew Hopkins, devised a novel approach to testing witches. He would prick them with a knife – if the accused bled, they were innocent. If the accused did not bleed, they were found guilty of witchcraft.
Hopkins used a retractable knife to ensure that some were found guilty by his method. Hopkins had a taste of his own medicine when he was accused of witchcraft in 1647, found guilty, and hanged for his “sorcery.” The witch pricking method developed by Hopkins had about 400 people hanged for imagined crimes.
The Punishment of Witches
During the Roman Inquisition, confessed, repentant witches were sometimes “lucky” enough to be punished with the Cathar Yellow Cross (a badge of shame, similar to the Scarlet Letter) proclaiming their former, shameful allegiance to the forbidden religion. More often than not, convicted witches were executed.
In England, the method of execution was hanging. Many accused witches were drowned during the “witch testing” phase of the witch hunt. Throughout much of Europe, witches were burned alive.
Real Witches and Witch Trials in History
A Cathar Witch Trial in 1274
Beatrice de Planissoles was born near the year 1274 and was accused of heresy because she had admitted to a neighbor that she did not believe the actual body of Christ was in the sacrament of the altar. Beatrice was a Cathar, a dualist religion believing that the Devil (evil) and God (good) were equal in power.
She was further accused of sorcery, based on items found in her purse and in her home. Beatrice was found to have two umbilical cords in her purse, bloody cloth from a menstrual cycle in a leather pouch, and various plants and written formulas.
Beatrice declared that these items were not for sorcery. In fact, she had a reasonable explanation for each item:
- The umbilical cords belonged to her grandsons, because she had been told by a “baptized Jewess” that if she carried them and was ever involved in a lawsuit, that she would win the lawsuit.
- The blood was also kept on the advice of the same woman. The woman advised that if her daughter’s first menstrual blood was fed to her husband in a drink, the man would never desire after another woman. Beatrice had not had time to perform this ritual prior to her arrest, and still had the blood in her house.
- The cloths of grains with incense were not for casting spells, but for getting rid of headaches.
- The knife and the mirror were not for casting spells. They were simply normal tools.
- The seed wrapped in muslin was to cure a disease known as the “falling sickness (epilepsy),” which afflicted her young grandson. The seed was for a plant called ive, but was never planted because Beatrice’s daughter Condors had taken her little son to the church of St. Paul, and the little boy was cured of his problem.
Knowing that the penalty for sorcery was burning at the stake, Beatrice gave the following confession and oath in the hopes of obtaining mercy:
“I swear and promise to obey and to defer to the orders of the Church, of my lord the bishop and the inquisitors, and to appear on the day or days fixed by them or their replacements, at all times and in whatever place that I receive the order or request on their part, by messenger or by letter or by other means, to never flee nor to absent myself knowingly or in a spirit of contumaciousness and to receive and accomplish according to my power the punishment and the penance that they have judged fit to impose on me. And to this end, I pledge my person and all my worldly goods.”
Despite this, Beatrice was condemned to be burned at the wall on March 8, 1321. Fortunately, she was not burned immediately and had her sentence later commuted on July 4, 1322: she had to wear the yellow cross as penance for her crime.
The yellow cross was a badge of shame worn by repentant Cathars on order of the Roman Catholic Church. She would wear a badge of shame forever, but she survived the consequences of her witch trial.
A Scottish Witch Trial in 1651
Maggie Morgan had an unfortunate love affair with a Scottish gentleman from the Anstruther family. She became pregnant, the man abandoned her, and she was declared a harlot by her Scottish church congregation. The man who abandoned her later drowned in a boating accident, and Maggie’s minister was told that she had used witchcraft to cause the seafaring accident. A very short trial followed, and Maggie was burned at the stake on Kirk Hill behind the church.
Paisley Witch Trials of 1696
In the neighboring town of Pittenweem, a spoiled eleven year old girl by the name of Christian Shaw accused her servant Katherine Campbell of stealing a glass of milk. Katherine became angry and cursed the girl. Christian was thrown into a fit of rage and accused her servants of witchcraft.
Seven servants were accused: one committed suicide and five others burned at the stake. The girl later admitted it was all false testimony: her spoiled temper tantrum killed six people in a vicious hoax. She later grew up to marry a minister – after having six people murdered on false charges, she led a very comfortable life with no repercussions.
The End of Witch Hunts in Europe
In England, the last execution for witchcraft was in 1682. The law against sorcery was repealed in 1736, as the dawn of reason drew across the country. Still, in 1751, Ruth Osborne lost her life when she was tossed into a well in Tring, Hertfordshire. A local chimney sweep by the name of Thomas Colley led a group of people to accuse Ms. Osborne of sorcery: she drowned in the well long after the laws against witchcraft were repealed. Colley was arraigned on the crime of murder and was hanged for the incident.
The scientific revolution undermined belief in witches, as natural phenomena could be explained through science. Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton provided insight into the basic physics that ruled the universe (rather than divine wrath or sorcery). As The Enlightenment swept over Europe, the use of torture dissipated and reason dictated that “witches” were not the cause of plagues, miscarriages, impotence, storms, or other natural disasters.
Sadly, modern witch hunts continue in Sub-Saharan Africa and India. Murders of accused witches are highest during the rainy season in the Congo, as “witches” are accused of trying to strike down enemies with lightning.
The Salem Witch Trials in North America
Occurring during the same time period as the late European witch hunts, accusations were made against several women in Salem, Massachusetts. A group of young girls stated they were possessed by the devil and named several women as witches. Over 150 men, women, and children were accused. Nineteen people were hanged and five others died in custody before the hysteria ended.
The verdicts against the other convicted witches were annulled in late 1692. The community remained divided and stigmatized after the trials. In 1697, a day of fasting was held for the painful legacy of the trials, which were subsequently declared unlawful.
- Enders A. Robinson. The Devil Discovered: Salem Witchcraft 1692. Waveland Press, Prospect Heights, IL. 2001 (1991). pp. 336–339.
- George Jacobs, Sr. Archived 2008-10-08 at the Wayback Machine, Salem Witch Trials, Virginia.edu, accessed 22 August 2008.
- Biller, Peter. "Review of The War on Heresy: Faith and Power in Medieval Europe, (review no. 1546)". Reviews in History. Retrieved 9 October 2015, with R. I. Moore's response.
- Pegg, Mark (2008). A Most Holy War: The Albigensian Crusade and the Battle for Christendom. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195171310.
- Kors, Alan Charles; Peters, Edward (2001). Witchcraft in Europe, 400–1700: a documentary history. University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 17. ISBN 0-8122-1751-9.
- Thomas, Keith (1971). Religion and the Decline of Magic – Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England. Penguin Books. ISBN 978-0-14-013744-6.
- Pita, Gonzalo. 2014. Waldensian and Catholic Theologies of History in the XII–XIV Centuries: Part I. Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 25.2: 65–87.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2011 Leah Lefler
Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on June 08, 2012:
I have this great mental image of a "real" witch scaring the pants off these terrible accusers, Au fait. So many people were persecuted during this time period - I have to say, I'm glad I live in modern times!
C E Clark from North Texas on June 07, 2012:
Very comprehensive and well researched!
Can you imagine what a real witch having the powers they were accusers said they had would have done to the accusers if in fact they were truly witches? Guess that didn't cross the accuser's minds.
Very interesting. Voted you up, interesting, and awesome!
Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on April 24, 2012:
The witch hunts really reveal how adhering to a dogma can cause great suffering among people - I am very grateful that we live in a much more reasonable society than Europe in the Middle Ages! Thanks for the comment, Daisy!
daisynicolas from Alaska on April 24, 2012:
This part of human history is always fascinating, haunting and yet, is being practiced because it is fascinating and haunting and certain types of people rely on these beliefs. Good visuals to aid in this education.
Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on September 15, 2011:
The greed was incredible - the "witch pricking" device invented by the Matthew Hopkins is the worst. He certainly made out well with his new "career," but fate finally caught up with him in the end. There were so many lives thrown away during that period. "Conform or die" seemed to be the motto of the era.
Dan Harmon from Boise, Idaho on September 14, 2011:
It was a sad time in our history when hysteria and greed so completely overcame reason.
As you say, I'm glad I wasn't around then.
Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on August 17, 2011:
I'm glad we weren't around then, too! I can't imagine: one freak hailstorm and half the town's women are accused and executed for "witchcraft" causing the storm. The saddest thing is that there are still modern witch hunts in some countries that believe in sorcery.
Nemingha on August 17, 2011:
Really interesting Hub about an absolutely fascinating subject. So glad I wasn't around back then!
Voted up and interesting!
Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on August 16, 2011:
No, I haven't seen the new one yet! I'll have to check it out - I am certainly glad I wasn't a woman alive in the middle ages. Any comment or sideways glance could land one on a burning stake!
Mark from Alabama,USA on August 16, 2011:
Nice hub,well written and the layout with the videos is great, Have you noticed the Hollywood trend of witch trial movies - I saw one last week.
Season of the witch - Nick Cage