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Witch Trials: Tragic events once led people to accuse neighbors of witchcraft


Witches are filling the airwaves. Whether it’s old episodes of Samantha Stevens on “Bewitched,” Glenda the Good Witch on “The Wizard of Oz” or the Halliwell sisters fighting evil on “Charmed,” these new age witches are portrayed as beautiful, magical and strong.

Northeast flight of the witches

Northeast flight of the witches.

But what about the wicked witch squealing ‘I’ll get you my pretty and your little dog Toto too,’ with her scary green face, flying on her broomstick, with a legion of flying monkeys at her command? Does she have historical roots or is she purely imagination?

As scholars like Brian Levack have discovered through studying witch-hunts, it didn’t matter if you were a good witch or a bad witch—and it actually didn’t matter if you were a witch at all, being accused could make it so.

“The witch was usually not a foreigner or stranger to her community,” Levack said. “The great majority of the witches were older and poorer than average, unmarried or widowed, someone who did not adhere to the traditional behavior standards of her community or of her sex, or someone who physically looked different.”

Levack, a professor of history at The University of Texas at Austin, researches the witch-hunts in Europe and in colonial America between 1450 and 1750. Witch-hunts were taking place as far east as Russia, as far south as Spain and Portugal and as far north as Scandinavia. During this time, more than 100,000 people—mostly women—were prosecuted by secular and church courts across Europe for allegedly practicing witchcraft. About half of these individuals were executed. On the European continent and in Scotland the form of execution was usually burning at the stake, while in England and the North American colonies it was hanging. The nature of the crime could also determine the mode of execution. Other punishments included banishment and imprisonment.

If your child takes sick or a fire devastates your village, if there's a shipwreck, famine, a hailstorm, or a crop failure, the tendency of the time was to look for a personal explanation and that of course would be the witch.“When early modern Europeans used the word witchcraft, they were almost always referring to the practice of black magic, the performance of harmful deeds by means of some sort of supernatural or occult power,” Levack said. “This type of magic would include the killing of a person by piercing a doll made in his image, inflicting sickness on a child by reciting a spell, bringing down hail on crops by burning enchanted substances, starting a fire by leaving a hexed sword in a room and causing impotence in a bridegroom by tying knots in a piece of leather and leaving it in his proximity.

“If your child takes sick or a fire devastates your village, if there’s a shipwreck, famine, a hailstorm, or a crop failure, the tendency of the time was to look for a personal explanation and that of course would be the witch,” he said. “People weren’t ready to say it was chance or fate. They were reluctant to say it was divine justice because of the implications of self-indictment. You can’t do anything about it if it’s fate, you can’t do anything about it if it’s God’s will, but you can prosecute and execute the witch.”

When King James VI of Scotland and his new bride Anne of Denmark, along with their entourage, traveled across the North Sea to return to Scotland in the spring of 1590, they faced a storm. One of the ships carrying the couple’s wedding gifts capsized. Naturally, the only reasonable explanation for the loss was witchcraft. The storm was seen as an assassination attempt and a major witch-hunt ensued. A group of alleged witches were found and prosecuted. It was believed that the witches had evoked the storm by throwing cats into the North Sea.

When a hailstorm struck Wiesensteig, Germany in 1562 during the harvest season, destroying the entire crop, all the usual suspects were rounded up, and all 62 accused witches were found guilty and executed.

Professor Brian Levack

As a legal historian, Professor Brian Levack is most concerned with the way in which inquisitorial procedures, such as torture, were introduced into the legal system.

“Almost all of these prosecutions began in the locality—neighbors suspecting they’d been harmed by another person in their village,” Levack said. “Then all the neighbors would begin to talk about those suspicions and eventually they’d initiate some type of prosecution by complaining to their local judge or local magistrate.

“The crime witchcraft was defined not only as performing harmful magic, which put it on par with murder and maiming, but it was also seen as a religious crime,” he added. “It was believed that witches made a face-to-face pact with the Devil and engaged in collective worship of him. At these assemblies, known as Sabbaths, witches allegedly engaged in a variety of immoral activities, including the killing and eating of small children. The witch’s crime was considered so horrific that courts were able to bend the rules in prosecuting the alleged malefactors.”

There are images as early as the 1450s of women riding to the Sabbath on their broomstick. The broomstick is a symbol of the female sex because it is associated with her sweeping the house. However, it was not the only form of transportation for witches. They were thought to be able to fly on a stick or on the backs of animals. The male witches opted for the more masculine means of transportation, the pitchfork, associated with their fieldwork. Judges and inquisitors claimed, however, that in all cases the power of flight was provided by the Devil.

Earliest known depiction of witches flying on broomsticks, 1440

Earliest known depiction of witches flying on broomsticks, 1440.

“The first transatlantic charter as far as I can tell was a group of witches from Southwestern France who were allegedly flown across the Atlantic to where their husbands were fishing off the coast of Newfoundland, where they allegedly worshiped the Devil,” Levack laughed.

In any given location, the number of accused witches could range from an individual to 500 people. Very often a group of accused witches would be tried together under the suspicion that they worshipped the Devil together at the Sabbath. They would be tortured until they made a confession and named their accomplices, and the people facing trial would grow exponentially. In some trials, children were named as accomplices, husbands accused their wives, and tensions between in-laws ran deep.

A large witch-hunt took place in Salem, Mass., in 1692, when a group of young girls accused some women in the community of causing them to experience fits. The girls claimed to be able to see the specters of those people who were harming them. They were then asked to go to other villages to identify witches. A hunt that began with the accusations of a small group of witches led to the naming of about 160 people. All told, 30 people were convicted and 19 of them were executed. The witch-hunt came to an end when authorities developed doubts about the procedures that were being employed to prosecute the witches. Clergymen became concerned about the validity of spectral evidence, wondering whether it might all be a deception caused by the Devil.

One of the procedures used to identify and prosecute witches in England was to search for evidence that they had imps or familiars which were demonic spirits in the form of a cat, a dog or some other animal. These imps allegedly helped witches perform their maleficent deeds.

Almost all of these prosecutions began in the locality--neighbors suspecting they'd been harmed by another person in their village. Then all the neighbors would begin to talk about those suspicions and eventually they'd initiate some type of prosecution by complaining to their local judge or local magistrate.It was also believed that the witch would suckle them on an extra nipple. Accused witches in England were sometimes placed in a chair in jail for as long as 72 hours on the assumption that the witch’s familiar would get hungry and appear.  Witches were also stripped in order to find the extra nipple.

“You can imagine in an English jail in the 16th and 17th century,” Levack said. “You’re going to get a mouse, all sorts of creatures crawling through there, and the accusers would say ‘Oh, there’s the imp!’ And they would use that as evidence against the witch.”

As a legal historian, Levack is most concerned with the way in which inquisitorial procedures, such as torture, were introduced into the legal system, and the way in which those procedures were used and abused in the prosecution of witches.

“During this period we see gross miscarriages of justice,” Levack said. “Thousands of innocent people were tortured and executed and you’re driven to try to make some sense of it and explain it.  There’s no justification, but we can at least try to understand it.”

Michelle Bryant

Photo of Professor Levack: Marsha Miller

 

 

 

 

 

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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