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Modern Languages, Basque Studies and Humanities

Witchcraft in History

diciembre 20th, 2011 · No hay Comentarios

Witchcraft is a very common characteristic of almost every culture and society in the whole world. Many cultures have stories about witches, supernatural creatures and demons; all of them related to mythology. And Europe is not an exception. Every region and country has seen this topic in different ways, but all of them have lots of similarities, for example, the witch’s practices. Witches have bee given a great number of unimaginable powers and abilities.

nAccording to expert G.L. Kittredge’s book called Witchcraft in Old and New England witches could cast spells ‘by the recitation of incantations, by the performance of physical rituals, by the employment of magical herbs as amulets or potions, by gazing at mirrors, swords or other specula (scrying) for purposes of divination, and by many other means‘. They even could fly on broomsticks, curse people and animals, have relations with the Evil and so on. Nevertheless, most of those supernatural skills were the result of superstition and ignorance and we know that what ‘witches’ did was just related to a different way of seeing life. Collect plants, make healing potions, pray and adore the nature … the list of things that they usually did can be endless, but, as we can see, nothing what they did was damaging or even satanic.

However, some people looked witches as harmful people; someone who could destroy whatever they believed in. In times when catholic or Christian religion was the centre of everything, some people who used to pray to other gods or believed in natural characters were the ‘different ones’; people who were strange. The rest of the society used to ignore and exclude them. But, eventually, somebody started to make up false and outrageous stories and facts about them which everybody used to believe entirely. In addition, if we take into account that this people used to live alone and, some of them did not use to go to church, the bad image that involved them became completely irreparable.

‘Witches’ were usually poor women who lived alone, who had not got married and who made strange potions while the rest went to church. Their social position or status was very low and humble and they normally didn’t do what at that time everybody was supposed to do.

Religion and witchcraft

Due to the fact that witches believed in pagan gods and natural characters, the Church marked them as potentially harmful people. Although witches were just a little portion of the total population, the name and the power of the Church was seen to be in danger. It is clearly well-known that religion had an extraordinary power and influence in those times’ society: everything was linked to God and religion; everyone had to believe in and obey to the Church, unless they wanted to be punished. In addition, we cannot forget that the great majority of people didn’t even know to read and write; aristocrats and religious people were the only who could learn to do that. Therefore, people were at the mercy of religious beliefs and baseless superstitious thoughts. In few words, people could be manipulated without any difficulty by powerful noblemen and clergymen motivated by personal interests. Witches, then, constituted a little but mighty collective.

In consequence, to maintain the hegemony of kings and clergymen, terrible witch-hunts took place constantly in Europe. The main objective of those trials was to warn people of the enormous power that Church could exercise on society, besides reaffirming their position. The process was always the same: somebody was denounced because of diabolic practices and, rapidly, was arrested and sent to jail. After a painful interrogation, which was always accompanied by severe tortures, the suspect confessed everything he/she was accused of. Finally, he/she was punished. In this whole process an institution created during the Middle Age took a special relevance: the Inquisition or the Holy Office.

This institution punished every act and fact that it considered a heresy; something that went against or even attacked the precepts of the Church. However, sometimes there was not very clear what was considered a heresy and what no. The interpretation of a religious crime was, many times, dramatically subjective. We say ‘dramatically’ because the consequences of being even only arrested by the Holy Office were very serious: the arrested person lost the confidence of the society, the job, the total heritage and all his/her social reputation. Once been arrested that person became someone with serious risk of social exclusion. Even if after been arrested he/she recovered freedom, he/she might never regain his/her previous position; what is worse, disgrace not only fell into that person, but also on their family and descendants.

According to Ricardo Juan Cavallero’s Justicia Inquisitorial the main goal of the inquisitorial trial system was to prove the guilt of the accused, even if to obtain that it was necessary to exercise inhuman and unethical procedures. The accused, since the beginning, ‘was not only no presumed to be innocent, but directly was presumed guilty’. In this way, the fundamental thing was that the crime, and the criminal, ‘had to be‘, yes or yes, punished. So, once someone was arrested, the Holy Office, in order to keep its fearful influence in the society, would always try to prove his/her guilt, even if the accused might be innocent. Logically, many people never recovered the freedom. The fact of being arrested by the Inquisition was not just a social catastrophe, but a terrible ending for that person. The interrogations were always accompanied by fierce tortures of any kind. The application of these procedures was considered ‘fair, necessary and useful’ (according to a report published by the Colegio de Abogados de Madrid in the early XIX century); in few words: the only method that would demonstrate the guiltiness of the accused. As expected, all of the arrested confessed everything they were accused of, even if their confession could sound outrageously unrealistic. Austin Cline, expert lecturer on this topic, stands out the case of Maria de Ituren, a Spanish so-called witch that, under torture, confessed ‘that she and her sister were witches, turned themselves into horses and galloped through the sky’.

In order to show its power and influence the Holy Office hosted ritual ceremonies called ‘Auto-da-fe’. They were a kind of visual supports, stages of the triumph of the faith, besides the perfect occasion for exhibit the great power of the organizing institution. In those ceremonies, which usually took place in crowded centric squares, the accused were read their sentences and, next, publically castigated by being hit, killed or burnt. Their stultifying vestment or clothing indicated their final ending, though they could eventually reconcile with God (what consisted just on avoiding to be burnt).

Famous witch-hunts

Along the last centuries we can find lots of examples of witch-hunts, but we are going to focus on two special ones: the first took place in Würzburg, in Germany, while the second one happened in the former British colonies in North America: Salem.

Würzburg, Germany (1626-1631):

The witch trial or witch hunt happened in Würzburg, Germany, is considered one of the biggest trials seen in Europe. According to some documents 157 people were burnt alive, among men, women and even children. The witch pursuit began in 1626 and it didn’t stop until near 1631. Due to the destruction of the Protestantism and the reappearance of Catholicism, it is said that, during those years, a purge took place in Germany. In Würzburg, for instance, unlike usual accused of witchcraft, among many humble and poor people, several wealthy and powerful people were burnt at the stake, besides some clergymen. The pursuit terribleness got worse if we take into account that, during the 8 years of reign of the prince-bishop of Würzburg (1623-1631) nearly 900 people were burnt, including his own nephew.

Salem, colonial Massachusetts (1692-1693):

The witch trials that took place in colonial Massachusetts during the late years of the 17th century, are probably the most famous trials related to witchcraft. According to several sources over 150 people were arrested and eventually imprisoned. As a result, 19 people (fourteen women and five men) were executed by hanging, even though one of them -Giles Corey, who refused to enter a plea- was crushed to death. At least, five more people died before a public trial inside the jail.

Everything began when a 9-year-old girl, Betty Parris, and her cousin (aged 11) Abigail Williams suffered several fits of Epyllepsia. However, few people or none had the minimum level of medical rigour to determine this, and so, Salem villagers’ fatal and fantasious imagination started working. Accordingly, a belief that Satan was sorrounding their little village was rapidly spread out, so that a crazy hysteria was unavoidingly unleashed. As a result, three young girls were accused of witchcraft: Sarah Good, Sarah Osbourne and Tituba (a native slave).

The accusations are seen by historians as evidence that a family feud might have been a major cause of the Witch Trials. Sarah Good was a homeless beggar that used to beg for food and shelter for neighbours. She was accused of witchcraft because of her appalling reputation. In the case of Sarah Osbourne, according to historian Douglas O. Linder ‘Sarah Osborne rarely attended church meetings. She was accused of witchcraft because the puritans believed that Osborne had her own self-interests in mind for she had remarried (to an indentured servant). The citizens of the town of Salem also found it distasteful when she attempted to control her son’s inheritance from her previous marriage’.

Linder also adds that in the case of the accused native Tituba ‘ was a slave of a different ethnicity than the Puritans, and so, was a target for accusations. She was accused of attracting young girls like Abigail Williams and Betty Parris with enchanting stories from Malleus Maleficarum. These tales about sexual encounters with demons, swaying the minds of men, and fortune telling stimulated the imaginations of young girls and made Tituba an obvious target of accusations.‘ After the correspondent examinations (that we can see transcribed in Douglas O. Linder’s website ‘Salem Witchcraft Trials 1692′), the three of them, as well as other accused, were hanged in public.

This episode is one of the most famous cases of mass hysteria, and has been used in political rhetoric and popular literature as a vivid cautionary tale about the dangers of isolationism, religious extremism, false accusations, lapses in due process, and local governmental intrusion on individual liberties.


Along the history witches have gained an undeserved fame that has made us warn about their evilness. However, truly they were characters related to nature; people who believed in natural creatures with no connection with Christianity. Because of this, during several centuries, witches were the main target of religious fanatics’ pursuit. They constituted a menace that had to be deleted.

There is an interesting thing related to victims, too. We have mentioned previously that poor and humble people were who used to suffer clergymen’s madness, but we cannot forget who the main victims in witch-hunts were: women. Gender played an important part in the witch trials because the vast majority of the victims were women. It is said that percentage of condemned women arrives at the 80% of the total. According again to lecturer Austin Cline, ‘witch-hunts at a time when Christianity’s attitudes against sex had long since turned into full-blown misogyny. It is amazing how celibate men became obsessed with the sexuality of women’.

The reasons of this misogynous policy could be several. It is claimed that in some determinate places where there was a traditional culture based on matriarchy, the change into the patriarchal way of thinking originated a subordination of women. There is another view that holds that owing to the ancestral sharing of work in the familiar core (men, hunting; women, looking after children and their house), women had had more connection with nature; they were, simultaneously, curators and priestesses. Finally, a third point of view believes that women had always played an important role in witchcraft owing to their ‘innate naturalistic boon’: they could perceive what the rest couldn’t; a boon given by God or the Devil.

In addition, we could say the power of the Church was very notable and, therefore, everyone was at the mercy of its rulers’ wills. Besides, if we take into account that people couldn’t read or write we find that, due to their ignorance, they could be easily manipulated by childlike superstitious thoughts. In that way, clergymen and nobles had the entire power of their respective domains, keeping safe their brutish hegemony.

Nevertheless, there were people who wanted to keep their antique traditions alive; pagan practices in the opinion of the Church. Other ways of thinking and other Gods to pray to… all constituted an alleged menace and, thus, they had to disappear at any cost. They have made us believe that ‘witches’ were evil people whose main wish was to curse everyone, but they just were people who used to think differently and, in few words, people who refused to jump through hoops.


  • “El Diablo, las brujas y su mundo” Caro Baroja, Julio. Signatura Demos, 2000. ISBN: 84-95122-08-1
  • “Magia, brujería y superstición en el Occidente medieval” Cardini, Franco. Ediciones Península, 1982. ISBN: 84-297-1803-6
  • “Justicia inquisitorial” Cavallero, Ricardo Juan. Ariel Historia, 2003. ISBN: 950-9122-81-5

Filed under: History, Humanities Tagged: Gender issues, history, Trials, Witchcraft


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