Loath they are to confess without
torture, which witnesseth their guiltiness.
King James I of England (VI of Scotland),
To the extent that they existed at all, the so-called witches
of the Middle Ages were probably adherents of old religions.
The rites of Dionysus for example are reminiscent of the rites
of supposed witches. These rites took place at night, generally
in locations associated with fertility or the powers of the
underworld. Worshippers were mainly women, who bore torches
and carried phallic images. Dionysus himself was shaggy and
horned, and represented by a goat, an animal symbolising fertility.
Rites included the drinking of wine, ecstatic dancing and animal
gods were dragooned by Christianity at an early stage into the
armies of Satan. Later the gods of the Celts and the Teutons
were also pressed into the ranks of Satan's hordes, so that
those who worshipped them could be condemned as Devil worshippers
as well. Church leaders promoted the persecution of such people,
claiming that they were powerful malignant agents of Satan.
The idea did not really stand up to reason. As Gibbon noted
of those who affirmed the reality of witchcraft:
They believed with the wildest inconsistency, that this preternatural
dominion of the air, of earth, and of hell was exercised,
from the vilest motives of malice or gain, by some wrinkled
hags and itinerant sorcerers who passed their obscure lives
in penury and contempt
Countless thousands of people whose only crime was to reject
Christianity were judicially killed in Europe over the course
of several hundred years. They owed their untimely deaths to
men like Pope Gregory IX, who explicitly authorised the killing
of witches in the thirteenth century. In Germany a priest called
Conrad discovered that torture could elicit the most astonishing
confessions. The more he tortured people, the more astonishing
the confessions they were prepared to make. They could be induced
to implicate others, and when in turn the people who had been
implicated were tortured they confessed as well. The obvious
fact that almost anyone can be induced to confess to almost
anything under torture does not seem to have impinged upon Conrad's
godly mind. His only explanation was that witchcraft was rampant,
and Christendom was in danger.
Innocent VIII perceived the threat. His "witches"
bull Summis desiderantes affectibus, of 5 th December
1484, called for action of the utmost severity against witches.
He wrote that witches were hindering men from performing the
sexual act and women from conceiving. In these and in other
ways devils were interfering with peoples" sex lives. (The
powers of evil seem never to have lost a chance to involve innocent
Christians in sexual matters.) To help with his struggle against
the powers of evil His Holiness commissioned two Dominican inquisitors
in northern Germany to write the book Malleus Maleficarum
(Hammer of Witches). This
book reinforced the fiction that women who worshipped the goddess
Diana were actually agents of the Devil, providing a reason
to extirpate the last vestiges of rival gods. According to the
authors "…although these women imagine they are
riding (as they think and say) with Diana or Herodias, in truth
they are riding with the devil, who calls himself by some such
heathen name.... ".
Malleus Maleficarum is an inquisitors" handbook,
giving practical instructions for the discovery, examination,
torture, trial and execution of witches. It was furnished to
inquisitors and judges throughout Western Christendom, from
its publication in 1486. It was one of the earliest books to
be printed, and by 1520 had already been reprinted fourteen
times. It is full of sexual fantasy: witches flying through
the air to meet the Devil and copulate with him; dismembered
human sex organs living like chicks in birds" nests ; demons
copulating with men, then changing gender to copulate with sleeping
women, and impregnating them with human sperm illicitly acquired
from their earlier male partners. The book was used to condemn
untold thousands to torture and death. According to the authors,
witchcraft was both heresy and high treason against God's majesty,
Any person, whatever his rank or position, upon such an accusation
may be put to the torture, and he who is found guilty, even
if he confess his crime, let him be racked, let him suffer
all other tortures prescribed by law in order that he may
be punished in proportion to his offences.
In the Christian imagination penises
grew on trees (so it was only a short step to imagine
then in a bird's nest). This image is from a 14th-century
copy of the Roman of the Rose.
Legal technicalities could easily be accommodated. Roman law
had prescribed burning alive for sorcerers, so this could easily
be extended to witches, either by redefining the words "sorcerer"
and "witch", or by extracting confessions of sorcery
through torture. Confessions were guaranteed by the use of torture,
and these confessions confirmed the reality of witchcraft. The
reality of witchcraft promoted terror of witches. Terror generated
accusations. Accusations called for torture. And torture produced
confessions and yet more accusations. It was a vicious circle,
a huge terrible wheel powered by the authority of the Church.
The questions asked were not whether offences had been committed,
but where and when the offences had been committed, and who
else had been involved. Guilt was assumed. It was merely the
details that needed filling in.
In 1524 alone, more than 1,000 people were convicted and burned
in the district of Como. Between 1587 and 1593 the Archbishop
of Trier (Johann von Schönburg) had 368 witches burned.
Between 1623 and 1631 the Bishop of Würzburg (Philip Adolf
von Ehrenberg) burned more than 900, many of them children.
A witch-burning count as high as 900 was not unusual for a top
inquisitor. Some inquisitors lost count. The Bishop of Bamberg
(Johann Georg II) had a famous witch-house built, complete with
cells and torture chambers. It contained common instruments
of torture: thumbscrews, leg vices, whipping stocks fitted with
iron spikes, scalding lime-baths, racks, strappados
and other devices. Weights were sometimes attached to the victim's
feet or testicles to make the pain unbearable. In the ten years
to 1633 the bishop burned more than 600 people. Johannes Junius
was one of the victims at Bamberg. He bribed a gaoler to smuggle
out to his daughter a letter dated 24 th July 1624:
…and then came also God in highest heaven have
mercy the executioner, and put the thumb-screws on
me, both hands bound together, so that the blood ran out at
the nails and everywhere, so that for four weeks I could not
use my hands, as you can see from the writing.... Thereafter
they first stripped me, bound my hands behind me, and drew
me up in the [strappado]. Then I thought heaven and earth
were at an end; eight times did they draw me up and let me
fall again, so that I suffered terrible agony…And so
I made my confession…but it was all a lie…Then
I had to tell what crimes I had committed…So I said
that I was to kill my children, but I had killed a horse instead.
It did not help. I had also taken a sacred wafer, and had
desecrated it. When I had said this they left me in peace…Good
night, for your father Johannes Junius will never see you
deny that witches existed was "plainly heretical".
No one could point out that the inquisitors were propounding
nonsense and expect to live. Roger Bacon had attributed witchcraft
and sorcery to either fraud or delusion, but Bacon was himself
condemned as a heretic. Spanish inquisitors also seem to have
attributed witchcraft to madness and delusions, and so left
the secular authorities to deal with it, perhaps because they
had other fish to fry - Jews and Moslems. Throughout Western
Christendom witches were burned by the Church or hanged by the
State. The prevailing view was that God himself would intervene
to save anyone falsely accused, but God consistently failed
to live up to expectations.
Friedrich von Spee saw the process at close quarters as confessor
at Würzburg. He mused that the authors of Malleus Maleficarum
were themselves responsible for introducing witches to Germany
through their "ingenious and subtly apportioned tortures".
Although von Spee found only innocence among the victims, and
acknowledged that anyone would confess under torture, he nevertheless
continued to see them burned at the stake without protest.
He published an exposé, Cautio Criminalis, in
1631 and had the good fortune to die of the plague before the
Inquisition could get to him. In his book he exposed the techniques
used and enumerated the abuses. As he pointed out, the inquisitors"
arguments could never fail. If the witch had led an evil life
she was obviously guilty, but if she had led a good life this
was equally damning, since witches were known to deceive by
appearing especially virtuous. When she was put in prison a
similar double-edged argument was applied. If she showed fear
when she heard others being tortured, she was obviously guilty.
If she did not then this too was proof of guilt, since witches
were known to mimic the innocent and present a bold facade.
Anyone who gave assistance to the accused or protested about
the procedure was labelled a supporter of witchcraft so that
everyone kept silent for fear of the consequences. During the
trial itself, the replies given by the victim were not even
recorded, so that even if she had a perfect defence it could
be ignored. The torture came in two stages, only the second
of which was referred to as torture. If the victim confessed
during the first stage she was therefore said to have confessed
without being tortured. If she grimaced while being tortured
the torturers said she was laughing. If she passed out they
said that she was asleep or bewitched. If she died under torture,
they said that the Devil had broken her neck. There was no way
out. Confessing led to death. Refusing to confess also led to
torture was almost always enough to obtain a confession, Christian
authorities were also given to forging evidence when torture
failed. Priests were usually spared the sort of treatment meted
out to others, but when it suited the Church authorities even
priests could fall victim. Urbain Grandier, a French priest
accused of witchcraft at Loudan, was acquitted at his first
trial but at a second trial the prosecuters appointed by Cardinal
Richlieu produced two pacts signed by Grandier and Satan himself,
and sealed by a number of demons - Lucifer, Beelzebub, Astori,
Elimi, and Laviathan were all implicated. Grandier was found
guilty and sentenced to death. The judges who condemned him
ordered that he be put to the "extraordinary question",
a form of torture which was usually, but not immediately, fatal,
and was therefore generally administered to victims shortly
before execution. Grandier never confessed to witchcraft, even
under torture, but was found guilty on the strength of the forgeries
and burned alive at the stake in 1634.
Almost any activity could count as witchcraft, if the perpetrator
was unpopular or an outsider. Old women were burned alive for
Every old woman with a wrinkled face, a furrowed brow, a
hairy lip, a gobber tooth, a squint eye, a squeaking voice
or scolding tongue .... and a dog or cat by her side, is not
only suspected but pronounced a witch.
John Gaule, Select Cases of Conscience Touching Witches and
Witchcraft , 1646
boys were burned alive for reciting doggerel that was reputed
to have the power to raise the Devil. To deny the efficacy of
witchcraft, or even to be seen to be less than zealous in their
detection and punishment invited danger. Johann Weyer (c.1515-1588),
in his book on magic, De Praestigiis Daemonum, had
argued that cases of witchcraft had natural explanations and
that self-confessed (genuinely self-confessed) witches were
merely suffering from mental disorders. He was himself charged
with witchcraft. Dietrich Flade, a secular judge at Trier, was
insufficiently enthusiastic as a witch-hunter for the tastes
of his local bishop. When he tried to control the local witch
mania, he was himself charged with witchcraft. Various people
were induced to perjure themselves, including a woman who was
herself already condemned to be burned alive (her inducement
was that she should be strangled before being burned). Flade's
fate was sealed. He confessed under torture that he had turned
mud into living slugs to damage local crops, and was executed
at Trier in 1589.
There was no question of anything approaching a fair trial.
All elements of natural justice were abandoned. The accused
was regarded as guilty from the outset, being referred to as
the witch or wizard rather than the accused.
By statute the accused were not permitted to know the identity
of their accusers (Malleus Maleficarum III, q 2 ).
Hearsay evidence was accepted by the court (III, q 6 ). The
evidence of known perjurers was accepted, as long as they were
acting out of zeal for the faith (III, q 4 ). The earlier conviction
of other members of the family of the accused, or even suspicions
of witchcraft on their part, counted as evidence (III, q 6 ).
This led to the persecution of whole families. Eight members
of a single family were executed for witchcraft within the space
of the eighteen months to June 1630. The accused were stripped,
shaved all over, and searched intimately, on the grounds that
they might conceal some magical charm "even in the most
secret parts of their bodies which must not be named" (III,
q 15 , the text here assumes that the accused would be a woman).
Torture was to be applied "often and frequently" (III,
q 14 ). The accused had no right to legal counsel and if the
judge allowed counsel to defend them they could not choose their
own (III, q 10 ). If defence counsel was appointed they had
no right to see critical evidence (such as the names of witnesses),
and they ran the risk of incurring a charge themselves of defending
heresy (III, q 10 ).
Sometimes brute force was supplemented by deceit. The authors
advised ploys to elicit what the witch-hunters wanted to hear.
They suggested ways of deceiving a woman about the sentence
she would get if she confessed. Inquisitors could assure her
that they would not condemn her to death if only she would confess
(III, q 14 ), but this was a trick, for she would still be killed
one way or another. She could be led into believing that she
would be given a lesser penance if she implicated others. When
she confessed she could be sentenced to life imprisonment on
a diet of bread and water, on which she might be able to survive
for a few months. Another option was to sentence her to imprisonment
for a while before having her burned. A third option was to
disclaim the duty of passing sentence and have a deputy sentence
her to death instead (III, q 14 ).
Not all accused were executed for a first offence, but as was
the case for other heresies, repetition of the supposed offence
virtually guaranteed death. A mere suspicion of inconstancy
was sufficient grounds for an ecclesiastical judge to ensure
that the suspect was put to death (II, q 6, Ch.16 ). There was
no need to record the sentence in writing (III q 18 ). There
was no appeal, however badly the accused had been treated (II,
q 1, Ch.16 ). Temporal Lords were forbidden to interfere (II,
q 1, Ch.16 ), although the civil authorities were obliged to
carry out the sentence of the ecclesiastical court (II, q 1,
Ch.16 ). Canon law required an ecclesiastical judge to try the
case, but a secular one to carry out a sentence of death (III
). Customary indulgences were granted to those who came to watch
the death sentence being carried out (III, q 29 ff. ).
In an anti-Semitic society it was natural that imaginary witches"
should adopt Jewish terminology. Thus their meetings, or meeting
places, were referred to as synagogues in the twelfth
century. Later, they would come to be called sabbats,
thus identifying the Jewish holy day with Satan's holy day.
Again, in a feudal society it was natural that Satan should
adopt feudal practices, and sure enough Satan not only required
a written contract from his adherents but also required them
to pay homage, like any other vassal to a new feudal Lord.
Since babies who died before baptism
were condemned to Hell, it followed that Satan would have an
interest in procuring the deaths of new-born infants. Midwives
who delivered a stillborn baby were thus suspect. According
to evidence given to the authors of Malleus Maleficarum
"No one does the Catholic faith more harm than midwives".
It was a rare midwife who never lost a baby, and many paid the
price as satanic murderers. Midwives at Cologne were almost
extirpated between 1627 and 1630.
There seems to have been no limit to the credulity of churchmen
in their pursuit of Satan's servants. In 1550 a woman was sentenced
in Basle to burn as a witch for having kept "a live female
gnome". In 1583 at Vienna a 16-year-old girl suffered stomach
cramps. Over a period of eight weeks a team of Jesuits succeeded
in exorcising 12,652 demons from her body. They discovered that
her grandmother had kept these demons in glass jars disguised
as flies. Granny confessed under torture. Yes, she was a witch
and yes, she had engaged in sex with the Devil. As they watched
granny being dragged off to the stake, the Jesuits must have
congratulated themselves on another godly job well done. In
1586 the Archbishop of Trèves had 118 women and two men
burned for making incantations that lengthened the winter. Old
women of 90, young girls of 6, all were agents of the Devil,
and all deserved death and damnation.
The Nightmare, a 1781 oil painting
by Henry Fuseli (17411825).
According to theologians, demons would adopt female form
to seduce sleeping men and obtain their semen, then adopt
male form to seduce sleeping women, and impregnate them
with their ill-gotten semen. A demon in female form was
a succubus, and in male form was an incubus.
St. Augustine in De Civitate Dei ("The City of God")
affirmed that there were too many attacks by incubi to
deny them. Saint Thomas aquinas also affirmed their existence,
as did the Inquisitors' handbook Maleus Maleficarum.
These demons were also given to sitting on the chests
of their sleeping victims, causing nightmares.
Protestants as well as Catholics were convinced that Satan
adopted human form to seduce both men and women. As Luther put
The Devil can so completely assume the human form, when he
wants to deceive us, that we may well lie with what seems
to be a woman, of real flesh and blood, and yet all the while
'tis only the Devil in the shape of a woman. 'Tis the same
with women, who may think that a man is in bed with them,
yet 'tis only the Devil; and...the result of this connection
is oftentimes an imp of darkness, half mortal, half devil....
A long succession of popes confirmed the existence of witches
and their sexual proclivities. In theory at least, heretics
were burned only if unrepentant or on a second conviction, but
from the fifteenth century this concession was denied to those
accused of witchcraft. Despite the dice being so heavily loaded,
churchmen frequently found it necessary to fabricate evidence
to support their claims. They were implicated for example in
fabrications as at Laudun (1630) and Louviers (1647). In France
a leading Christian philosopher, Jean Bodin, published an influential
work in the late sixteenth century that confirmed the existence
of witches. He leant
his weight to the belief that those who deny the existence of
witchcraft must be witches themselves. No penalty could be too
harsh. Even slow burning was insufficient penalty. He confirmed
that judges who do not convict witches to the stake should themselves
be put to death.
In Merlin's traditional biography he
is a cambion: born of a mortal woman, sired by an incubus,
from whom he inherits his supernatural powers and abilities.
The Conception of Merlin (detail), Histoire de Merlin,
France (Poitiers), 1450-1455.
BNF, Français 96, fol. 62v.jpg
Roman Catholics were not the only Christians to kill people
on charges of witchcraft. Malleus Maleficarum was so
respected that it was used by Protestant authorities as well
as Roman Catholic ones. It lay on the bench of every judge and
magistrate, authoritative and irrefutable. Protestants rivalled
Roman Catholics in their zeal as witch-finders. Being accused
of heresy himself, Luther was initially opposed to burning heretics,
but still argued that witches should be burned, even if they
had done no harm to anyone. He himself had four supposed witches
roasted at Wittenburg. Calvin was also a keen advocate of killing
witches, since "the Bible teaches us that there are witches
and that they must be slain".
Calvinism excelled all other Protestant sects in its zeal against
witchcraft, and witches were systematically hunted wherever
Calvinism flourished. Calvin himself was active in proceedings.
He personally laid information against sorcerers and in 1545
was involved in actions against people accused of spreading
the plague. Some of the men were sentenced to have their flesh
torn off with pincers, and women to have their right hands cut
off before being burnt at the stake. Calvinists exported witch-hunting
to the Puritan American colonies culminating in the famous Salem
episode of 1689-93.
Ann Hibbins (see right) was executed for witchcraft in Boston,
Massachusetts, on June 19, 1656. Her execution was the third
for witchcraft in Boston and predated the Salem Witch Trials.
She was later fictionalized in Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel The
Salem Witch Trials - One of many cases
In continental Europe the burning of witches continued well
into the eighteenth century. In 1749 a nun came under suspicion
at Würzburg. Other nuns testified that they had seen her
adopt the form of a pig and climb over the convent walls. In
that form she drank the convent's best wine. In the form of
a hare she would milk the convent's cows dry, and in the form
of a cat she would prowl around the convent annoying the sisters.
For these crimes she was burned alive in the local market place.
Giles Cory refused to plead against
charges of witchcraft during the Salem With Trials
(so he could not be tried and consequently could
not have his proprty sequestered). He was pressed
to death in an attempt to force him to plead.
The Giles Cory Marker on Crystal Lake
in Peabody, Massachusetts
For various reasons the use of torture was restricted in certain
areas, and in those areas the witch terror never approached
the heights of those areas where torture was applied freely.
Examples are the Jura, Spain and England. In the Jura the authorities
restricted the use of torture, paid little attention to the
accusations of children, and required accusations to be made
openly. In Spain the
Inquisition concentrated on heretics and apostates, and (perhaps
surprisingly) generally discouraged witch-hunting. In England,
witchcraft was regarded as a civil crime rather than an ecclesiastical
one. It was for this
reason that convicted witches were hanged rather than burned,
as they were on the continent and in Scotland. And it was also
for this reason that far fewer people lost their lives in England
than in continental Europe, where the Church exercised unrestrained
power. Again, when German bishops stopped applying torture so
liberally after von Spee's exposé, the incidence of witchcraft
there miraculously subsided.
in England prosecutions were heavily one-sided. As on the continent
of Europe, the accused were asked loaded questions, for example
not whether they had consorted with the Devil, but how they
had come to consort with the Devil. The only hope was that the
secular judge was an educated rationalist, who might expose
the accusers as fraudulent. Standard tests for a witch included
the old ordeal by water, now called "swimming", and
advocated by James VI of Scotland in his book about witchcraft
Demonologie, published in 1597. The theory was that
water, as the instrument of baptism, would reject those who
had renounced their baptism: the water would reject them, just
as they had rejected it. The term swimming is perhaps misleading,
since hardly anyone then learned to swim, and in any case the
victims had their right thumb tied to their left foot, and their
left thumb to their right foot. They were then cast into open
water. If they floated they had been rejected by the water on
behalf of God, and were thus proved guilty. If they sank then
they were innocent, but their innocence was often not apparent
until they had drowned. Another method was to weigh the accused
against a large bible. Heavy people were pronounced innocent,
light ones found guilty.
Witches were burned in Catholic countries
under cannon law, but hanged in England
Soon after James VI's accession to the English throne in 1604
(as James I of England), the existing English Witchcraft Act
was reviewed. Twelve bishops sat on the Committee to which the
bill was referred on its second reading in the House of Lords.
In the same year, with the bishops" help, the old English
Act was replaced by a new British Act introducing into English
law continental themes like the diabolical pact and devil worship.
The Devil and his followers duly amended their behaviour to
conform to expectations, making pacts and organising formal
sessions of Devil worship.
Under the earlier Elizabethan statute, a witch must have been
accused of doing harm to deserve death, now anyone accused even
of keeping an imp was liable to the death penalty. Imps generally
took the form of ordinary animals. A common way of establishing
that someone was a witch was to isolate that person in a room.
Any animal that came into the room established guilt
anything from a fly to a pet cat. This animal visitor was clearly
the witch's familiar, come to suckle. In earlier times people
had been able to break a witch's spell by the application of
a little counter magic (for example by scratching the suspected
witch and drawing blood). Now, the Church disapproved of such
techniques, on the grounds that they also depended upon diabolical
magic. Now the only acceptable way to break a witch's spell
was to kill her it was usually "her". Instead
of receiving a scratch on the face, she was now likely to receive
a noose around the neck.
One authority has estimated that as many as 70,000 people were
put to death under the 1604 statute.
The new translation of the Bible issued in James's reign, the
Authorised Version (also known as the King James
Bible) used the word witch more frequently than
earlier versions, providing biblical authority for killing people.
In 1612, a year after James's new version of the Bible was published,
eight people were hanged as witches in Pendle, Lancashire. Their
real crimes seem to have been that they were poor and unpopular.
They included a mentally subnormal youth and an 80-year-old
woman. The story that led to their conviction had been fabricated,
and was widely known to have been fabricated, but those responsible
for it were never brought to court to answer for their perjury.
Many ordinary people already doubted the reality of witchcraft,
but the Church and the learned professions that it controlled
were agreed that it was a reality. As Robert Burton noted in
1621 "Many deny witches at all, or, if there be any, they
can do no harm, but on the contrary are most lawyers, divines,
King James came to doubt the reality of witchcraft. In 1616
nine women were found guilty of witchcraft by Leicestershire
Summer Sessions, on the evidence of a 13-year-old boy.
All of the women were executed. Afterwards the King himself
examined the boy and deduced that his evidence was false. Nine
women had been killed for no good reason. A few years later
another case, that of William Perry, "The Boy of Bilston"
increased James's scepticism. At the Staffordshire Assizes on
26 th July 1621 the boy admitted that he had fabricated accusations
of witchcraft. He had been trained by a Roman Catholic priest
to simulate the symptoms of being bewitched.
This was not an isolated case: as on the continent, a number
of Catholic priests had been discovered training children to
feign such symptoms either to demonstrate their own powers of
exorcism, or else to provide evidence with which to accuse their
James now turned detective. He developed rationalist experiments
to test the victims of witchcraft. In the light of the evidence
obtained, James attributed the workings of devils and witches
to falsehoods and delusions, and in the latter part of his reign
witch-hunting declined. It would now be the domain of extremists:
Puritans on one wing, Papists on the other.
Puritans were soon in power under Cromwell's Commonwealth,
and witch-hunting was underway once again. Torture was illegal
in England, but was thought of as purely physical. Witch-finders
discovered that sleep deprivation worked just as well as the
application of physical pain, and no one considered it to constitute
torture. Teams of helpers kept the accused awake continuously
for a few days and nights, and thus obtained confessions just
as convenient, detailed, incriminating and contrived as continental
torturers. This became a favourite technique of Calvinists like
Matthew Hopkins, known as England's Witchfinder General, who
was responsible for an unknown number of deaths, certainly hundreds,
probably thousands. When other techniques failed, witch-hunters
like Hopkins were prepared to use fraud to obtain the evidence
they required for example using a specially made blunt
needle, which retracted into a wooden handle like a stage dagger
when the needle's point was pressed against a part of the body.
The needle would leave neither puncture hole nor blood, and
neither would the victim feel pain, although innocent onlookers
thought they could see the needle sinking into the victim's
flesh. England was comparatively restrained, but it was still
possible as late as 1716 to hang a little girl, along with her
mother, for having sold their souls to the Devil and for having
caused their neighbours to vomit pins.
King James's 1604 Act was replaced by a new one in 1736 , which
was directed at those pretending to possess magical powers.
But belief in the reality of witchcraft continued in mainstream
Christian denominations. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodists
in the eighteenth century, was a keen advocate of witch-hunting.
He wrote in support of it after even Roman Catholics were starting
to be embarrassed by the subject.
He saw that denial of witchcraft amounted to denial of the Bible.
the giving up of witchcraft is, in effect, giving up the
(John Wesley , Journal, 1768)
If there were no witches then the Bible was in error.
And if the Bible was in error then the whole of Christianity
was mistaken. It was therefore necessary to fight against rationalists,
who were now in the majority. As an authority on the history
of witch beliefs says:
It is probable that the Methodist movement gave an impetus
to mob violence against witches in the latter part of the
eighteenth century and helped witch-beliefs to survive so
late into the following century…John Wesley himself
almost alone in his day amongst men of his high intellectual
and cultural level repeatedly and emphatically affirmed
his belief in the stern reality of witchcraft.
As a general pattern, prosecutions for witchcraft dried up
earliest in areas where the Church's influence was weakest.
The last official executions took place in Holland in 1610,
in America in 1692, and in Scotland in 1727. In France the last
execution took place in 1745, and prosecutions ceased altogether
after a series of impostures were exposed. The last official
executions took place in Germany in 1775, in Switzerland in
1782, and in Poland in 1793. It is apparently not known when
they ceased in areas under Church control like Italy and Spain,
but it cannot have been earlier than the nineteenth century.
The last official executions in England took place in 1716.
The judiciary were already sceptical. Proceedings were conducted
according to the law, but some judges were clearly unsympathetic
to witchcraft prosecutions. When, at her trial in 1712, Jane
Wenham was accused of having flown through the air, Mr Justice
Powell is reputed to have pointed out that there was no law
against flying. Witchcraft was longer being taken seriously
in educated circles, and even though the jury convicted Jane
Wenham and sentenced her to death, the judge succeeded in getting
the sentence repealed. The last witchcraft trial in England
took place in 1717.
Although in most countries witch trials stopped in the eighteenth
century, true believers continued to kill imagined witches in
remote areas well into the nineteenth century in Britain
as in the rest of Europe. Wales, which seems to have been relatively
free from the witch terrors in earlier times, became one of
the last strongholds of witch beliefs after the spread of Methodism
there. Another stronghold of witch belief was the Southwestern
peninsula ( Cornwall, Devon and Somerset), where Methodism was
also popular. Legal records in England show the continued popularity
of drowning witches in the nineteenth century.
The Times reported such a case as late as 24 th September
Many Christians still believe in witchcraft and feel that it
needs to be held in check. Churches still maintain exorcists
to keep up the fight against Satan's army. Some look back with
affection to the times when witches could be dealt with properly.
At Pendle, where eight people had been hanged as witches in
1612, representatives of many denominations decided in the 1980s
that far from needing to feel regret, they still needed to protect
themselves from the agents of Satan. They planned to erect a
huge cross on Pendle Hill to help keep the forces of darkness
in check but were denied planning permission by the Ribble
Valley Borough Council.
Reverberations of witch-hunting continued into the twentieth
century. In England a Mrs Helen Duncan was charged with witchcraft
in 1944, under the 1736 Act, and imprisoned. The 1736 Act was
repealed in England in 1951, and replaced by the Fraudulent
Mediums Act, though Christian bodies were demanding the reintroduction
of witchcraft laws as late as 1963. Other countries still have
witchcraft statutes in force. In 1986 a Frenchwoman was charged
in South Africa for having threatened to turn two policewomen
into frogs. The occasional
unofficial killing of witches also persisted in Europe into
recent times. There was an attempted murder of a poor elderly
spinster suspected of witchcraft in Germany as late as 1976.
Many traditionalist Christian groups
still believe in the reality of witches and witchcraft
Witchcraft is now something of a joke, except to traditionalist
Christians. Exactly how many people lost their lives because
of Christian teachings about witchcraft is not known. Church
records have been mysteriously "lost" this
is one reason why it is impossible to say when the last witch
executions took place in particularly religious countries. From
surviving civic records it is apparent that hundreds were sometimes
killed in a single town on a single day. Taking the whole of
Europe, an estimate of 2 million victims is not unrealistic
and may be an underestimate.