The origins of witches and witchcraft date through almost all of human history to ancient times. However, we most commonly associate them with medieval and early modern Europe when the witch hunt trials and burnings started in earnest. Over the course of approximately 300 years over 60,000 “witches” were tortured and killed as part of the European witch hunts.
7. The earliest known mentions of witchcraft
The history of witchcraft far predates the medieval period. Although no mass persecution of witches occurred before this period, the belief in and practice of witchcraft can be dated back to antiquity.
One of the earliest mentions of witchcraft occurred in the 18th century B.C. Code of Hammurabi. The stele lays out the punishment for a man charged with sorcery. Over the next millennia, there are several mentions of witches or witchcraft. The goddess Circe is called a ‘witch’, as is her niece Medea in Homer’s Odyssey. There are even references to witchcraft in the Bible, with King Saul consulting someone who is referred to as the ‘witch of Endor’.
But it was only later in the 16th century that the definition of a witch evolved to something closer to what we think of today.
6. What is the Malleus Maleficarum?
Malleus Maleficarum is a comprehensive 15th century treatise on witchcraft, written by German Catholic clergyman, Heinrich Kramer.
The treatise was the ultimate European handbook on witches. It was a compendium of their allegedly malicious natures, links to the devil and demonology, and explored sexual deviancy and its connection to witchcraft. Malleus Malificarum discussed the meaning of witchcraft in both law and religion, advocating for the torture and execution of suspected witches.
It was imbued with Kramer’s own prejudice and hatred, blaming women for his own sexual inclinations and lust. He used his religion to craft a narrative that suited his own prejudices.
Translated to ‘A Hammer of Witches’, Malleus Maleficarum became the main treatise used in secular courts across the Western European witch hunts.
But actually, Kramer’s contemporaries in the church denounced the book. They claimed his suggested methods were unethical and that the book didn’t align with traditional Catholic perceptions of demonology.
It is one of the single most damaging books in literary history.
5. What prompted the medieval and early modern witch hunts?
Prior to the mass hysteria spurred by the European witch hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries, witchcraft had been treated almost as a nuisance.
Stick the person in the stocks for a few days and no more was said on the matter.
But in 1484, Pope Innocent VIII declared witchcraft to be heresy. Then, Kramer published the ‘Hammer of Witches’. By the latter half of the 16th century, big portions of Western Europe were embroiled in brutal witch hunts. Unsurprisingly, one of the biggest places for persecution was Kramer’s home country, Germany. But across Europe, thousands were killed for alleged devil worship.
To make matters worse, in Britain, King James VI of Scotland (or later, King James I of England) became heavily involved. His intense fear of witches led to witch hunts across Scotland and thousands of convictions.
It took centuries for the witch trials to die out in Europe, but by the latter half of the 17th century, most had abated. However, the hysteria caused by them was still spreading to the New World. In 1692 the infamous Salem Witch Trials killed another 19 people in Salem, Massachusetts and its surrounding villages.
The fear surrounding witches and their alleged association with the devil has never died out completely. In parts of the world to this day, some people are still persecuted for witchcraft; although many now see it as part of the pagan Wiccan religion.
4. Witch bottles
Witch bottles were used as protection against magic in the history of witchcraft. They were small ceramic bottles containing items like bent pins, hair, nails, thorns, or even urine.
Originating in East Anglia, it was believed these witch bottles would protect potential victims from being harmed, trapping the witch inside. Allegedly, the urine would attract the witch and the pins would trap them in the bottle.
Once the witch was inside the witch bottle, the victim could burn or bury it, forcing them to break the link and no longer harm said person.
These became particularly popular in 1600s Europe, when witch hunts and persecution were at an all-time high. They later made it across the pond to North America, where the first witch bottle on American soil was found in 2016.
3. How to spot a witch
Usually, in the history of witchcraft, an accusation came from a neighbor or friend of the ‘witch’. They would claim they had seen them doing something inexplicable, or had spotted a “witch’s mark” on their body, or might even accuse them because they just happened to own a black cat. Often these accusations were directed towards older women, or women who they felt bucked the traditional norms of the period.
In the case of Heinrich Kramer and Malleus Maleficarum, for example, he once accused a woman of witchcraft because she was openly hostile to him and refused to attend his sermons. A totally legit reason to try and get someone executed.
Once accused, however, it was nearly impossible to prove your innocence. Most of the witch trial tests were subjective and/or dangerous, almost always resulting in a return of ‘guilty’.
2. Punishments for witchcraft
During the early modern European witch hunts, many of the methods for determining if someone even was a witch were brutal. To force confessions, they often used sleep deprivation and other torture devices. The tests for determining a witch could also be brutal, invasive, or painful.
Assuming the accused survived the trial, the next step would be execution for their so-called crimes. Most victims of the witch trials were burned at the stake or publicly hanged; but every now and then, someone would suffer an even worse fate. Like Salem’s witchcraft victim, Giles Corey, who was brutally crushed to death.
1. The Pendle witches
The 1612 trials of the Lancashire Pendle witches are some of the worst in the history of witchcraft, resulting in the deaths of 10 people. This trial alone accounts for 2% of all witches executed in England during the European Witch Hunts.
It’s also one of the European witch hunts we know most about, thanks to the detailed treatise ‘The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster” by clerk Thomas Potts.
The trials centered around two rival Catholic families in James I’s Protestant England – the Device and the Redferne’s. Although the Device’s had been accused of witchcraft prior to 1612, it was one event that changed everything.
Alizon Device was walking one day when she encountered a peddler, John Law. She tried to purchase metal pins from him, but Law refused, only to walk away and immediately be taken severely ill.
What we would call a coincidence today, was nothing short of a catastrophe for the Device’s. In her guilt, Alizon believed she had caused Law’s illness herself, essentially admitting she had performed witchcraft. That was all the excuse Pendle’s Justice of the Peace, fervent Protestant Robert Nowell, needed to take Alizon and her mother and brother into custody.
It was then that everyone turned on each other. So much for family.
Soon Alizon’s mother accused her own mother, her brother added fuel to the fire of Alizon’s guilt, and Alizon claimed the rival family the Redferne’s were also witches. Further accusations followed and when the Redferne’s were taken into custody, they too promptly turned on each other.
From there, Nowell arrested 7 more identified Pendle witches and eventually, 10 were found guilty and hanged.
Like every other European witch hunt, the accused died from a mixture of prejudice, religious differences and neighborly disputes.