Most people’s knowledge of ‘witches’ stems from popular horror tropes involving warty-faced women stirring cauldrons, or innocent young girls being drowned in ponds. But how much of this is based on pure mythology?

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Contrary to popular belief, torturing an and interrogated, and would incriminate yet accused witch until he or she ‘confessed’ to their supposed crimes was actually illegal during English witch trials. But on the continent, it was a very different story, says Owen Davies, professor of history at the University of Hertfordshire.

“Torture is one of the key reasons that so many people were prosecuted – and executed – for witchcraft in the early modern period,” comments Davies. “When torture was deployed during interrogations, the accused would invariably implicate several other people. They, in turn, would be brought in, tortured more people, and so it went on.

“There’s a notorious case that took place in the now German town of Ellwangen between 1611–18, where the ‘confessions’ under torture of a few poor women ultimately led to the investigation of nearly half the town and the deaths of more than 400 people. Even one of the town’s judges and his wife were accused of witchcraft and executed. It’s a prime example of how the use of torture could create a full-blown crisis from a single accusation.”

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Illustration of woman being tortured for sorcery during the Middle Ages
Although common on the continent, using torture to extract confessions from suspected witches was illegal in England (Illustration by E Deschamps)

Were midwives common victims of witchcraft allegations?

With the lives of a mother and baby in their hands, it's perhaps not surprising that there is still a widely held assumption that midwives made up a large number of those accused of witchcraft. The truth, however, is not that simply.

"There's no evidence to suggest that being a midwife was the predominant reason for an accusation of witchcraft," says Davies. "And the same goes for cunning women (folk healers). Yes, if you look at eery trial that took place, you will find some cunning women and midwives who were prosecuted, but accusations of witchcraft weren't a way of suppressing secret female knowledge of medicine. Most accusations were borne of misfortune; witchcraft was seen as a perfectly normal way of explaining everyday misfortunes such as a child falling ill or the butter not churning properly."

A Sami man from Lapland in a Shamanistic ceremony, lying in a trance state with a magic drum on his back
A Sámi man from Lapland in a Shamanistic ceremony, lying in a trance state with a magic drum on his back. Sámi shamans, such as the man carrying out this unusual ritual, were often persecuted in Nordic countries (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Were accused witches always female?

The traditional figure of the wizened, wart-laden witch has existed for centuries, but were men also accused of witchcraft? Absolutely, says Davies.

“In the misogynistic and patriarchal societies that we’re looking at, there was clearly a very strong gender aspect to witchcraft accusations,” comments Davies, “and it was mostly women who found themselves in the dock.
But men were not immune to accusations of witchcraft, and in some countries, more men than women were prosecuted.” Indeed, Heinrich Kramer’s famous Malleus Maleficarum acknowledges the existence of male witches, while in Iceland, between 1625–85, men made up 92 per cent of those prosecuted for witchcraft.

“Roughly speaking, across Europe in the early modern period, around 20 per cent of those prosecuted were men,” continues Davies, “and several thousand men were executed. In the Nordic countries, Sámi shamans (traditional healers) were among those persecuted under witchcraft laws, while in Normandy, France, in this period, the archetypical witch was not only a haggard old woman, but a shepherd.”

How many people were executed for witchcraft?

The witch hunts of the early modern period were undeniably brutal and horrific, and many innocent men and women were condemned to death as a result. But how many people were actually executed for witchcraft?

“A perpetuating myth is that hundreds of thousands, and even millions, of people were executed as witches during the main era of witchcraft persecutions,” says Davies. “The exact figure,
of course, will never be known, but it’s thought that around 30,000–60,000 people were executed across Europe between 1427 (the start of a series of witch trials in the Duchy of Savoy) and 1782 (the execution Anna Göldi in Glarus, Switzerland – Europe’s last execution for witchcraft).”

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Was everyone found guilty of witchcraft burned at the stake?

The punishment for those convicted of witchcraft varied from country to country, and in England, that punishment was hanging.

“Only one person convicted of witchcraft in England was ever burned, and that was Mother Lakeland in Ipswich, in 1645,” confirms Davies. “She was found guilty of using witchcraft for petty treason (murdering her husband) for which she was burned to death.

A woodcut depicting torture in medieval times, with the victim tied to a cartwheel
Methods of execution could vary from place to place: some unfortunate victims were tied to a cartwheel and beaten to death. (Photo by Getty Images)

“On the continent and in Scotland, though, burning convicted witches was common, but in most cases victims were strangled or suffocated before they were put on the pyre, so it was rare for someone to be burned alive.

There were also other forms of execution, including death by the sword. Another gruesome method was the breaking wheel, which would see victims tied to a cartwheel and beaten to death.”

A 20th-century image of a witch being burned alive in Munich
A 20th-century image depicts a ‘witch’ being burned alive in Munich. In reality, most suspects had already been killed before being set alight. (Photo by Fototeca Gilardi/Getty Images)

Did everyone tried as a witch receive a death sentence?

To be accused of witchcraft in the early modern period would have been a terrifying prospect for men and women of all social classes, but to be tried as a witch did not automatically mean a death sentence for the accused. In fact, ‘only’ around 25 per cent of people tried for witchcraft in England across the period were found guilty and also executed.

“Under common law, which was in operation in England, Wales and Scotland at this time, a person’s guilt was determined by a jury,” comments Davies. “But before a case even got to that stage, accusers would need to convince the local magistrate that there was enough evidence for the case to go to court in the first place. So not everyone who was prosecuted was executed.

“Another, cheaper, alternative to end a supposed bewitching was to visit a local cunning person, get them to identify the witch in your community, and then use counter- magic against them. Cunning folk would often provide this alternative way of dealing with a suspected witch in the community, avoiding the expensive legal route.”

Were witch trials used as a way of confiscating land from women?

The argument that the witch trials were inspired by the rise of capitalism and the removal of land rights from women is not supported by the historical evidence, says Davies.

"The vast majority of people prosecuted for witchcraft were poor and landless, and although the enclosure of common land – over which the poor had held some customary rights – has also been put forward as part of this Marxist interpretation, the timelines do not fit the argument. Take England, for example: the main period of mass enclosure of land took place under Parliamentary Enclosure Acts during the second half of the 18th century and early 19th century. In other words, after the end of the witch trials.

An engraving of a Salem Witch Trial Scene
Not everyone suspected of witchcraft was tried and found guilty: many cases never even made it to court. (Engraving by Howard Pyle)

Did accusations of witchcraft end after the 1736 witchcraft act?

"Once again, the origins of the witch trials are far more complex than a simple economic theory can explain."

Accusations of witchcraft continued even after the cessation of witch trials and the repealing of the laws against witchcraft, in 1736. But now, with the law on their side, the accused were beginning to fight back.

“In the centuries that followed the decriminalisation of witchcraft, we see slander prosecutions brought by accused witches against their accusers – acts that have been described as ‘witch trials in reverse’. Murder and manslaughter trials also took place when accused witches died from the ill-treatment meted out by their accusers.

A monochrome fresco of a woman pulling her dress open
Allegory of Vice and Virtue Wrath, a monochrome fresco by Giotto from the 14th century. Misogyny played a role in some witchcraft accusations, but the idea that such allegations were driven by a desire to confiscate land from women aren’t true, says Professor Owen Davies. (Photo by Getty Images)

“Such ‘reverse’ prosecutions continued sporadically into the 20th century, across Europe and America. But, as it had been in the early modern period, bringing a slander case to court was expensive and time consuming, so many accused witches chose instead to use the press to broadcast their innocence and shame their accusers.

“In 1892, for example, Victoria Seifritz, who had been accused of causing an outbreak of hoof disease in the burgomaster’s stables, took out a notice in the local newspaper stating in no uncertain terms that she was not a witch.”

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This article was first published in the April 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine

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