A brief history of witches by Suzannah Lipscomb

Between 1482 and 1782, thousands of people across Europe – most of them women – were accused of witchcraft and subsequently executed. But why were so many innocent people suspected of such a crime? How many were killed, and were 'witches' really burned at the stake?

An illustration of a group of supposed witches being beaten in front of King James VI and I, the most notorious royal witch-hunter of all time, c1610. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Here, historian and broadcaster Suzannah Lipscomb separates witch facts from fiction and explains why so much of what we believe about witches is untrue…

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Witches are everywhere. In fairytales, fantasy and satire, they appear time and again as a versatile synonym for evil and transgression. But, in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, men and women of both high and low status believed in witches’ ubiquity in a far more disturbing way. Lord chief justice Anderson noted in 1602: “The land is full of witches… they abound in all places” – not as a symbol or figure of fun, but as a deadly threat to life, livelihood and divine order.

Witches in numbers

The large-scale persecution, prosecution and execution of witches in these centuries was an extraordinary phenomenon. It is also an episode of European history that has spawned many myths and much inaccuracy. Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code is one of the purveyors of such erroneous hype, stating: “The church burned at the stake an astounding 5 million women”, which would be astounding if true. The actual numbers are far lower, but still striking: between 1482 and 1782, around 100,000 people across Europe were accused of witchcraft, and some 40–50,000 were executed.

An engraving from Ulrich Molitor’s ‘On witches and female soothsayers’, depicting witches bringing down the rain. Germany, 15th century. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

Neither were witches (with the exception of some targeted by the Spanish Inquisition) generally persecuted by the church. Although belief in witches was orthodox doctrine, following Exodus 22.18, the 16th and 17th-century witch trials were the result of witchcraft becoming a crime under law, and witches were prosecuted by the state. In England, witchcraft became a crime in 1542, a statute renewed in 1562 and 1604. As such, most witches across Europe received the usual penalty for murder – hanging (though in Scotland and under the Spanish Inquisition witches were burned).

Male witches

Nor were all witches women – men could be witches too. Across Europe, 70–80 per cent of people accused of witchcraft were female – though the proportions of female witches were higher in certain areas: the bishopric of Basel; the county of Namur (modern Belgium); Hungary; Poland; and Essex, England. But one in five witches were male across Europe, and in some places, males predominated – in Moscow, male witches outnumbered women 7:3; in Normandy 3:1.

Nevertheless, because women were believed to be morally and spiritually weaker than men, they were thought to be particularly vulnerable to diabolic persuasion. Most of those accused were also poor and elderly; many were widows, and menopausal and post-menopausal women are disproportionally represented among them.

In my two-part series, Witch Hunt: A Century of Murder (which aired in October 2015 on Channel 5), we seek to investigate witchcraft prosecution in the British Isles. Although witchcraft trials happened in every county in the country, the best evidence survives from three major witch crazes in the British Isles – in 1590s Edinburgh; 1612 Lancashire; and 1640s Essex and East Anglia, and we focus on those.

St Leonard’s parish church graveyard in Downham, Lancashire, with a view to Pendle Hill. (Photo by PBstock/Alamy Stock Photo)

James VI and I

Above all, we have tried to consider the perspective of the victims – that is, those who were accused of witchcraft. We consider the circumstances in which alleged witches were accused, and the power of both neighbourhood accusation and elite sanction (James VI and I’s book on the subject of witchcraft, Daemonologie, published in 1597, is a case in point). We examine the way that torture – though illegal in England – was employed in late 16th-century Scotland and during the upheaval of the Civil War. We explore the role of the witchfinder, but also the willing collaboration of ordinary people in ridding the land of witches. And we look at what someone accused of witchcraft experienced as their fate.

It is a sad, sorry and often harrowing tale – but it is one that needs to be heard.

Suzannah Lipscomb is senior lecturer and head of the faculty of history at New College of the Humanities, London. You can follow Lipscomb on Twitter @sixteenthCgirl or visit her website suzannahlipscomb.com.

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Suzannah will be at our York History Weekend giving a talk on witchcraft on Saturday 20 October 2018. Taking place at the Yorkshire Museum at 8.30pm, Suzannah’s lecture will explore why in Europe between 1450 and 1750 large numbers of people were persecuted, prosecuted and executed for practising magic. To book tickets, click here.