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Five witchcraft myths debunked by an expert

27 Oct 2023 5 minute read
Image Ethan Doyle White is marked , CC BY-SA 4.0

Jonathan Durrant, Principal Lecturer in History, University of South Wales

About 400 years ago, the European witch hunts were at their peak. Between the 15th and 18th centuries, an estimated 50,000 people, mostly women, were executed for witchcraft across Europe. They were accused of devil-worship, heresy and harming their neighbours by using witchcraft. The 1620s was the most intense phase of persecution in places like Eichstätt in Germany, where almost 300 witches were executed between 1617 and 1631.

The witchcraft trials have endured as a matter of curiosity, entertainment and debate. But despite this interest, popular understandings of the European witch-hunts are riddled with error and misconceptions. So, given it’s the season of the witch, it’s time to dispel some myths.

Witchcraft is a medieval idea

It isn’t – it’s modern. The Christian church was sceptical about the reality of witchcraft until the 15th century. Even then, many theologians and clergymen did not believe that witchcraft was a threat.

The first trials of people who were believed to be malevolent worshippers of the Devil who actively caused harm happened in the 15th century. The most intense period of witch hunting ran from about 1560 to about 1630.

Before that there were very few witchcraft trials, because acts of witchcraft were believed to be an illusion caused by the Devil with the permission of God.

Witchcraft trials occurred everywhere

Most witchcraft trials happened in central, western, or northern Europe. These were the areas which were the cradle of the Protestant and Catholic Reformations, which saw the transformation of the religious geography of Europe. And the northern Renaissance and the scientific revolution had transformed how the world was understood.

Execution of three witches on 4 November 1585 in Baden (Switzerland). Johann Jakob Wick, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

More than 50% of all trials in Europe happened in Germany. But even there, witch persecution was limited to a few of the very many autonomous and semi-autonomous territories of which it was comprised.

In places like Iceland and Wales, there were very few witchcraft trials at all. It seems that local beliefs about magic and witchcraft, alongside the attitudes of clergymen and judges, may be the reasons for this.

The Inquisition tried and executed most witches

The Roman, Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions, established in the 16th century, were responsible for dealing with matters of heresy. They have become notorious for their rigour in rooting out opposition to Catholic orthodoxy. Yet, they burned very few witch suspects. Across the whole of the Iberian and Italian peninsulas, the inquisitions executed fewer suspects than were hanged in England.

The Spanish Inquisition put a stop to the witchcraft trials that had spilled over from France in the early 17th century by assuming jurisdiction over witchcraft accusations.

Only women were tried for witchcraft

It’s true that 80% of those tried and executed for witchcraft were women. Many witch hunters, like those in Eichstätt, also selected female suspects over male ones, even though the evidence could be very similar.

However, in some places, like Russia, it was men who formed the majority of witch suspects. This was primarily because Russians conceptualised gender very differently to people in western Europe.

Regardless of whether the witch suspects were accused before magistrates or denounced under torture, their female neighbours were the ones most likely to accuse them.

In England, women on the margins of society were more vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft when things went wrong for their neighbours, such as inexplicable deaths or harm. This was the case with Ursley Kemp, one of the two witch suspects of St Osyth, Essex, who were hanged in 1582. Kemp was a marginal figure in the town, a woman with an illegitimate son making ends meet through her healing skills.

In Eichstatt, it was a product of the processes of torture. When the suspects (more than 90% of whom were women) had to name names under torture, they gave those of their neighbours. The suspects’ networks were founded on their sex; women named women and the few male suspects named men.

Witches were really the followers of a pagan fertility cult

This myth was promoted by the Egyptologist Margaret Murray in the early 20th century and was then debunked by the historian C. L’Estrange Ewen almost as soon as it appeared. It was founded on a partial reading of the available witchcraft evidence.

It persisted because Murray wrote the Encyclopaedia Britannica article on witchcraft that remained in print for 40 years, until 1969, and actively supported the new Wiccan religion in print in the 1950s. This new religion was founded by Gerald Gardner who revived what he believed to be ancient pagan witchcraft in the 1930s. But it has no material connection to any form of historic witchcraft.

Most witches were ordinary Christian women who found themselves accused of witchcraft by their neighbours, or denounced by other suspects under torture.

This article was first published by The Conversation
The Conversation


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John Davies
John Davies
6 months ago

Oh lord. Samhain approaches, so it is another “gosh wow witches” article. A couple of details. Yes, the Church began by treating witchcraft as an illusion or even a delusion. They began to describe it as a reality and to persecute mercilessly after the publication of the Malleus Maleficarium in 1486. However, there was a naughty little sub-text, which was that the property of those found guilty was forfeit to the church. Once this ceased to be the case, witch trials mysteriously faded out. Modern Witchcraft is of course a construct. Margaret Murray founded the first modern covens. Gerald Gardner… Read more »

Sarah Good
Sarah Good
6 months ago
Reply to  John Davies

Anything good in Gardnerian Wicca comes from Doreen Valiente..
She was the Rosalind Franklin of the Craft. Denied credit by Gardner and later, Sanders.

Last edited 6 months ago by Sarah Good
John Davies
John Davies
6 months ago
Reply to  Sarah Good

I entirely agree. Thank you. Mind, Doreen did once say that when Gerald was talking with especially sweet innocence, that was when she knew he was lying. So perhaps it is understandable that he wanted to shut her up. I once had the misfortune to see Maxine Sanders give a talk at an event that was supposed to be a tribute to Doreen. She drew a verbal picture that can only be described as an extremely offensive caricature. It made me extremely angry. Doreen Valiente was a great lady. My own good lady and Priestess loves to tell the tale… Read more »

Last edited 6 months ago by John Davies
Jonathan Durrant
Jonathan Durrant
6 months ago
Reply to  John Davies

Not really “gosh wow witches”. The article started out as something else related to witchcraft research I’m doing; the timing is coincidental (I signed a book contract a month ago) but fortuitous. I’ve been researching and writing about historic witchcraft for about thirty years and am far beyond need to indulge in the sensationalist approach suggested. There are myths and they need correcting; I do that in different ways all year. I hope I have been factual and helpful within the short word limit.

John Davies
John Davies
6 months ago

Certainly. Good article and thank you. But it is very noticeable, actually wearisomely predictable, for over thirty years now, that a crop of “witchcraft” articles gets trotted out around this time of year. Apologies if I was a little sharp about the timing. Thank you for giving us something of decent quality.

Last edited 6 months ago by John Davies
Sarah Good
Sarah Good
6 months ago

It’s nice to see a factual article on the witch persecutions. Anyone who has watched or read the Crucible (based on the Salem “witch” trials knows the whole thing was a scam cooked up by the father of Elizabeth Parris, and n cahoots with the church to get revenge on all the people he was feuding with or whose land they wanted. Elizabeth Parris was just a spiteful teenaged girl with a penchant for dramatic untruthful accusations. The Posie Parker or Hatie Kopkins of her day (only young). My screen name here, (Sarah Good), is the name of the first… Read more »

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