Burn The Witch – A Brief History of Paranoia

Burn the Witch by 360onhsitory.com
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Video on the Witch-trials of the middle ages


Today we are going to go through a brief history of the witch trials. Let’s start from the beginning. Before Salem and before even the European trials. The Middle ages were a time of political turmoil, deadly diseases, weaponised religion and fear. Christian doctrine considered the belief in witches a pagan superstition and denied their existence.

In the 13th century Thomas Aquinas a Catholic priest and scholar (and probably others like him) laid the foundation of “collaborations with the devil” and acquiring supernatural powers. This got traction among theologians and fear and panic grew.

In 1233, a papal bull by Gregory XI set up a new branch of the inquisition against heretics to be led by the Dominican Order. This evolved to include witches because they were thought to consort with the devil, who rewarded them with supernatural powers. Witch phobic doctrinal views continued during the early 15th century following the Valais witch trials in 1428.

Things got serious when on December 1484, Pope Innocent VIII issued another papal bull authorizing the systematic persecution of witches and magicians in Germany. This bull actually recognised the existence of witches and declared it heresy to believe otherwise. This resulted in a witch hunt that spread terror, paranoia and violence for centuries.

Enter Malleus Maleficarum a book by by Heinrich Kramer – a German priest and inquisitor. This is 1486 – the Gutenburg printing press had recently been invented in Germany and Kramer used it prodigiously to popularise his work, which talked about the threat that witches posed and how to exterminate them.

The period of the European witch trials, with the largest number of fatalities, seems to have occurred between 1560 and 1630. Of note were the Berwick Witch Trials, in Scotland in 1590, during which 70 people (mostly women) were rounded up and tortured. King James VI of Scotland (who later became James I of England and Ireland) got involved because he developed a fear of witches when his trip to Denmark to collect his new bride was marred with storms. He set up a royal commission to hunt witches, recommending torture when interrogating suspects and even wrote a book called Daemonologie, which detailed the threats witches posed to society. During the first half of the 17th century many other witch trials were conducted in the UK and Europe, resulting in the hangings of about 50,000 people 80% of whom were women (not including unofficial lynching of accused witches). There were regional differences in the hysteria and panic toward witches even in Europe itself. France and the Holy Roman Empire had more witch-phobia and Italy and Spain had less. In England, torture was rare; permitted only when authorized by the monarch. And 81 torture warrants were issued throughout the history of the trials. But the death toll in Scotland dwarfed that of England. Reasons for this paranoia have been attributed to war, crop failure, disease famine, Catholic and  Protestant conflict and a general disregard for women. Furthermore, 1300 to 1850 was a period known as Little Ice Age with low rainfall and freezing temperatures leading to food shortages.

During a trial a series of questions were asked of the accused, commonly by church officials and invasive medical examination were conducted where surgeons and midwives would examine the accused’s bodies for evidence of witches’ marks. The Old Testament’s book of Exodus (22:18) states, “Thou shalt not permit a sorceress to live” spurred on the hysteria and many faced capital punishment for witchcraft, either by burning at the stake, hanging, or beheading.

Throughout this hysteria, there was always skepticism regarding the existence of witches. The difficulty in proving witchcraft according to the newly developing legal process led to a decrease in trials. The late 17th and early 18th century were also a period when enlightenment values were taking hold. Witch trials therefore started to fade out in Europe from mid 17th century.

But they continued in the fringes of Europe and the American colonies: which brings us to the Puritan village of Salem, Massachusetts. A harsh life, expounded by British war with France, a small pox epidemic, fear of Native Americans, and rivalry between the townspeople led to the famous witch trials, which began during spring of 1692. A group of young girls claimed to be possessed by the devil & accused several local women of witchcraft. A special court was convened.

9-year-old Elizabeth (Betty) Parris and 11-year-old Abigail Williams (the daughter and niece of Samuel Parris, minister of Salem Village) began having fits, including violent contortions and uncontrollable outbursts of screaming. They were considered to be bewitched and Tituba a Caribbean slave and three others were blamed. Hysteria spread and others were accused.

(Mother Goddess – When Women Were Worshipped)

The first convicted “witch” was Bridget Bishop who was hanged in June 1692. Eighteen others followed Bishop to Salem’s Gallows Hill, while some 150 more men, women and children were accused over the next several months. By September 1692, the hysteria had begun to die down and public opinion turned against the trials.

Belief in witchcraft has been shown to have similarities in societies throughout the world. It presents a framework to explain the occurrence of otherwise random events such as sickness or death, and the witch or sorcerer personifies evil. Witch trials continue in contemporary times in many areas in the Americas, Africa and Asia, particularly in Papua New Guinea, India, Nepal, and Saudi Arabia.

Title music: Hovering Thoughts by Spence (YouTube Music Archive)

Main Music: The Future Ancient Now by Nathan Moore (Youtube Music Archive)

All images Public Domain/ Creative Commons


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I am a Chartered Environmentalist from the Royal Society for the Environment, UK and co-owner of DoLocal Digital Marketing Agency Ltd, with a Master of Environmental Management from Yale University, an MBA in Finance, and a Bachelor of Science in Physics and Mathematics. I am passionate about science, history and environment and love to create content on these topics.

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