The witch persecution

December 24, 1999

Between 1450 and 1750, about 100,000 people were accused of witchcraft in Europe. Of these, about 40,000 were executed. The period of the persecution began with witchcraft being defined as a crime in most nations, featured spasmodic trials and then simply died away.

The first witch trials and the construction of the witch stereotype began in 15th-century Switzerland. But it was not until the post-Reformation period that witch hunting got going throughout Europe. Its causes were not simple. They included the interplay of religious tensions, the emergence of the developed state with an aggressive judicial machine, misogyny - 80 per cent of the accused were women - and social pressures in rural communities where accusations emerged from disputes between neighbours.

The clerical elite were getting more jumpy about sinfulness. In Britain, the spread of English Protestantism was less violent than that of Calvinism in Scotland, where the aggressive Kirk was spreading a strong religious message. In addition, the two nations' legal systems differed. Most serious witchcraft cases in England were tried in assizes by senior, externally appointed judges who were not immersed in local issues. In Scotland, cases were handled by people not legally qualified. The persecution of witches in Scotland was far more severe than south of the border.

The actual figures of those executed throughout Europe are now held to be much lower than most previous estimates. It is puzzling why relatively few were executed. A lot of educated, powerful people were sceptical about witchcraft, though few were able to flatly deny its existence. Instead, their scepticism found its expression in their judgement over particular allegations and came down to the nature of evidence. As the elite and peasantry became increasingly culturally differentiated, belief in witchcraft was more and more seen as something associated with the lower orders.

As society became more settled, there were moves towards a more rational view of religion and by the early 17th century, trials started dying out in many areas. A century later, most nations had removed witchcraft legislation from their law books.

James Sharpe is professor of history, University of York.

Interview by Steve Farrar

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