In a time when many natural occurences that might have seemed strange and magical can be explained by science, and when most people think of witches as fantasy, comical creatures who cackle and ride around on broomsticks at night, it can be difficult to imagine just how seriously witchcraft was regarded in the past.
Conditioned by horror movies, we might think that the only people who believed in witchcraft were illiterate superstitious peasants, who believed that anything unpleasant must be a curse from the strange old lady who lived up the lane, and would then bring out the pitchforks and torches to pursue, torture and execute the poor recluse. But this is not actually the case. Witchcraft was believed in by all levels of society, and trials were conducted not by pitchfork wielding rural people, but by intelligent and well-read gentry, and even royalty.
Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches), a book written by a Catholic clergyman and published in 1486 was one of the most influential treatises about how to deal with witchcraft, and influenced legal policy for centuries. As well as stating that witchcraft was real because the Devil was real, it also advised on how to determine if someone was a witch, how to prosecute them, outlined why women were more likely than men to be witches, and to recommend the same punishment as for those convicted of heresy – ie, burning at the stake.
Prior to the publication, trials for witchcraft were virtually unheard of, and when they were punishments were no more serious than spending a day in the pillory. Although the book was in fact rejected by the church along with its author, and was not used by the later Inquisition, it became a great hit with secular authorities. This book, along with the Protestant Reformation started the witchcraft frenzy which resulted in the deaths of thousands of innocents.
The peak of the witchcraft trials was in the 16th and early 17th centuries, and took place in both Catholic and Protestant parts of Europe. In Scotland there was a spate of witch trials in the 1590s inspired by King James VI, who was convinced witches were trying to kill him, and even wrote a book on the subject, Daemonology. He recommended torture as a way of discovering witches, and as a result of this many people were brutalised terribly. One estimate states that up to 4,000 accused witches were killed in Scotland between 1560 and 1707. Incidentally, fans of Outlander might be interested to know that one of the notable witches was a woman by the name of Geillis Duncan, who confessed under torture and named others. Her fate is uncertain; she may have been burned in 1591 or released.
There had always been scepticism regarding witchcraft and numerous authorities quickly became concerned by the difficulty in proving a charge, which led many authorities to proceed with extreme caution. There was a surge in cases in Britain in the Puritan times after the British Civil War, but by the early 18th century attitudes were changing, and witchcraft trials were few and far between. The final execution for the crime in England took place in 1716, when Mary Hicks and her daughter were hanged, and in Scotland in 1727 when Janet Horne, an old woman almost certainly suffering from dementia was burnt in a pitch barrel.
Finally, in June 1735 The Witchcraft Act was passed. I mention this in The Ladies’ Tale, Caroline & Philippa, when Edwin Harlow is studying the brand new Act before advising a client who wishes to accuse someone of cursing his shop. This Act did not just state that witchcraft didn’t exist, but actually made it a crime to accuse someone either of having magical powers or of practising witchcraft. Only one politician raised objections as the Act went through Parliament, and that was Lord James Erskine, who fervently believed in witches, and was thereafter regarded by his fellow MPs as being ‘eccentric verging on insane’. This Act effectively put an end to persecutions and trials for witchcraft.
This mass change of view was brought about to a great extent by the Enlightenment, when religion was no longer seen as the source of all knowledge, and great advances in science among other subjects were made, leading to a greater understanding of natural phenomena, including the causes of illness etc.
You might find it surprising, in view of this, that in fact two trials under the Witchcraft Act took place as recently as 1944. One was of Helen Duncan, who was said to have claimed to summon spirits. She said she had contacted a sailor who was killed in the sinking of HMS Barham. She came to the authorities’ notice as at this time the sinking was being kept secret for political purposes. She was arrested during a séance and charged on a number of counts, including contravening the Witchcraft Act, and spent nine months in prison. In the same year another woman, Jane Yorke was convicted of pretending to cause the spirits of deceased persons to be present. She was bound over rather than being imprisoned.
The Witchcraft Act was finally repealed in 1951.