In the Early Modern Era, roughly 1480 to 1750, there were sanctioned and official witch trails. Most of us are aware of these stories from history and Hollywood films, but during this time of mass hysteria, an estimated 40,000-60,000 people were executed, and 75 to 85% of them were women.
Many Acts regarding witchcraft were made into law, with an introduction to more serious penalties occurring under King Henri’s VIII’s, Witchcraft Act of 1542. This Act was the first to define witchcraft as a felony, a crime punishable by death. Then in 1563, Elizabeth I passed a law against Conjuring, Enchantment, and Witchcraft. Although witchcraft was still considered a felony, the new law was more lenient, and allowed the death penalty only when harm had been caused to another. Lessor offences were given a prison term.
Prior to Elizabeth I’s new law, anyone could be accused of witchcraft on any grounds, without any proof. The accused were brought before an ecclesiastical court, where church ministers acted as judge, jury, and executioner. The confessions were sought through the use of torture and so there was little chance of anyone escaping an accusation of witchcraft. Being tortured led to the majority of those accused to admit to guilt before being executed. Due to the 1563 law, those accused were now brought under the jurisdiction of the courts, allowing due legal process. Evidence was required to prove the accused did harm to another.
In 1604, these Acts were added to by King James to include the penalty of death again, without the benefit of clergy if a person was found guilty of invoking evil spirits or supernatural entities. This law was called An Act Against Conjuration, Witchcraft, and Dealing with Evil and Wicked Spirits. The law had many powerful supporters, including the English witch hunter Matthew Hopkins. Burning at the stake was eliminated except in cases that also involved petty treason.
In 1735, Great Britain did a complete one eighty in regard to its views and passed the Witchcraft Act. Parliament made it a crime for any person to accuse someone of having magical powers or to claim a person guilty of practicing witchcraft. The belief in magic and the supernatural was against the law. The maximum penalty was a year in prison. The law was considered heavy handed and thought to be a view held by the medieval church that magic was illusionary and superstitious nonsense. The new law meant that witchcraft was no longer considered a criminal act, but an act against the country’s newly enlightened state, and thus considered fraud.
Witch trails subsided after 1700, and the last person executed for witchcraft in Great Britain was Scottish born, Janet Horne, who was executed in the British Isles in 1727. The law wasn’t without opposition, and Lord James Erskine, a significant figure in parliament, did argue against the Act of 1735. Erskine claimed to believe in witchcraft, which had many members in parliament thinking he had bats in his belfry, although it’s believed he rejected the law because of Scottish political and religious reasons, not because of his belief in magic.
The Witchcraft Act of 1735 was used during the early 19th century in an attempt by the political elite to rid ignorance and superstition among the masses. This law was eventually repealed with the enactment of the Fraudulent Mediums Act of 1951. The new law was implemented in England and Wales. It prohibited a person from claiming to be a psychic, medium, or other spiritualist while attempting to deceive and profit from the deception for reasons other than entertainment. Of course this law was also repealed in 2008 and replaced with Consumers Protection Regulations.
Witchcraft, voodoo, magic, and sorcery have been punishable since the earliest laws preserved by man. In ancient Egypt and Babylonia, The Code of Hammurabi (18th century B.C.) said this: "If a man has put a spell upon another man and it is not justified, he upon whom the spell is laid shall go to the holy river; into the holy river shall he plunge. If the holy river overcomes him and he is drowned, the man who put the spell upon him shall take possession of his house. If the holy river declares him innocent and he remains unharmed the man who laid the spell shall be put to death. He that plunged into the river shall take possession of the house of him who laid the spell upon him."
Roman laws before Christianity had provisions against evil incantations and spells. Thousands of Romans were killed under the guise of witchcraft; many of these deaths were triggered from epidemic outbreaks. The numbers of deaths are believed to far surpass the witch-hunts of Early Modern Europe.
Fear can be a very powerful motivator for people, and the Bible tends to play upon such fear. The Hebrew Bible condemns sorcery in Deuteronomy, Exodus, Samuel, and others. Since so many people followed scripture, they believed the Exodus scripture that “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” and well, they didn’t.
The witch trails in Early Modern Europe came in waves, with witch trails in the 15th and early 16th centuries, but declining before peaking again in the 17th century. To justify the killing of others, the Protestant Christians deemed witchcraft to be associated with Satan.
The largest numbers of witch-hunts in Modern Europe were seen in central and southern Germany, with the peak years in 1561-1670. Witch-hunts first appeared in large numbers in France and Switzerland during the 14th and 15th centuries. In Denmark, following the reformation of 1536, the practice of witch hunting was encouraged, and hundreds of people were convicted and burned. The Salem witch trails in the U.S. took place in the late 17th century.
After reading the reasons behind some of these trials and why a person was accused, I have to say the ignorance and following the herd mentality is amazing. Some of these women were healers, who worked with plants and herbs to help others, some were deformed, some not liked by their neighbors, others were midwives, but I’m sure very few were true witches. These people were merely feared or disliked by others who were too closed-minded to see that they were the ones sinning with their acts of murder.
A special thank you to www.parliment.UK, and radicalhubpages.com