History of Witchcraft:

Early Modern Period

Persecution of Witches

Woman being burned at the stake

Unfortunately the Inquisition in the late Medieval period continued well into the Early Modern period. During this time, the infamous witch hunts and trials began. Starting with Archbishop Thomas Arundel in 1401 passing De hæretico comburendo, a new law punishing heretics with burning at the stake. This law was one of the strictest religious censorship statutes ever enacted in England. It stated that unless witches abjured their beliefs, they would be burned. Additional Witchcraft Acts were passed by Queen Elizabeth I in 1563 and by King James I in 1604, stating witchcraft was a felony. Rumors and lies began to spread in regards to witches and their practice. Stating they committed heinous and sexual acts with the devil, that they created the misfortune around them such as plague and bad weather. Creating a negative view of witches and the movement of witchcraft as a result. Documentation of these crimes against witches was written in the Formicarius, written 1436-1438 by Johannes Nider during the Council of Basel. The book was first printed in 1475, becoming the second book ever printed to discuss witchcraft. 

Following this, Pope Innocent VIII claimed that Satanists in Germany were meeting with demons, casting spells that destroyed crops and aborting infants. He complained that the clergy was not taking the “threat” of witchcraft seriously enough. He assigned commanded to inquisitors Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger to publish a full report on the practice of witchcraft, leading to the printing of the Malleus Maleficarum (“The Hammer of Witches”). The report stated that Christians had an obligation to hunt down and kill witches.

It was reprinted 13 times, defining the “crime of witchcraft”. Leading to the 16th century and mass executions of witches beginning to occur. In 1515 Geneva, Switzerland burned 500 accused witches at the stake. In 1526 in Como, Italy, there were as many as 1000 executions. In 1571 France there were accusations of over 100,000 of Witches roaming the country. It felt never ending. Jean Bodin’s 1580 book On the Demon-Mania of Sorcerers opened the door to the use of testimony by children against parents, entrapment, and instruments of torture. There was mass confusion, fear, and hysteria against witchcraft.

Witch Hunts

Even with the Reformation, Protestants were no less cruel. With Germany performing the largest mass execution of witches, killing between 50,000 to 80,000 witches over a period of 160 years, 80% of them being women. Spreading to Scotland, James VI began the largest execution of witches in British history, creating laws that did not even need a “confession” before conviction and execution. 

There were few that disagreed with the church such as Reginald Scot, who published The Discovery of Witchcraft. He tried to prove that witches did not exist and believed that the prosecution of those accused of witchcraft was irrational and un-Christian, and he held the Roman Church responsible. All obtainable copies of the book were burned on the accession of James I in 1603 and the few remaining copies are now very rare. 

During the late 16th and early 17th century, larger witch hunts began to occur in France. The rise of a self-labeled “Witchfinder General”, Matthew Hopkins, started taking advantage of the atmosphere of unrest created by the English Civil War. There was a drop in executions and trials during the late 1640s. Leading into the Enlightenment in the late 1680s, evidence was discovered that torture was being used to get confessions. 

Unfortunately, this was not the end of trials and executions against fellow witches, as it spread to North America. Marking the beginning of the Connecticut Witch Trials and the Salem Witch Trials, leading to people being imprisoned and arrested, and eventually the deaths of several people.