It can be hard to separate fact from fiction when discussing the famous witch trials that occurred centuries past. There are myriad myths and misconceptions surrounding these events, which can make understanding the whole story quite a challenge! In this blog post, we’ll take a deep dive into the truth behind some of the most commonly told tales about witchcraft and its aftermath. Through historical evidence and analysis of shared beliefs, we’ll uncover what really happened – no broomsticks or cauldrons necessary!
Witches were burned at the stake.
In some English-speaking countries, those identified as witches were not burned at the stake like in folklore tales but sentenced to death by hanging. In Scotland, however, it was customary for deceased accused witches’ bodies to be burnt after they had been strangled and killed – as though burning them would undo their purported wrongdoings.
Once accused of witchcraft, individuals couldn’t prove their innocence.
During the witch trials, only a quarter of those tried in England were deemed guilty and met their fate, an illustrative example of the power wielded by justice.
Millions of people were accused and convicted of witchcraft.
During the dark days of witch persecution in England, only 2,000 people were ever prosecuted. However, some believed magic and witchcraft to be real powers wielded by fraudsters for financial gain. Others recognized it as a means of exploiting vulnerable members of society – like elderly women with few resources or looks that didn’t conform to societal norms.
King James I was solely responsible for the rounding up and killing of witches.
Under the reign of Elizabeth I (1558–1603), witchcraft accusations ran rampant, resulting in more executions and less leniency for accused witches than under her successor. Henry VIII set a precedent when he passed the 1542 Witchcraft Act that would go on to define punishments – up until 1604 with King James’ reversion back to these original standards, which branded any pact-making or summoning as punishable by death.
In Scotland, King James VI actively investigated sorcery and witchcraft cases. He even devotedly wrote the treatise ‘Daemonologie’ to discuss demonic possession in 1597. Upon becoming ruler of England later, however, he shifted focus and dedicated himself to exposing fraudulent possessions instead of further persecuting witches as had been done before him.
Witch-hunting was the hunting of women.
While the European witch hunts of centuries past have typically been characterized as a female issue, it is worth noting that men were not excluded from their effects. Across Europe, an estimated 6,000 males faced persecution due to accusations of witchcraft – making up around 10-15% of those accused. Interestingly enough, in England, while more women than men faced persecution during the witch trials, ironically, many who made written complaints against suspects were themselves women!
The Catholic Church and the Spanish Inquisition began the witch trials.
In the chaos of witch-hunting that swept across Europe, four major Western Christian denominations (Roman Catholic, Lutheranism, Calvinism, and Anglicanism) took part to some degree. In stark contrast, however, was Eastern Orthodox Christianity which almost wholly abstained from this persecution, while The Spanish Inquisition only executed two witches.
Witches were pagan herbalists and practitioners of holistic medicine.
While some historians, politicians, and ultimately the public had long believed in a ‘real’ form of pagan witchcraft during the witch trials, there appears to be no evidence to support its existence. While traces of residual paganism found their way into just a few trials – goddess worshiping was noticeably absent from any such accounts.
Contrary to popular belief, midwives were not frequently accused of witchcraft. Surprisingly, they often aided in identifying those suspected as witches – due to their knowledge and understanding of the human body. These witch marks were bumps and scratches, supposedly connected to magical abilities.
The myths and misconceptions surrounding the witch trials of centuries past have perpetuated a false narrative that has been accepted as truth for generations. Only through further research can we begin to understand the many nuances of this dark period in history and acknowledge how these policies were put into place to oppress those who did not fit into the societal norms of the time.
It is worth remembering that myths, regardless of their origin or intensity, should only be taken as fact with further investigation. Through this article, we have shed light on just a few examples of myths and misconceptions surrounding the witch trials – providing key facts that counter-balance these myths for greater clarity.
Witchcraft: Eight Myths and Misconceptions, English-hertiage.org.uk