what are the origins of the mindset of Salem during the witch trials?
Horror, Hollywood, Halloween – Hocus Pocus? Today the image of the witch thrives as a cultural icon. Witches have been satirized, politicized, capitalized, and exploited: they are heroines and hags – haunting histories, proliferating popular taste. “Burn the Witch!” and “Witch Hunt” are even cliché.
What’s the history of witchcraft, though? How did “black magic” meander across the Atlantic?
We’re all familiar with Salem’s seventeenth-century Witch Trials, but what about their horrific origins? Although “witch hunts” took place as early as classical antiquity, Early Modern witch hunts materialized in the twelfth century. These witch hunts, or “Inquisitions,” intended to combat heresy – yet often victimized religious or social outliers, impoverished peoples, or the impaired. Those who did not conform to the Catholic Church were persecuted; those of Jewish or Islamic faith were particularly targeted, though Protestants and Lutherans were later attacked.
By the fifteenth century, the Inquisition was in full effect: the “Witch Hunt” began to take shape.
Archbishop Thomas Arundel passed the earliest Act of Parliament against witchcraft in 1401 – the De Heretico Comburendo. Latin for "Regarding the Burning of Heretics," the De Heretico Comburendo was one of the strictest religious regulations in England. It even stipulated that witches “be burnt” so that “such punishment may strike fear into the minds of others.”
The De Heretico Comburendo was unsparing – sadistic to “witches,” hostile to heresy. The De Heretico Comburendo was theocratic tyranny.
Yet witchcraft wasn’t the only crime: the De Heretico Comburendo specified that "divers false and perverse people of a certain new sect [...] make and write books, they do wickedly instruct and inform people [...] and commit subversion of the said catholic faith.” This “sect” referred to the Lollards, followers of scholastic philosopher John Wycliffe. And, indeed, William Sawtrey – a Roman Catholic Priest – was the first executed. Sawtrey’s crime? Heresy. That’s what Archbishop Thomas Arundel decided, at least.
The De Heretico Comburendo established the execution of “witches,” formally defining witchcraft as a heretic practice. Nonetheless, the De Heretico Comburendo was restricted to the ecclesiastical courts. It wasn’t until the Witchcraft Acts of the sixteenth-century that witchcraft became a felony punishable by the courts of the common law.
Henry VIII’s Act of 1542 was the first to criminalize witchcraft as a felony, making it illegal to use, devise, practice, or exercise any “invocation or conjurations of spirits, witchcraft, enchantments, or sorceries.” The crime was punishable by death and the forfeiture of property. That’s a steep price to pay for superstition.
Elizabeth I lightened the stipulations of her predecessor in 1563 with the “Act Against Conjurations, Enchantments and Witchcrafts.” Although the Witchcraft Act of 1563 continued to criminalize witchcraft, the death penalty was enforced only when harm was done to another person; lesser offenses were punishable by imprisonment.
James I broadened the Elizabethan Act in 1604, reinstating capital punishment for those accused of witchcraft. His “Act Against Conjuration, Witchcraft and Dealing with Evil and Wicked Spirits,” famously enabled “Witchfinder General” Matthew Hopkins – but that’s jumping ahead.
The Formicarius, written by Johannes Nider from 1436 to 1438, was a monumental move in witchcraft history. Yet Nider disagreed with his successors: Nider was skeptical that witches could fly, and underemphasized the Witches’ Sabbat. No broomsticks for this German theologian.
Nider was also the first to “feminize” witchcraft. Before the Formicarius, witchcraft was regarded as a ritualistic practice performed by educated males. Nider decided that witches were instead commonly female. Nider additionally proposed that witchcraft was accessible to anyone who consorted with Satan – removing witchcraft from the “Ivory Tower” and relocating it to the cauldron. Yet the Formicarius wasn’t a witch-hunting instructional. Unlike the Malleus Maleficarum, the Formicarius was meant to encourage Christian reform.
The Malleus Maleficarum, on the other hand…
Written by Heinrich Kramer and published in Speyer, Germany, the Malleus Maleficarum, or the Hammer of Witches, was a fifteenth-century treatise on witchcraft. Jacob Sprenger’s name was later added to the publication in 1519, though his participation with the text has been challenged.
Unlike the Formicarius, the Malleus Maleficarum detailed how to examine and exterminate alleged “witches.” The preferred method of the Malleus Maleficarum? Burning, hanging, drowning, “pricking,” pressing. “How to Torture a Witch” could have been the Malleus Maleficarum’s alternative title.
The Malleus Maleficarum was reprinted thirteen times despite being banned by the church in 1490. It became the authoritative text on witchcraft persecution, provoking the apex of Europe’s “Witch Hysteria.”
By the sixteenth-century, mass executions of “witches” were occurring across Europe. 500 “witches” were put to death in Geneva, Switzerland. They were, as advised, burned at the stake. Como, Italy executed 1,000 “witches.” By 1571, France had claims of over 100,000 “witches.” Yet Germany was the most prolific, executing 26,000 “convicted witches.”
From the sixteenth- to the seventeenth-century, approximately 50,000 – 80,000 “witches” were executed.
There were those, however, who disagreed with Europe’s witch hysteria. Reginald Scot’s 1584 “Discoverie of Witchcraft” was one voice of dissent, exposing “magic” as the work of spectacle rather than sorcery. Magic, Scot maintained, was illusionary or staged. The persecution of witches, to Scot, was thereby irreligious. Scot even held the Roman Church responsible, alleging that their beliefs in witches lead to the unjust executions of disadvantaged peoples.
Yet Scot was met with contention. “The Discoverie of Witchcraft” incited counter-publications such as James VI of Scotland’s Dæmonologie (1597), John Rainolds’ Censura Librorum Apocryphorum (1611), Richard Bernard’s Guide to Grand Jurymen (1627), Joseph Glanvill’s Philosophical Considerations Touching Witches and Witchcraft (1666), and Meric Casaubon’s Credulity and Uncredulity (1668). The texts attacked Scot’s position, alleging that the presence of witchcraft was irrefutable.
Scot also found allies: Thomas Ady’s 1656 Candle in the Dark: Or, A Treatise concerning the Nature of Witches and Witchcraft and John Webster’s 1677 The Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft both supported and defended Scot’s premise on witchcraft.
In the seventeenth century, the people of England were still recovering from the Counter-Reformation and English Civil War. This made them susceptible to superstitious scapegoating, or “witch-phobia.”
Yet the most lethal witch-hunts occurred in Central Europe: infamous executions include the Trier Witch Trials, Fulda Witch Trials, Basque Witch Trials, Würzburg Witch Trials, and Bamberg Witch Trials.
Women were the chief demographic of seventeenth-century “witch-phobia,” though the socially or economically disadvantaged, disabled, or “different” were targeted, as well.
In fact, it’s estimated that over 75% of early modern “witches” were women. The Malleus Maleficarum cited that women were “a foe to friendship, an unescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic danger, a delectable detriment, an evil of nature, painted with fair colors.” Women, the Malleus Maleficarum continued, were “naturally more impressionable, and more ready to receive the influence of a disembodied spirit,” intellectually “like children,” subject to “carnal lust,” and “more bitter in death.”
This made women more likely to consort – or copulate – with devils. Indeed, sexual misconduct with Satan was a chief concern of the Malleus Maleficarum.
The most notorious “witch-hunter” was Matthew Hopkins. Hopkins even designated himself the “Witchfinder General” after “discovering” witches in 1644: six witches, Hopkins claimed, tried to kill him. Hopkins proceeded to execute 300 “witches” between 1644 and 1646, focusing primarily on East Anglia. The prosecution predominated counties such as Suffolk, Essex, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, and Huntingdonshire, though Hopkins briefly extended his investigation to Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire.
Yet Hopkins relied on torture to extract confessions, binding, burning, drowning, and hanging those he suspected of witchcraft. Hopkins took his inspiration from the Daemonologie of King James, which detailed divination, necromancy, and the classification of demons. Hopkins cited James’ Daemonologie directly in his 1647 Discovery of Witches.
The popularity of witch hunts began to decline in the latter half of the seventeenth century. The witch hunt was no longer ubiquitous, and, indeed, England executed its last “witch” in 1682. Witch hunts became to be seen as an intolerant, inhumane practice that held no place in an Enlightened society.
America, however, was just getting started.
Across the Atlantic, the “New World” was undergoing its own “Witch Hysteria.” The Connecticut Witch Trials, otherwise known as the Hartford Witch Trials, began in 1647. The Connecticut Witch Trials were the first extensive executions in the American Colonies, predating Salem’s Witch Trials by forty-five years. There were thirty-seven convictions of witchcraft, with eleven executed.
Yet the most lethal witch hunt in the American Colonies took place in Salem, Massachusetts. Over two hundred were accused of witchcraft with nineteen hanged until death. One man was even pressed by stone.
Several witnesses later recounted their testimonies, stimulating Salem to clear the names of the “convicted witches.” It was too late, of course: the Salem Witch Trials had left an indelible stain on colonial history.
In 1735, the House of Commons proposed an Act which criminalized accusations of witchcraft. The act decided that witchcraft was "no longer to be considered a criminal act, but rather an offence against the country's newly enlightened state." It was likewise illegal for someone to accuse another of manipulating black magic. Even allegations of witchcraft were interdicted.
The Act was passed in March 1735, making the investigation, prosecution, and execution of “witches” illegal. The Witchcraft Act thereby eradicated witch hunts across Europe.
Yet the Witchcraft Act of 1735 was repealed by England’s Fraudulent Mediums Act of 1951. The Fraudulent Mediums Act criminalized the commercialization of witchcraft, prohibiting the marketing of telepathy, clairvoyance, or magic. The Act upheld the idea that witchcraft was a form of deception, and that spiritualistic mediums engaged in criminal misconduct. It was, in turn, repealed by the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations of 2008.
Witchcraft today is seen as a holistic, spiritualistic movement with legal and constitutional rights. Practitioners have come out of the “broom closet,” so to speak – rebranded, reinvigorated, and revitalized. The 1960s and 70s saw a resurgence of neopagan practices, electrified by Gerald Gardner’s “Witchcraft Today” and Paul Huson’s “Mastering Witchcraft: A Practical Guide for Witches, Warlocks, and Covens.” Wicca became recognized as an official religion by the US Internal Revenue Service in 1986. Although alternative spiritualities still face discrimination, witchcraft has become protected and decriminalized.
The unjust executions of “witches” will forever remain in European and American history; the legacies of those lost will outlive us. Yet, with luck, their memory will motivate us to tolerance.
Have we overcome the “Witch Hysteria”? Or has the “Witch Hunt” changed shape – less prevalent, still persistent? Perhaps the “Witch Hysteria” can show us how far, or how little, we've come.