Persecution turned fiction: A history of witchcraft

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It’s Oct. 15, 1674, in Torsåker, Sweden. Fear and panic are in the air as 65 women and six men make their way to the execution block. All accused of witchcraft, they will each be decapitated with an ax and then burned at the stake.

This is not unlike many other instances of witch-hunting around Europe, where large scale investigations and mass executions plagued village after village, ravaging communities and taking innocent lives. 

Modern depictions of witches in fairy tales, scary stories and movies are often light-hearted, fitting into the fictional narrative structure of good versus evil. Halloween costumes and phrases such as “going on a witch hunt” have become familiar. In the movie “Hocus Pocus,” the three Sanderson sisters are evil but also fun and silly. They sing a rendition of “I Put A Spell On You” by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and are fearful of a fire sprinkler system. It’s a big win for our protagonists when the witches are defeated and burn up in the sunlight. 

Similarly, the opening scene of “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters” shows our main characters outsmarting the evil witch and incinerating her in a fiery oven. In “The Chronicles of Narnia,” the White Witch keeps the land in eternal winter and turns people into stone. 

Not all witches in the media are evil. There are plenty of good witches too, such as Glinda from “The Wizard of Oz” and the family from “Halloweentown.” When there is an evil witch, however, killing them is presented as an act of heroism. 

Although witchcraft itself is definitively fictional, the persecution and demonization of suspected witches was a very real part of history. Beginning in the 15th century with the official condemnation of witchcraft by the Catholic Church, Europe and later, the American colonies, were ravaged by years of witch hunts and executions. The fictionalization of witchcraft and witch persecution in contemporary media and culture erases this history. 

The fictionalization of witchcraft and witch persecution in contemporary media and culture erases this history. 

We all love to watch movies like “Hocus Pocus,” and although historical accuracy isn’t crucial in these cases, it’s important to question the role these depictions, and the public perception they have created, have in the broader narrative.

In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII issued a document condemning witchcraft as heresy. Later, two of his clergymen would publish an influential book on witches and witchcraft: “The Hammer of Witches.” This treatise demonized witchcraft and encouraged the hunting, torture and execution of alleged witches.

A few decades prior, the Gutenberg printing press was invented in Germany, drastically affecting the circulation of information. People across Europe were now reading the same material, and this played a major role in the witch hunts. “The Hammer of Witches” and other materials were distributed, and with them, the suspicion of witches also spread. The fear of witchcraft wasn’t new to European society, yet few instances of witch persecution occurred before this shift. 

It was in the mid-1500s in the height of the Protestant Reformation that the active persecution of witches began. This is crucial in the context of witch-hunting because of the panic and division this religious shift seemed to cause. This, along with the new circulation of mass information, encouraged and permitted people to identify and persecute alleged witches. 

Recent research from the Economic Journal outlines the severe effect of religious upheaval on the persecution of witches during this period. At the point of the Reformation, the condemnation and fear of witches had been widespread for hundreds of years, yet few executions actually occurred. The article states:

“Europe’s witch trials reflected non-price competition between the Catholic and Protestant churches for religious market share in confessionally contested parts of Christendom. By leveraging popular belief in witchcraft, witch-prosecutors advertised their confessional brands’ commitment and power to protect citizens from worldly manifestations of Satan’s evil.”

The frenzy around the shifting religious power and competition for followers led to the increase of mass witch hunts and executions. On top of this, recent literature has pointed to a more general lack of authority as a contributing factor in the prevalence of witch-hunting. Rates of executions, along with panic and hysteria, were highest in areas along national and political borders.

Germany had many different political authorities throughout the country in the 16th century and had the highest number of recorded executions. Switzerland, similarly, with more than 5500 executions, had no strong central authority. England did have a strong government and didn’t have many witch hunts; however, this all changed during the English Civil War when the witch hysteria appeared and executions rose sharply. 

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From these theories and different claims to the causes of “The Burning Times,” a pattern emerges around the concept of transition. Religious and political changes caused strife for Europeans during this period. Thomas Schoeneman, professor of psychology at Lewis & Clark College, argues in a 1975 article for “Ethos” entitled “The witch hunt as a cultural change phenomenon” that the occurrence of witch hunts are reflective of cultural change and emerge from “situations of chronic cultural distortion and disorganization.” This era in early modern Europe is exemplary of a rapid and disorienting period of change. 

Examining the causes for the witch hunts is crucial, but so is examining the demographics of impact. Some academics have deemed this period of mass executions a “gendercide” because the victims of the witch hysteria were almost all women. Not all women who were accused were convicted or even put on trial. Among those who were convicted, however, about half would be executed, usually by public hanging or burning.

The estimations of European witch executions during this period are about 80,000, and this number doesn’t even include those who were only persecuted or tortured. Boston University professor Steven Katz, argues that “the witch craze was inseparable from the stigmatization of women” in his book “The Holocaust in Historical Context, Vol I.”

Although there were also men and children accused and killed in the witch-hunting frenzy, the overwhelming majority of those persecuted were women. Additionally, in the periods in which hysteria was at a high, the percentage of the accused who were women increased dramatically. Katz continues on the topic in his book, writing: “Indeed, one strongly suspects that the development of witch-hunting into a mass hysteria only became possible when directed primarily at women.” 

Not only was this fear and hatred directed primarily at women, but specifically at women who were seen as outcasts. Witch hunters, who were usually men of the landed class, were hired as mercenaries by villages and tended to target people in the community who were viewed as “undesirable.” These unwanted members were typically poor or elderly, but the biggest determining factor was how attached they were to the community.

More than 70% of the women accused of witchcraft were widows. The 13 women executed in the Salem witch trials were vulnerable members of the community allegedly seen as unruly for not fitting into society’s standards. The widespread fear and animosity clearly had a specific target: undesirable and unattached women.

The widespread fear and animosity clearly had a specific target: undesirable and unattached women.

Modern representations of witchcraft are generally negative, and the witches are rarely innocent. More importantly, though, they are presented in the light-hearted, fantastical manner of fictional storytelling. This narrative distances itself from historical accuracy and, therefore, contributes to the erasure of the atrocity and “femicide” of the witch hunts. 

The history of this period in early modern Europe and the American colonies shows us that it wasn’t just a few women killed nor was it random targeting. The executions were prevalent, brutal and discriminatory. After reviewing this unfair persecution of poor and outcast women during this period, modern depictions like the evil Sanderson sisters who kill children seem less playful and inconsequential, as movies like this shape our perceptions. 

Again, not all movies and books need to portray the witch trials completely accurately because witches themselves are fictional. But when all of our media represents only a fabricated version of the past, it makes light of the accusations on the actual women of the time, which were all untrue and unjust. Women were accused of bewitching children, ruining crops and being a general terror toward villages. 

By showing witches in modern movies and books who actually exhibit these traits, it blurs our perception of witch hunts to the point in which they are almost entirely viewed as a joke outside of academia and not at all as the mass murders they were. You can go on ‘witch tours’ in Edinburgh, Scotland and Salem, Massachusetts. In Germany, you can visit the Berlin Dungeon, whose website features the tagline: “Will You Survive the Curse of the Witch?” If not distorted into villainous movie characters, the witch trials are turned into a gimmick for tourist sales. 

So why has our society seemed to have forgotten how terrible this period in history was? In the United States, we’re familiar with the Salem witch trials, which were heavily informed by their European predecessors, but in terms of remembering the entirety and actuality of the burning times, we’ve fallen short. 

So this Halloween, remember that witches have a very real and horrific place in history. We should keep this knowledge in mind to better frame our understanding of witch hunts as this narrative continues to be a part of our popular culture. By understanding the real history of the witch hunts, we can avoid its erasure.

Contact Sarah Frechette at [email protected].