A brief History of Witchcraft Persecutions Before Salem

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“A Brief History of Witchcraft Persecutions Before Salem”

Douglas Linder


University of Missouri-Kansas City


printed 8/11/2012

Notes from 9/12/2012 lecture:
560 BC (before Christ…also seen as BCE…Before Common Era)

* Hebrew (Jewish) Bible texts (Old Testament) prohibit witches and prescribe stoning as means of execution.

  • Exodus 22:18 “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”

(KJV…King James Version)

  • Leviticus 20:27 precribes stoning as means of execution

* These texts were written during a period of Jewish exile into what is now Iraq during the reign of Evil Merodach…perhaps to encourage Jews to adhere to the tenets of their faith and rituals rather than assimilate into the surrounding tribes…this is similar to the Salem Trials in that the Puritan ministers used the trials to reassert Puritan values and customs which the younger generations were beginning to reject in favor of more freedom

* The word witch is the translation of the Hebrew word kashaph which comes

from the root meaning to whisper…so witch would mean “one who whispers a spell”

420 AD (After Death of Christ…also seen as CE…Common Era)

* Saint Augustine’s philosophy that only God could suspend Natural Laws was adopted by the early Church (the only Christian Church was the Catholic Church at this time and the Pope was seen as God’s messenger and was the leader of the Christian world)

*If God is all-powerful, then witches can only do minor mischief and were not viewed as a threat to humanity…therefore, there was no need to “seek and destroy”

* Pope Innocent III launches a crusade against the Cathars (in Modern France) who believed in the equal powers of God and Satan and that the two were in constant war.

* Propagandists portrayed the Cathars as kissing the Devil’s “backside” as a sign of loyalty…hence the phrase today is still considered an insult
* It is during this time that Satan changed from a trickster/mischief-maker to a

sinister force and a threat to mankind


* Saint Thomas Aquinas made the case that the world is filled with demons and evil temptations…his philosophy is adopted by the Church

* Aquinas equated sex and women with tools of Satan for use in tempting men into evil…this association helps to explain the lack of women within the church leadership and the later Puritan belief that women should not speak in church and should be ruled by their husbands…all this harkens back to the Fall from Grace when Eve eats of the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden as told in Genesis…this mindset regarding women makes them much more likely to be accused of witchcraft

* The Cathars who had escaped Pope Innocent III’s crusade in 1208, were pursued in Germany…the area to which they had fled

* The Cathars were thought to engage in magical pacts or demon-driven sexual misconduct (remember St Thomas Aquinas’s philosophy regarding sex and women) and were therefore subjected to torture as accused witches
* Confessions of flying on poles and animals, meeting with Satan (who appeared in the form of a goat or other animal), casting spells of neighbors, beastality, and causing storms and other weather events
* Witchcraft became criminalized…a person could be charged, arrested/jailed, and tried in court

* Pope Innocent VIII announced that Satanists in Germany were meeting with demons, were casting spells to destroy crops, and were aborting babies…he then sent two monks to investigate and report back

* Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches) is the book reporting the monks’s findings. This book promotes the belief that witches had powers enough to thwart God’s will. As a result, witch hunting and execution of witches became a Christian duty.
* The book provided for the use of skin discolorations or moles as signs of being a witch, and bringing defendants into the court backwards to prevent spells from being cast on the judges/officials of the court
* This book was reprinted 13 times…which speaks to the spread of witch-hunting and to the signs/symptoms indicating witchery. This is a book with which Reverend Hale would have been familiar in “The Crucible” and perhaps would have been a book he brought with him to Salem for his investigation

* The Protestant Reformation split the Church into Protestant and Catholic…Martin Luther, a German monk, nailed his grievances to the church door in his town and began what would evolve into the Lutheran Church. This created a flurry of accusations of devil worship and witchcraft back and forth between the Protestants and Catholics (think about how this conflict continues even today in Ireland with outbreaks of violence between Protestant and Catholic extremists)

* Executions of witches escalated through the 1500’s

1515…Geneva, Switzerland, 500 burned at the stake

1524…Como, Italy, 1000 burned at the stake

Between 1500 and 1660 (160 years)

Germany, 26,000

France, 10,000

England, 1000

Ireland, 4…gives added meaning to “Luck of the Irish” 

80% of those executed were women…adds new insight into “the war on women” doesn’t it…
* England and Ireland had fewer executions because courtroom procedural safeguards were maintained for accused witched whereas in the countries of mainland Europe, those protections were eliminated and conviction was much easier
* a book published in 1580 encouraged use of children’s testimony against parents, the use of entrapment, and the use of torture in the identification and trial of accused witches

* King James VI of Scotland (eventually also King James I of England…he joined the two countries under one king) travels to Norway to marry Princess Anne of Denmark…her ship was caught in terrible storms and was force to land in Norway. On the return trip to England after the wedding, more storms raged…the ship’s captain claimed it was the work of witchcraft. Six Danish women then confessed to casting spells. King James then approves of the use of torture in the investigation of witches.

* By 1597, King James realized the dangers of aggressive witch hunting and began to address the abuse of prosecutorial power
* It is important to know that King James (Jamestown, VA is named for him) was the monarch under whom the Bible was first translated into English (the King James Version). Also, the Puritans were becoming an active Christian sect in England at this time…teaching their congregants to read so the newly translated Bible could be read by all members in order to form a personal relationship with God.

* Shakespeare writes MACBETH…a play reliant on witchcraft to move the plot forward. Similar to today’s film industry, the play reflected the interests and beliefs of the people. This highlights the attention garnered by witch hunts and trials.


* There is a spike in witch-hunting in mainland Europe due to the Thirty Years War (Protestant rebellion against the Catholic Hapsburg rulers 1618-1648

* England suffers a Civil War which fueled witch hunting in England
* Number of trials dropped significantly by late 1640’s

* Temperance Lloyd, a senile woman, was the last executed in England

* Lord Chief Justice Sir Francis North, an outspoken critic of the witch trials in England, investigated the Lloyd case and found the prosecution deeply flawed. This criticism helped to discourage further prosecutions and witch-hunting faded out of fashion in England…however, it persisted in the New World and culminated with the hysteria in Salem in 1692
* The Enlightenment period began in the 1680’s in Europe and the new focus on empirical reason, skepticism, humanitarianism, and new philosophies of man and his relationship with Nature and with God helped to diminish the witch-hunting and the superstitions of the earlier times
* Enlightenment thinking found there was no empirical evidence of harm caused by supposed witches and taught that torture to gain a confession was inhumane

* Enlightenment thinking did not reach the New World until later…early to mid 1700’s…this delay caused witch hunting to persist in the colonies longer than in Europe

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