European Witch Hunts and the Christian Church Part 2

This post is part 2 of 3. Part 1 can be read here

File:Salem Witch trial engraving.jpg

The Realities of the Witch Hunts

The period of European witch hunts is generally defined as the four centuries between 1400 and 1800. Perhaps in part because of the intriguing, sensational nature of the subject, witch hunts have been blown well out of proportion in terms of their prevalence and victim estimations. According to Stark, “Few topics have prompted so much nonsense and outright fabrication as the European witch-hunts. Some of the most famous episodes never took place…and even the current ‘scholarly’ literature abounds in absurd death tolls.”[1] A responsible estimate for the number executed is approximately 60,000, with the bloodiest period of hunting occurring between 1550 and 1650.[2]

Popular stories of witch-hunting fanaticism frequently tend to overshadow the reality, which is that most inquisitors and judges were intent on reaching just verdicts.[3] Indeed, the rate of convictions, around fifty to fifty-five percent, was as low as criminal convictions of any kind ever went during that time period.[4] Accusations of witchcraft were almost always localized, rural incidents, and whenever local control was over-ridden, acquittal was the usual result.[5] The death penalty was not a foregone conclusion of a witchcraft conviction, though it was the usual sentence in some areas, only because that penalty was the typical penalty for any significant offense.[6] Execution of witches was usually carried out by means other than burning at the stake.[7] Those who were burned were often, but not always, mercifully killed by other means before being burned, the latter of which was thought to prevent resurrection of the body.[8]

It is a tragic truth that some accused witches were tortured into giving confessions of witchcraft, a fact that likely encouraged the occasional voluntary confessions. The accused were sometimes tortured by methods thought to “test” whether or not an individual was a genuine witch.[9] For example, a widely held belief in England was that witches would not sink in water. “Swimming” or “floating” a suspect involved tying the left thumb to the right foot and the right thumb to the left foot, tying a rope around the waist (to retrieve the innocent sinkers), and then tossing the suspect into the water to see whether or not they would float.[10] Perhaps as a result of the pain or the threat of pain, fantastical accounts of witch sabbats, magical flight (including, but not limited to, using the traditional broomstick), sexual intercourse with the Devil, and practice of maleficia were confessed, further heightening the fears and other motivations of the accusers.[11] Sensible, decent people then took measures to extinguish what they perceived as dangerous evil in their midst.

In the third and final post in this essay series, I will discuss what the Church’s involvement was (and was not) in the European witch hunts. 

[1] Stark, 202.

[2] Ibid., 203.

[3] Ibid., 204.

[4] Ibid.

[5] J.P. Sommerville, Online Course Materials, University of Wisconsin, Madison. URL: <> (Accessed October 26, 2012).

[6] Stark, 204.

[7] Brian Pavlac, “Ten Common Errors and Myths about the Witch Hunts, Corrected and Commented,” Prof. Pavlac’s Women’s History Resource Site. (2 May 2012). URL: <;  (Accessed October 25, 2012).

[8] Stark, 204.

[9] Sommerville, Online Course Materials, University of Wisconsin, Madison.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Stark, 202.

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