All Americans know about the Salem witch-trials in Massachusetts which resulted in the deaths of around twenty people. Not many of them are as informed as to the Great Hunt in Europe, which lasted almost one hundred years – from 1550 to 1650 AD.
Also known as the Burning Time, it was an extreme side of a three-century old cycle of witch-hunting that ran from the 14th through the 17th centuries. Over the course of the centuries, thousands of people (primarily women) were accused and hauled into court. Some were allowed to live after suffering horrendous tortures, while others were executed en masse at the stake.
Not too surprisingly, it was unmarried older women who faced the most risk of accusation. In patriarchal society they lacked most legal authority, and most could not live independently. The result was a woman who, due to age and experience, generally held herself equal to the male head of the house and who faced a steadily declining ability to be useful. This is not to say that families conspired to oust their grandmothers or maiden aunts, but that these women held a unique and undefined place in society which in a sense placed them as a sort of outsider. It does not take a stretch of imagination to visualize the following scenario:
“A small family has a nice farm, perhaps part of it came as a dowry when the grandmother married in. They are not wealthy but they get along. A townsman offers to purchase a plot of land since it would make a nice addition to his own neighboring land. He is refused; they need the land to live. He sulks off, and over the course of the next several weeks bad-mouths the family. Certain comments of his concerning the grandmother’s unusual mobility or certain eccentric ways take hold of some other townsfolk, man and woman alike.
They scuttlebutt the rumors, which grow into beliefs, which with additional time and exaggeration grow into ‘truths’. The grandmother is accused of witchcraft and as a result of the trial the family loses almost everything. The townsman acquires the plot of land guilt-free and other townspeople attain the family’s erstwhile belongings.”
Remember – this was in a day and age when malignant witches, fairies, and other supernatural entities were taken as a matter of course to explain the mysteries of everyday life.
The above scenario uses only one of many theories as to how the accused were chosen out of the village at large. One known method of gathering new ‘witches’ was question someone already accused. Often some sort of lenience was offered if the accused ‘repented’ enough to offer the names of co-conspirators. Since accused – not even guilty, accused – witches were typically tortured to elicit confessions, the unfortunates would invariably say almost anything to make the pain and torture stop.
Ironically (considering today’s popular belief), the fewest executions took place where the Catholic Church was strongest. Ireland had a total of 4 executions while Protestant Germany hit the high mark of 26,000. Even then, the majority of executions were carried out by the secular courts. Courts handled by the religious leaders were more likely to sentence fining or some sort of task whereas the secular courts were prone towards a variety of executions, selling the accused into slavery, whipping, flogging, dunking and so forth.
There are several possible reasons why the Church was so lenient towards the accused witches. The first has to do with Christianity’s mandate of forgiveness towards those who genuinely repent their sins. While it is true that the Christian Bible, in both the New and Old Testaments, commands that witches be either burned or stoned to death, the New Testament also commands that those who genuinely repent of their sins and return to the Lord should be forgiven.
Naturally this would not absolve them of the punishment for any crimes committed, but the Church would then be obligated to let them live and to help them return to the ‘path of righteousness.’ In the religious and political fluctuation that followed the Reformation, which was also followed by the witch-hunts, it is likely that the Catholic Church feared losing more members. They were already under strict scrutiny and disdain by the common people for holding certain beliefs not in strict accordance with the Bible. With the Protestants gaining power, the Catholics dared not do anything to lose favor with any friends or family of an accused witch.
Likewise the Protestants held the same mandate of forgiveness towards the genuinely repentant and did not want to chase potential followers into the Catholic fold. Again, this is a theory and not substantiated by personal research.
The secular courts would have been more unforgiving likely because they had nothing so drastic to risk by causing disfavor among a few families. Then as now, it was more difficult to combat legal authority than religious authority. Moving to a different district was more onerous then in terms of money, job-seeking and building ties. It was typically not done unless life itself was threatened. Additionally, there would be the feeling that running away proved guilt.
Whatever the reasons for accusing people of witchcraft and whatever the reasons for their executions, after the Great Hunt ended around 1650, witch-hunts in general sharply declined. Presumably the long time of fear and death at last wore the people down to where they either no longer believed in witches or felt that one or two possible live threats weren’t worth the degradation and death of so many innocents. Whatever the reason, witch-hunting in Europe ceased shortly after the beginning of the 18th century.More on Europe’s Witch-hunts
Witch-hunts as Gendercide
Discussion of Europe’s Witch-hunts