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Page last updated at 16:45 GMT, Friday, 30 October 2009

The burning times

Engraving showing woman burnt at the stake
Thousands of women were burnt at the stake after arbitrary trials

By Bob Chaundy

Witches remain a significant cultural presence centuries after thousands of women, and men, accused of sorcery were burned at the stake. But what caused the craze for burning witches, and why did it stop?

If you're offered a trick or treat on Halloween, it's quite likely to be by someone dressed as a witch. It used to be said that those who travel on the night of 31 October should cross a piece of bread with salt in order to avoid a witch's evil clutches.

In the 16th and 17th centuries in particular, they had a simpler method. They executed them.

Child at bonfire
Children dress up as witches without understanding the brutal history

A frenzy of witch-hunts took place during this time in Europe, mostly in German-speaking parts, with an estimated 60,000 people put to death.

In mainland Europe and Scotland they burned them, with the peak period between 1580 and 1662 often referred to as The Burning Times. England and its colonies in north America preferred hanging.

This was a time when many believed in the supernatural and misfortune was thought to be the work of the Devil or his servants. There was a widespread belief in Europe that a strong nation was one that had a uniform religious faith. By consorting with the Devil, "witches" were committing treason and were punishable by courts enforcing anti-witchcraft statutes.

The witches, of course, were nothing like the stereotype of the carbuncled hags shrieking incantations around a cauldron full of devilish potions. They were ordinary people who were often the convenient scapegoats for anything from a death in the village to the failure of crops. Individuals would often have been branded a witch after falling out with a neighbour.

When a great fear takes hold of society, that society looks naturally to the stereotype of the enemy in its midst
Hugh Trevor-Roper

There was no average witch. Alhough most would be poor and elderly, this would vary from region to region. The accused were not even all women. Around a quarter of those executed were men.

England's most famous were the Pendle Witches from Lancashire who were convicted of murdering 17 people in 1612. Their prosecutors argued they had sold their souls to the Devil in return for being able to lame or kill anyone they pleased. The trial was meticulously documented and appeared the following year in book form. Enormous crowds flocked to Lancaster Gaol to watch 10 "witches" - eight women and two men - die on the gallows.

In the famous Salem Witch Trials in Massachusetts in 1692, more than 200 individuals were "cried out against" as witches by so-called "afflicted children". Of the suspects, 19 were eventually convicted and hanged. Their accusations were believed because children were then considered to be natural witch-finders. In her book, A Mirror of Witchcraft, Christina Hole points out that 17th Century English villages routinely used children in this way and that many became quite famous.

Woodcut of witches
Not all Christian countries burnt witches in large numbers

In Scotland, where nearly 4,000 people died during a frenetic period of witch trials between 1590 and 1662, one of the popular types of evidence used against suspects was the Devil's Mark. When his followers made their pact with him, the Devil supposedly left his mark, usually an insensitive spot, upon him or her. Professional witch prickers were employed in the country to search for them.

Eventually, witch pricking came to be seen as fraudulent, and soon the whole notion of witchcraft was being discredited. There had been growing scepticism even at the time that many witch-hunts had been about score settling and that innocent people were being executed. The use of torture to exact convictions became increasingly regarded as unreliable.

Witch trials became more rigorous in the evidence they accepted. Many of the accusers at the Salem trials had claimed to have seen spectres or apparitions of the people supposedly doing them harm.

Many prominent figures of authority wrote books and pamphlets shortly afterwards pouring scorn on this phenomenon. In his biography of one of the judges, Samuel Sewall, author Richard Francis argues that the aftermath of the trials marked the birth of the modern age when the US found its conscience.

Woman invokes supernatural intervention at witchcraft trial
Witch prickers and children were used to condemn people

The Age of Enlightenment, with its emphasis on reason and logic, was beginning in Europe and natural causes began to replace the Devil as the reason behind much of society's ills.

By 1736, the Witchcraft Acts in England and Scotland had both been repealed. The same happened on the continent. Within a few years, several judges who condemned the Salem witches to their deaths admitted they had made a grave mistake. So what had caused this witch craze?

Modern research has debunked many myths, for example that it was church officials deliberately whipping up hysteria to rid the world of the cult of "magic", or a controlled campaign to tackle outcasts.

Rather, as Robert W Thurston puts it in his book Witch, Wicce, Mother Goose, the witch persecutions were to do with "a profound shaking of people's confidence that their world could survive". The Burning Times came in the aftermath of the Reformation, when the split in the Christian faith caused great turmoil.

Witch on lantern
Things changed with the rise of rationalism in the Enlightenment

Communities were also coping with wars, and pestilence like the Black Death. In England, the worst witch craze took place during the English Civil War. The Thirty Years War was also gripping Germany.

In her paper, Recent Developments in the Study of the Great European Witch Hunt, Jenny Gibbons notes that most witch-hunts took place where central authority had broken down, often in border areas "where rival Christian sects fought to impose their religious views on each other". It was partly for this reason that local secular courts meted out the harshest judgements.

In countries like Spain, Italy and Russia, where a strong, unified Church existed, there were few witch trials. When the threats receded, so did the panic and hysteria.

In his book The European Witch-Craze, historian Hugh Trevor-Roper wrote: "When a great fear takes hold of society, that society looks naturally to the stereotype of the enemy in its midst."

Modern history is littered with such witch-hunts, the Holocaust being the most extreme example. The story of the thousands of so-called witches who died a gruesome death many centuries ago still holds lessons for today.

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