THE APPEARANCE AND DISAPPEARANCE OF WITCH-HUNTING
Nowadays the theme of magic seems to make many appearances in our novels, TV series, films, and many more of the guilty pleasures of life. Magic is something we fantasise about, and at the same time perceive as a figment of the imagination. However, it hasn’t always been like that.
In the Middle Ages, witchcraft as a form of magic practiced by (usually elderly) women was divided into three sections: black magic, white magic, and demonic magic. Black magic was used to harm another individual; white magic was used to protect life stock, among other things; and demonic magic involved Satan working with or within an individual. The latter form of magic led to the infamous witch trials. It all really started in 1542, when the British Parliament passed the Witchcraft Act, which defined witchcraft as an act punishable by death (Parliament.uk). Witch trials consisted of eleven stages: the accusation, the examination of the accuser, the gathering of preliminary evidence, the arrest of the Witch, hiring a lawyer, torture, interrogation, free confession, sentencing and execution, the appeal, and the payment. Apart from the torture and somehow inevitable execution it almost seems like an average trial.
The accusation of a witch could be a complaint, a denunciation, or sometimes even just a rumour. After accusation, the court was supposed to cross-examine the accuser; something that hardly ever happened in practice. Since the examination of the accuser was usually skipped, it did not make sense to gather evidence either. After the complaint the alleged witch would usually immediately be arrested. Imprisonment was not exactly amusing: there have even been cases in which the accused was locked up in her home to be publicly humiliated and harassed by her accuser(s). Witches had the slight consolation that they could hire a lawyer, pro-vided that they were in a country that permitted this (in general and/or to witches), and that they had the money to afford one. The next three stages usually blurred together. Tor-ture and interrogation were perceived as the witch’s saviours: once she confessed, the people would make her rat out other supposed witches and “help” them on the path to salvation.
In addition to this procedure, numerous different strategies were developed during the seventeenth century to determine whether a woman was a witch. Swimming was one of these: after a woman had been dumped into the water, whether she would float or sink determined whether she was a witch. If she floated, she would be considered a witch; if she sank it meant that God’s water had accepted her and that she was pure.
Another strategy was the weighing of a witch. A suspect would be put on a scale and her weight compared to that of a big copy of the Bible. If she weighed less than the Bible she would be considered a witch. With these practices witch hunting had in fact started running out of control (Davies 7-8). It was only in 1736 that the Parliament decided to no longer consider witchcraft a criminal act, but an offense against the country. In short, someone who was claimed to have magical powers could only be sentenced to imprisonment or to pay a fine. This signalled the end of all the witch trials (Davies 1).
Nonetheless, it was not just laws that started and eventually ended witch hunting. It was the people. At the end of the eighteenth century the number of witch trials had already decreased, and especially the number of women found guilty during these trials had lowered. In Essex, for instance, there only 39 trials date from 1647 to 1680, twenty of which were rejected as being ignoramus. It seems that during this time the juries seemed to be more doubtful about the so-called evidence (swimming, weighting and rumours) (Davies 81).Witchcraft was in a way already being transformed from a threat to the nation to a mere figment of the imagination.
by Nina Fokkink
Parliament.uk. “Living Heritage: Religion and Belief: Witchcraft.” Parliament.uk. Web. 22 November 2014.
Davies, Owen. Witchcraft, Magic and Culture 1736-1951. Manchester, Manchester UP, 1999. Print.