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21 September 2022

From the NS archive: Witchcraft

3 April 1915: Over the course of three months in 1515, 500 witches are said to have been burned in Geneva.

By New Statesman

We often associate the trials of witches with the Middle Ages, when many people believed in “magic influences and Satanic interventions”. During this period a bad harvest or torrential storm might be blamed on a woman – and it was almost always women who were accused. But, as detailed in this piece from 1915, women were still being put on trial for witchcraft in the early 20th century. The anonymous writer follows this fascination with witchcraft throughout history, from its origins in Judea and ancient Greece to the various torture methods devised to “discover” a witch. Suspicion of witches transcends communities, shared by farmers and monarchs, Catholics and Protestants. These disparate groups may have held differing beliefs on other topics, but “they never quarrelled over the belief in witchcraft”.


People rubbed their eyes (if we may use a metaphor that has grown rather meaningless) when they read the other day that a black woman was to be tried for witchcraft somewhere in Nova Scotia. The announcement seemed to carry one back to as topsy-turvy a world as the world of lunatics. It was a world scarcely less removed from our own than the world of Jack and the Beanstalk – a world in which men believed that if you kept a chrysolite in your right ear you were sure to become wise and in which it was possible (as the Mayor of Bale did in the fifteenth century) to condemn a cock to be burnt alive for laying an egg. It was a world of magic influences and Satanic interventions.

Men had not yet invented the laws of nature. They perceived no law in nature save that anything might happen. Children laugh nowadays when they read about the pobble that had no toes and went to sea in a sieve. In the later Middle Ages the pobble that had no toes would have been no laughing matter. No intelligent man would have been surprised to meet him in his perilous vessel in the course of a sea voyage. Practically all the best scholars and judges were agreed that Satan had both the power and the will to populate the Earth with grotesque shapes capable of doing impossible things. The witch riding on her broom through the air was as common a feature of mediaeval life as the aeroplane is of our own. The persecution of those unhappy creatures who were supposed to be given to playing devil’s games of this kind is perhaps the most terrible stain on the history of Christianity.

People have believed in witchcraft in all ages. There were laws against it in Judea and Greece and Rome. But at no time or place in the world’s history has there been the same wholesale system of torture and murder of feeble old women as in Christian Europe in the centuries immediately before and after the Reformation. The number of women – it was almost always women who were accused of witchcraft – who were hanged and burned and strangled during this period as witches is to be computed not in hundreds but in hundreds of thousands: some writers even put it at several millions.

In 1515 about five hundred witches are said to have been burnt in Geneva alone in three months. And similar fires were raging intermittently all over the Christian world at the same time. Catholic and Protestant quarrelled over many articles of belief, but they never quarrelled over the belief in witchcraft. Luther believed in it as earnestly as Pope Innocent VIII, who issued a bull against it in 1484.

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Nothing affords a better idea of the extent to which the belief was accepted even among the most humane and tolerant than the fact that Sir Thomas Browne gave evidence in court against two poor women who were charged with being witches, and was the means of having them put to death.

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Even after the persecution of supposed witches had ceased in England, we find noble minds looking back regretfully to the past when men were more credulous in these matters. Thus we find John Wesley in 1768 declaring that the disbelief in witchcraft was “in direct opposition, not only to the Bible, but to the suffrage of the wisest and best of men in all ages and nations”. “The giving up of witchcraft,” he added, arguing after the manner of orthodox theologians and orthodox politicians in all ages, “is in effect giving up the Bible.”

Wesley’s appeal to the opinion of “the wisest and best of men in all ages” was by no means without justification. He might have gone further and claimed that there was as great a body of evidence in support of the existence of witchcraft as in support of anything that had ever happened on the Earth. Men did not cease to believe in witchcraft because the evidence was against it, but because they gradually got a vague idea that such things did not happen. It is by faith rather than by reason that we have come to disbelieve in a world of witches. As Lecky has said, “if we considered witchcraft probable, a hundredth part of the evidence we possess would have placed it beyond the region of doubt.”

But we do not consider it probable. The bias of our mind is against it, just as the bias of the mind of our ancestors was in favour of it. So hostile are we to such a notion that we can scarcely realise, as we read Macbeth, that when Shakespeare brought the witches on to the stage, he possibly did not regard them as the arbitrarily invented figures of pantomime which they now seem to be. Shakespeare, it must be remembered, lived in an England in which the monarch on the throne believed in witchcraft as one believes nowadays in electricity.

Queen Elizabeth was as superstitious as Dr Dee, and with James I horror of witchcraft was a cruel passion. King James was firmly convinced that it was witches who caused the storm that tossed his ship on his return from Denmark with the Princess Anne. A schoolmaster named Dr Fian was accused of having collaborated with them, and the King himself was present at the tortures of which it was attempted to wring a confession from him. The boot was applied, and the bones of the man’s legs broken to pieces. This proving unsatisfactory – we quote this in order to recall what human nature is capable of when it yields to some mad idea – “his nails upon all his fingers were riven and pulled off with an instrument called in Scottish a turkas, which in England we call a payre of pincers, and under everie nayle there was thrust in two needles over, even up to the heads.”

The story was told at the time – indeed, the witch Agnes Keith, the “Wise Woman of Keith” confessed it herself – that when the King was in Denmark, Agnes Keith took a cat, christened it, attached to it some of the bones of a dead man, and along with several other witches sailing in their sieves, took it out into the middle of the sea and left it opposite the town of Leith, with the result that a fierce storm arose. Ultimately both the schoolmaster and the Wise Woman were hanged; and another of the “witches”, Euphemia Macalzean, daughter of Lord Cliftondale, was condemned to be burned to death.

This case was typical of many that occurred in England and Scotland – especially in Scotland – during that era. Scotland, with an imagination inflamed by belief in an all but omnipresent and omnipotent Devil, set herself with terrible zeal to the task of exterminating the Devil’s daughters. So ordinary were accusations of witchcraft, that boxes were put in the churches to receive them. When once a woman was accused of witchcraft, the authorities left nothing undone to prove her guilt. The witch’s bridle was bound round her head, with its four iron prongs in her mouth, and she was then tied to a wall in such a way as to make it impossible for her to lie clown. In this position she was “waked” day after day, night after night, by relays of men till her spirit was broken and she confessed to the sin she had never committed. Practically all the witches who were burned during the Middle Ages and the ages that succeeded the Reformation confessed their guilt. Who would not in similar circumstances?

There were in Scotland people called “prickers”, whose duty it was to prick the accused persons nil over with long pins, partly in order to keep them from sleeping, and partly to discover that insensitive spot which was supposed to be the special mark of a witch. This was the method chiefly employed by Matthew Hopkins, the famous seventeenth-century witch-finder, who is said to have procured the death of about a hundred “witches” in East Anglia between 1645 and 1647.

Another method of “discovering” witches was to tie the thumbs and the great toes of the accused woman crosswise, and then to drag her through a pond. If she sank, she might be drowned, but at least she was vindicated as a Christian. If she floated high, as she usually did in such circumstances, it was regarded as proof that she had not been baptised and that the water was therefore trying to reject her.

Ultimately, this fury of persecution spent itself, and men simply got tired of paying so much tribute to the Devil. The last “witches” known to have been put to death in England were Mrs Hicks and her nine-year-old daughter, who were hanged at Huntingdon in 1716. The last execution for witchcraft in Scotland is generally said to have taken place six years later, but the persecution may have continued a few years longer. In other parts of Europe it lasted longer still. Nine women were burned as witches in Poland in 1775.

Even though the harshest of the laws against witchcraft have long been dead, the belief in witchcraft still survives in all parts of the uncivilised world, and in many parts of the civilised world as in Nova Scotia. In London the wealthy believers in witchcraft are only prevented by the police from having an abundance of professional sorcerers and sorceresses to get knowledge and help for them from the Devil. It is odd that society as a whole should still punish witches long after it has ceased to believe in them. It used to punish them for being real: now it punishes them for being bogus.

The way of witches is hard. If belief in them survives among the rich and the educated, it is a thousand times more frequent among peasant populations. The Italian peasant believes in the witchcraft of the evil eye far more fervently than in Imperialism, and the witch that steals the butter is still a sinister figure in the imagination of the elderly farmer in Ireland. Who that has travelled in Ireland has not met with a farmer’s wife full of the story of how her milk began to yield no butter and how she discovered that this was due to a spell put upon it by some old woman in the neighbourhood? It is as a charm against witchcraft that a horseshoe or some other iron object is often nailed to the bottom of the churn, or the churn-handle made of the wood of a rowan tree. The belief in the power of witches to transform themselves into animals is also common among country people. Everybody has heard stories of the hare that mysteriously disappears after being shot, while a witch is discovered shortly afterwards not far from the same spot with her leg bleeding.

We doubt, however, whether the more serious cases of human transformations into animals are now believed anywhere in Europe. Even in the age of the great credulity, indeed, stories of witches who could turn themselves into wolves were widely disbelieved. The fifth-century law of the Salian Franks to the effect that “any sorceress who has devoured a man should on conviction be fined two hundred sous” reminds us at the same time how strong a hold such fables have had at certain periods on the imagination of the race.

In recent years there have been signs of a revival of interest in witchcraft; and there is always a danger that interest in spiritualism may degenerate into this. There is very little doubt that the spiritualistic mediums of our day, had they lived in the Middle Ages, would have stood an excellent chance of being burnt as witches. Did not the late Father Benson write a novel to suggest that the spirits which manifest themselves to the spiritualists are devils disguising themselves as one’s friends and good angels? And is not communion with the Devil of the very essence of witchcraft? Luckily, even if we accepted this interpretation of spiritualism, the common sense of civilised people would prevent any revival of persecution of those suspected of witchcraft.

We have come to feel that if the Devil is at all dangerous, he is least dangerous of all when engaged in his pranks. The Devil who helps an old woman to ride through the night on a broomstick is a genial fellow compared to the Devil that from time to time inhabits our own breasts, and the Devil in the shape of a black cat is good company compared to the Devil in the shape of a black thought. Anyhow, so we tell ourselves. But if we really believed in the broomstick and the black cat, we might easily sing another tune.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).