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Why were women punished with the stigma "witch", and Why, after 300 years, thousands of victims of the Holy Inquisition decided to pardon
Why were women punished with the stigma "witch", and Why, after 300 years, thousands of victims of the Holy Inquisition decided to pardon

When Halloween approaches, witches can be seen partying in people's homes or strolling the streets with bags of candy in their hands. Everyone has an idea of ​​what a witch should look like: she has a black hat and she flies on a broomstick. We know that they brew their witchcraft in large cast-iron cauldrons and that they are traditionally burned at the stake. There is a flair of frivolity in all this, but once it was more than serious. The tragedy of the dark ages, which they decided today to stir up and try to at least partially correct the evil inflicted then.

Our modern understanding of witches contains too many misconceptions. But now, at least we don't hunt them. But three hundred years ago in Scotland, more than two thousand people were burned at the stake as punishment for being witches.

Model of a 19th century sorceress at the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, Boscastle, Devon

Claire Mitchell, QC, attorney for the criminal appellate court in Edinburgh, is demanding a formal pardon for these unfortunate victims of superstition, who were mostly women. The Witchcraft Act was passed in 1563 and remained in effect for nearly one hundred and seventy-five years. Hundreds of thousands of innocent people became victims of this obscurantism.

Weighing device to find out if the accused is a witch (The Witch Trials)

Men were also accused of witchcraft

In Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, about 60,000 people were executed on charges of witchcraft. Not everyone who was accused of witchcraft was women. In England, during the rather enlightened Elizabethan period, 270 "witches" trials took place. Two hundred and forty-seven of the accused were women and twenty-three were men.

A sculpture of the Horned Wicca God at the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Boscastle, England

During the most famous witch trial in Salem, Massachusetts, men were also among the suspects and convicts. From February 1692 to May 1693, two hundred people were indicted in Salem. As a result, nineteen of them were found guilty: fourteen women and five men. They were: The Reverend George Burroughs, John Willard, George Jacobs Sr., John Proctor, and Samuel Wardwell.

The trial of George Jacobs for witchcraft in Salem Witchcraft in Salem. Engraving John Proctor's home in Peabody, Massachusetts

One of the defendants, Giles Corey, also died. As a result, he was not even found guilty. The unfortunate man simply could not stand the torture, despite which he refused to confess to witchcraft. They checked Corey as follows: they put a board on him and piled stones on top. All he said in response to demands to plead guilty was: "More weight!" Giles held out for three full days before he died. All this says only one thing: if the witch hunter came to the city, then no one was safe - not a man, not a woman, not even a Puritan priest.

Witches are usually portrayed as such


We are all familiar with the "terrible ingredients" of witchcraft potions that witches cooked. Shakespeare glorified phrases such as “frog's finger” and “newt's eye” in his famous poem. In fact, these ingredients are not as exotic or disgusting as we think. It's just that in the Middle Ages, only monks and scientists knew the Latin names of plants. Commoners had their own plant names, which they used in daily life, cooking and medicine.

Witchcraft and Healing (Healing Potions) - Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, Boscastle, Devon, England

The names were often given because of the appearance of the leaves or petals of the plant, or as a way of describing its medicinal properties.So when the witches in Macbeth talked about the "eye of the newt," they most likely meant only wild mustard seeds. "Frog fingers" referred to the leaves of the bulbous buttercup, and "bat hair" simply meant moss. If the "lion's tooth" was found in anything, then it was probably an ordinary dandelion, and the "bird's foot" was fenugreek.

Very few witches were burned at the stake

Medieval miniature depicting the torture and execution of witches

Although we consider burning at the stake as the standard punishment for witchcraft, in fact, witches were usually hanged. Burning was a rather rare, exceptional case. For example, the case of Joan of Arc.

In July 1650, fifteen people (including one man) were executed for witchcraft by hanging at Town Moore in Newcastle, England, and all those convicted in Salem were also hanged, rather than burned to death as is commonly believed.

Execution of Jan Hus

The Witchcraft Act of 1735 still applied in 1944

In 1735, the Witchcraft Act was passed in Great Britain. This law made it a crime to say that someone else possesses magical powers or practices witchcraft. Prior to this, previous legislation was based on the assumption that magic and witchcraft did exist. However, the revised Witchcraft Act of 1735 stated that witchcraft as such was not a violation of the law. On the contrary, the crime was a superstitious idea of ​​the existence of witches.

The law reflected a change in attitudes towards this issue in Europe and ended the witch-hunt in England. The Witchcraft Act of 1735 remained in force in Britain for many years, until the mid-twentieth century. In 1944, Jane Rebecca York became the last person to be tried for him. They accused her not at all of being a witch. The woman claimed to be a medium. She was found guilty of "pretending to summon the spirits of the dead." Several undercover police officers attended her sessions. They were ordered to inquire about non-existent relatives. Yorke told one officer in great detail about how his imaginary brother was burned alive during the bombing.

Accused "witch"

Although this Law was no longer applied after 1944, it was in effect until 1951. Then it was finally canceled and replaced by the Fraudulent Media Act 1951.

On the wings of a mandrake

Mandrake root

The suggestion that witches could fly could be due to the fact that mandrake root and other hallucinogenic plants were used in witchcraft ceremonies. Those who have tried the properties of the "magic" root, described the hallucinogenic and euphoric properties of the plant. It makes you feel as if you are floating. To feel this, during the ritual, the "witches" rubbed an ointment containing mandrake root into the skin and, simply speaking, "got high". It was problematic to eat this ingredient, it could be poisoned.

Therefore, instead, they rubbed the ointment into the body. The best place to absorb it is in the armpits and other delicate parts of the body. For this, they were exposed. As a result, images of naked women flying on brooms appeared.

Witch's broom

There has been much debate about exactly how the witches saddled the broom. Medieval engravings depicted them this way and that. In addition, there were pictures with the use of pitchforks, rakes and other equipment. So this question remained open.

What now?

Claire Mitchell studied a lot of literature and court documents about witches. In particular, she was deeply outraged by the story of a woman convicted of witchcraft. She did not understand what she was accused of and repeated: "How can you be a witch and not know this?"

Claire was so impressed that she decided to learn more about the witches of Scotland. The lawyer lived near Princes Street Gardens, a historic execution site. While visiting this place, she saw war memorials, but she did not meet any mention of all the women who were executed there simply for nothing.

Two Pendle witches, tested at Lancaster in 1612, illustrated from William Harrison Ainsworth's 1849 novel The Lancashire Witches

“It kind of pisses me off that women can't say anything on their own behalf,” she said. Here for Claire, both an interest in history and an interest in human rights and an interest in miscarriages of justice converged on one point. The lawyer also wanted to achieve three things: an official apology, a public national memorial and an official pardon of the convicts.

Mitchell launched a Twitter campaign with the University of Edinburgh historian Professor Julian Goodard and writer Sarah Sheridan. Together, they are going to pursue their goals, pushing the Scottish government to decide to pardon the victims of the witch hunt.

Some progress has already been made in the case of pardoning the victims of the witch hunt

Some progress has already been made. Plaques were recently unveiled in the towns of Valleyfield, Culross and Torribern in honor of the three hundred and eighty women executed for witchcraft in the area. This happened after Parliament passed the Witchcraft Act in 1542. This law declared witchcraft a capital offense. The witch hunt was officially started by James VI of Scotland. He became interested in the issue of witches after his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots, was imprisoned by Queen Elizabeth I for eighteen years and then beheaded in 1587 by order of the queen.

He even wrote a book on the occult, Demonology. Some believe that when Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, he added three witches to please King James. Ironically, James succeeded Queen Elizabeth I and ruled England as James I.

The king personally attended the trials of witches and provoked a real satanic panic in the country. As a result, hundreds of people were first languished in prisons, and then subjected to public torture in order to obtain a confession. The common victims at that time were elderly women from disadvantaged families who could not protect themselves.

During the Middle Ages, witchcraft became strongly associated with religion. After all, it was the church that had the power to punish those who, in their opinion, were possessed by evil spirits. Frightened superstitious people blamed the witches for the unexpected death of a relative, crop failures, and other failures, the reasons for which they did not understand. There were also cases of revenge, envy and other unseemly actions in relation to neighbors.

Sometimes an allegation was enough to be accused of witchcraft

The Witchcraft Acts of 1524 and 1604 allowed witch trials in secular courts. Parliament overturned laws against witchcraft, but the authorities could still jail people who voluntarily declared that they used magical powers. There has even been a dedicated Witches of Scotland website that calls for a campaign for justice for abused souls of men and women wrongly accused of witchcraft.

Even the infamous Salem Witch Trials in Massachusetts in the United States, in which some two hundred people were tried and fourteen women and five men were hanged, were subsequently pardoned. A memorial park was even built in Salem.

Salem witches

I would like to hope that justice will prevail, even after centuries. It is very sad that the tortured and murdered cannot be returned, but at least their good name can be restored. In order to find out how superstitions were treated in Russia, read our article about who owned the clouds, took the water and how it was possible to return the lost sun. Read more about how the witch hunted in different countries and different periods of history, read in another our article.

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