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Hunting for Witches

“The Witch, No. 3”, c.1892 by Joseph Baker.

IT HAS TO be said, us Humans are a particularly nasty lot. You only have to look throughout history to be particularly glad of being born today instead of centuries ago. It’s a wonder anyone survived at all really.

One such nasty phenomenon that fascinates me was the popular belief in Witches and Witchcraft in previous centuries, and just how widespread and prevalent it was throughout many different cultures.

Today we laugh at the concept of witches and witchcraft. From a modern Western perspective at least. Yet centuries ago the fear of Witches periodically resulted in serious outbreaks of public mass hysteria and lynching throughout Europe & North America.

Even right up to relatively modern times (1712) there are frequent cases where legally sanctioned punishments and official witchcraft trials took place.

It hasn’t always like this through history though. As early as the 8th century there was even a ban on the belief of Witches. Charlemagne the Great condemned “the persecution of alleged witches and wizards”, calling the belief in witchcraft “superstitious” and ordering the death penalty for those who ‘presumed to burn witches’. This enlightened leader was a shining beacon of sense in an otherwise desperately persecuting world.

This all changed when Europe entered the Dark ages/Middle ages and the Catholic Church got in on the act. After the Pope in 1468 removed all legal limits on the application of torture in catching Witches, the hunting of witches expanded rapidly and even became a profession.

It is estimated that between 1480 to 1700, the ‘classical period’ of witchhunts in Europe and North America, around 40,000 to 100,000 executions took place. Professional Witch-hunters scoured the population, each often having a signature way of finding and ‘extracting information’ from those accused of witch craft.

Those accused were dealt with gruesomely prior to certain death. Techniques used to force confessions from believed witches included the Scold’s Bridle (where the head of the accused was locked in an iron cage causing spikes to be driven through the tongue), the Ducking Stool (often in a stagnant or filth-ridden pool of water), Red-hot Piercing (particularly of the genitals), Sexual Humiliation and bodily Mutilation.

Even with something seemingly less deadly, such as the ducking Stool, it was believed that if the accused were guilty then they would float upon the surface of the water, their body trying to reject God’s holy water. If the accused were innocent, then they would sink and drown!

In the United Kingdom, occasional prosecutions under the Witchcraft Act (an act which prohibits claiming to be a witch, though bizarrely not actually being one!) continued well into the 20th century. The Act was repealed in 1951 and replaced with the Fraudulent Mediums Act which prohibited a person from claiming to be a psychic, medium, or other spiritualist while attempting to make money from the deception (other than solely for the purpose of entertainment).

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