We tend to think that witchcraft and persecution of people for it is as old as time, but it really only features in Europe in the early modern period, ie between the Reformation and the Enlightenment, a time when education and local government were at their lowest ebbs. Elsewhere in this blog there are a few instances of accusations being made, but clear thinking local magistrates and JPs dismissed them as being nonsense and the matter was ended. There were fewer witch trials in the Low Countries than in the rest of Europe, possibly as they were largely maritime communities, they were more sensible and living with risk meant their communities pulled together in crises rather than accusing each other.
This period coincides with the art of Brughel and Bosch, so there was a lot of strange stuff going on. In 1618-48 was the Thirty Years’ War, during which European witch trials peaked, so adding to the chaos and ignorance of the Reformation, allowing fears and superstition to at times rage out of control. Wars were also times when families struggled, a lot of men died, so there were a lot of isolated women, at risk of accusations. And the weather at the time, especially in inland Europe, was tough, so a lot of hunger and starvation made people look for reasons that the church was failing to provide, so they went for scapegoats.

So, here’s a few dates to clarify:
1478 Spanish Inquisition – public trials – auto da fe – against Jews, Muslims, witches
1487 Maleus Maleficarium description of witchcraft published
1542 Roman Inquisition. 1st definition of witchcraft as a crime in England, by Henry VIII, punished by death.
1563 Laws amended by Queen Elizabeth – death penalty only when harm can be proven by magic
1587-93 over 360 people buried alive for sorcery in rural villages in the diocese of Trier, Germany. They were persecuted by Jesuits who treated Protestant and Jews in the same manner
1590 North Bohemia witchtrials
1597 James VI/I published Demonology to help clarify law, used in prosecutions in Britain. Subsequently used as the basis for witch trials in American colonies, such as Salem.
1611 Macbeth published
1612 Pendle Witch trials
1626-31 Bamburgh Witchtrials during 30 years war, 500 executed
1685 Bideford, Devon- last witches executed in England
1727 Janet Hove, last witch executed in Scotland
1735 New witchcraft Act, Great Britain, decriminalising witchcraft.
1782 Anna Goeldi in Switzerland, last witch executed legally in Europe

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