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  • Sanchaali Chakravarty

Who were the Witches?

If you were female, married with less or no children or had spoiled milk in your fridge, chances are that in 1692 you would qualify as a witch.

An execution of witches in England, 17th century.

Although most of us know about the Salem witch trials in 1692, we often forget to recognise that witch-hunting started in Europe in the late 1500s. They started in the heartland of the German-speaking areas of Europe which included modern-day Germany, Switzerland and parts of France. The first-ever recorded witch trial can be traced back to 1572, in the heart of modern-day Germany. They executed a woman named Eva for killing her own child as she had confessed to being a witch. Between 1572 to the mid-1590s, the whole area was riddled with witch-hunts which killed over 500 residents in a place where the population was 2200.

But why was Europe so hell-bent on witch trials? One theory presents the viewpoint that it might be related to the spread of Protestantism against Catholicism in Europe. Catholicism was the general thought of Christianity that was present in Europe up until the 1400s. Protestantism provided a variant to the orthodoxy of Christianity and was spreading widely among people. Since there was a competition between the two schools of thought and both wanted to spread their influence over a larger amount of people, they started looking at other ways where they could show their dominance. One way could be to show their prowess against the devil. And thus, witches were shown as Devil worshippers and witch trials were carried out.

Europeans had always believed in magic potions that would induce love in a person or help them find something that was lost but had never believed in the world of witchcraft as something that was related to an unholy presence until the start of the religious wars between Catholicism and Protestantism. Something that added to it was the plague of the black death in the 14th century which led to the death of many people and the Europeans started believing that it was due to some evil forces. During the witch trials in many countries of Europe, mainly in Denmark, there were many ways that a person could be convicted of being a witch. For example, a person would be drowned in cold water and if the body drowned to the bottom of the barrel, they would be considered innocent. But if the body is floated to the top of the barrel, they would be considered guilty of practising witchcraft and would then be burnt at the stake. Around 75% to 85% of people who were burnt as witches were women. One of the reasons why a majority of women were considered as a witch is because, in Medieval Europe, they were considered to be less intelligent than men and thus could be lured by the devil into doing his work. At this point in time women were considered to be the ones who would be staying at home and taking care of the family. As they added no economic value because the men went to work and earned the money, they were also considered less valuable than men and more susceptible to be witches.

But who were these witches and how are they identified? So in a series of books, several authors came around to writing about the symptoms of a witch. These were some of the symptoms that portrayed if one was indeed practising witchcraft-

The Derenburg witch trial. Popular print , 1555. Found in the Collection of Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg.

1. You were a woman. As women were considered the weaker sex as compared to men, they could be easily lured by the devil by the promise of several pleasures in life. It did not matter if you could sign a contract with the devil to worship him because you could just use your blood.

2. You could have a pet (you’re more susceptible to being a witch if it’s a black cat). Any sort of pet that was being nursed by a woman could qualify.

3. You could have a wart or a mole on your body because the devil has to feast on you and that’s how they do it.

4. You could also be irritating or poor.

5. A middle-aged woman is more susceptible to being a witch than a younger one.

6. If you have no children or children who died at a young age, chances are that you are a witch and you killed them.

7. Has she said something to someone and it came true? Because only a witch can curse.

8. Or have you just stopped going to church?

And one of the most surprising reasons for finding out that someone was a witch was if they had confessed. They were often tortured a lot before any of them confessed. It is now unclear whether the torture had any relation to anyone forcefully confessing that they were a witch. After that, obviously, they were burnt at the stake. I guess it is safe to say that if these terms existed today, most women would be termed, witches.

In 1692, when the witch trials were dying down in Europe, an incident in Salem shocked the whole world. Two girls Betty and Abigail who were aged nine and 11 respectively, were accused of being witches. They started behaving weirdly and having fits. They screamed, made odd sounds, threw things, contorted their bodies, and complained of biting and pinching sensations. Looking at a medical perspective, this might have been caused by some sort of a disease that came from a certain kind of moss. That would also explain why it spread throughout the village as the disease probably spread through bread. It did not help at that point in time that their symptoms matched a description of some children being “bewitched” in Boston in 1688. Soon enough the community doctor was called. His name was Dr William Briggs. He could not find out any reason for such a predicament that was hampering the girls and thus blamed it on supernatural forces. The little girls were pressured into telling about the woman who had turned them into witches. As they were under immense pressure, they named the servant working at their house named Tituba and two other women named Sara Good, who was a middle-aged beggar and Sara Osborne, who was a bedridden old woman. As pressure mounted, Tituba was tortured and eventually gave into confessing that she had been visited by the devil and was a witch. She also mentioned that she had signed a deal with the devil and while doing that also saw the names of the other two women in the document, as well as of seven others that she could not read. The officials accepted this as a confession and as proof of the involvement of these three ladies. All this time, the disease was spreading and several other women in the village were identified as being witches.

1692, People fainting and causing disorder in a courtroom during the trial of suspected witch, George Jacobs.

On May 27 1692, Sir William Phelps who was the governor of the county ordered there to be a hearing for all of these women. It was headed by the Lieutenant of the area and consisted of seven other judges. The women were brought in one by one and were not given any counsel. They were to defend themselves. Anything that the accuser was saying to accuse these women of witchcraft, was seen as proof and the women were to defend themselves single-handedly. A lot of times these women would not speak up or would be hesitant or would not be able to speak properly. All this was seen as a sign of the devil being present in them. The women who confessed to being witches were let go as they had confessed to their sins and the puritan beliefs at that point in time believed that God would punish them himself. The women who did not confess to being witches were tried at court and if found guilty, were to be punished. The first conviction was of a woman named Bridget Bishop. She was convicted on 2 June and was hung on 10 June. The most interesting piece of evidence, in this case, was that 12 years later, she was absolved of any charges and was named innocent. Several other people including Sara Good and a minister from the Salem village who was convicted for being the ringleader of the witches as well as seven other people were hung on 19 June. The rest were all convicted and hung on 22 June. A total of 19 people were hanged and five died in custody.

This was what happened in the famous Salem witch trials. But this was not all that happened. Soon enough in 1697, a Massachusetts judge announced that the witch trials were unlawful and asked for forgiveness for the same. By 1711, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts had formally exonerated 22 of the 33 accused of being witches. But it was only finally in 1957 that the state of Massachusetts formally apologised for the whole incident. Another milestone was reached only in 2001 when the rest of the 11 accused were finally exonerated. The events of the Salem witch trials have served as lessons for the American legal system. This has not only given a standpoint to some of the legal principles such as the right to representation and presumption of innocence over guilt but also legal proceedings such as allowing the cross-questioning of the defendant. The history of witch-hunting also serves as a reminder of how the clergy and the state tried to repress the rebellion of women under the guise of religious and supernatural concerns.

By Sanchaali Chakravarty


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