How Were the Barbaric Witchcraft Trials Allowed to Happen?

Thousands were tortured and executed for being witches. How was it allowed to happen?


This is the fifth in a series of Friday posts on this blog called Friday Thoughts, or #Foughts, an in depth discussion on a character or topic I have found particularly interesting, or has divided opinion. It seems unbelievable that hundreds of thousands of people, mostly poor and societal outcasts, were hanged or burnt to death under the trial of witchcraft, but educated men actually ruled these trials and allowed these poor people to die after brutal tortures. How could this have happened?


One of the most famous cases of witchcraft trials took place in the moody savage rural land of Lancashire. This was a wild hostile area of England ‘fabled for its theft, violence and sexual laxity‘ in a time when religious persecution was rife and people lived in miserable poverty. The King was James I, a paranoid man now fearing traitors and rebellion after surviving the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. He gave harsh penalties to anyone still under the Catholic faith and his fear unravelled around his growing belief in witchcraft. Whereas before, white witches were natural healers in a village, and black magic culprits were individually punished, now times were different. Witches were heretics against the Christian church, they made pacts with the devil, and they didn’t act alone. This meant that groups of witches must have made the pact together, in a ‘witch’s sabbath‘, and so groups of people could be charged with the crime.


The Pendle Witches

The trials of the Pendle Witches in Lancashire begin with a stroke. Alizon Device was a poor girl, out begging for pins. Along the way she came across John Law, a peddlar, who refused to give her any. As he walked away she muttered a curse under her breath, tired and frustrated at the rejection. As the words left her lips, the man dropped to the floor, paralysed and speechless. Alizon was devestated – she had cursed him.




She confessed to witchcraft, feeling like she had genuinely cursed him, and apologised profusely to him. Under questioning she also named her grandmother Old Demdike and another family, Chattox, as witches. The families had been feuding for years over a theft they believed some of the Chattox family had carried out at their home, Malkin Tower. A meeting happened at the tower, which was used against them in trials, as a supposed plot to blow up Lancaster Castle, leading to more arrests. A key witness in the trials was 9-year-old Jennet Device, Alizon’s own daughter, who gave ‘evidence’ to her mother’s black magic. Alizon had to be dragged from the courtroom screaming and cursing her own child. Jennet probably had no clue what tortures were to come for her family. Ten people were executed as a result of that fateful day.


This is one of many witch trials that spread across Europe, fuelled by religious heresy and paranoia. The people often accused were poor and cast out of society for being malformed, disfigured, ugly. Hundreds of thousands of people died after suffering unimaginable torture which forced them to confess to absurd events and drag members of their own families into it. But how did it get so far? And why did nobody stop it?


Goya witch


Living in the Dark Ages

People lived close together in small villages, trading stock to keep alive, all struggling under suffocating poverty. James I was on the throne, accusing left, right and centre of heresy and now Catholicism was a crime against the establishment. People still practicing under the religion were put on trial and even executed as heretics. Tension was rising in communities already wound thin from economic famines and everybody was frightened. There was no power against royalty, law or the church. The stage seemed set for rioting, but after the disaster of the Gunpowder Plot against James I, resulting in public executions, how could anybody dare?


Strange behaviours like seizures and body contortions, as if succumbed to possession, were the catalyst for witchcraft fever across towns, such as the trials in Salem. Diabolical possession was a perfectly reasonable diagnosis for what is technically mass motor hysteria; the symptoms being involuntary spasms of muscles. When mass hysteria spreads it fuels moral panic, a hype of intense anxiety in society, influencing great numbers of people to believe in the consensus and being completely under the control of higher forces, such as government or religion. The villages where these witches lived were terrified of God’s punishment and anyone who could defy the church and cause suffering to the village.


It is true that the witchcraft fever was allowed to burn by the country’s educated leaders, educated men such as Matthew Hopkins the Witchfinder General who appointed himself such after a failed career in law – of course, a failed lawyer stepping in to take the laws into his own hands did not alarm any bells – he was an expert in witchcraft. This was much the same with any of the men sentencing innocent victims to be hanged, the public leaned on them for their expertise and knowledge, ridding their village of dark magic and curses.


Witches sabbat


Dancing Plagues, Demon Possession and Shell Shock

Witchcraft caused populations to live in fear of the people in their village and God’s wrath, but it was not the only kind of fever to sweep people into insanity. Just over a hundred years previous to the infamous Salem trials a dancing plague gripped around 400 people in Strasbourg. They couldn’t stop dancing hysterically for days, causing dozens of deaths when their hearts eventually gave up. Doctors thought it best if they continue to dance the plague out of them. The people of Strasbourg had lived in poverty, struggling with crop failure and flooding that devestated their homes.


After the witchcraft hysteria, a case of diabolical possession in a nunnery in 1633 became an infamous event in the history of mass hysteria. After two nuns had encountered a spirit in the grounds, nuns around the convent fell into fits of screaming, crying and fainting, and their bodies contorted in violent seizures.  Jeanne des Agnes, mother superior, was possessed by seven demons, spitting curses and profanities at the men that tried to exorcise them from her. Even after a priest, whom Agnes had fallen in love with, was executed for forming a pact with the Devil in return for possessing the women, she still suffered from possession. A century later, Francois Gayot de Petaval would establish a link between nymphomania and hysteria, and use this hypothesis to explain the common occurence of demonic possession among nuns in convents.


In World War I some soldiers returned from the frontline blind with no physical explanation, some were catatonic and shook or swayed in a trance. Because they knew in their minds that having an ailment would mean that they were taken away from the battlefield, their bodies created ailments to remove them from the danger. Men who had been proud and strong, and ready to kill any German in their way, returned home broken and a shell of the person they once were.


Living through extremely difficult situations puts extreme stress on a person’s mind and this mental state has a physical effect on the body – through symptoms such as possession, believing the supernatural is real, dancing to your death, and your eyes shutting themselves off from the world.


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