Unlucky 13: A witches' brew of facts about the European 'witch craze'

Witches
Five silhouetted witches | Welcome Images | CC BY 4.0

In the late medieval and early modern period, a fever gripped Europe – the ‘witch craze’, where men, women, and children were persecuted as ‘witches’.

Experts today believe that many of those executed during the witch craze (especially in England in the 17th century) were unfortunate victims of community disputes that took advantage of laws written by believers of magic and witchcraft. Or victims of godly men who believed that the Devil’s work was everywhere and had to be eradicated.

For others, notably Margaret Murray (1863-1963), the evidence of the witch trials should be accepted as proof of a campaign to exterminate a low-lying pre-Christian cult in Europe. Modern historians are not fans of Murray’s hypothesis, but whatever the truth, centuries later the history of the witch trials of Britain and continental Europe continues to fascinate and intrigue scholars and the public alike.

Here are 13 frightening facts about witches.

1. Half of all European witch executions were in Germany

Some commentators and scholars, even in the 20th century, have claimed ‘millions’ were executed, but the current best guess is that, between the famous papal bull of 1484, which implored authorities across Europe to eliminate witchcraft, and 1782, some 50,000-60,000 people were accused of being witches and legally executed.

Historian Ronald Hutton estimated that in Germany as many as 26,000 may have been executed as witches. Hutton puts the figure for England and Wales at around 1,000.

One specialist believes that somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 accused witches may have been killed in Scotland in the years 1560–1707.

2. Witches were unable to cry

In his famous 1486 treatise on witchcraft, Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches), German inquisitor Heinrich Kramer (c. 1430-1505) enlightened his readers on the many ways in which to identify a witch.

One example was that witches couldn’t cry, so Kramer advised interrogators to do what they could to make the accused cry. The inability of the accused to weep in court was thus accepted as evidence of guilt. So too was the inability to recite the Lord’s Prayer.

Kramer also stated that witches have identifying marks hidden about their bodies and also instruments of the Devil concealed inside hair and orifices. The book recommended suspects be stripped and their whole bodies shaved to expose any marks or concealed instruments of the Devil.

3. Officials called ‘witch-prickers’ were paid to pierce witches

The Devil’s mark was a mark made by the Devil on making a pact with a person. Typically, it was a blemish or scar and was a sign of Satan’s possession.

The witches’ mark was a wart, mole, or supernumerary nipple which was believed to serve as a secret teat from which ‘familiars’ (demonic pets which would do a witch’s bidding) would suckle blood.

The mark was believed to be sometimes invisible, so a professional ‘witch-pricker’ would jab the accused with a needle or blade all over their body until they found a patch that drew no blood.

In some cases, the inquisitor would use a specially-made knife with a retractable blade, giving the impression the sharp metal had penetrated the skin when it had been pushed inside the handle.

4. Witches had to kiss the Devil’s backside

Witches were said to attend secret nocturnal meetings known as sabbats.

The confessions of many ‘witches’ referred to the ‘kiss of shame’. At sabbats the Devil was said to appear in the form of a black goat or other animal and the witches would pay homage to him by osculum obscenum – kissing Satan’s anus.

The kissing of the buttocks was also a way for the witch to pay homage to the Devil when making the pact.

Isobel Gowdie confessed in 1662 that at sabbats the Devil would typically be ‘like a bull, a deer […] or a dog’, and ‘he would hold up his tail until we would kiss his arse’.

A French witch of 1609 confessed that the Devil made her kiss his ‘virile member’.

Many of the accounts of these meetings were obtained by torture, and no doubt embellished by witch hunters and other fiendish observers desperate to stir up fear and panic.

5. There was a ‘witch prison’ in Bamberg, Germany

The infamous witch trials at Bamberg, Germany, between 1626 and 1632, were so deadly that a special prison was constructed for the purpose of processing the accused.

The Drudenhaus (witch prison) was built in the Bavarian city on the orders of Johann George Fuchs von Dornheim, Prince Bishop of Bamberg, in 1627. It had 26 cells – a deliberate design to hold two covens (groups of witches, called covens, were thought to number 13).

The walls of the cells were covered with extracts from the Bible, and much of the violent and cruel torture that was routinely used on so-called witches in Germany at the time was carried out in this building.

When a hostile Swedish army approached the city in 1632 it was closed. During the principal six-year period of the trials around 900 people were executed as witches. The Drudenhaus was demolished in 1635.

6. The first person executed as a witch in the British Isles was in 1324

Petronilla de Meath (c. 1300-1324) was probably the first person in the British Isles to be legally executed for witchcraft.

Young Petronilla was a maidservant to a noble family in Kilkenny, Ireland. Her mistress, Dame Alice Kyteler, was accused of, among other things, using sorcery to murder her husbands, brewing up love potions made of animal guts in a human skull, and having sex with a demon. Petronilla was implicated as an accomplice of Alice’s.

The wealthy Dame Alice fled abroad, but her less fortunate associates, particularly Petronilla, had to stay and face the music. Petronilla was brutally tortured.

She confessed to the charges and described her lady as a powerful sorceress, enchanting among other things a plank of wood so that her and Petronilla could fly upon it.

Unlike the later witch trials across the Irish Sea, this case was treated as heresy and the servant girl was ‘consigned to flames’ – publicly burned alive at the stake.

7. James VI of Scotland wrote a book on witchcraft

King James VI of Scotland (who later ruled England as James I as well) wrote a famous treatise on witchcraft and demonology called Daemonologie, published in Edinburgh in 1597.

This text partly influenced the infamous ‘Witchfinder General’, Matthew Hopkins (c. 1620-1647), who referenced it in his own book on the subject.

8. Scotland executed its last witch 42 years after England

The Bideford witch trial, which began in the Devon town of Bideford in 1682, claims to have resulted in the last legal executions for witchcraft in England. A plaque on a castle wall in Exeter bears words to this effect, including the name of the very last of these victims, Alice Molland, hanged in 1685 (some sources say 1684).

It is generally held that the last person officially dispatched in Scotland for witchcraft was Janet Horne in 1727.

The death penalty for witchcraft was abolished in Great Britain more than half a century later, in 1736.

9. Witches smelt bad

Italian priest Ludovico Maria Sinistrari (1622-1701) said you can spot a witch from their terrible body odour.

Sinistrari was considered an expert on demons and witchcraft and worked as an advisor to the Inquisition.

The reason for the foul stench was, according to the cleric, that witches hung around with possessed corpses, and so the pong of rotting flesh rubbed off on them.

Charming man!

10. Witches didn’t just ride broomsticks

‘Night flight’ was the popular belief that witches were able to fly, and would flit about at night, unseen and up to no good, and to attend sabbats. In many stories and confessions, the vehicle was a broomstick (with the brush at the top, not the bottom).

It wasn’t always a broom. The various modes of witch transport that can be found in confessions includes poles, beanstalks, horses, goats, beams, staffs, and even humans.

The Somerset witches of 1664 confessed to something which sounds almost like teleportation, stating that their foreheads and wrists were first ‘anointed’ with a foul-smelling oil which carried them suddenly to their sabbat.

11. There is a witch hunt victim on an English village sign

In the middle of the picturesque village of Brandeston in Suffolk sits what appears at first glance to be a fairly typical decorative village sign. But this sign tells a sinister tale. For on the right side of the sign is a figure hanging from gallows. The corpse depicted is that of John Lowes, the vicar of Brandeston who was 80 years old when he was tortured and executed along with 39 men, women, and children in Bury St Edmunds, in 1645, by Matthew Hopkins.

12. Witches were often brutally tortured

On the continent, torture was an accepted part of the legal process but in England in the 17th-century judicial torture was technically illegal, though it still went on.

In England, officials employed fairly soft-sounding methods such as ‘walking’ and ‘watching’, which in reality meant forced marching, interrogation, and sleep deprivation. Ordeal by water was also employed in England.

On the continent, they were harsher. Common methods of torturing persons accused of witchcraft in Germany included throwing into a boiling bath, applying thumbscrews, tearing fingernails off, being forced to sit on a red-hot iron chair, hot irons inserted into bodily cavities, racking, whipping, and attaching heavyweights to the feet to dislocate the hips and knees.

At the Bamberg witch trials, children as young as six months were tortured and executed. Victims there first had their hands cut off before being burned at the stake.

Other devices and methods employed in Europe include the ‘Spider’ – a sharp iron fork to mutilate breasts, red hot pincers to tear away flesh, and feathers applied to groins and armpits and set alight.

13. Only one witch was ever burned to death in England

In England, witches were always hanged.

Tudor witchcraft legislation in England made witchcraft a felony and stipulated that for certain kinds of ‘conjurations’ and witchcraft the guilty ‘shall suffer pains of death as a felon or felons’. It was thus not heresy or treason, so guilty witches were strung up.

The only ‘witch’ ever burnt to death in England was Mary Lakeland, who was convicted of using witchcraft to commit murder. She was roasted because the victim was her husband, and in English law, a wife bumping off her other half was committing petty treason.

In Ipswich in 1645, Mary Lakeland was stood up inside a barrel full of tar and set alight.

Some of the condemned in England begged to be burnt rather than be hanged, such as Anne Foster in 1674, but, like Anne, they never got their wish.

In Scotland, witches were burnt. They were often, but not always, throttled to death first, such as at Aberdeen in 1597, where a mass execution saw 24 people garrotted then burned.

Written by:

James Brigden