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The Hunting Times

By Sam F

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Most people in America know of the Salem Witch Trials, but many do not know what had happened in Europe just a hundred years before. In Europe about 60,000 so called "witches" were tried and executed between the years 1550 and 1650. Accusations of witchcraft were common, especially in Germany and France. People were being killed by the day. It is important that these events are learned of because it could have helped prevent the witch trials in Salem, and can help prevent anything like this from happening in the future. The Salem Witch Trials were not the first of their kind and were similar and different in many ways to the massive witch hunts in Europe. The main factor that both have in common, however, is fear.

In Europe, witch hunts began in the mid to late 1400's with low ranking individuals in the community accused of attempting to destroy Christianity. There were executions because of accused witchcraft before these dates, but there were only 702 confirmed deaths from the years 1300 to 1500. As time progressed, the accusations of witchcraft increased in intensity and maliciousness. The first major trials did not occur until about 1500. Many witches were tried. After these first trials, accusations decreased in number for about fifty years. But beginning in 1550, what is now called the "Burning Times" occurred. This was a time of mass hysteria concentrated around central Europe (i.e. Germany, Switzerland and France).This hysteria continued until 1650 when the insanity came to a quick stop. The hunts were extremely varied, with an estimated 26,000 deaths in Germany compared to just four in Ireland. The mass hysteria around the witch hunts was incredible, what is also incredible is how quickly it died out.

The number of deaths increased significantly at the time of the Reformation, when the Catholic Church split into separate Protestant groups. The people of Europe used the witch trials as a form of religious war. Different Protestant and Catholic groups accusing each other of being a source of witchcraft. In the areas of Catholic rule, there were more trials and more executions, whereas in areas of Protestant rule, there were far less trials and executions.

A large part of what brought the witch hunts to an end, was the trials and executions of what are now known as the "Warboys witches." After these events took place, harsh laws in the ways witches were tried in court were enforced. The Warboys trial began in 1589 with an accusation from ten-year old Jane Throckmorton, against seventy-six year old Alice Samuel. Alice was at Jane's house visiting, when Jane fell into what scientists now believe was an epileptic seizure. Jane was quick to blame Alice of witchcraft. Alice and her family fought the accusations fiercely, however more and more evidence was brought against her. Eventually she herself became convinced she was a witch and in 1593, confessed to being a witch. Her family was also executed for being associated with her. After her confession and execution England realized the lack of evidence, and unjust ways that were used to determine witches. In 1604 England put a harsh and more just law into effect stating how, and based on what kinds of evidence, a witch could be accused.

There are many theories as to why the witch hunts happened. Many believe that since the plague had recently happened people were suspicious and scared. The people of Europe were wary and worried that the witches could spread diseases similar to it. This may be why people were so quick to believe in witchcraft and the terrible things that these witches could supposedly do. Another theory is that the bad years Europe was having in weather played into a belief that witches had control over the weather. Possibly even the rise in the popularity of the devil in literature played a role in the sudden belief in witches.

In Europe there was no average witch. Many different types of people were accused of witchcraft. The old were accused but also the, young, poor, rich, women, men, Christians, Jews and people of most other religions were all accused. Many historians have tried to look for patterns and have found that 20% to 25% of the accused witches were women. The most accused class was the poor, and the elderly were more vulnerable to accusations. However there was great diversity in those accused, and accusations were usually not based on any of these factors. People were normally accused based on whether the accuser liked or disliked them. Nobody was safe from an accusation.

Just a few hundred years before 1500, the people of Europe believed witchcraft was an impossibility, and that it was a sin to even believe in witches. The people of Europe went from not believing and denying the existence of witches to accusing their neighbors of witchcraft. In fact in 643 the city of Lombardy, Italy put in their law code that belief in witches was unChristian. "Let nobody presume to kill a foreign serving maid or female slave as a witch, for it is not possible, nor ought to be believed by Christian minds." Even as late as 1514 Alciatus (a high ranking well respected judge) was asked to judge a trial of many witches in which he said that witchcraft was an impossibility. "Two other prominent men of the juridical profession, Alciatus and Ponzinibius, expressed themselves in the same spirit; they declared bodily excursions of witches and similar things to be pure imagination." It is odd that the community went from thinking the belief in witches was unChristian, to believing in the existence of witches, and executing so many accused of witchcraft.

The witch hunts were not usually organized by the government and normally did not have strong leaders backing them. This is part of the reason the death toll was so high in Germany and France, but so low in England and Ireland. England and Ireland had a much better judicial system protecting the defendants, whereas in Germany and France the courts that judged cases of witchcraft were mostly local courts. In fact, in national courts only 30% of the accused were convicted, whereas in community courts 90% of the accused were convicted. National courts tended to judge the situation more fairly because they were just presented with the facts and did not have any personal connection to the victims. Also, they were not motivated by seeing people in the community go to jail. Lastly, the national courts dealt with far more cases of white witchcraft (witches that healed and used herbal medicine) which were judged more leniently, because the witches were not trying to harm the people of Europe. In community courts everyone had their own prejudices and grudges, which made it hard for anybody to get a completely fair trial.

The great witch hunts in Europe were an extremely important part of the worlds history, yet people learn very little about them. It is important that everyone learns at least a little about these events, even if only so that the next generations can help us prevent future witch hunts. If here in Salem, more attention was paid to the witch hunts in Europe, it might have been possible to end the witch trials earlier, and even stop them from ever happening. There is still much to be learned about how people think during times of hysteria, and why they think that way. There is much to be learned from these witch hunts, and more details are coming in by the year. Hopefully society will learn from the mistakes made in the past, and prevent any form of witch hunt from ever happening again.

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