Witchcraft’s history: an unfortunate fate

'The Burning Times' - an engraving by Jan Luyken (Source: Flickr)

Being accused of witchcraft in the 1500s was an immediate death sentence and it didn’t matter if there accusations were true or false. At a time when an ordered society is desired, any chaos that threatens this order is considered to be witchcraft. The Church was extremely influential and the fact that they condemned witchcraft was behind the outbreak in trials from the 13th century.

In 1584, The Discoverie of Witchcraft by Reginald Scot was published. Although he was an author, Reginald was also a member of the English Parliament for a year in which he was made a Justice of the Peace in Kent. A book about witchcraft from the peak years of witchcraft phenomena is worth mentioning as in it Scot condoned the trialling and executing of ‘witches.’ His sceptical book sought to expose witchcraft and magic as erroneous.

Reginald Scot’s text was controversial at the time of publication – Source

Scot had to self publish the text due to its controversial nature. The fact that this is a printed book from the 14th century conveys a great deal about the possible audience. A minute number of the population were literate and letters were usually the only written form of news that was circling. It would be read out in public and spread by word of mouth. Printing was a new phenomenon, and it was likely that at this time that the only printed form most people had seen was the Bible. Therefore there were only a select number of people who could read Scot’s book for themselves.

Witches in medieval times were depicted as old women who went around begging and cursed those who refused them.

In a patriarchal society, where the male mortality rate is higher than the female rate, elderly women who were too old to work and outlived their spouse were left without income and had to resort to begging. Many became mentally deranged from being isolated by society and soon believed themselves that they were real witches. They would curse their neighbours children or livestock, however in a time of limited medical information it was common for children to die at young ages and diseases to spread through animals. Many of these supposed curses could be explained logically but this was shadowed when these women would admit to being witches.

Reginald Scot broke away from the belief in magic and attempted to make people see logically who these old beggar women were. It is believed that all available copies of the book were burned in 1603 by James I, so it is unlikely that it made any real impact due to its short survival.

Between the 13th and 15th century up to 80,000 people were executed in Europe for practising witchcraft, 80% of these were women. However, in Ireland only 4 people were executed for witchcraft during this time period.

Witch-hunts and executions in Ireland were rare but the last witch to be executed in Ireland was in 1895. This is unusual as witch-hunts and trials widely ended in the 1680s. Michael Cleary burned his wife, Bridget alive as he believed she was a witch. The trial of Michael and his 10 accomplices, received wide media coverage that reached as far as the U.S. In their coverage of the case, British papers reported on the ‘barbarianism’ of rural Ireland.

Bridget Cleary and her husband, Michael
Bridget Cleary and her husband, Michael – Source

After 26-year-old Bridget fell ill with a mild case of bronchitis, Michael was left to care for her in their home in Ballyvadela, Co. Tipperary. A few days later Michael sent for a witch-doctor as he had become convinced that Bridget was a fairy changeling – a duplicate put in place by a witch or fairy after they have kidnapped the person. Court reports from the trial in 1895 have allowed us to learn about the details of Bridget’s death.

The witch-doctor, Denis Ganey and Bridget’s husband force fed her milf mixed with herbs and asked her three times, ‘Are you Bridget Boland, the wife of Michael Cleary, in the name of God?’ – this is according to an eye-witness report by Bridget’s sister, Johanna.

Bridget answered the men twice but failed to the third time and so was carried to her kitchen, placed on the grate over the fire and said the Rosary. Over the course of a few days a series of cruel and violent acts were carried out on her until Michael Cleary soaked his wife in lamp oil and set her on fire. Traditional belief was that once the changeling was dead the person that it abducted would return.

As Michael believed he was saving his wife the charges against him were dropped from murder to manslaughter and he received a 20 year prison sentence.

The era of enlightenment, in the late 1600s helped to bring witch-hunts to end as it brought humanitarianism which overthrew the superstitions people had about dark magic and witchcraft. However the most famous witch trials, in Salem, colonial Massachusetts began in 1692. This was due to the Puritans, who brought their superstitions from Europe to the New World. They associated the New World with the Devil that must be cleansed of evil, like Europe had been.

‘The Burning Times’ – an engraving by Jan Luyken (Source: Flickr)

The history of witch-hunts and executions shows it was heavily influenced by fear of religion. In the pre-Christian era, witchcraft was a respected practice that specialised in healing. History tells us that Protestants believe that Catholics have raised the status of the Pope as high as God on earth and it is actually him they worship and not God – Catholics were nicknamed papists and witches were also usually described as being papists. In his book, Scot refers to how Protestantism  would Catholicism beliefs to be superstition due to their recognition of transubstantiation.

In the present day Wicca, or White Witchcraft still exists and is based around nature spirituality. Féile Draíochta is an annual Irish festival, previously known as Witchfest Ireland, it is aimed at Ireland’s Pagan community. The organisers of the festival, Barbara Lee and Lora O’Brien refer to themselves as witches and are eager to explain that modern day Wicca is not satanic at all, ‘it is about celebrating the Earth, channelling positive energies and creating healing.’

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