4 Things You Might Not Know About Witch-hunting in Early Modern Europe

The witch-hunts of Early Modern Europe (think the Tudors and the Stewarts) are remembered for their hysteria, their brutality and, more recently, their apparent misogyny. Yes, they could be brutal, yes they provoked hysteria (I know it occurred in America but The Crucible, anyone?) and yes, many poor women lost their lives as a result, but here are a few facts that will hopefully nuance these beliefs…

  1.  25% of witches in France were male.
    By which I mean: 25% of those executed for witchcraft were men. In some areas of France (and also Germany) the number of men accused as witches actually outnumbered the women. This shows that this phenomenon was not a “woman hunt” – women were prosecuted because they were believed to be witches, not because they were women.
  2. One reason more women ‘became’ witches than men was because they were believed to be the more lustful sex and therefore more easily seduced by the Devil.
    See – gender roles are a social construct. Only a few hundred years ago it was us women who were gagging for it, but after the Sexual Revolution of the 18th Century the female was reinvented as sexually passive and disinterested.
  3. In England, witches were hanged as criminals rather than burned as heretics.
    There are many reasons for this, but a key factor was certainly the break from the Catholic Church in 1534 – judicially, witchcraft trials were now handled by English Law, rather than Roman law, thus it wasn’t treated as a religious crime.
  4. The “swimming test” was a rarity.
    We’ve all heard the story that witches were detected by being dropped in water – if they floated they were guilty and if they sank they were innocent (and now dead). In fact, those that were tested in this manner had ropes tied around them so that they could be pulled out before they died, but it is important to stress how rare this test actually was.

Any other interesting facts I’ve missed?

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