A Brief History of Witches

By Hailey Kearns

The belief of witches traces back to early European medieval times. Witch hysteria held extreme prominence over European society during the 14th to 17th centuries. Witches were believed to contact spirits, use magic spells, and witchcraft; however, in reality, women accused of witchcraft either were healers or “wise-women” and were simply just misunderstood. The majority of women accused of witchcraft were thought as pagans doing the Devil’s work. As Christianity continued to flourish and spread to new countries, the influx of hysteria also dramatically increased. In Europe, a ghastly 110,000 people were accused of witchcraft and around 50,000 were executed. At the time, Germany had the highest execution rate because of the extremely influential book Malleus Maleficarum, written by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, because the book discussed how and why witches must be executed.

By far, the most well known event during the witch craze is the Salem witch trials. Beginning in 1692 and 1693, a series of executions in the Massachusetts Bay Colony took place. Two young girls, Betty Parris and Abigail Williamsn began experiencing manic fits and behavioral problems. Concerned, their parents asked them what the cause of their fits were. The girls then claimed that three women hexed them with witchcraft. The accused women, Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne, pleaded innocent; however, the third woman, Tituba, pleaded guilty. As Tituba spoke with authorities, she provided credible evidence to support her plea. Following Tituba’s plea, more accusations of women practicing witchcraft arose and an abundance of trials occurred. Over the course of the trials, 20 people (19 killed by stone pressing) were executed as witches. Giles Corey, the one man not killed by stone pressing, was instead pressed to death for not entering a plea.

Eventually, hysteria declined because less people believed in witches and instead believed that there was no plausible reason as to why there were so many witches. Even though the hysteria declined and witches are now a silly symbol for Halloween, it is still important to recognize the amount of lives lost and terrorized during the craze.