A look at the history of witch hunts

Witch hunt, a phrase often used by politicians whenever accused has become very common these days. A witch hunt often means a persecution of someone through baseless facts and inconclusive evidence. But essentially it refers to the attempt to punish someone whose opinions are unpopular and said to be a danger to society. But the question arises as to how and when did the original witch hunts related to witchcraft started. Contrary to popular belief it wasn’t because of the uneducated masses started accusing those with odd behavior but rather belief in witches, in the sense of wicked people performing harmful magic, had existed in Europe since before the Greeks and Romans. In the early part of the Middle Ages, authorities were largely unconcerned about it. Things began to change in the 12th and 13th centuries, ironically because educated elites in Europe were becoming more sophisticated. Universities were being founded, and scholars in Western Europe began to pore over ancient texts as well as learned writings from the rest of the world, which often gave some sort of complex system of magics as an explanation for day to day phenomenon. Ordinary people – the kind who eventually got accused of being witches – didn’t perform elaborate rites from books. They gathered herbs, brewed potions, maybe said a short spell, as they had for generations. And they did so for all sorts of reasons, such practices were important in a world with only rudimentary forms of medical care.

Photo by Joy Marino on Pexels.com

Christian authorities had previously dismissed this kind of magic as empty superstition. Now they took all magic much more seriously. They began to believe simple spells worked by summoning demons, which meant anyone who performed them secretly worshiped demons. These ideas of common folk engaging in witchcraft really gained traction after the pope gave a friar and a professor of theology called Heinrich Kraemer permission to conduct inquisition in the search of witches in 1485. At first his ideas did not gain traction as the people disapproved of his harsh questioning of respectable citizens and shut down his trials. However undeterred in his supposed quest to rid the world of the devil’s influence Kraemer wrote a book called “Hammer of Witches”. He wrote a lot of ideas which would subsequently be seen practiced in various towns across Europe. His book spurned others to write their own books on the topic and give sermons on the “dangers of witchcraft”. Even though there was no evidence to support any of these claims belief in witchcraft became widespread. A witch hunt often began with a misfortune; a failed harvest, a sick cow, or a stillborn child. Many of the accused were people on the fringes of society, the elderly, the poor or social outcasts but it wasn’t just limited to them, any one could be targeted even children. While religious authorities sanctioned these hunts, it was the local secular government that carried out the detainment and punishment of the witches. Those suspected were tortured rather than questioned, and under these tortures thousands of people falsely confessed to witchcraft and implicated others to save their hides. This was a time where the way repentance rather than justice prevailed in the courts, so even with flimsy evidence a lot of people were persecuted. Punishments varied from a fine to burning at the state, for many of the poor it was always the later. While motivations of witch-hunters varied considerably from jealousy, anger and spite, many genuinely felt they were doing good by rooting out the evil in society. But like even in these troubled times, there were those of sound mind who dissented various scholars, jurists and physicians countered with logic and sense against the mob mentality of the masses and with a rise of strong central governments, witch hunting slowly declined until it disappeared altogether.

Both the onset and the demise of these atrocities came gradually and the potential for similar situations to arise is still there, where authorities use their power to mobilize against false threats, but with reasoned dissent to combat it we as a society can still move forward.