Persecution: Ancient and Modern

This is a slightly edited text of a talk I gave at the Australian Wiccan Conference, Canberra, September 1992 and you might wonder why I have chosen to republish this after more than 20 years. In fact I had all but forgotten it when I stumbled upon the text whilst moving files from my old PC to my new one.  Curiosity piqued I read it and as I did so, I remembered why I had decided on this topic for my talk at Canberra in 1992. Some of the examples – particularly those of the “ritual child abuse” scam in the 1980s and 1990s – have passed into history and maybe should be left to lie there; but the phrase that kept repeating on loop in my head as I re-read this talk is that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.

Persecution and fundamentalism present as big a danger to us in the 21st century as they have always done in the past. At one point in the talk I commented that the only thing that has really changed is our ability to communicate more widely and more effectively than in the past and that comment was made in 1992, before the advent of the world wide web and mass communication on a scale impossible to envisage throughout most of humanity’s history.

On 12th September 2010, I was a member of a panel at the ‘Day for Gerald Gardner’ at Conway Hall in London and a member of the audience asked the panel: “what do you consider the greatest threat facing us in the modern world?” I had no hesitation when it came to my turn to comment and said, “fundamentalism”. When asked if I meant Islamic or Christian fundamentalism or Wiccan, I said, “all fundamentalism.” I may be simplistic but in my view, the narrow-minded certainty expressed by fundamentalism in any of its guises is the biggest threat we face today, and indeed have always faced.

Witch 1643

Witch 1643





In Australia recently, the government made a formal (and extremely eloquent) apology to those children and their families who in the past, were torn apart by well-meaning interception in removing babies from their mothers. Only an absolute certainty in being right could have led to such an occurrence in the first place; a mindset that was so sure of itself that even witnessing scenes of trauma resulting from forcibly removing children from their families was considered to be inconsquential.

Examples of the consequences of a fundamentalist mind-set are everywhere and it would be too depressing to highlight more than one example here. Nevertheless, this prevalence of absolute certainty in being right is the main reason that I thought it might be time to dust off this talk and give it another outing. The original talk was supported by slides (yes, pre-powerpoint days!) and although I still have them, I have yet to transfer them to jpg files so have used similar alternative images where appropriate.

To begin, an example of religious persecution:

“I  am told  that,  moved by  some foolish  urge,  they consecrate  and worship the head of a donkey, that  most abject of all animals.   This is a cult worthy of the customs from which it sprang! Others say  that they reverence the genitals of the presiding priest himself, and adore them as  though they were their  father’s… As for  the initiation of new  members, the details are as disgusting  as they are well-known. A child,  covered in  dough to  deceive the  unwary, is  set before  the would-be novice. The novice stabs  the child to  death with invisible blows;  indeed, he himself, deceived  by the coating  of dough, thinks his  stabs harmless. Then –  it’s horrible! –  they hungrily drink the child’s blood, and compete with one another as they divide his limbs.

Through this  victim they are bound together; and the fact  that they all share the knowledge of the crime pledges them all to silence. Such holy rites are more disgraceful than sacrilege. It is  well-known too what happens at their feasts…. On the feast day they forgather  with all their children,  sisters, mothers,  people of either  sex and  all ages. When the company is all aglow from feasting, and impure lust has been set afire by drunkenness, pieces  of meat are  thrown to  a dog fastened to a lamp. The  lamp,  which would  have been  a  betraying witness, is overturned and goes out. Now, in the dark so favourable to shameless behaviour,  they twine the  bonds of unnameable  passion, as chance  decides. And  so all  alike are  incestuous, if not  always in deed, at least by complicity; for  everything that is performed by oneof them corresponds to the wishes of them all… Precisely the secrecy of this evil  religion proves that all these  things, or  practically all, are true.”  (Minucius Felix: Octavius)

Although the language is not modern, the description of the practices could have come straight from any modern tabloid or blog. And this is the point  that I wish to  make; the facts of  persecution have not changed in almost 2,000 years,  for that piece was written in the 2nd century AD. Moreover, the religion it  condemns is Christianity, not Paganism, for Paganism at  that time was the dominant  state religion. In fact  the author  is a  Christian apologist, and is attempting to rebuke what he  sees as  unfair criticism, by parodying the offences which Pagans accuse Christians of perpetrating.

Persecution  of religious  minorities  is  quite  simply that;  it  is persecution by a large body of people, generally those who represent “society”,  against a smaller  one generally comprised  of those who have  either rejected, or  for one reason or  another, fall outside of the social “norm”.

Let us look at the medieval picture of the witch; society’s scapegoat par excellence. Often shown as an old, ugly woman, most likely poor, and most likely on the fringe of the society in which she lives. This is the stereotype of  the witch. We know it is false; we know it has no basis in fact; however, it became an integral part of the mindset of medieval  Europe, and through fairy tales,  drama and literature, and more latterly, cinema, the media and television, it has remained  an integral image in modern  society. One has only to look to Roald Dahl’s “Witches”, or Frank Baum’s “Wizard of Oz”, for  proof of this. It came as a surprise to me to learn that “The  Wizard  of Oz” was in fact a deliberate propaganda exercise, released just at  the beginning of World War II.  If you remember, the magic words are: “There’s no place like home”, and where was “home”? Kansas, the heartland of America.

When looking at medieval persecution of heresy, the waters are muddied by  the many  different causes  and effects  that permeate  the whole matter. There was no single cause, and no single victim.  It is a fact that far  more women than men  were persecuted; there are a number of reasons for this, not least that throughout this  period, Europe was engaged in one war after another, most notably The Crusades, and men were in rather short supply.  There were also several epidemics of the plague, not to mention  other diseases such as dysentery  and cholera, which in  the Middle  Ages were sure  killers. Another  reason is  the rampant  misogyny  which,  begun  with the  earliest  Christians,  has permeated their theology ever since:



 (Malleus Maleficarum)

“What else is woman but a foe to  friendship, an inescapable  punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic danger, a delectable detriment, an evil of nature, painted in fair colours…  The word woman is used to mean  the lust of the  flesh, as it is  said: I have  found a woman more bitter  than death, and a good woman more subject to  carnal lust… [Women] are more credulous; and since the chief aim of the devil is  to  corrupt faith,  therefore he  rather attacks them  [than  men]… Women  are  naturally more impressionable… They have slippery tongues, and are unable to  conceal from their fellow-women those  things  which by  evil  arts they  know…. Women are intellectually  like children… She  is more  carnal than a man, as is clear from her many carnal abominations… She is an imperfect animal, she always deceives….  Therefore a wicked  woman is by  her nature quicker  to waver in  her faith, and  consequently  quicker  to  abjure  the faith, which is  the root  of witchcraft…. Just  as through the first defect in  their intelligence they are  more prone  to abjure  the faith;  so through their second defect of inordinate affections and passions they search for, brood over, and inflict various vengeances,  either  by witchcraft or by some other means….  Women also  have weak  memories; and it is a natural vice in them not to be disciplined,  but  to  follow  their  own impulses without any sense of what is due… She is a liar by nature… (Malleus Maleficarum, edited by Jeffrey Russell).

It  is easy to  comprehend the persecution of women when one is confronted with such obvious hatred and fear of the gender. But perhaps the most powerful impetus of the witch trials era is one often present in the  trials; pursuit of power or wealth. For an  example we can look to Gilles de Rais, who as the wealthiest man in  Europe (as well as  Joan of Arc’s Captain), was  a prime victim  for a charge of  heresy. Found guilty,  his  lands, properties  and  wealth were confiscated  by his accusers. A telling fact after his executive was that he was buried on consecrated ground in the Churchyard; normally forbidden to heretics. In “The Encyclopaedia of Witchcraft and Demonology”, Russell Hope Robbins says:

“At  first, Gilles dismissed  their accusations as “frivolous  and  lacking credit”,  but  so certain were the principals of  finding him guilty that on September 3, fifteen days  before the trial began, the Duke [John V of Brittany] disposed of  his anticipated share of the Rais  lands.  Under  these  circumstances, it  is difficult  to place  any credence in the evidence against him, among the most fantastic and obscene presented in this Encyclopaedia.”

Charges included the now obligatory conjurations of devils and demons; Satan, Beelzebub, Orion and Belial are mentioned by  name. The charges also included geomancy, human sacrifice and paedophilia and it is probably the accusations of paedophilia that most people who have heard of Gilles de Rais remember.











(Gilles de Rais (left) and The Trial of Gilles de
Rais (right). The painting is by an unknown
artist c. 1835 — no original painting survives.
Far right: Pope Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia),
unknown artist.


There were not many who had the wealth of Gilles de Rais, but even in a small parish the meanest property was eagerly seized and the  witch hunts became a  profitable business. The  victims were even required to pay for the fuel upon which they were burnt.  But the laws were  not  consistent throughout  Europe and  in  some areas,  if the victim confessed, then his  or her property could not  be confiscated, but  was inherited by the next of kin. Extant records show that many of the accused were  tortured to the point were they would admit  to being anything demanded of them,  although technically, they were only  allowed to be tortured once. This is why trials  records specify that the  torture was “continued”.

Although many heretics were  women, a great many men were  also taken, tortured, and put to death. This is a letter from one such victim at the notorious Bamberg in  Germany; a poignant  epitaph to one of  Europe’s most hideous crimes:

Many hundred thousand good-nights, dearly beloved daughter Veronica. Innocent have I come into prison, innocent have I been tortured, innocent must I die. For whoever comes  into the witch prison must become  a witch or be tortured until he invents something out of  his head – and God  pity him – bethinks him of something.

I  said: “I have never renounced God, and will never do it – God graciously keep me from it. I’ll rather bear whatever I must.”

And then came also – God in highest  heaven have mercy – the executioner,  and put the thumbscrews on  me, both  hands  bound together,  so that  the blood spurted from the nails and everywhere, so that for four weeks I could not use  my hands,  as you  can see  from my writing. Thereafter they stripped me, bound my hands behind me, and drew me up  on the ladder. Then I thought heaven and earth were  at an end. Eight  times did they  draw me up and let me fall again, so that I suffered terrible agony.

All  this happened  on Friday  June 30th  and with God’s help I had to bear the torture. When at last the executioner led me back into the cell, he said to me: “Sir, I beg you, for God’s sake, confess something, whether it be true or not. Invent something, for  you cannot bear the  torture which you will be put to; and, even if you bear it  all, yet you will not escape, not even if you were an earl, but one torture will  follow another until you say you are a witch.”

The  author of  this letter,  Johannes Junius,  did indeed  confess to being a  witch, and in  August of 1628, was  burned at the  stake.  He managed  to send  his final letter to his daughter, which  ended by saying:

“Dear child, keep this  letter secret, so that people  do not find it, else I shall be tortured most piteously and the jailers will be beheaded.   So strictly is  it forbidden… Dear  child, pay this man a thaler… I have taken several days to write this – my hands are both  crippled. I am in a sad plight. Good night, for your father Johannes Junius will never see you more.”

This  letter describes more accurately  than any  historical treatise just how uncompromising the ecclesiastical courts were in their hunt for heretics. Witches, of course, were only one kind of heretic.

I mentioned earlier that  there are many causes and effects to the period that  is commonly referred to  as ‘The Burning  Times’ or the Great  Witch Hunt. It is  often assumed that Christianity  has been the dominant  western religion for 2,000 years. This is  not so. The death of Christ may have heralded a new religion, but  there was certainly  not an immediate conversion of the world to Christianity. Parts of Scandinavia remained wholly  Pagan until as late  as the 12th  century. The British Isles  and mainland Europe were converted to Christianity over a lengthy  period covering  mainly the  4th to  9th centuries.  Some parts have never truly  been converted and with the opening up of the Eastern bloc countries, we are now re-discovering a wealth  of Pagan  tradition  and folklore  that  has been  hidden  for hundreds of  years: initially from  the invading  Christian missionaries, and then later from the various communist regimes.

As the new religion of Christianity began to spread, many different sects and  cults appeared within its  ranks. The Pope was the nominal head, but rarely was he a person of spiritual purity and ascetic tastes; the political scene in Rome has always been cut-throat and devious. The enormous wealth and power controlled  by the Pope was an incentive to the most grasping and corrupt of men at that time to aspire to the Papacy. Pope Alexander VI (1492) is a superb example of the type who made it to Europe’s foremost political  seat of power:  otherwise known as Rodrigo Borgia; father of Cesare, Juan, Lucrezia and Jofre, and supreme commander  of a private army that any modern dictator would envy.

Because of their sumptuous lifestyle, their obvious disregard and contempt for vows of poverty and chastity, and their abuse of the spiritual authority invested in them, many spiritually inclined Christians rejected the Catholic Church and instead followed leaders who lived simple, ascetic lives in accordance with the teachings of Christ. Some of these sects became very popular  and were soon perceived by the Pope as a threat to his status and power. It has been suggested that the witch trials were a direct result from the persecution of these sects. A discussion of the different sects falls well beyond the scope of this talk but briefly, the main thrust was against the Cathars or Albigensians, and the Waldensians (Vaudois), and it was their persecution which gave rise to the legal  machinery that  developed into  the  Inquisition and  the so-called witch hunts.

It began with Pope Lucius III and the emperor, Frederick I  Barbarossa; they met  at Verona  in 1184, and  issued the decree “Ad abolendam”, which excommunicated sects like the Cathars and Waldensians and  laid down  the procedures for  ecclesiastical trial, after which the accused  would be handed  over to the secular  authorities  for  punishment. The  punishment  decreed  was confiscation  of property,  exile, or death.  By the  12th century, burning had already become  the established means of  execution for heretics,  and so this became enshrined in law.

At the beginning of the 13th century, the Dominican Order of Friars was  established and  its  members were  instructed  by the  Pope  to investigate  and prosecute heresy. From this simple beginning grew the awesome machinery of the  Inquisition,  which  although never aimed particularly  at witches,  became  a byword  for  terror in  parts  of Europe.

As you  can see, the motives  for the heresy persecutions  were not to stamp out Paganism, although that was certainly a by-product, but to remove the threat of any competition to the power of the Church (and thus to the Pope), in Rome. And the greatest threat came from other “Christian” sects, not the Pagans. The change from an accusatory to an inquisitorial process became established,  and the legal  machinery which allowed – indeed encouraged – psychopaths and religious zealots to persecute at will, was in place.

Have you  got a neighbour  who annoys  you? plays loud  music, or  who keeps their smelly refuse next to your garden fence? Now your recourse is to the local council or the police; in the Middle Ages, you simply denounced the  offender as a witch or heretic, and let the Church deal with them  for you.  Not only did it cost you  nothing, if  you were lucky, you might also inherit their property.




(Elizabethan era witchcraft)

For once you  were taken  as a witch  or a heretic,  there was  little chance of escape.  Certainly some victims were  pardoned and released, but the vast majority were  not so lucky. When you consider  the style of questioning, this is not surprising:

1 How long have you been a witch?

2 Why did you become a witch?

3  How did you become a witch and what happened on that occasion?

4  Who is the one you chose to be your incubus? What was his name?

5  What was the name of your master among the evil demons?

6  What was the oath you were forced to render to him?

21 What animals have you bewitched to sickness and death, and why did you commit such acts?

22 Who are your accomplices in evil…?

24 What is the ointment with which you rub your broomstick made of…?

V0025811ETR Witchcraft: witches and devils dancing in a circle. Woodcut,

This  set of questions came  from Lorraine, and  was used consistently throughout the three centuries  of the main persecutions.   Bearing in mind that  the accused had to answer – no  answer at all, or a denial, was tantamount to guilt – you can see how easily the composite picture of the witch evolved.  As Rossell Hope Robbins says:  “The confessions of witches authenticated the experts, and the denunciations ensured  a continuing  supply  of victims.


(Witches dance) 

Throughout France and Germany this procedure became  standardised; repeated year  after year, in  time it built  up a  huge mass  of ‘evidence’, all  duly authorised,  from the mouths of the accused. On these confessions, later demonologists based their compendiums and so formulated the classic conceptions of witchcraft, which never existed save in their own minds.”

It is also rather disturbing to discover just how important individual religious zealots appear to have been in the persecutions. Rather like today, where  a crusading  tele-journalist, or evangelical  vicar, can cause untold  harm to innocent people. Without exception, these accusations  are  by those  with an  unhealthy  mania against  anyone whose theology  or practices  differ from  their own.  In the  words of  one modern evangelist:  “if you’re not  fighting and winning,  you’re losing.”.

Conrad of Marburg, described by Norman Cohn as, “a blind fanatic”, was a  severe  and formidable  persecutor. As  confessor  to the  young 21 year-old  Countess of Thuringia, he would trick her into “some trivial and unwitting disobedience, and then have her and her maids flogged so severely  that the  scars were  visible weeks  later”. (Cohn).  Conrad became Germany’s first official Inquisitor, and his zeal in denouncing heretics was  unsurpassed. Another Conrad, a lay-Dominican Friar, and his sidekick Johannes, were also vigorous in denouncing  heretics. As they  moved from village to village, they  claimed to be able to identify a  heretic by his or  her appearance, based on  nothing but their own  intuition. They were responsible for the burnings of many people, and said, “we would gladly burn a hundred if just one among them were guilty”. (Annales Wormantiensis).



(Mother Shipton) 

Their comment about appearance is an important one; as we saw earlier, the stereotype of the witch hasn’t changed much in hundreds of  years. We know it is false; we know that it exists only in the imagination of the persecutors, and yet how powerful and enduring this stereotype has proven to be.

If we think about this stereotype,  what images do we conjure up?   An old woman –  occasionally an old man; or perhaps  a young and alluring temptress?  Flying through  the  air on  a  broomstick; worshipping  a devil, often in the form of a goat; trampling upon  the sacred symbols of Christianity; and  of course our  old friend  the Sabbat, with  its practices  of  sexual  license,  debauchery,  drunkenness  and  ritual murder; the latter often of children.

But persecution does not restrict itself to witches; the similarities between this stereotype and that of the Jew are obvious: Jews have been persecuted throughout their history, but it is interesting to compare some aspects of their persecution with that of witches.

In the 12th century, the word  ‘Synagogue’ was used for the first time to  describe the  meeting place  of  heretics. Professor  Russell says that:  “This usage, obviously designed  to spite the  Jews, was common throughout the Middle Ages, being replaced only towards the end of the 15th century by the equally anti-Jewish term ‘sabbat’.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica says on the subject of Jewish persecution that: “To  reinforce racial and religious  prejudice, the preposterous ritual murder accusation  became common  from the  12th century.”  The third and fourth Lateran Councils had already prohibited gentiles from entering Jewish service, or being  employed  by  Jews, and  further ordered that Jews  should wear a distinctive  badge, and live  only in Jewish  settlement  areas. This  of course  was  the beginning  of the ghetto.

As we have seen though, the ritual murder accusation  was already over a thousand years old before it was used against either  the Jews or heretics  and witches. Most people  know of the  expulsion of Jews from Spain in the 15th century, but perhaps not so commonly known is that for about 200 years prior to the expulsion,  the Jews had  been massacred and persecuted.  Indeed, it  was against the  Jews that  the infamous Spanish  Inquisition of  the 15th century  was directed.  The persecution  of Jews  in  20th century  Europe  is too  well-known  to require further comment  here, but  perhaps a few  comments about  its encouragement would be useful.

We are discussing  persecution in  this talk, and  how persecution  is manifested. Throughout history, the written word has been invaluable as a means of spreading  propaganda. Even in the Middle  Ages  the crimes  of the heretic were  publicised by records  of trials, where the  confessions were made known to the general public. The infamous ‘Malleus  Maleficarum’ became highly  influential in Europe mainly because  its  publication  coincided  with the  introduction of printing. It had little effect in England because no English translation was available until 1928. This fact alone demonstrates the power of the written word.

In medieval Europe, a pamphlet describing the crimes of a convicted heretic would be pinned to a post in the town square, and those who could not read had it read to them. In 20th century Europe, pamphlets were still used  by one  group to spread lies  about another.  In the 21st  century this technique is still used  with very great success for the lies that are circulated are often far more scandalous than the reality and once out there, they take on a life of their own.

An example: soon after the launch of the Pagan Alliance, Sydney radio 2MMM broadcasted a  news story about the  sexual abuse of children  by occultists and witches.  The Pagan Alliance responded  immediately and  provided the  station  with copy  documents  and news  clippings  from Britain,  proving the story to be without foundation and a scheme by Christian fundamentalists to discredit  Pagans. The news  editor and chief journalist  were impressed by the  material and agreed  that they had been used by the fundies. However, they refused to broadcast a retraction because it  would be “old news”. So, the damage had been done and the fundamentalists achieved their objective.

This technique was used with very great effect in the early part of the 20th century, with the circulation of a pamphlet called, ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion’. This purported to be, “an account of  the World Congress  of Jewry held  in Basel, Switzerland  in 1897,  during which  a conspiracy was planned by the international  Jewish movement and the Freemasons to achieve world domination.” (‘The Occult Conspiracy’ by M Howard).

German nationalists made very great use of the Protocols, which it was claimed were “smuggled out of Switzerland by a Russian journalist who had placed the documents in the  safe keeping of  the Rising Sun Masonic Lodge in Frankfurt.” (Howard). They were widely disseminated and writing in “Mein Kampf”, Hitler “denounced  the Jews as agents  of an international conspiracy devoted  to world  domination…”. (Howard)  We all know what happened next.

The point  is that although the Protocols were confirmed as a fraud in 1921, they continued to have an effect and once published, could not effectively be retracted. This is the aim of today’s fundamentalist, who  believes that if he or she throws enough dirt at their opponents (basically anyone who  does not agree with  their uncompromising version of their religion or culture),  then some will stick and  the battle will be won. This strategy has been used for thousands of years to persecute minorities, and  has always been  successful.  The formula is simple: discover  what most  people  fear most and then accuse your enemies of practising it.  It is an interesting comment on humanity that the fears that occur time and time again are consistent: conspiracy, buggery,  paedophilia, sacrifice (human and animal), sexual  license,  drunkenness and  feasting.   More specific  charges relating to  a pact  with a  devil or desecrating sacred objects are additions to these core accusations.

A further interesting aspect is that there is a long history of accusations being made by children. It has been widely recorded that  Hitler’s Youth Army required children to spy upon their parents and report any indiscretions; in the 1980s and 1990s social workers in Britain used  an identical process for identifying Pagan parents. Children were asked about what their parents did and leading questions were commonly used.

In medieval England, there were many occasions where children’s evidence (sic) was  used to  convict witches. ‘The  Leicester Boy’,  ‘The Burton  Boy’ and ‘The Bilson Boy’ were a few of many who claimed to be bewitched by witches.  Eventually proven to be  a fraud, at  least ten women died  as a result of  the accusations of The  Leicester Boy,and the Burton Boy  caused the death of at least one of the women whom he accused. In the 17th century a  number of women were executed on the allegations  of  hysterical  children, even though  fraud was often discovered during the  course of  the trial. It is a fact that the delusions of delinquent or disturbed children were often used by judges to confirm their own prejudices.

Salem (1692) is probably the best known of all the cases where children were the  chief accusers. Although in fact, the children were more like young adults, with only one under the age of ten and most in their late teens or early twenties. However, as the panic  grew, a great  many more were sucked into the web of lies, and Martha Carrier was hanged on the evidence (sic) of her seven year-old daughter. At the height of  the hysteria  almost 150 people  were arrested;  31 were convicted, and 19 hung.  Some others died in jail and others were reprieved. As was common in Europe,  the accused were required to  pay their  expenses whilst in jail,  even if they  were subsequently found innocent. Sarah Osborne and Ann Foster both died in jail and costs of £1 3s  5d and £2 16s  0d respectively were demanded before the bodies would be released for burial.

The  chief of the accusers, Ann Putnam, confessed fourteen years later that  the whole thing was a fraud.  In 1697 the  jurors publicly confessed they had made an error of judgement, and ten years after the executions, Judge Samuel Sewallevidence  “confessed the  guilt of  the court, desiring to take the blame and shame of  it…”. By then of course it was too late for those who were dead, or whose lives had been destroyed by the accusations.


(Salem Witch trial) 



But we are getting ahead of ourselves here,  for Salem is the last of the great witch trials, coming as it does towards the end of the 17th century.

I mentioned earlier that in Continental Europe, the heresy trials appeared to arise from the persecution of the Christian sects of the Bogomils, Cathars, Albigensians, and others such as the Jews,  Waldensians, and even the Knights Templars. The stereotype of the witch was compounded  from many different sources, and  gradually became the composite figure of the  shape-shifting hag, who flew through the air on a broom, and flung her curses at all and sundry.

The concept of the pact with the devil existed as early as the 8th century, and as we have seen, sexual license, buggery and ritual sacrifice have long been seen as activities supposed to be practised by those outside of society’s norm, whether they be Christian or Pagan. During the 9th century, shape-shifting, maleficia and the incubus/succubus became more  commonly reported and by  the 10th century, the idea of nocturnal flight was established.  Published in 906, the Canon Episcopi described how some women were deluded in the belief  that at  night they could  fly behind  their Goddess, Diana  (Holda or Herodias):

“Some wicked women are  perverted by the Devil and led astray by  illusions and fantasies  induced by demons,  so that  they  believe they  ride out  at night on beasts with Diana, the pagan goddess, and a horde of women.  They believe that in  the night they cross huge distances. They say that they obey Diana’s commands and on certain nights are  called out in her service…”

In his fascinating book, ‘Ecstasies: Deciphering The Witches’ Sabbath’, Carlo Ginzburg suggests that the gathering and the night flight are based on  genuinely ancient shamanic  practices and there are echoes here to Maddalena’s story recounted by Leland in ‘Aradia: Gospel of the Witches’:

“Once in the month, and when the moon is full, ye shall assemble in some desert place,  or in a forest all  together join to adore  the potent spirit of your Queen, my mother, great Diana”.

In  1012, Burchard’s Collectarium was published:  the first attempt to assemble a  book of Canonical Law. Book number 19 of this vast collection was called the Corrector and chapter five  deals with  various sins penances. It enshrines in law the notion of night flight, together with murder and  the cooking  and eating of human flesh. Although both the Canon Episcopi and Burchard’s Corrector  are specific in attributing the powers of flight to  witches, it is not until  1280 that the first  picture of a witch riding upon  a broom appears. This is found in Schleswig Cathedral.

In Orleans in 1022, the first burning occurred. The victims were accused of, “holding sex orgies at night in a secret place, either underground  or in  an abandoned  building. The  members of  the group appeared bearing torches. Holding the torches, they chanted the  names of  demons until an evil spirit appeared. Now  the lights were extinguished, and  everyone seized  the person closest  to him in  a sexual embrace,  whether mother, sister or nun. The children conceived at the orgies were burned eight days after  birth,  and their  ashes  were confected in a substance that was then used in a blasphemous parody of holy communion.”

The 14th century saw a steady growth in the number of accusations and trials, and by the 15th century, the idea of the Devil’s (or Witch’s)  mark had become established. So too was the idea of a flying ointment and a consistent image of The Devil became common in  trials literature.

The Papal Bull of 1484, Summis Desiderantes Affectibus, and  then two years later, publication of the Malleus Maleficarum, further established the “crime” of witchcraft as a heresy, and confirmed Papal support for its eradication. This infamous work – The Malleus Maleficarum or Hammer of the Witches – was incredibly influential in establishing a code of practice by which witches were to be denounced, tried, convicted and executed. The third part of  the book describes how to deal with one who will not confess to the charges:

“But if the accused, after a year or other longer period which has been deemed sufficient, continues to maintain his denials,  and the legitimate  witnesses abide by their evidence, the Bishop and Judges shall prepare to abandon him to the secular Court; sending  to him certain honest men zealous for the faith, especially religious, to  tell him that he cannot escape temporal death while he thus persists in his denial, but will be delivered up as  an impenitent heretic to the power of the secular Court.

It is also in this section that our friendly Dominican monks refer to, “witch midwives, who surpass all other witches in their crimes… And the number of them is so great that, as has been found from their confessions, it is thought that there is scarcely any tiny hamlet  in which at least one is not to be found.”

Despite its  incredible influence  in Europe, as noted above the lack of an English translation until modern times meant that the  Malleus had little effect in England, Wales or Ireland, where witchcraft accusations and trials were very different to those of the continent and Scotland. In fact Wales and Ireland seemed to escape from the witch persecutions almost entirely, with very few trials and even fewer executions.

Although many  laws have been enacted in England against witchcraft, there has never been  anything like the hysteria about  witches common in  mainland Europe and Scotland. The earliest  known person accused of sorcery in England was Agnes, wife of  Odo, who in 1209 was freed after choosing trial by ordeal of grasping a red-hot iron. There are certainly earlier mentions of witches, for example in the ‘De Gestis Herwardis Saxonis’, where Hereward’s wife is identified as a woman skilled in the mechanical arts and Julia of Brandon as a witch employed by the Normans to curse the English, but these are not trial records and as far as history records, Hereward’s wife was honoured rather than executed.

Indeed until 1563, commoners accused  of witchcraft in England met  light (if any) punishment. Those of noble birth were treated rather more severely,  as the crime could easily be one of treason, and any action which implied a threat  to the  monarch was treated  very seriously  indeed. This resulted in the charge of  witchcraft being used to remove political  opponents  with  great  expediency. There  were  certainly  laws against  the  practice of  witchcraft  or  sorcery:  Alfred the  Great (849-899  AD), King  of Wessex  and overlord  of England,  decreed the death penalty  for Wiccans. Aethelstan, perhaps  one of  the most compassionate  of the Saxon  Kings, ordered  those who practised Wiccecraeft  to be executed,  but only if their activities resulted in murder.

Under Henry VIII’s Act of 1546, the penalty for conjuration of evil spirits was death and the property of the accused was confiscated by the King. However, this was in effect for only one year being repealed by Edward VI in 1547, and only one conviction under this Act is  recorded. In 1563,  the statute of  Queen Elizabeth I  was established, which also made death the penalty for invoking or conjuring an evil spirit, but those who practised divination or who caused harm (other  than death)  by their  sorceries, were  sentenced to  a year’s imprisonment for a first offence. Subsequent offences could be punishable  by death and  in some  cases the  confiscation of  property as well.

Even though laws against the practice of witchcraft had been established for hundreds of years, the first major trial was not until 1566 at Chelmsford, and was typical of the English style of witchcraft: no pact with the devil, no gathering at Sabbats, but simple and direct acts of maleficia and the introduction of witches’ familiars. It was an important trial for it set the precedent in English law for accepting unsupported, and highly imaginative, stories from  children as evidence. It  also accepted spectral evidence (sic), witch’s marks, and the confession of the accused.



(Elizabethan era witchcraft 2) 


There are  some very distinctive aspects to  English witchcraft, which set it apart from its Continental and Scottish counterparts and which are worth  noting. There was a relative lack of torture and witches were  never burned in England. Traitors  and murderers were  burned; witches  were hung.  Of course, a traitor or a  murderer could also be  a witch, but this was actually quite rare. The torture used in England, when it was used at all, was typically swimming, pricking, enforced waking, and a diet of bread  and water.  Unpleasant, but when compared to squassation, being skinned  alive,  the strappado,  the rack,  and  such delights  as the thumbscrews and the  iron maiden, hardly in the same  class.




(Cucking stool)

The focus of  English witchcraft  was  more towards  simple,  personal, acts  of maleficia  than a perceived conspiracy against the power of the Christian Church.  As one of  Britain’s foremost  folklorists says:  “Traditions  of an organised, pagan witch-cult were never very plentiful in England, although they did exist occasionally, especially in the later years of  the witch belief. They  were never really strong,  and after the end of the persecution in the early 18th century, they disappeared altogether.”  (Christina  Hole) This is  interesting, because  it has been suggested that the witch trials phenomena was largely inspired by the heretical Christian sects; this  would seem to be born out  by the type of accusations made  in England,  which were  largely neighbour against neighbour  rather than Church  and State against  an organised conspiracy of heretics.

What is also interesting is  that it was commonly believed  in England that if the  bewitched victim could draw blood  from the witch,  then they  would be  cured and  the witch’s  power made ineffective. This belief has persisted in folk  traditions to modern times. In 1875 at Long Compton,  the body of an old woman, one Ann  Turner, was discovered. She had been pinned to the ground by  a pitchfork through  her throat and across her face and chest had been  carved the sign of  a crucifix. James Heywood, a  local farmer, had once claimed:  “It’s she who  brings the floods and drought. Her spells withered the crops in the field.  Her curse drove  my father  to an  early grave!”.  Heywood maintained  that the only way to destroy  her power was  to spill her blood and so after her murder, he was  taken and tried for the crime. He was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.

In 1945, Charles Walton, a  local labourer, set out one morning  to do some hedging on nearby Meon Hill. That evening, his mutilated body was found in a field –  pinned to the ground  by his pitchfork, which  had been stuck through his throat.  There were cuts to his arms  and legs, and local police were baffled as to  the motive for the crime, and who the likely culprit might have been. But gradually locals began to talk about Mr Walton; they said  he was a solitary and vindictive  old man, who was concerned more  with searching out the secrets  of nature than in taking company  with his  neighbours. They said  that he  harnessed toads, using reeds and pieces of ram’s horn, and then sent them across fields  to  blight the  crops.  They also  remembered that  he  kept a witch’s mirror – a piece of  black stone polished in a mountain stream – concealed in his pocket-watch, which he used for weaving spells  and seeing into the future.  The police never discovered the  culprit, but it was accepted locally that Mr Walton was murdered because he was a witch. His wounds were a result of the belief that a victim could be freed from enchantment if he or she were able to draw the blood of the witch. For more information about the witches of Long Compton, including the murder of Ann Turner, see ‘The Wiccan’ for Samhain 2008.

I could not leave English witchcraft without mention of that infamous gentleman, Matthew Hopkins; self-styled  Witchfinder General. For  all his fame, his activities  were restricted to a geographically  small area  and a relatively short period of time.

Matthew Hopkins  used the  unrest of  the Civil War  to prey  upon the fears of  the common people. Little is known of his early life, except that he became a lawyer “of little note” and failing to make a living at Ipswich  in Suffolk,  moved to  Manningtree in Essex; an  area of Civil War tension.

With virtually no knowledge of witchcraft but  armed with a couple of contemporary documents (including James I’s “Demonology”), Hopkins set himself up in business  as a witchfinder.  And a very profitable  business  it was  too. At a time when the average daily  wage  was 6d, Hopkins received  £23 for a single visit to Stowmarket, and  £6 for a visit to Aldeburgh.

His  approach was consistent:  James I  mentioned that  witches  had familiars and suckled imps; therefore, anyone who kept a familiar spirit or imp must be a witch. Bearing in mind the English partiality to keeping pets and you begin to see just how very profitable this technique could be.  For example, Bridget Mayers  was  condemned for entertaining an  evil spirit in the likeness  of a  mouse, which  she called Prickears. Another (unnamed) woman was rescued  by her neighbours from  a ducking, where she  confessed to having  an imp  called “Nan”. When she recovered she said:  “she knew not what she had confessed, and she had nothing  she called Nan but a pullet that she sometimes called by that name…”.

Hopkins  moved from Essex to Norfolk and Suffolk and by the following year, had operations in Cambridge, Northampton, Huntingdon  and Bedford, with a team of six  witch finders under his control. “In Suffolk alone it is estimated  that he was responsible for arresting  at least 124 persons  for witchcraft, of  whom at least 68  were hanged.” (RHR)Hopkins moved too  far too quickly however, and public opinion began to go against him. In 1646 a clergyman in Huntingdon preached against him and judges began  to question both his methods of locating  witches and  the fees that he  charged for the service.  In 1647 Hopkins published a pamphlet called  ‘Discovery of Witches’ in which  he supported his methods in sanctimonious and pseudo legal language. It  was to no  avail however, for later that  year he died,  “in some disgrace” according to most authorities. Witchcraft legend has it that he was drowned  by irate villagers in  one of his own  ducking ponds, but this has no recorded evidence to support it.

Moving away from England; Scottish and Continental witchcraft shared a great many similarities. Mary Queen of Scots and her  son, James VI, were  both educated  in France and  this ensured  that  continental attitudes  towards  witches  were enshrined  in  Scottish  law  at the highest level. In fact the concepts of witchcraft were introduced into Scotland by Mary in about 1563. Before then, trials for witchcraft had been few and there  were no  recorded burnings  of witches. In ‘The Encyclopaedia of Witchcraft and Demonology’ Rossell Hope Robbins says:

“Scotland is second only to Germany in  the barbarity of its witch trials. The Presbyterian clergy acted like inquisitors, and the Church sessions often shared the prosecution with the secular law courts. The Scottish laws were, if  anything, more heavily loaded against  the accused. Finally,  the devilishness of  the torture was  limited only  by Scotland’s backward technology in the construction of mechanical devices.”

It is  well known that James VI was an ardent  prosecutor of witches, and  it  was under  his  authority that  the  Bible was  translated to include the word ‘witch’ (Exodus 22:18) to provide Biblical  sanction for the death  penalty for witches. The original Hebrew word (kashaph) likely meant either a herbalist, diviner or sorcerer, but was definitely not a witch. In  the Latin Vulgate (4th century version of the Bible) the word was translated as maleficos’, which could mean any kind of criminal although in practice often referred to malevolent sorcerers. Similarly, the  so-called Witch of  Endor, consulted by  King Solomon: the  original Hebrew was ‘ba’alath  ob’, roughly ‘mistress of a talisman’. In the Latin Vulgate she  became a ‘mulierem habentem pythonem’,  ‘a women possessing an oracular spirit’. It was only in the version of the Bible authorised by King James that she became a witch.

By the time that James acceded to the English throne in 1603, his attitude towards witches had undergone a subtle transformation. In fact, he was  directly  responsible for  the release and  pardon  of several accused witches and personally interfered in trials where he believed that fraud or deception was being practised.  However, Lynn Linton writing in 1861 says of him:

“Whatever of blood-stained folly belonged specially to the Scottish trials of this time – and hereafter –  owed its  original impulse to  him; every groan  of the  tortured  wretches driven  to their fearful doom, and every tear of the survivors left blighted and desolate to drag out their weary days in  mingled grief  and terror,  lie on his memory with shame and  condemnation ineffaceable for  all time.”

But it was under Charles II that perhaps the most famous and enduring of  Scottish  witches was  tried,  and most  probably  executed (although records  of her punishment have not survived). On four separate  occasions during 1662, Isobel Gowdie of Auldearne testified that she  was a witch and gave what  Russell Hope Robbins describes as, “a resume of popular beliefs about witchcraft in Scotland.”. He says that Gowdie “appeared clearly demented” but that “it is plain she believed what she confessed, no matter how impossible…”.

From Gowdie are derived some of the concepts of today’s Wicca, including the idea of a coven comprised of 13 people.  Gowdie said that the coven was  ruled by a  Man in Black sometimes called ‘Black  John’. He would often beat the witches severely and it seemed their main  tasks were  to raise storms, change  themselves into animals,  and shoot elf arrows  to injure or kill people. Coming as she does right at the end of  the witchcraft persecutions it is difficult to establish how much of Gowdie’s confession  is based upon real, traditional folk practices of  Auldearne and  how  much she  is  simply repeating  the  standard accusations against witches.

The Coven of 13 is  probably the single aspect of her confessions that does not appear elsewhere  in records of witchcraft trials and my own inclination is that she was probably as genuine a witch as was ever taken and tried.


(Isobel Gowdie)   






I commented earlier how terrifying it is to consider the  impact that a single person  can have upon  the lives of  so many people and provided examples of King James,  Kramer and Sprenger, Matthew Hopkins, and Conrad of  Marburg. Their modern day equivalents are no less terrifying. I  have  already  mentioned Adolf  Hitler;  what  about Stalin?  his great purge in  the period following 1936 saw charges of treason, espionage and terrorism brought against anyone who showed the least inclination to oppose him. Using techniques which would not have been  out of  place during  the great  witch hunts,  Stalin’s henchmen enforced confessions and effectively exterminated any threat to his political power.

We could look  too at McCarthy, whose fame  for persecution was  such that his name is now used to describe ‘the use  of unsupported accusations  for any purpose’.  It is no accident that his activities were referred to as a witch hunt nor that Arthur Miller’s play about the Salem  witch trials, ‘The Crucible’, was more a comment about McCarthyism than a comment about 17th century American life. Sadly, many examples of oppression and persecution still exist in our own century.

Our latter-day inquisitors play upon society’s fears in much the same way as  Matthew Hopkins played upon the fears of the people during the Civil War. They continue use the gullible and the vulnerable in pursuit of goals that would horrify if they were ever truthfully articulated. Take for example the claims made by  Audrey Harper, who achieved notoriety in Britain as an  ex-HPS of a Witches’ Coven.   This extract is from an article by Aries, which appeared in Web of Wyrd #5:

“Sent to a Dr  Barnado’s home by her mother,  she grew up  with  deprivation and  social stigma.  In time she becomes a WRAF, falls in love, gets pregnant, boyfriend dies, she turns to booze, gives up her baby  and becomes homeless. Wandering  to Piccadilly Circus she meets some Flower Children with the  killer weed,  and  her descent  into Hell  is assured. By day she gets stoned and eats junk food; by night she sleeps in squats and doorways. Along comes Molly; the whore with a heart of gold who teaches Audrey the art  of streetwalking. She flirts with shoplifting, gets into pills, and then gets talent spotted and  invited to a Chelsea party, where wealth, power  and tasteful  decor are dangled as bait. At the next party she is  hooked by the “group”, which meets “every month in Virginia Water”. She agrees to go to the next meeting, which is to be held at Hallowe’en.

Inside the dark Temple lit by black candles and full of “A heady,  sickly sweet smell from burning incense”, she is “initiated” by  the  “warlock”, whose “face was deathly pale and skeletal… his eyes …  were dark and sunken” and whose “breath and body seemed to exude a strange smell, a little like  stale alcohol.”  She signs  herself over to Satan with her own blood on a parchment scroll,  whereupon a baby is produced, its throat cut, and the blood  drank.  Following this  she gets dumped on the  “altar” and  screwed as the “sacrifice of the White Virgin”. The meeting finishes with a little ritual cursing and she’s left to wander “home” in the dark.

Her life falls into a steady routine of meetings in Virginia  Water, getting  screwed by the  “warlock”, drug abuse, petty crime, and  recruiting runaways for parties, where the drinks are spiked -“probably with  LSD” – and  candles injected with heroin  release “stupefying  fumes into  the air”; the  object being  sex kicks and  pornography. She falls pregnant again, gets committed to a psychiatric hospital, has the baby, and gives it away convinced that the “warlock” would sacrifice it. Things then become a confusion of Church desecration, drug addiction, ritual abuse, psychiatric hospital, and  falling in with Christian folk who try vainly to save her soul. For rather vague reasons the “coven” decide  to drop her  from the team, and she dedicates herself to a true junkie’s lifestyle with a steady round of overdosing, jaundice, and detoxification units.

The “warlock”drops by to threaten her, and she makes her way north via some psychiatric hospitals to a Christian Rehabilitation farm. She  gets married, has a child which she keeps, and becomes a regular churchgoer. But beneath the surface are recurring nightmares, insane anger and murderous feelings towards her brethren.  At the Emmanual Pentecostal Church  in Stourport  she asks  the  Minister, Roy Davies, for help. He prays, and God tells him that she was involved with  witchcraft. An exorcism has her born again, cleansed of her sin. She gets bap- tised and has no  more nightmares, becoming a generally nicer person. She becomes the “occult expert” of the Reachout Trust and Evangelical  Alliance, and makes a career out  of telling an edited version of her tale.

Geoffrey Dickens  MP persuades her to  tell all on live TV; “Audrey, to your knowledge is child sacrifice still going on?” To this she replies, “To my knowledge, yes.” After  this the whole thing  rambles into an untidy conclusion of self-congratulation, self-promotion,  and self-justification; and for a grand finale pulls out  a list of horrendous child abuse, which is shamelessly exploited in typically journalistic fashion, and by the usual fallacious  arguments which  links it  to anything “occult”; help-lines, astro  predictions in  newspapers, and even New Age festivals.

And so we are left with a horrifying vision of hordes of Satanists swarming the country, buggering kids, sacrificing babies, and feeding their own faeces to the flock.”

As a direct result of people like Audrey Harper publicising their lies and fantasy,  children in England and Scotland were forcibly removed from their homes and subjected to the type of questioning used by inquisitors and witchfinders.

In 1990, journalist Rosie Waterhouse commenting upon the Manchester child  abuse  case said: “After three  months of questioning by the NSPCC, strange  stories began  to come  out  and other children were named. The way the children began telling ‘Satanic’ tales in this case is  remarkably similar  to  the way  such  stories first surfaced in Nottingham (1987-9). As ‘The  Independent on Sunday’ revealed last week (23/9/90), the  Nottingham children began talking about witches, monsters, babies  and blood only after  they had been encouraged, by  an NSPCC social  worker, to  play with toys which included  witches’ costumes, monsters, toy babies, and a syringe for extracting blood.”

Believe it or not, the parents of these children had no access to them whatsoever. Why? Because our modern, scientifically trained, social workers believed that, “[the parents] would try to  silence  the children,  using  secret Satanic  symbols  or trigger words”.

By  March 1991,  senior Police spokesmen  were publicly  claiming that “police have no evidence of ritual or satanic abuse inflicted on children anywhere in England or Wales”. Scotland has a different legal system, which is why it was not included in the statement – not because the police have evidence there, for they do not.

When the Rochdale case finally came to court after the children had been separated from their families for about 16 months, the judge delivered a damning indictment upon those  who were responsible for it and said: “the way  the children had  been removed  from their parents  was particularly upsetting.” He  saw a video of the removal  of one girl from her home during a dawn  raid, and commented that, “It is  obvious from the  video tape  that the  girl is not  merely frightened  but greatly distressed at being removed from home. The sobbing and distraught girl can be seen. It is one of my most abiding memories of this case.”

A consultant clinical psychologist scrutinised the interview transcripts and audio records of the Orkney child abuse case (27th February 1991), and in her summing up said: “[the Social Workers] told the  children they knew things had happened  to them and were generally  leading all the  way. When  the children  denied things,  the questions  were continually put until  the children got hungry and gave  them the answers they wanted.”

The father of four of the children who were taken into care said: “At first I thought the allegations were laughable, but I found out how serious the police were…”. Just to remind you of the words of Gilles de Rais some 500 years ago: [the accusations] are frivolous and lack credit…”.

One 11 year-old described being asked to  draw a circle of ritualistic dancers. He said: “They got me to draw by  saying, ‘I am not a drawer. Can you draw that?’ It was meant to be a ring with children around and a minister in the middle wearing  a black robe  and a crook  to pull children in.”

The boy said  he had been promised  treats such as  a lesson on how a helicopter worked if he co-operated and was told that he could go if he gave one name. How remarkably similar to witch trials, where the victims were always pressed to name their accomplices.

Let us return briefly to Salem, where, in 1710, William Good petitioned for  damages in respect of  the trial and execution  of his wife Sarah and the imprisonment of his daughter, Dorothy, “a child of four or five  years old, [who] being  chained in the dungeon was so hardly used  and terrified  that she  hath ever  since been very chargeable, having little or no reason to govern herself.”.

After reading this text again after more than 20 years, I can draw no different conclusion to that I drew in 1992: persecution has changed in only one respect in the last 2,000 years. In the 21st century we have far  more efficient and effective  tools to spread  lies and propaganda than was available to our ancestors.

Julia Phillips

(This version was revised in 2013 and published in The Wiccan, Beltane 2013.)

Select Bibliography

There are a great many books on the subject of the  European Witch Trials. This list a short bibliography of those to which I referred when writing this talk.

Bradford, Sarah                        Cesare Borgia (1981)

Cohn, Norman                          Europe’s Inner Demons (1975)

Ginzburg, Carlo                        Ecstasies: Deciphering The Witches’ Sabbath (1990)

Hole, Christina                         Witchcraft in England (1977)

Howard, Michael                     The Occult Conspiracy (1989)

Kieckheffer, Richard               European Witch Trials (1976)

Larner, Christina                     Enemies of God: The Witch Hunt in Scotland (1981)

Larner, Christina                      Witchcraft and Religion (1985)

Maple, Eric                                The Complete Book of Witchcraft and Demonology (1966)

Radford, Kenneth                     Fire Burn (1989)

Ravensdale & Morgan             The Psychology of Witchcraft (1974)

Robbins, Rossell Hope           The Encyclopaedia of Witchcraft and Demonology (1984)

Russell, Jeffrey                         A History of Witchcraft (1980)

Scarre, Geoffrey                        Witchcraft and Magic in 16th and 17th century Europe (1987)

Stenton, Sir Frank                   Anglo-Saxon England (1971)

Summers, Montague (trans)Malleus Maleficarum (1986)

Thomas, Keith                          Religion and the Decline of Magic                                     (1971)

Trevor-Roper, H R                   The European Witch-Craze of the 16th and 17th Centuries (1988)

Walsh, Michael                        Roots of Christianity (1986)

Worden, Blair (Ed)                  Stuart England (1986)


Encyclopaedia Britannica (1969 edition)

Collins Dictionary of the English Language (1980)

Newspapers: The Times, The Guardian, The Independent (Britain)

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