Wicked or Be Convicted: A Brief Introduction to the History of Witch Hunt

Image Source: wbur.org

Top of your mind, name three witches. In my case, here they are:

Hermione Granger from Harry Potter was a gifted-know-it-all witchcraft student who showed constant courage and kindness throughout all the adventures and dangers she experienced with her companions. 

Morgan le Fay, a skilful and ambitious enchantress from the Arthurian Legends, was an ally of King Arthur but later turned out to be an enemy responsible for the king’s death.

Elphaba Thropp, from Wicked The Musical, a green-skinned outsider full of sympathy who was brave enough to defy the collapsed authority and thus eventually being hunted and heard the Marching Witch Hunters (click the hyperlink to listen) sing: “… Kill the Witch! Wickedness must be published… I’ll be heartless killing her!”

These fictional witches have one thing in common. No matter good or evil, they stood up to the challenges with courage and their gifted powers and won the battles which might cost their lives. In contrast, bravery, knowledge and independence were useless to the “witches” who lived in the ages when witch hunts existed. Under the craze of hunting witches, ordinary people and even noble people were at risk of being accused of practising witchcraft.

What is Witchcraft?

Witchcraft is a supernatural idea invented in human history. Traditionally, it refers to the practice of alleged supernatural powers to control people or events with sorcery and magic. The definition of witchcraft differs in disparate historical and cultural contexts, and people’s attitude towards it varies following the shifts of social powers and values. 

For example, during the Early Modern period in Europe, rural villagers called the natural healers who cured them and saved their lives from illness wise men, wise women, or, more commonly, “witches”. Yet, at the same time, these “witches” were the targets to be hunted and eliminated by the state and the Church when these authorities desired to turn medicine into a licensed profession.

The idea of getting rid of witches has a longstanding history that we can trace back to the time before the Common Era. In the Old Testament, Exodus 22:18 says, “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” There are more biblical passages that caution against witchcraft. However, the Church’s attitude towards witchcraft was inconsistent.  Between 900–1400, Christian authorities were resistant to admitting the existence of witches and thus tried no one for the crime of being one. But, the belief in witches was common in medieval Europe. There was even a cannon issued to prevent prosecutions for witchcraft in the mid-13th century by Pope Alexander IV.

The disapproval of witchcraft did not go extreme and shift into a craze of hunt and killing until the 14th–15th centuries when the Church scholars in universities proclaimed that witchcraft resulted from contracts made with Satan. And the Church started to reconsider the reality of witchcraft. 

How did the Craze Start?

In December 1484, Pope Innocent VIII issued the papal bull of Summis desiderantes affectibus. He addressed the malign existence of witches and witchcraft in the Holy Empire and thus authorised formal inquisition into their activities. Heinrich Kramer was the driver of the issue of this decree. He was a well-respected German Dominican who co-published the Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches) with Johann Sprenger, dean of a university, three years later in 1487.

Pictured is the printed book of Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches) Image Source: planet wissen

The Hammer of Witches was a manual on identifying, hunting, interrogating and executing witches. The book was divided into three parts. The first part emphasised the reality and the depravity of witches and warned the readers that any disbelief in demonology would be condemned and accused of heresy. The second part was a compendium of stories and activities of witches, such as diabolic compacts, immoral relations with devils, night riding and transformations. The third part was a discussion of the legal procedures of witch trials, suggesting that torture was sanctioned as a tactic to secure confessions. These comprehensive guidelines soon became the authority for Catholics and Protestants, flushing out “witches” who lived among them. In the following some 100 years, The Hammer of Witches was a bestseller,  selling more copies than any other books in Europe except the Bible.

There has not been a precise number of people tried and executed for witchcraft in Europe. Historians have estimated that about 100,000 to 110,000 people were tried for witchcraft from the 15th to the mid-18th century, and half of these people were executed.

The sickening belief in the devil’s practice of giving “witches” the power to harm others in return for their loyalty caused the infamous history of witch hunts, and witch trials emerged in Europe like a plague. This lethal superstition later reached colonial New England. 

Salem Village, a poor rural Puritan community in Massachusetts, was perhaps the best-known spot of witch trials in human history. The tragedy started in the Spring of 1692; a group of young girls claimed to be possessed by the devil and accused several women (a slave, a beggar, and an old lady) of witchcraft. Afterwards, a wave of hysteria spread across the area and led to an establishment of a special court for witch trials. Over 150 men, women, and children were accused of witchcraft in the next few months.

The above illustrated a girl pointing to an accused woman during the Salem witch trials. Image Source: history.com

The above illustrated an officer leading away an old lady accused of witchcraft. Image Source: history.com

What Were the Ways to Identify Witches?

Convictions for witchcraft were always made with the assistance of ludicrous and inhuman witch trial tests, for example:

Swimming Test—witches were believed to be spurned by the sacrament of baptism. Thus water would reject witches’ bodies and prevent them from submerging. The accused witches would be bound and tossed into the nearest body of water. If they sank like a stone, they would be proven to be innocent. Although a rope would be tied around the victim’s waist so the court could pull them up if they sank, accidents of drowning deaths were usual.

Prayer Test—medieval beliefs asserted that it was impossible for witches to recite scripture aloud without making mistakes or omissions. So, it might be just being illiterate or nervous; any errors made by the suspected witches when they said the prayer aloud would be seen as proof of guilt. However, the theory was only theory, while the truth was ridiculous. George Burroughs, an accused sorcerer in the Salem Witch Trials, flawlessly recited the prayer before his execution, though it was seen as a devil’s trick. So he was hanged to death as planned.

There were more bizarre tests, such as the Touch Test, Witch’s Marks, and Pricking and Scratching Tests. All these tests were well designed to torture the accused victims and force them to admit a crime they did not commit. The accusations and trials were always full of conspiracies.

The above illustrated the swimming test of witch trials. The accused victim would be tied and thrown into the water to see if they would float or sink. Image Source: ati

What Caused the Infamous History of Witch Hunts?

Until now, no consensus has been made for the cause of the witch-craze phenomenon, just several hypotheses, for example:

Scapegoat Hypothesis—is the best-known explanation for the witch hunts and witch trials, in which the bad weather was the cause to blame. Between the 14th and 19th centuries, a period of bitter winters and mild summers brought hardship to the people who lived in Europe and North America, namely the Little Ice Age. When people were suffering, they tended to scapegoat something or someone. When it was a widespread belief that witches were capable of manipulating the weather, the “witches” were the ones to blame and thus must be executed for “saving the good people.”

Legal-Centralisation Hypothesis—some scholars argued that the weak government was the cause for the craze of the witch hunt. During 1500 and 1800, kings often refused to convene parliaments and limited their powers in different ways due to complicated political and social reasons. The central governments became weak, and local authorities could act on their accords. Local authorities always prosecuted witch trials because central governments could not enforce rules and laws. 

In 2017, two American economists, Peter T. Lesson and Jacob W. Russ, published an interesting article in The Economic Journal studying witch trials from the view of the economy.  They argued that witch trials in Europe were the Catholic and Protestant churches competing for religious market share. It was a non-price competition despite costing people’s lives.

The Catholic and Protestant churches fought vigorously to win loyalty from the undecided Christians during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. To win the battle, the church officials turned themselves into witch prosecutors. They worked so hard to advertise their churches’ confessional brands, which committed to protecting their believers from Satan’s evil by hunting witches. The logic was similar to the political parties running campaigns during the election to win the undecided voters in the modern days. 

Public witch trials, on the other hand, were impactful demonstrations of the churches’ superior power. These trials also detected and suppressed the challengers to the churches’ authority, the same logic as Stalin’s “show trials” in the late 1930s in Soviet Russia, which Stalin used to purge his political enemies and send a message to the citizens to contemplate their loyalties.

Witch executions attracted hundreds, even thousands of people, to witness. Engaging the crowd in the executions was another advertising tactic: people assembled in a vast space, crying aloud the Holy Name “Jesus! Jesus!” which echoed the cries of the unfortunate “witches” amidst the flames. What a practical manifestation!

In Carol F. Karlsen’s The Devil in the Shape of Women, 78% of 344 accused witches in New England were female; when women stepped outside their prescribed roles: too rich, too poor, having too many or too few children, they became targets. Image Source: Milwaukee Independent

In the courts of witch trials, the accused witches were assumed guilty by the law. It was opposite to today’s idea of the presumption of innocence—under an accusation of a crime, the suspect is innocent until proven guilty. 

Professor Len Niehoff of the Law School at the University of Michigan taught seminars on the Salem witch trials. He said that two vital protections provided by the modern legal system were absent in Salem, making the tragedy almost inevitable. 

Firstly, the right to be represented by counsel was absent. Defense lawyers were not allowed in the Salem trials to object when the accused individuals were being questioned or to cross-examine those who testified.

Secondly, the hearsay rule was absent. This rule is a complex legal doctrine preventing the use of a trial of statements made outside of court. The hearsay rule is critical to ensure that the evidence admitted is reliable and based on the witness’s knowledge. So, the admission of rumours, assumptions and community gossip (the factors which drove the Salem trials) can be prevented.

When we look back at history, we can find that the witch trials were always fuelled by people’s simmering tensions: suspicions and resentment towards their neighbours, the hardship of lives, the after-effects of wars, the fear of wars and diseases, etc. It was not until the 17th century that the scientific revolution took place and eventually eroded the widespread belief in witchcraft, driving the religious authorities to abandon the demand for the witch hunt and trials.

Further Reading:
Wicked—A Tale Examining the Nature of Evil

“Wicked The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West” (Wicked) was the first adult novel written by an American novelist, Gregory Maguire, and published in 1995. The story was created with the characters and world setting based on the 1900 novel “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” by Lyman Frank Baum and its 1939 film adaptation. Image Source: The Mark Twain House & Museum

Elphaba Thropp, the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, was the heroine in this 1990s novel. Unlike conventional heroes, Elphaba was portrayed with a classical villainous witch’s image —green skin, sharp teeth, savage demeanour, and fear of water. However, Maguire also painted Elphaba with a light of sympathy. Through the journeys she explored with her rivals, friends and enemies, Elphaba played a vital role in examining and debating the problems of the nature of evil, terrorism, propaganda and life purpose.

“If everyone was always calling you a bad name, how much of that would you internalise? How much of that would you say? All right, go ahead. I’ll be everything that you call me because I have no capacity to change your minds anyway, so why bother? By whose standards should I live?”1 Could a person be born evil, or were there reasons pushing them towards behaving so? This is the core question that Maguire would like to answer by telling the story of Elphaba. 

The answer might have been hidden in the signature song of the Broadway musical adaptation of the story. Defying Gravity (click the hyperlink for the music and the lyrics) is the ending song of the show’s first act, sung by Elphaba and Glinda, Elphaba’s rival and best friend. The two main characters were arguing about their future and the paths they should take. In the song, Elphaba puzzled out the life she wanted to live, though it would turn the whole world into her enemies; she sang, “I’m through with playing by the rules of someone else’s game… Everyone deserves the chance to fly! And if I’m flying solo, at least I’m flying free.”

As of 2021, Wicked has sold more than 2.5 million copies. Its blockbuster Broadway musical adaptation has been seen by more than 3.75 million people in New York alone, without counting the audiences seeing the same performances in other cities, such as London and Melbourne. Image Source: ticketmaster

Citation: 1/ Jacque Wilson, “Wicked author Gregory  Maguire returns to Oz”, CNN


  1. The Salem Witch Trials’ Art and Artifacts
  2. Britannica—Morgan le Fay
  3. History—Why do witches fly on brooms?
  4. History—History of witches
  5. Britannica—Witchcraft
  6. Britannica—Merlin
  7. PDXScholar Access for Alll—Pope Innocent VIII (1484-1492) and the Summis desiderantes affectibus
  8. English Heritage—A Journey into Witchcraft Beliefs
  9. English Heritage—Witchcraft: Eight Myths and Misconceptions
  10. The Wise-Woman as Healer: Popular Medicine, Witchcraft and Magic
  11. The Decline of Witch Trials in Europe
  12. The Decline and End of Witch Hunts in Europe
  13. History—Salem Witch Trials
  14. History—Salem Witch Trials Accusers
  15. History—This Wealthy Woman Was Hanged as a Witch for Speaking Her Mind
  16. Eos—The Little Ice Age
  17. Jstor—The rise and decline of European parliaments, 1188—1789
  18. History—How the Salem Witch Trials Influenced the American Legal System
  19. History—History of Witches
  20. Edition CNN– ‘Wicked’ author Gregory Maguire returns to Oz
  21. Milwaukee Independent—Witch trials did not target the powerful, they were all about persecuting the powerless
  22. Here’s why Defying Gravity makes your heart race every single time

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