Witch trials. Mention the word, and several scenarios come to mind. The Salem Witch trials of seventeenth-century Massachusetts may be one. Or maybe the word conjures the specter of Matthew Hopkins, the self-styled Witchfinder General of the English Civil War? At a push, you may have heard of the Pendle Witches, who were tried in Lancashire, during the reign of James I. Their trial provided much of the inspiration for Salem. These witch trials are amongst the best-known, most well-documented examples of the persecutions of witches. However, they are just the tip of the iceberg
Between the fourteenth and eighteenth centuries- and even beyond, thousands of men, women, and children lost their lives across Europe and North America as a result of the so-called witch craze. These trials were sparked by religious insecurity, sexual and social hysteria, jealousy, suspicion or were just as a cynical exercise in gain. Many are lost from the record. However, many more survive, less well known than their more famous counterparts but no less sensational- or tragic. These lesser-known witch trials help map the development of the witch-craze in the early modern world.
Before the thirteenth century, witchcraft or maleficium was a petty, secular crime. It remained unacknowledged by the orthodox Catholic Church, who, secure in its position, did not give much credence to the power of superstitious practices. However, by the fourteenth century, the church had suffered a change of heart. Alternative interpretations of Christianity were becoming more common and challenged the established church’s power. Suddenly, anything outside accepted church canon was a heresy. That included witchcraft.
In 1324, in Kilkenny, southern Ireland, Alice Kyteler became the first person to be tried for witchcraft as a heretic outside of Germany and the first woman to be accused of acquiring sorcery through intercourse with a demon. However, Alice was no poor, downtrodden outcast as were many later witches. She was the descendant of Flemish merchants who had settled in Kilkenny and become wealthy and influential. The problem was, over the course of four distinctly advantageous marriages, Alice became wealthier still.
Alice’s first marriage to William Outlaw, a local banker produced a son, William Outlaw junior and left his widow very well off. William Junior later became Alice’s business partner and the Mayor of Kilkenny. In the meantime, Alice married a further three times. Alice’s legacy from her subsequent deceased husbands included more wealth- and a clutch of disgruntled stepchildren, all harboring the belief their stepmother had cheated them of their inheritances.
By 1324, tensions reached a head when Alice lost her final husband, Sir John le Poer. This time, Sir John’s children banded together with Alice’s other stepchildren and went to Richard de Ledrede, Bishop of Ossory. They accused Alice of murdering their fathers using maleficium. De Ledrede had been part of the papal court at Avignon and his patron; Pope John XXII had a genuine fear of witchcraft. But maleficium was also now a heresy rather than just a secular crime. There was profit in such a charge for the Church. So de Ledrede had Alice arraigned for heresy.
Alice pulled strings to stall proceedings. She then fled to either Flanders or England, never to be heard from again. However, her trial continued without her. Several of her servants were arrested and tortured by the Inquisition. They admitted to acts of Satanic magic carried out at their mistress’s behest. Alice had consorted with demons; they told the court, specifically one called Artisson who shared with her the secret of flight. Unlike in later trials, most of those accused and found guilty were released to do penance -for a price- which they paid to the Church. However, Alice’s maid, Petronilla de Midia was made an example. She burnt for her witchcraft on November 3, 1324.
Most victims of early witchcraft trials were not necessarily women.