These Accounts of European Witch Hunts Reveal Deadly Origins You Weren't Expecting

Illustration of a witch burning. Wikimedia.

Lesser known trials occurred all over Europe. The first witch hunt is thought to have originated in France and Switzerland. Beginning in the French speaking southern region of Valais and then spreading to German-speaking Wallis in 1428, delegates from different districts began investigations on any persons accused of witchcraft or sorcery. The trials were not documented well, but the accounts that we do have come from Johannes Fründ, a local court clerk. It is estimated that over 367 victims met their death by immolation or torture. An equal number of men and women were killed during this time.

Over 100 years later, one of the deadliest witch trials in European history occurred in Germany. Between 1581 and 1593, 22 villages were affected by the hunt. From the 22 villages, 368 accused men and women burned to death. Many believe the motivation for the German witch trials were largely political; over a third of those who lost their lives were nobility or held government positions. Judges, councilmen, and priests were condemned to heinous deaths. So why did such a non-discriminate witch hunt occur? Newly-appointed Archbishop Johann von Schöneburg, in an attempt to prove his loyalty to the Jesuits, demanded a purge of Jews, Protestants, and witches.

King James’ “Daemonologie”. History Channel.

While the deadly German witch trials were coming to an end, a new set of trials was occurring thanks to England’s new king, King James VI. King James of Scotland was traveling to Copenhagen to marry Princess Anne of Denmark. While traveling, a terrible coastal storm rerouted the ship, requiring the King and its occupants to take refuge in Norway for several weeks. When the storm was blamed on witches who wanted to kill King James, this led King James to believe an entire population of witch’s was determined to curse and kill him.

King James’ conspiratorial notion motivated him to write “Daemonologie,” a book advocating witch hunts. This single book would justify the deadly actions to come. With King James’ endorsement, a new breed of so-called witch hunters, led both by ideology and fame and fortune, set forth to rid Europe of all witchcraft. Again, even the Scottish nobility was accused, cementing the fact that no one was safe. These trials are known today as the North Berwick witch trials. They are the first recorded witch hunts in Scotland, however they spawned many subsequent trials, with an estimated death toll of 3,000 to 4,000 lives between 1560 and 1707.

It is said William Shakespeare was so impacted by the North Berwick witch trials, Macbeth incorporates many aspects of the trials. His adaptation supposedly included many of the torture rituals used to produce confessions from the accused. It is clear that even in the midst of these terrifying trials, they inspired noteworthy art and literature. Modern times, far removed from the danger witch trials posed, have continued to show that both the fantastical and historical aspects of witchcraft stand the test of time and intrigue us all.