Art Thou a Witch? Studying the Witchcraft Trials in History

An illustration showing a woman executed by hanging, for the practice of witchcraft, 1692. Published in 'A Pictorial History of the United States', 1845. Interim Archives / Getty Images

Dr. David Childs, D.D., Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University

Lithograph of witch trial in Salem, Massachusetts. Photograph: Bettmann Archive

In light of the recent celebration of Halloween we decided to do an article surrounding witch hunts that have taken place throughout history. A witch-hunt (also called a witch purge) is a historical and global phenomenon, whereby authorities have searched for people who have been accused of being witches. They also might search for evidence (Usually bogus or arbitrary evidence) to prove that the accused was practicing witchcraft. In the United States many people are somewhat familiar with the Salem witchcraft trials but are not aware that witch hunts were a global phenomenon throughout history. 

History of Witch-Hunts
The era known as the classical period of witch-hunts took place during Early modern Europe and in Colonial America about 1450 to 1750. The prosecutions reached a highpoint from 1580 to 1630 during the Counter-Reformation and the European wars of religion that resulted in an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 executions.  Most people were burned at the stake, roughly 80% of those executed were women, often over the age of 40. The last witch hunt executions in Europe took place during the 1700’s, but other regions of the world such as parts of Africa and Asia have continued the practice.

Witch Burning (1555) Witches Being Burned At The Stake In Germany
A Contemporary German Woodcut Poster Print by (24 x 36)

Salem Witch Trials
In the United States, people are most familiar with the events that took place in colonial Massachusetts between February 1692 and May 1693. The Salem witch trials consisted of a series of hearings and prosecutions of more than 200 people accused of witchcraft. Thirty of those accused were found guilty, and nineteen of the thirty were executed by hanging (fourteen women and five men). Books like the classic novel The Crucible have brought more attention to the historical events.

The American imagination has been long fascinated by this time period, as most people are intrigued by the supernatural and the fear of the unknown. In light of this, witch hunts are a wonderful topic to bring to the classroom. Here are some lesson plans and resources teachers can use to help students explore the topic on a deeper level.

Lesson Plans and Teacher Resources

Lesson Plans
Witch-hunts Teacher Resources
Aha! You’re a Witch- Early Modern European Witch-hunts
Salem Witch Trials Lesson Plan
Understanding the Salem Witch Trials
Which of You Is a Witch? The Salem Witchcraft Trials and The Crucible
Salem Witch Trials: Web Supported Lesson Plan
Salem Witch Trials- American Bar Association

Salem Witchcraft Trials History
History of Witch Hunts
Salem Witch Hunt Museum
The Witch Craze
Salem Witchcraft Trials History Channel 


  1. I did my entry on “Art Thou A Witch? Studying the Witchcraft Trials in History.” I’m a huge history buff, and even more I like the study of witchcraft and the question of whether or not witches really exist. Upon reading, I don’t think I realized just how many executions occurred because people were paranoid or suspicious of the average citizen. Tying this to our discussion on sexism, I think it’s ironic that 80% of the executions were women. It’s telling, making you question if the reasoning was because people actually thought they were witches, or these girls were discriminated against because of their lifestyle or one action they did. I also think it’s interesting how other countries have continued the practice of witch executions. I do have a decent amount of knowledge on the Salem Witch Trials, and I think it’s cool that a lesson plan on all these witchcraft trials was included. I don’t know why I’m so interested in this long question of the supernatural, but I definitely found this article interesting and will probably read over some of the lesson plans in the future.

  2. It blows my mind to hear about the other witch trials that happened across the globe. In school in the past, I had only learned about the Salem witch trials and had no idea that these were a worldwide occurrence. I was always interested in this as a kid but never researched it. Thinking further on this, I understand that people get scared when they don’t understand something. These trials could have also been a play for power against people they thought were lesser. It is a shame to think about all the people who lost their lives due to these accusations.

  3. Prior to reading this article, I had heard of the Salem which trials a couple of times, but I had no clue the prosecution of “whiches” was magnified to this extent. It is insane to me that within a 50 year span of 1580 to 1630 that there were around 40-50,000 executions. This article makes me want to go back to those times and hear a persons reasoning for arguing against a person they accuse of which craft. People back then must of had little to no consideration for human rights, as it seems anyone could be accused for practically any reason.

  4. The scary truth is, we only really hear about the Salem Witch Trials. There are so many fun and interesting ways to promote a more accurate view of the witchcraft accusations throughout history and this article has them linked. The student activities section of the linked Aha- You’re a Witch! Is a great place to start when getting students interested in learning and delving deeper than face value with this rich and Halloween related topic!

  5. It’s crazy to think just how many men and women died basically from assumptions. I was more aware of the Salem Witch Trials than with the Witch Hunts in Europe. I didn’t realize just how far the Europeans went when killing up to 40,000-50,000 women who were considered witches. I had no idea and find it fascinating that people in Africa and Asia still practice today.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.