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

Introduction
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

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

8 Comments

  1. I had read the Crucible before in my high school English class, but I was very interested to read more about the Witch Trials. I did not know that this started in Early modern Europe. I had only known of the trials in Salem. I am curious of what was actually causing these girls to be accused of witchcraft by their behavior or medical conditions. 

  2. It’s both fascinating and terrifying to know what lengths people will go to protect the idea of safety and normality. As Salem was heavily controlled by the ways of the Bible, especially as a majority of the population practiced Puritanism, any outside differences were viewed as terrifying and acts by ‘The Devil’. The horror’s of the various Witch Purging’s that happened around the globe are so important in providing the lesson of open communication and discussion between people. Healthy and open communication and discussion about various individuals backgrounds, faiths, cultures, etc. can prevent mass tragedies; therefore, making this an ever important lesson in our current day and age.

  3. The Saleem Witch Trials have always interested me. How crazy and unfair these times were especially for women and the poor. Women could be accused of anything, crazy or not, and people would find fake evidence and kill them in an awful manner. I was unaware of the global issue because of my lack of research, and it was not provided in my socially studies courses.

  4. I’ve heard of the Salem witch trials and I often wondered if the trials were concluded by facts or fear. We as humans are often scared of the unknown and the supernatural. Many women lost their lives during this time even being burned at the stake. I also didn’t know this was global or that Africa and Asia still practice this.

  5. Just knowing that somewhere between 40,000 to 50,000 were burned alive or hung is a vast number for that period of time. No matter where witch hunts took place, people (mostly women over 40) were killed in horrible ways for no reason or evidence that was bogus or arbitrary. Although I did know Europe and America had the witch trials, I did not realize that Africa and Asia did this or continued the practice. I liked how you included lesson plans and history links for the continuation of studying witch-hunting.

  6. As many have pointed out, I also had no idea the witch trials were a global issue. While it’s easy to get excited and interested about this phenomenon, I think it’s very important to keep in mind that many men and women were executed for no reason. Even if they had been real witches, these people did not deserve to die such early and horrific deaths. Many of the executions were by fire or drowning as a “test”. It’s horrible to think that someone accusing you of being a witch could very quickly and easily lead to your death. I can’t imagine the stress of living through that.

  7. I was not aware that the witch hunts were a global phenomenon. I guess I am a little naive because I have always heard of the Salem Witch Trials, so I just assumed this occurred in a limited area. I knew there were many executed for this “crime”, but I never imagined that the numbers were as high as 50,000. I find this to be a very interesting topic.

  8. Although these witch hunts began in Europe, I did not know it was a global phenomenon and people all over the world were a part of this. It is definitely interesting to think about the number of executions from the witch trials; I did not know the numbers were in the thousands. These trials took place for hundreds of years and thousands of people were believed to be guilty.

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