Which Witch is Which? The First Secular Trials of Witches

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A Brief History

On October 29, 1390, Paris, France got its first taste of professional witch hunting when the first of two witchcraft trials began in the French capital.  Religious persecution of witches was nothing new, with records of arraignments by ecclesiastical authorities going back to 1275, but now the secular authorities, i.e. the state authorities, were involved.  History and Headlines Note:  Exactly 302 years later, on October 29, 1692, the Court of Oyer and Terminer in Salem, Massachusetts was dissolved after having presided over the infamous Salem Witch Trials.

Digging Deeper

This particular case involved two women who had conspired with the devil to create a magic potion to lure back a man who had left one of them for another woman.  Unusual for witchcraft persecutions, both women received a relatively “fair” trial but were nonetheless tortured and burned at the stake.  The second trial a year later involved two more women who were accused of plotting with the devil to kill the husband of one them. 

In the 14th and 15th centuries in France, the inquisition into the practice of witchcraft resulted in hundreds or even thousands of people being paraded as heretics and burned at the stake.  Many of those executed had been told they would be released with a warning if they confessed and expressed remorse, but the unlucky victims were executed anyway. 

Common accusations included mysteriously healing an injured or sick person, causing a rival’s bad fortune, causing another to become ill or die, or, one of the most common, causing bad weather.  If that sounds weird, just think about how perturbed people get at the television weather man when the weather sucks!

As ridiculous as it may seem today, back then a person was in grave danger if they had been accused of witchcraft, sorcery or devil worship.  Although many folks nowadays confuse devil worship with witchcraft, and although a devil worshipper might engage in witchcraft or a witch might also be a devil worshipper, the 2 things are separate and most witches are not devil worshippers.  On the other hand, who really knows?  After all, you cannot expect a witch to tell the truth!

As we have touched on before in History and Headlines, witch hunts and witch trials have been around since the beginning of society and continue today in one form or another.  In Africa, witch hunters still take their job quite seriously.  Just like it used to be the case in Europe, people accused of witchcraft are persecuted and exiled from their local communities and sometimes their property is confiscated. (Kind of makes you question the motives of the persecutors.)

People have apparently not learned much over the years, because today we still play the “Blame Game.”  Every time something goes wrong, mass numbers of people are just not satisfied until someone “hangs” for it.  It was Saudis who took down the World Trade Center, but since they are America’s (rich) friends, the U.S. invaded Iraq instead and killed a couple hundred thousand Iraqis.  Illegal Latino immigrants are blamed for unemployment and various other economic woes when study after study shows that they have a positive impact on the American economy.  Famous preacher Pat Robertson blamed the destruction of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina as God’s retribution for the “immoral” lifestyle there.  The same stuff was propagated when an earthquake devastated Haiti.  Instead of taking a deep look at their own corruption, the U.S. Congress continuously comes up with investigations of frivolous things that amount to “witch hunts.”

Question for students (and subscribers): Will people ever learn, or are we going to be doing this for eternity?  Tell us what you think in the comments section below this article.  

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Please also read the related History and Headlines articles: “Would You Like Your Witches Fried or Boiled?” and “Another Bad Day to Be a Witch.”

Your readership is much appreciated!

Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Alexander, Brooks and Jeffrey B. Russell.  A History of Witchcraft: Sorcerers, Heretics, & Pagans.  Thames & Hudson, 2007.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.