Top 10 Most Notable Witch Trials
Though having mutated into a term with a wholly metaphorical meaning today, ‘Witch Hunt’ has origins both un-ancient and un-settling. Surfacing in centuries passed as a name for those accused of the ability of harnessing certain dark magic or unholy powers*, Witch is a word still which has survived in popular culture. Today, it’s a word that you may associate with the annual festival of Halloween, or better yet several of the movies pivotal in shaping its contemporary connotations, such as ‘The Wizard of OZ’ or even, I suppose, ‘Hocus Pocus’. The more public affairs’ oriented of us may identify with the worrying reports of real life ‘Witch Hunts’ taking place in lesser developed parts of Africa upon hearing the term uttered. As interesting and conversation provoking as all of this is, we’re here for a more specific reason. Namely, to identify some of the more notable Witch Hunts to have taken place throughout history. Most of the following is derived from accounts dating back to post-Medieval era Europe (1600-1800), though admittedly there is an extremely famous North American case thrown in their for good measure. While maybe slightly entertaining now, one may only imagine the circumstances which called for such drastic consequence, and in turn be thankful for the seemingly more evolved era which we call home.
A series of trials famous amongst a host of others local to 17th century England, the Essex witch hunts were largely the brain child of the infamous Matthew Hopkins ‘Witchfinder General’. Hopkins was an Englishman who led a series of trials over a period of little over a year, resulting in the deaths of some 300 women. Though the hunts instigated by Hopkins during the Civil War era (1646/7) were usually exclusive to England’s south east, they were known to stray into other parts of the country- in turn influencing a chain of others like them. The Essex witch trials are particularly interesting on the basis that Hopkins claimed to be an official representative of the government the whole while, however his title as ‘Witchfinder General’, was never one bestowed onto him by parliament.
The last witch-hunt of its kind to take place in the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth, the Doruchow witch trial took place in the late 18th century in the township of Doruchow, Poland. Original documents place the trial to 1775 and claim that they resulted in the burning of 14 women, in turn acting as a catalyst in bringing about the eventual ban on witch burning in Poland. However, a recent reassessment concluded the actual year was 1783, the number of victims 6 and the influence on relevant legislation non-existent.
Occurring between the years of 1603 and 1606, the Fulda Witch Trials saw the death of some 250 woman from in and around the central German city of Fulda. Following the 20 year exile of the Prince abbot Balthasar von Dernbach, he returned to power in the region with a strict agenda. Instigating a series of arrests, trials and executions with the help of his right-hand man Balthasar Nuss, the Prince abbot’s three year investigation remains infamous in the region to this day. Ceasing only after Dernbachs death, Nuss was subsequently imprisoned as a result of allegations that his actions were intended solely to enrich himself. He was beheaded in 1618.
Another example of a prolonged European witch trial, this one too occurring in central Germany, and just two decades after the hunt at Fulda, the Bamberg Witch Trials lasted for four years between 1626 and 1631. Resulting in the deaths of between 300 and 600 people, the trials at Bamberg were some of the largest to have occurred during this period, as well as constituting one of the largest scale executions of the entire Thirty Years War period. Though one of the largest witch trials to have happened in Europe around the time, Bamberg was in no way an isolated affair, with hundreds of similar instances happening all over Germany at the time, as well as in other parts of central and west Europe.
Though trials began in the diocese of Trier around 1581, they did not reach the city itself until around 1587. Known as being one of the largest cases of mass execution during peace time in recorded European history, the Witch Trials at Trier remain infamously notable with Medieval scholars. A huge process, the trials took place between the years of 1581 and 1593, claiming the lives of an estimated 1,000 people- both men and women. At this time, the vast majority of modern day Germany was the domain of the Holy Roman Empire, a fact which made it far more prone to religiously motivated purges. Before this rooting out of ‘witches’, Trier played host to periods of prolonged prosecution of both protestants and Jews.
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