President Donald Trump is perhaps the most famous and certainly the most outspoken recent victim of an alleged ‘witch-hunt.’ But he is by no means alone. In the last few years, other supposed victims of the phenomenon have included Hillary Clinton and several prominent members of the British Labour Party. Since at least the 1950s the language of ‘witch-hunting’ has played a role in public life, and its usefulness to politicians of all stripes means that it continues to thrive.
Like all modern victims of a ‘witch-hunt’, Trump uses the term to impute the motives and methods of his opponents. Witch-hunts are invariably wicked and unfair. To be accused is to be innocent; to pursue a witch is to act maliciously, hysterically or unjustly, and often all three of these at once.
As a historian of witchcraft I am wary of these connotations. While they illustrate modern-day perceptions of the past, they are a poor guide to the world in which real people suspected of harmful magic and compacts with evil spirits were once put on trial, and sometimes executed. Indeed, our own language of witch-hunting is an impediment to understanding that world.
So how does today’s idea of a ‘witch-hunt’ compare to the historical record? The criminal prosecution of witches took place from the later 1400s until the early eighteenth century, and was responsible for around 50,000 deaths. The modern image of a witch-hunt corresponds most closely to the mass trials that occurred sporadically in this period, and especially in German-speaking lands. These could consume whole communities with dreadful speed, as happened in Trier in the 1580s and Würzburg in 1629.
Such events were mercifully rare. It was far more common for individuals or small groups of people to be accused, and in many cases they were probably not brought to trial. When they were, their treatment varied considerably from region to region, and was not always severe. In England, for example, only around a quarter of those formally accused of the crime were executed.
It was not the case, then, that to accuse a person of witchcraft was automatically to condemn them to death. In this respect the modern understanding of ‘witch-hunts’ misrepresents the past. Indeed, the majority of witchcraft cases cannot be viewed as hunts at all.
Nor were the people who dealt with witchcraft typically characterised by ulterior motives or disrespect for justice. Indeed, the occult nature of the offence meant that careful discrimination was required in its prosecution. Many experts on the subject, like the English physician and demonologist John Cotta and the Massachusetts pastor Increase Mather, argued for judicial caution in the face of a crime that was undeniably serious but difficult to prove.
Behind these observations is a deeper issue about belief. This is the fundamental difference between the fear of witchcraft in the past and the modern use of the term. Two core assumptions drove the witch trials in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: first and most commonly, witches were believed to harm others through the use of magic; and secondly, and of less importance to ordinary people, they were held to serve the Devil. In the most extreme version of this latter idea, witches were believed to fly to nocturnal assemblies where they committed atrocities and worshipped the Prince of Darkness.
Today very few people in the west believe in magic, and the concept is most familiar as either a metaphor or a kind of entertainment. (And stage magic, of course, is expected to deceive.) As a result, the most widely feared form of witchcraft in the past – the practice of destructive sorcery – is simply incredible.
What of the Devil? Here there are interesting international variations. A major survey in 1982 found that only 21% of the UK population believed that he existed; this had dropped to 10% by 2016. In contrast, a poll in 2005 found that 60% of Americans believed in the ancient enemy. This pattern reflects a more general difference in the prevalence of religious belief between western Europe and the USA. Interestingly, belief in God tends to be higher than belief in his adversary wherever the question is asked.
It may be hasty to declare the death of Satan. But it is true, nonetheless, that he is not an integral and uncontested part of the intellectual landscape of western communities, as he was in the age of witch trials. Nor is he connected to the practice of evil magic that is believed to cause real harm.
The modern use of the phrase ‘witch-hunt’ reflects this situation. As we no longer share the beliefs that once underpinned the crime of witchcraft, we find it hard to accept the crime at face value. We struggle to imagine the witch of the pre-modern world, whom people perceived as a figure of real menace. Conversely, we find it easy to assume that witch trials were impelled by ulterior motives. Typically, these include vindictiveness or greed, combined with a willing disregard for justice.
The current language of ‘witch-hunting’, then, indicates our own separation from the historical world of witch trials rather than the revival of pre-modern practices. (In some other, non-political contexts the parallels between past and present may be stronger. Contemporary allegations of ‘ritual satanic abuse,’ for example, echo the early modern idea of the witches’ Sabbath. But that is another story.)
Ultimately, we have projected our own explanations onto the experience of those men and women who feared witchcraft in the past, recasting them as malicious or ‘hysterical’, and invariably unjust. It is this version of the past – born of our profound separation from it – that underpins today’s talk of ‘witch-hunts’.
Darren Oldridge is Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Worcester. His most recent book is The Supernatural in Tudor and Stuart England (London & New York: Routledge, 2016), and he is currently writing a study of English demonology.