Punishment for Witchcraft

medieval punishment for witchcraft

The punishment for witchcraft varies throughout history, depending on the time period as well as the culture. Though people tend to associate witchcraft executions with being burned at the stake, hanging was more common than burning. In some countries outside of Europe, witches were stoned to death.

When you think of all the crazy things that were done to suspected witches in history, it's usually the tests for witchcraft that stand out not the punishment itself. The most well-known was the water test. A suspected witch would be tied and throw into a pond or lake. If she floated and survived, she would be considered guilty and then executed. If she sank and drowned, she would be declared innocent of all charges and given a proper Christian burial. I say "she" because the majority of people tried for witchcraft were women but men were occasionally accused as well.

Accused people were also watched to see if they had a demonic "familiar", which could be anything from a local stray cat to a spider that takes up residence in their jail cell.

Sometimes confessions were extracted using more traditional torture methods, like thumb-screws. In many cases, the punishment for witchcraft was less horrifying than the interrogation.

If the "evidence" wasn't solid enough, the guilty weren't executed but either jailed or pilloried in the town square. For those not familiar with the pillory, it's when a person was punished by putting their hands and/or head in the stocks and made to stand that way for several hours or days. Besides being extremely uncomfortable, other townspeople could throw stones or garbage on the accused person during their time in the stocks.

The last executions for witchcraft in Europe were in the late 1700s, though even up until modern day have people been killed for such crimes, particularly in Africa. In England, the official laws against witchcraft stayed on the books until they were finally repealed in 1951.

The Malleus Maleficarum

No discussion about witchcraft and punishment would be complete without a mention of the Malleus Maleficarum, a book whose title is Latin for the "Hammer of Witches" and it's a guidebook on hunting and punishing witches. Written in 1487 by Heinrich Kramer and possibly also by Jacob Sprenger (that is a bit disputed), the book was reprinted more than a dozen times over the next 200 years due to its popularity as a witch-hunter text. It describes the nature of witches, what to look for, how to test for witchcraft and various means of punishment. The book is actually still in print and does give an interesting if unpleasant look at this period of time in the world of witchcraft. If you're interested, check out Amazon.com for it.


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