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19th-century wood engraving depicting
The Witches’ Weighhouse in Oudewater by H. Merté after R. Bonceva
Cultures of Witchcraft in Europe from the Middle Ages to the Present

The concept of a witch, as it would be understood today, did not take form until the early Middle Ages. There had been practitioners of various forms of magic since time immemorial, but recourse to the occult was seen largely as a rational alternative when more conventional approaches such as religion or medicine had failed to achieve a satisfactory outcome. Such secular or ecclesiastical legislation as existed tended to be focused on the actions of the accused rather than the means by which they obtained the power to perform them.[1]

But the Roman Catholic church had a problem. Many saw it as inconsistent to permit and even encourage prayers for a good harvest, for instance, while at the same time condemning a pagan ritual intended to achieve the same outcome;[1] the common people saw little or nothing to distinguish God’s miracles (miracula) from demonic illusions (mira).[2] The inevitable result was that paganism and magic came to be seen as representing an alternative theology, a heresy that displaced the one true Christian God; its practitioners had to be rooted out, as heresy could not be tolerated. Pope Eugenius IV’s papal bull of 1437 makes it clear that in the view of the Church anyone practising magic or making pacts with evil spirits had to be punished. So far as witches were concerned, the pre-Christian demons had been re-interpreted as evil spirits from whom witches derived their magical powers by entering into a pact with them. Thus the scene was set for an era of witch-hunts, during which individuals such as Matthew Hopkins
English witch-hunter who claimed to hold the office of Witchfinder General, although that title was never bestowed by Parliament.

English witch-hunter who claimed to hold the office of Witchfinder General, although that title was never bestowed by Parliament.
, John KincaidProfessional witch-finder or pricker of witches based in Tranent, East Lothian. Professional witch-finder or pricker of witches based in Tranent, East Lothian. and Margaret AitkenPivotal figure in the great Scottish witchcraft panic of 1597. Pivotal figure in the great Scottish witchcraft panic of 1597. were able to make a living by fraudulently claiming to be able to identify witches by various means.[1]

Many different tests were employed over time to determine if there was any evidence of guilt. As they were all intended to provide evidence to secure a conviction for witchcraft in a court of law, they can usefully be categorised by their legal status: supernatural, circumstantial or testimonial. Supernatural evidence required the action of some supernatural entity, such as the spirit of water in the case of swimming, or the influence of heavenly bodies in the case of astrology.



Witchcraft, magic, and astrology were inextricably linked. Many, such as George Carleton, Bishop of Chichester, who described astrology as “the mate of witchcraft” in his Astrologomania (1623), thought of it as being “demonically inspired”. What was known as natal or genethliacal astrology was used to calculate a person’s character, and likely course of their life, based on a chart of the heavens as they appeared at the time of that person’s birth, conception, or other significant date.[3]

The 17th-century astrologers Richard Saunders and Joseph Balgrave declared that astrology was the only sure way to identify witches.[4] Some even claimed to be able to determine whether a particular affliction was caused by witchcraft. Christopher Hall was consulted in 1654 on behalf of a woman with breast cancer. From his astrological charts he concluded that her condition was caused by one of the three witches in her home village of Hillington.[5]

Ordeal by bread

Ordeal by bread in Anglo-Saxon times was known as the corsned. Prayers were said over a small piece of bread, and the test was to see whether the accused was then able to swallow it without choking. Anyone unable to do so was pronounced guilty.[6] The early Christian Church adopted the practice and applied it as a way for clerics to clear themselves of accusations made against them,[7] and subsequently as a means to identify witches, as in the case of the Belvoir witchesMother and her two daughters accused of causing the deaths by witchcraft of two young nobles, Henry and Francis Manners..[8]

Ordeal by water

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During the swimming test, if a witch floated she was guilty
Wikimedia Commons

Water in a pail might shimmer when a witch walked by,[9] but the spirit of water was more commonly invoked by the ordeal of swimming, judicium aquae frigidae. It appears in English law and statutes from the 10th century, but by the 13th century such ordeals had become illegal in England. The test was used not only to identify witches, but also in cases of theft, adultery, and homicide.[10] Subjects were bound in a particular way[a]They were bound left toe to right thumb, and right toe to left thumb, with a rope passed under their armpits.[11] and thrown into a pond; if they sank they were innocent, but if they floated they were guilty. The rationale is described by King James I in his Daemonologie (1597):

so it appears that God hath appoynted (for a super-naturall signe of the monstrous impietie of the Witches) that the water shal refuse to receiue them in her bosom, that haue shaken off them the sacred Water of Baptisme, and wilfullie refused the benefite thereof.[12]

The swimming test was barely used in Scotland except by the special commission established at the time of the Margaret AitkenPivotal figure in the great Scottish witchcraft panic of 1597. Pivotal figure in the great Scottish witchcraft panic of 1597. incident in 1597, and was discontinued thereafter.[13]

Testing by water has a very long history; the Babylonian Hammurabi’s code,[b]Hammurabi was the ruler of Babylon from 1792 to 1750 BCE dating back to about 1754 BCE, has perhaps the earliest record of its use in detecting witches:[14]

If a man has placed an enchantment upon a man, and has not justified himself, he upon whom the enchantment is placed to the Holy River shall go; into the Holy River he shall plunge. If the Holy River holds him he who enchanted him shall take his house. If, on the contrary, the man is safe and thus innocent, the wizard loses his life, and his house.


In a typical case of witchcraft there were no eyewitnesses, and since torture was not a standard measure in English criminal trials, confessions were not always easy to obtain. The results of the tests described here, while not providing incontrovertible proof of witchcraft, would nevertheless weigh heavily against the accused in the absence of alternative explanations.


Bewitching a person was believed to create a magical link between the victim and the witch responsible. The application of fire to anything associated with the bewitched person would therefore cause the witch intense pain: the burning of the victim’s excrement for instance, or of a witch-bottle containing some of the victim’s urine, hair, or nail clippings.[c]Burying the witch bottle was also believed to be effective.[15] The malefactor would thus be revealed when he or she came to find the source of their affliction.[15]


In Scotland during 1597, Margaret Aitken, the Great witch of Balwearie, claimed to be able to recognise witches by a special mark she was able to detect in their eyes. Conveyed from town to town throughout the country for three to four months, she was responsible for the conviction and execution of hundreds of women before being exposed as a fraud.[16] Identifying witches by looking for marks in their eyes was discontinued in Scotland after 1597.[13] There are however records indicating that more than a century later, a minister who was ordained in 1697 and an ardent pursuer of witches, Archibald Marshall, used the services of a witch finder from Wigtown, a woman who claimed to be able to identify a witch simply by looking at them. She stood beside Marshall as members of the congregation entered, signalling which of them were witches by applying pressure to his toes.[17]

On the Continent, Pierre de Lancre, a judge and staunch Counter-Reformation Catholic, was mandated by King Henry IV of France to investigate witchcraft in the Labourd region in 1609.[18] Despite not being able to detect a mark himself, his records include testimony from a girl declaring witches could be identified by a mark shaped like a toad’s foot present in their left eye. Confessions from other witches in the same area provided corroboration of the characteristic.[19] A few years later, in 1612, two teenage boys were involved in an investigation in the Basque region. The boys claimed they could detect witches by looking in their eyes; the younger boy, a fourteen-year-old from France, eventually admitted he had lied. The other teenager, sixteen-year-old Pedro de los Reyes, was arrested and detained under suspicion of fraud for making similar claims.[20]

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Suspected witches were intimately searched to locate any minor blemishes that might be declared as a mark from Satan
Wikimedia Commons

Accused witches who did not readily confess to undertaking witchcraft would be stripped and their bodies intimately searched for a mark.[21] Routinely in Europe and Britain, the heads and bodies of suspects were shaved to permit a thorough examination of their entire anatomy.[22] Often the stripping, shaving and searching of the accused took place in public.[23] Any minor blemishes, spots, scars or lumps found could be deemed as the Devil’s mark, a symbol left by Satan indicating the accused had entered into a pact with him.[24] Alternatively, and particularly common in Britain, an abnormality was declared as a witch’s mark. In early modern and contemporary works the two terms are used synonymously, but the correct definition of the latter is the spot on the body used by a witch’s familiarDemonic spirit who attends upon a witch, possessing magical powers that can be used for good or evil. Often taking the form of a small animal such as a cat. to suckle milk or blood. A common factor with both types was that no bleeding, pain or sensory reaction occurred when the mark was punctured, usually with a needle.[25] During the 15th century the mark was not considered to be sufficient proof of witchcraft,[26] although persecutors in the following centuries accepted either type of mark as adequate evidence of guilt.[27]


A witch was reputedly unable to recite scriptures without faltering. Jane WenhamLast person to be condemned to death for witchcraft in an English court, when she was found guilty at Hertford in 1712. was considered guilty of witchcraft in 1712, as despite a search failing to reveal a Devil’s mark followed by the refusal of her request for a swimming test, she had floundered when asked to deliver a perfect rendition of the Lord’s prayer.[28] It was a common method of detection at the time of the Salem witch trials during 1692 in colonial America, but although the condemned minister George Burroughs was able to recite the Lord’s Prayer without faltering after protesting his innocence on the gallows, the death penalty was still carried out.[29]


The ritual pricking of suspected witches served a two-fold purpose: if no immediately discernible stamp from Satan was detected, the body would be pricked to find any invisible marks or to test whether any of the blemishes discovered did not bleed or elicit pain.[30] Pricking was in common use throughout Europe,[31] although it was never used by the Inquisition.[32] No qualifications were required, the task being undertaken by ministers, court officials, executioners or sometimes specially commissioned physicians. Occasionally women were appointed, but the role was normally assumed by men.[33] Some, including Matthew Hopkins
English witch-hunter who claimed to hold the office of Witchfinder General, although that title was never bestowed by Parliament.

English witch-hunter who claimed to hold the office of Witchfinder General, although that title was never bestowed by Parliament.
from East Anglia and the Scotsman John KincaidProfessional witch-finder or pricker of witches based in Tranent, East Lothian. Professional witch-finder or pricker of witches based in Tranent, East Lothian. , became professional prickers and made a lucrative income from the work.[30] Fraud was rife, and several prickers were eventually prosecuted;[32] Kincaid admitted employing deception when testing for signs of witchcraft after his arrest.[34]

The body of the blindfolded suspect was stabbed with needles of varying lengths that were anything from one inch (2.5 cm) to three inches (7.6 cm) or longer. As the intention was to identify areas that experienced no pain, the procedure was not classified as judicial torture.[35]


Scratching a suspected witch and drawing blood to prove innocence or guilt persisted in England from the 13th until the 19th century, although it was rarely used on the Continent. If whatever symptoms the victim was suffering from were relieved by the scratching, that was evidence that the suspect was guilty, and was to that degree a form of counter-bewitchment.[36]

The rationale for the supposed efficacy of scratching – also known as “scoring above the breath”, as the suspected witch was scratched above the nose[37] – is unclear. Modern historians have suggested that perhaps the blood served as an offering to the devil supposedly possessing the witch, which temporarily granted some respite to the victim in return, or that while suffering pain the witch was “unavailable” to inflict pain on others.[36]


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Witches were believed to be unable to shed tears
Get Drawings

The influential Malleus Maleficarum, published in 1486, specifically stated that witches were unable to shed tears; interrogators were advised to particularly look for this characteristic during the questioning and torture of suspects.[38] In the case of Margaretha HornWoman arrested on suspicion of witchcraft in Rothenburg in 1652, who despite being tortured, vigorously protested her innocence , an elderly woman accused of witchcraft in Rothenburg during 1652, the inability to weep was given as one of the indications she was a witch. Physicians claimed a human’s heart was surrounded by fluids that exited the body as tears when the person was in an emotional state. A failure to weep while incarcerated demonstrated that the accused lacked the proper feelings of someone in that predicament, suggesting that they were controlled by the Devil rather than by God.[39]


As the Bible was believed to be the word of God, it was reasoned that it must outweigh all the work of the Devil. So if the Bible outweighed the accused, then he or she was assuredly a witch; but if the accused was heavier than the Bible, then innocence had been proven.[40]

More generally, suspects who weighed less than would normally be expected for their build could be declared a witch based on the premise that those not abnormally light would be unable to fly.[25] Officials in the town of Oudewater in the Netherlands used the scales in the public buildings to certify people who fell within their expected weight range.[41] The administrators at Oudewater were highly regarded for their accuracy: records in German archives allude to the test.[42] Mostly performed to allay local gossip, those seeking the paid-for test at Oudewater mainly originated from areas where the swimming ordeal was accepted.[43] Prior to any test, authority was required from city officials. Females would then be undressed and intimately searched by the midwife to ensure no heavy items were secreted inside their body; a gerechtsbode (sheriff’s officer) checked males. Two aldermen and other dignitaries then witnessed the person’s weight being measured.[44] Afterwards a signed certificate bearing the town seal was provided that detailed the results together with identifying particulars such as name, relatives, age, where the person lived and noting any physical characteristics.[45]


A confession from the accused was first-class evidence of guilt, but not always easy to obtain. In England in particular, where it was illegal to use torture to secure a confession, the courts relied heavily on circumstantial evidence. The situation was reversed in Scotland and on the Continent however, where the law did not normally permit the presentation of circumstantial evidence in criminal trials; special rules had to be adopted to admit it, and confessions extracted under torture were admissible.[46]

Admission of guilt

There is at least one case of an accused witch who, apparently believing in her alleged power, did freely confess. Alizon Device, one of the Pendle witches
The trials of the Pendle witches in 1612 are among the most famous witch trials in English history, and some of the best recorded of the 17th century.
executed in 1612, when confronted by her alleged victim at her trial fell to her knees in tears and confessed.[47] More commonly though torture of some form was required.

Tormentum insomniae

Despite the English legal position, Matthew Hopkins developed a technique that would certainly be considered to be torture today. A team of watchers would keep the accused under constant observation, depriving her – it was usually a woman – of sleep and forcing her to march up and down constantly. It was claimed that the watchers were waiting for her imps or familiars to arrive to suckle from her Devil’s mark, but the practical outcome was that, confused and physically exhausted, the woman would confess to anything to end her torment. After three nights of such treatment, for instance, Elizabeth Warne confessed that “pride and lustfulness had brought her to this place, and … she had the devill w[i]thin”.[48]


a They were bound left toe to right thumb, and right toe to left thumb, with a rope passed under their armpits.[11]
b Hammurabi was the ruler of Babylon from 1792 to 1750 BCE
c Burying the witch bottle was also believed to be effective.[15]