Famous Witches of the European Witch Trials
The Witch Trials in Europe
When we hear the words "Witch Trials", most of us immediately think of the Salem Witch Trials; however, these disgusting acts of violence have been occurring for centuries and all over the world. If we look back to the Dark Ages in Europe, we will see that there was a period in time called the "Burning Times". This was a somewhat large period in time when reportedly hundreds of thousands of people (though that number is widely debated amongst scholars today) were humiliated, tried, tortured, and executed all after being accused of practicing witchcraft. This period in time lasted (approximately) between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries in various countries in Europe.
The questions of course that remain to be solidly answered are: were there really witches? Why were they accused of witchcraft? Why was hunting down supposed witches such a large epidemic? Do witches exist today as they did back then? Was it all superstition or was some of it reality?
We will not be answering these questions in this article, but we will be examining some of the more well-known witches from this upsetting period in time...the "Burning Times" as some like to call it. So put aside your knowledge of the Salem Witch Trials and let's delve into the more fascinating and frightening world of the European Witch Trials.
Isobel Gowdie: Infamous Scottish Witch
Perhaps one of the most well-documented confessions of a witch during the Witch Trials in Europe was that of an accused Scottish witch by the name of Isobel Gowdie. In fact, her confessions were so elaborate that entire scholarly books have been written interpreting and theorizing her every word. One author who has written extensively on the topic of Isobel Gowdie is Emma Wilby (link to her book on amazon can be found below).
Who was Isobel Gowdie? Isobel was a simple Scottish housewife who was accused of witchcraft in 1662. Not only did she confess to being a witch, she gave an incredibly detailed account of her diabolical practices. Isobel Gowdie stated that she attained her otherworldly powers from the Devil, whom she originally met while traveling on a road close to Aldearne. Apparently she made a pact with the Devil by denying Christianity as her religion and then he placed the Devil's mark on her and baptized her with a new name—Jonet.
Some of the things she was able to do as one of the Devil's witches included flying through the air on a broom or beanstalk in order to meet with other witches. In her confessions, Isobel said that on her way to these witches' meetings or sabbats, if any Christian folk were encountered on her way there she would kill them. She also had the ability to shapeshift into animal form, the hare being her favorite form. And if she was a housewife, how did she get away with being gone to meetings and cavorting with the Devil? Isobel Gowdie stated that she laid an enchantment on her husband so that he would stay satisfied in their marriage but remain in ignorant bliss. A beson (broomstick) was placed in bed beside him and he was made to think that it was Isobel so that at night she could attend her coven meetings.
The account of her confessions go on and on for pages, and it is said that she gave this information freely and not under torture as so many other accused witches of the times had endured. So was she really a witch? Was her story true or did she make it up for the fun of it? Some say she was psychotic and that her story was all in her head...Isobel was convicted but there is no record of her execution.
A Documentary on the Pendle Witches
The Pendle Witches
Some of the more popular stories of witches from the Burning Times in England are the stories of the Pendle or Lancashire Witches. In seventeenth century England in a place called Lancashire, twelve people were accused of witchcraft...and of those twelve people accused ten were executed by hanging. The main charge was that these people had used witchcraft in order to murder ten "innocent" people in the town. The names of the accused Pendle Witches were as follows: Elizabeth Demdike, Alizon Device, Elizabeth Device, James Device, Anne Whittle, Anne Redferne, Jane and John Bulcock, Alice Nutter, Katherine Hewitt, Alice Gray, and Jennet Preston.
Some of the most bizarre stories were told during the Lancashire trials - some even told by one of the accused's own children. Elizabeth Device's nine-year-old-daughter Jennet Device testified against her, stating that her own mother was a witch in the Devil's service and had been for at least three or four years prior to the trial. Jennet stated that she had seen her own mother talking to a dog, of whom she called "Ball" and was clearly her familiar (demonic spirit helper). Jennet also said that a gathering of these people, these "witches", had occurred on a Good Friday in the late 1600s and that she had seen them do unspeakable things and plot against people in the community for revenge, riches, etc.
Each of these witches were said to have been given supernatural powers by the Devil himself and through the help of familiars given to them by the Devil. They were accused of using clay figures, human body parts, and more in order to cast curses on particular individuals in the community. Elizabeth Southerns (Demdike) supposedly confessed willingly to having a familiar named Tibb who did her bidding as long as she allowed him to "suckle" blood from her body. He came to her in different forms—usually in that of a large dog or a little boy. The other confessions were eerily similar...or were these people just confessing lies in hopes to get out of their convictions?
You can read the confessions of the Pendle Witches for free online, which I encourage you to do if you are interested in learning more of this story. You can also watch a documentary on the Pendle Witch Child which I have posted above for your convenience. It is a sad and amusing story all in one.
The Fisherwife of Palermo
The Fisherwife of Palermo was a documented Witch Trial that occurred in Sicily during the Burning Times. The woman's real name is unknown, but she was accused of witchcraft and of cavorting with the "Donas de Fuera" (an Italian race of elves/fairies). She willingly confessed to having been taken away to an island and made a pact with them at just the age of eight. The Queen and King of the Elves required her to pledge her allegiance to them and deny allegiance to God and Mother Mary. If she was to do this, they would give her riches and allow her to indulge in her fantasies while visiting them regularly in Fairyland.
Because the woman described leaving her bed at night to join in the revelries of the Donas de Fuera, the court believed she had just been dreaming and ended up dismissing her case. At the time they believed she was either dreaming or was a witch cavorting with devils...lucky for her the former was decided upon.
There were other people accused of being "fairy witches" or witches who received their powers from the Wee Folk or Fairies. Whether these people were merely cunningfolk or healers or actual "witches" will never be determined for sure.
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© 2015 Nicole Canfield