In Europe Witchcraft was seen to be a very serious crime and those people who were convicted of practicing witchcraft were subjected to the death penalty. It is understood that thousands of people who the majority were women were tried for the crime of witchcraft, and almost half of these were executed. Witches can be described as magical practitioners, owing to their evil powers to a pact they had made with the Devil. It later came to the realization of theologians and Christian that witches were not isolated individuals dabbling in the occult, but members of a demonic, anti –Christian heretical sect. To the societies that believed in witches, the witches were regarded as persons who possessed extraordinary or mysterious power to perform evil deeds. The vital characteristic of these evil deeds was that they seemed to be magical instead of a religious deed and in addition to the above, they were harmful and not beneficial in any way or the other. This essay, therefore, seeks to establish and analyze the process of witch-hunting in England and its effect on the community. Witches beliefs existed in two different mindsets which were that of intellectual and that of the peasant.
The great European witch-hunt took place because of the members of the ruling elite, in particular, those individuals controlling the operation of the judiciary who subscribed to the beliefs related to diabolical activities and practices of witches. The practice of witchcraft was closely associated with a tight face to face pact a witch made with the devil. The pact was the instrument that gave the witch the power to perform ‘Malecia’ but also initiated her into the Devil.’ Malecia refers to extraordinary or mysterious power to perform evil deeds. The conclusion of the pact was a formal ceremony which took place after the Devil had appeared to the witch, usually as a handsome, well-dressed man and enticed her with the promise of material reward or sexual pleasure. The witch agreed to reject her Christian faith and then paid homage to the Devil either by bowing down before him or by kissing his buttocks. The Devil would imprint a distinctive mark on the witch’s body, usually in a concealed spot, as a sign of her allegiance. He would then give her careful instructions for the performance of her Maleficent work.
When the witch-hunt process started it is presented that England was the only country in Europe that had an elaborate structure into its legal system. In England, judges could not be able to start a trial or legal proceeding but were to wait for an accusation to be made against a witch. With its legal system, England depends on juries to find proof and duly determine the outcome of the case. In the proceeding, the accusers, watchers, searchers, and investigators were the main source of evidence. In their consideration of the proceedings, the juries were concerned with the accuser motives towards the witch and the history of the witch in regard to evil acts. The witch- hunt led to the enactment of The Witchcraft Act of 1563 which was to compel witnesses to attend to the trials. It provided for a statement to be given on oath whereas without the stamen being given on oath the magistrate would not be in a position to take the case with the seriousness it deserves statute to provide that testimony of a minor was to be taken without consideration of the oath. It should be noted that during this period, a trial was only one of the possible methods of resolving cases of witchcraft. Alternatives included the employment of doctors, Godly ministers, and countermagic.
A legal trial was often the last resort because it was an expensive process. Sharpe (2001) present that King James played an important role in the development and belief of witchcraft, encouraging belief in witches and witchcraft and increasing the punishments for convicted witches. King James was brought up under the control of the Presbyterian clergy and was an intelligent man, who was fascinated by witchcraft. He came to believe in and fear witches around 1590 when a conspiracy against his life was revealed. He was convinced that he, as a divine right monarch, was the chief enemy of Satan. On his return to Scotland in 1590 with his new wife, Princess Anne of Denmark, James encountered storms at sea. These were subsequently blamed on a group of North Berwick witches. The same case as Europe, witch-hunting throughout England was, to all intents and purposes, a judicial operation, but occasionally, agitated villagers would take justice into their own hands, executing suspected witches. In England, the process of witch hunting culminated with the political and religious chaos reigned throughout the period of the English Civil Wars (1642-49) and Matthew Hopkins, assumed the job of witch hunting getting the title of Witch-finder General in 1645.
Hopkins found out that there were seven or eight witches regularly practicing their evil arts close to his house, this gave him a strong motivation to destroy the “works of the devil” and, as an impoverished lawyer, he could see the financial incentive of pursuing the hunt on a wider scale. In his fight to finish East Anglia of witches, Hopkins operated John Stearne who was his close associate. While Hopkins was able to organize, direct, analyze and ensure the success of the witch campaign, Stearne provided the relentless, fanatical element. Hopkins and Stearne perfected a system of examining witches that shed no blood and non-torture method which remained within the legal requirement of English. Hopkins was very careful in describing these techniques to the villages he traveled to.
The primary means of securing a confession were “watching”, “searching” and “walking”. Hopkins offered three means of distinguishing witch’s marks from natural marks, which all people have. First, a witch’s mark was to be found in an unusual place, for example, “bottom of the backbone&rdquo. Secondly, “they are most commonly insensible and feel neither pin nor needle thrusts through them&rdquo. The third means of detection involved familiars. Hopkins would keep strict surveillance of a witch for 24 hours, making sure none of her familiars came and sucked blood from the hidden nipple on the witch’s body. According to Hopkins, the “teat” in that time would noticeably fill up with fluid and become visible. Thus, a witch who had a familiar also had a mark, and it was just a matter of finding it. Many of the confessions during the Hopkins period make reference to sexual intercourse between the witch and the Devil. Sexual references were rarely noted prior to this time and did not form part of the prevailing witch-beliefs of the masses. Their inclusion in confessions suggests leading questions from the interrogators assisting the witch in fashioning her offense. By 1646, 18 months since the witch-hunt began; Hopkins and Stearne had taken their war against witches out of Essex and Suffolk and into the surrounding shires where another 20 witches met their fate. In order to make their witch-hunting operation more efficient John Stearne and Matthew Hopkins had split up at this point, Stearne covered the western part of Suffolk and Hopkins went east. Hopkins had accomplished some 100 hangings and had achieved a degree of notoriety throughout East Anglia.