Why the witch-hunt victims of early modern Britain have come back to haunt us

The women killed as witches centuries ago are starting to receive justice. But let’s not glamorise the murder of innocents

Lilias Addie’s body was piled into a wooden box and buried beneath a half-tonne sandstone slab on the foreshore where a dark North Sea laps the Fife coast. More than a hundred years later, she was exhumed by opportunistic Victorian gravediggers and her bones – unusually large for a woman living in the early 18th century – were later put on show at the Empire exhibition in Glasgow. Her simple coffin was carved into a wooden walking stick – engraved “Lilias Addie, 1704” – which ended up in the collection of Andrew Carnegie, then the richest man in the world.

It was no sort of burial, but from the perspective of the thousands of women accused of, and executed for, witchcraft in early modern Britain, Lilias’s fate had a degree of dignity.

“Most women were burned, rather than buried, their identities erased by authorities and families out of fear and shame,” says Claire Mitchell QC, who is campaigning for a legal pardon for, and monument to, the estimated 2,558 Scots who were executed in the brutal centuries of femicide after Scotland’s 1563 Witchcraft Act (the same year England enacted its own bloody statute). She adds: “This lack of historical record makes it harder as a society to have the reckoning with history that we dearly need to have.”

If it’s a case of cultural amnesia, it’s hiding in plain sight. Halloween 2021 and online fast-fashion retailers are jolly with “witchy inspo”: cross-fusions of witch costumes and bunny girl outfits; miniature pointed hats worn at a jaunty angle, with a lipglossed pout. Meanwhile, designer Viktor & Rolf riffs on “wicked witches” in its haute couture shows (raven-winged leathers and laser eyes); “witchcore” trends on social media (an interior and lifestyle aesthetic centred on dark interiors, gemstones and, oddly, bread-baking); and influencers including the Modern Witch peddle a novel iteration of magical capitalism (spell-casting for business curse-removal, anyone?).

Digital reconstruction of the face of Lilias Addie.
Digital reconstruction of the face of Lilias Addie. Photograph: Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification, University of Dundee/BBC Radio Scotland/PA

Our cultural reappraisal of the European witch-hunts began in the 1960s, when second wave feminists reinterpreted these pogroms as patriarchy’s “original sin”: brutal, three-century campaigns that destroyed ancient female practices and means of income, from traditional midwifery to the ale business (once dominated by ale women, who wore pointed hats to signify their trade and kept cats to chase rodents away). For Marxist theorist Silvia Federici, author of the seminal Caliban and the Witch, the witch-hunts were the last volley in the defeat of artisan peasants and the rise of capitalist wage labour. Here was women’s “great historic defeat”, on whose burning stakes the bourgeois ideals of dependent, domestic womanhood were forged.

Hartmut Hegeler, an activist German pastor, wants his nation to come to terms with the estimated 25,000 women murdered in its particularly bloody 1500-1782 witch persecution. Hegeler feels that pop culture’s fascination with witchiness – seen in the resurgent popularity in central and northern Europe of the spring Walpurgis night festival, where witches are ceremonially burned at the stake – is not a route to restoring murdered women’s dignity.

“These convicted people could not have committed the crimes they are accused of,” Hegeler says, “flying on a broom for bedevilment, causing harm by magic to weather and fornicating with the devil. We must recognise injustice in the past, otherwise we will not recognise injustice today.”

He has called on European countries to pardon women executed for witchcraft, out of superstition, suppression, brute thievery and spite, and to erect memorials to them, as Cologne and Leipzig have done.

Mitchell and her co-campaigner Zoe Venditozzi want also to see a shift away from witches’ spiritual exceptionalism – dark arts, herby hubble-bubble and magical seer-ing – to a more historically accurate reframing of those persecuted as witches.

“These were mostly just women who were leading their lives,” says Venditozzi, a secondary school teacher in north-east Fife, “and for whatever reason they got accused of witchcraft… They could have been you or I.”

Lilias was accused of casting curses on children, according to a preserved cache of Scottish court documents, by a woman named Jean Bizet, who owed money to the accused. Lilias’s unusual physical features – her preternaturally long limbs and pronounced overbite – possibly sealed her fate. Her watery burial beneath a stone, the documents reveal, was designed to stop her body being “revenired”, or returned to life from the dead, by the devil. She wasn’t burned at the stake, as she died in prison.

Popular history also elides the executed who were men: 15% of the Scots victims and 10% of the estimated 800 who perished by drowning or at the stake between 1603 and 1735 in England’s witch trials, Mitchell notes.

Venditozzi cites an erected memorial to the dead of the witch hunts of Orkney that sums up the everywoman- (and indeed everyman-) ness of the victims. It reads, simply: “They wur cheust folk” (they were just folk).

“That’s how we should properly think of these people,” she says. “As just folk like you and me.”

A woman dressed as a witch walks in front of a giant fire during the Walpurgis night celebrations in Erfurt, central Germany.
Walpurgis night celebrations in Erfurt, central Germany. Photograph: Jens Meyer/AP

Across the world, a campaign for a cultural reckoning, for a candid look at those children’s book characters and campy costumes, for monuments and due apologies, gathers pace.

In Catalonia, 150 history professors are signatories to a petition No eren bruixes (They were not witches) to educate Catalan children about their province’s femicidal history.

In the US, a class of 13- and 14-year-olds at North Andover middle school in Massachusetts led successful efforts this year to identify a woman omitted from a 2017 monument to the 10 women put to death in Salem’s infamous witch trials.

Sixty-nine German city and town councils have exonerated the victims of witchcraft trials in their towns.

Below Pendle Hill in Lancashire social justice organisation Idle Women has planted a “physic garden” of medicinal herbs in tribute to the lost knowledge of women healers, who were often top of witch-hunters’ hit lists. The site commemorates that in 1612 nine women and two men from the surrounding area were charged for witchcraft.

Nor is the persecution consigned to history. According to India’s National Crime Records Bureau, 2,500 Indians were chased, tortured and killed in witch-hunts between 2000 and 2016. Feminist campaigners against modern-day ritualised killings of “witches” in India and around the world are demanding that witch executions in the global south – including in Saudi Arabia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Africa, Tanzania and Nigeria – be seen in continuum with the European witch-hunts.

There are, after all, eerie similarities in the nature of these attacks: women accused of fornication with the devil, casting evil eyes and spoiling crops, who are hunted, drowned, lynched and burned.

If you’re heading out trick-or-treating this week with your besom and pointy hat, spare a thought for Lilias and the tens of thousands of unnamed like her. And if you cast a spell, make this your demand of the spirits: that one day Lilias, and society’s conscience, will be laid to rest.

• This article was amended on 26 October 2021. An earlier version referred to Pendle Hill, Lancashire and implied that nine women and two men were hanged at that location for witchcraft. In fact the accused were from the surrounding area and the trials and executions took place elsewhere.

Sally Howard

The GuardianTramp

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