Witches don’t exist – do they?

Witches lived in most people’s mental landscape in the Middle Ages and beyond. Witchcraft was illegal in many countries and the authorities condemned lots of people, mostly women, to death for that crime. Was it fair to say that someone who carries out the activities of witchcraft must be a witch?

Dead people can’t claim compensation, surely?

The Scottish government has already issued pardons and apologies for the many people the authorities executed for witchcraft in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, mostly in the reign of King James VI, later James I of Great Britain. It can be only a matter of time before descendants of those witches claim compensation.

The Scottish Saltire. The Scottish Govt has issued many pardons and apologies for people convicted as witches.

The Scottish Govt has issued many pardons and apologies for people executed as witches.

Were the witches innocent?

The definition of witchcraft is vague, but the laws mentioned such acts as:

  • Unauthorised healing of the sick, apart from by recognised medicine or prayer,
  • The use of potions for fertility or for attracting a potential spouse or lover,
  •  Putting curses on people,
  • Contacting the dead.

The first of the above included herbalism and much that we now call ‘complementary medicine’. The medical profession and the Church both condemned anyone acting outside their control. The evidence produced in the trials was often hearsay and otherwise highly dubious. Some people suggest misogyny and other prejudices may have been major factors in the outcomes.

Could anyone ever be guilty of witchcraft?

Nobody should be punished for something they did not do on the basis of little or no real evidence, and anyway you could argue that nobody should have called witchcraft a crime, because none of the activities mentioned could be effective in doing harm, or even good. Against that, you could argue that that would be to apply modern scientific thinking to an earlier age. It also overlooks two issues.

  1. The negative placebo effect. If someone believes he or she is cursed, they might well suffer mental illness, possibly with physical symptoms, as a result.
  2.  If you believe, rightly or wrongly, in the power of your potions, curses etc, is it not wicked to attempt to use them to harm someone? Should the law not try to discourage such activity?

Of course, the death penalty seems somewhat harsh for such a crime, but you might not think so if someone you cared about became very sick or took their own life as a result of the activities of witches.

Would I compensate witches, or their descendants?

At this distance in time, it is unlikely we will ever have the full facts of any specific case, but where the evidence for a conviction was inadequate, as for any crime, I would like someone to right the wrong as far as possible. Perhaps a posthumous apology is the only way, but I do not like blanket apologies. Some may have been guilty of something!  At least the Scottish Government has faced up to the issue and not hidden this unpleasant bit of history. Read my comments on hushing up history in a previous post. You may also wish to look at a website for the campaign on the subject of the Scottish witches.