Belief in supernatural powers and in the existence of individuals who are able to communicate with and manipulate them pervades all human history. Such powers and such individuals may be regarded as benign and beneficent, but some may be thought malign and harmful. From the Middle Ages until the eighteenth century many people who professed skills in the use of spells and potions or who challenged religious and intellectual orthodoxy or who were in some way 'odd' were liable to be accused of practising witchcraft and being witches.
In Europe from about 1200 to 1500 various individuals and groups who challenged aspects of Roman Catholic doctrine were likely to be accused of collaboration with the devil or devils. The development of printing from the 1430s aided the spread of 'heresy'. The Dominicans were prominent among those who hunted and prosecuted 'witches'.
During the religious turmoil of the sixteenth century both Catholics and Protestants persecuted witches. The peak period for prosecutions for witchcraft was from about 1580 to about 1630. Mass witch trials accompanied by hundreds of executions took place in Catholic southern Germany, in Trier (1581-1593), Fulda (1603-1606), Wurzberg (1626-1631) and Bamberg (also 1626-1631). There were witch trials in the Basque Country (1609-1611). Witches were pursued with intensity in Protestant Scotland. In the 1590s King James VI set up royal commissions to hunt down witches and in 1597 published Daemonologie, describing the menace witches posed to society.
By the mid seventeenth century the phenomenon of witch trials was in decline, though major trials of alleged witches still took place in Austria (Salzburg, 1675-1690), Sweden (Torsaker, 1675) and Salem, Massachusetts (1692-1693).
The last witch trials in Britain were staged in the early eighteenth century. In 1735 the Witchcraft Act ensured that witchcraft was no longer a legal offence.
Tens of thousands of 'witches' were executed, most of them women, but by 1800 witch trials had ceased.
To guide us through Europe's Great Witch Hunt we are delighted to welcome back to Bath Professor Ronald Hutton of the University of Bristol. Ronald's two most recent lectures to the HA Bath branch concerned Charles II and Elizabeth I. As well as being a leading historian of sixteenth and seventeenth century British history, Ronald is an expert on British folklore, pre-Christian religion and contemporary paganism. He has published at least fourteen books and has broadcast frequently on television and radio. He is one of the eleven trustees of English Heritage and chairs its Blue Plaques Panel.