“It should never have happened”: In Scotland, Claire Mitchell and Zoe Venditozzi are fighting for those executed for witchcraft, the vast majority of them women, to be pardoned and for a memorial to pay tribute to these great forgotten the story.
“Between the 16th and 18th century in Scotland, around 4,000 people were accused of witchcraft. 84% were women“, explains to AFP Claire Mitchell, a 50-year-old lawyer. In total, more than 2,500 people were executed for witchcraft, most of the time strangled and then burned, after confessions extracted under torture.
⋙ Scotland: more than 3,000 witches executed three centuries ago will be pardoned
“They were prevented from sleeping for days (…) and they confessed that they were witches, danced with the devil or had sex with him“, she tells AFP in a cemetery in Dundee (north-east) known as “The Howff”.
In this 16th century cemetery, swept by an icy wind, is a small stone column nicknamed “the stone of the witches”. Passersby left flower petals and coins there, in tribute to people executed for witchcraft, including Grissel Jaffray, strangled and burned in 1669.
In a street in the city center, a mosaic representing a cone from which flames escape commemorates this woman known as “the last witch of Dundee”.
Claire Mitchell founded the “Witches of Scotland” association two years ago, on March 8, 2020, on the occasion of International Women’s Rights Day, after discovering the extent of the impact of the Witchcraft Act. This law of 1563 provided for the death penalty for those guilty of witchcraft and was in force until 1736.
His association demands three things: the pardon of all those convicted of witchcraft, an official apology from the authorities, and a national monument to remember these little-known tragedies. Zoe Venditozzi, 46, a member of the same association, says that until recently she did not know “nothing“of those witch hunts,”although I was born in Fife where there have been many executions“.
She discovered that “anyone could be accused“, people “usually ordinary, often poor, vulnerable, who could not defend themselves“or who were”perceived as weird or awkward“.
At that time, “thepeople believed very strongly in the devil”, she recalls, and “women tended to be blamed because they were seen as people who could be easily manipulated by the devil“.
The work of the devil
She is also sensitive to this cause, a member of the SNP (independence party in power in Scotland), Natalie Don, intends soon to table a bill in the Scottish parliament to obtain the pardon of all those convicted of witchcraft.
“In several countries, people are still accused and sentenced for having practiced witchcraft. Scotland should lead the way in acknowledging the horrors of our past and ensuring that these people do not go down in history as criminals. It will also send a strong message internationally that these practices are not acceptable.“, argues the deputy.
Scotland was particularly affected by these witch hunts. Julian Goodare, professor of history emeritus at the University of Edinburgh, oversaw the creation of a database to identify them. Comparing the 2,500 people executed for this reason in Scotland, which had a population of one million at the time, he points out that this is a ratio “five times higher than the average in Europe“.
This historian points out that these were executions following trials in which “evidence“were brought: confessions or even statements from neighbors claiming that the suspect had “bewitched” them, he explains on the esplanade of Edinburgh Castle, where these executions were organized in full view of all.
The hunt for “witches” was the act of the State, of an elite convinced that “the devil tried to do all possible harm and that witches were his allies“He too is in favor of the installation of a monument retracing this history: “We can’t change the past but we can learn from the past“.
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