Scotland could pardon nearly 3,000 ‘witches’ executed between 16th and 18th centuries

A bill supported by the majority MPs in the Scottish Parliament should come back this summer on the conviction for witchcraft of thousands of individuals. including a large majority of women.

There was fire. Almost three centuries after the death of the last “witch” in the United Kingdom, the Scottish Parliament could pardon some 2,600 people this summer, the vast majority of them women, sentenced to death for witchcraft between the 16thand and the XVIIIand century. The bill, supported since December by the administration of Scottish Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon, would officially recognize the role of public authorities in the repression of supposed occult forces. A role historically framed by the Scotland’s Witchcraft Acta Scottish anti-witchcraft law in force between 1563 and 1736.

“It would be right to correct this injustice”said, in a nice truism, in December, the member of the Scottish Parliament Natalie Don (SNP), recalling the large proportion of women among the victims of these “witch hunts” passed down to posterity. A form of institutionalized feminicide. “This subject remains relevant todayshe pointed out.. Repairing these past injustices can have an impact on challenging the sexist and patriarchal behaviors that society still suffers today.”

Historical violence against women

According to the country’s court records, 3,873 people have been tried for witchcraft in Scotland. According to figures given by the British press, 84% of these trials concern women. And nearly two-thirds of the defendants were sentenced to death, preferably by burning at the stake. A choice that was not arbitrary. It was “to reduce the body to ashes and to make it impossible to resurrect the bodies“, explained last fall the historian Martine Ostorero, of the University of Lausanne, for Science & Life notebooks.

“We were masters at finding women to burn in Scotland”

Claire Mitchell, lawyer and co-founder of the association Witches of Scotland,

“Per inhabitant, and for the period from the sixteenthand in the XVIIIand century, we have executed five times more people than elsewhere in Europe, pointed out lawyer Claire Mitchell, questioned by The Times. To put this in perspective, in Salem (in Massachusetts, then a British colony, where important witchcraft trials took place in 1692-1693, Editor’s note)only 19 people were executed out of the 300 accused.” President of the Witches of Scotland association, and co-producer of the podcast of the same name that inspired the #MeeToo movement, Claire Mitchell takes on the feminism of this fight for the recognition of victims of witchcraft trials. “We were masters at finding women to burn in Scotland.” she remarked bitterly in the British daily.

Condemned since Antiquity and then the Middle Ages, witchcraft was not subject to severe repression throughout Europe until the Renaissance. The entry into the modern era is accompanied by an institutionalization of the fight against witchcraft, the development of practical tools and organized structures. The Spanish Inquisition was thus formed in 1478, while the Malleus Maleficarumthe “bestseller» theological treatises on “witch hunt”was first published in 1486. ​​And contrary to popular belief about medieval times, the two greatest waves of persecution and condemnation were observed much later, around the 1560s and 1620s.

A hot topic

The upcoming passage of the bill in the Scottish Parliament thus crowns a campaign carried out since March 2020 by the association Witches of Scotland. The group, at the origin of an official petition filed last year in Parliament, asks not only for a pardon for the victims of witchcraft trials, but also the construction of a national place of memory. As well as public apologies, for example during a speech by the Scottish Prime Minister on the next International Women’s Day, March 8.

‘It’s no different to how Scotland must also assume its role in the Atlantic slave trade’said Claire Mitchell for the Wall Street Journal , in an intersectional projection. Asked by the bbcLeo Igwe, Nigerian human rights activist also recalls that an official clarification would send a strong signal to African countries which, like Nigeria, still repress and penalize witchcraft: “What happened in Scotland hundreds of years ago is still happening today.”

What happened to these poor people is in no way the responsibility of the 2022 Scots »

Tom Devine, historian

For the Scottish historian Tom Devine, on the other hand, these militant claims are to be tempered. “I am not convinced of the merits of a public apology, for the simple and good reason that what happened to these poor people is in no way the responsibility of the Scots in 2022”, he told the BBC. Not without specifying that the pardon seemed to him more sensible, although problematic from the point of view of the law, most of the accused having confessed. Confessions collected under torture, of course. “There is, however, legal precedent for a pardonconceded the historian. Those executed after the infamous Salem witch trials in the United States were declared innocent under a Massachusetts state law in 2001.

In France, the decriminalization of witchcraft dates back to 1682. No pardon or official apology seems to have been pronounced since, even if the image of witches continues to flourish in the collective imagination. And even in the political arena. “I prefer women casting spells to men building EPRs”, had thus declared last summer Sandrine Rousseau, then candidate for the primary of Europe Ecology-The Greens. A preposterous exit for a large part of the political class.

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Scotland could pardon nearly 3,000 ‘witches’ executed between 16th and 18th centuries

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