A royal obsession with black magic started Europe's most brutal witch hunts

In the 1590s, King James VI of Scotland's fear of witchcraft began stirring up national panics, resulting in the torture and death of thousands.

Toil and Trouble

An engraving reproduces Henry Fuseli’s 1783 painting of the witches from Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth. First performed in 1606, the play was a compliment to the newly crowned king of England, James I, who had published a book on witchcraft in 1597.
Quintlox/Album

During the late 1500s Scotland believed the devil was at work in the land. Locals talked about his ability to raise storms, kill livestock, and spread deadly illness. Satan sought to undermine human society from within and was recruiting secret agents to do his bidding. Those diabolical actors were witches, and the authorities believed they had to be eradicated for the sake of the kingdom.

Scotland was not alone in falling victim to witchcraft panics in the late 16th century and first half of the 17th century. Witch-hunting plagued Europe, beginning in the 15th century when the idea that witches worshipped the devil began to take hold. Burgundy, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, and Scandinavia all endured outbreaks of witch panics during this time. After the Reformation divided Europe into Protestant and Catholic in the early 16th century, both sides hunted witches. During this period of religious reform, rulers wanted to prove their godliness. They perceived the unholy and evil as the source of unrest and disorder. (See how Satan and his punishments were depicted in the Middle Ages.)

Witch-hunting could be seen as an extension of the Protestant Reformation as parish ministers and government authorities sought to create a “godly state” in which everyone worshipped correctly, and sin and ungodliness were wiped out. In numerical terms, Scotland’s witch hunts were severe. Between 1590 and 1662, five intense panics erupted across Scotland: 1590-91, 1597, 1628-1631, 1649-1650, and 1661-62. (Watch an animated history of Martin Luther's starting the Reformation.)

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