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What is a witch? What tortures did Witches have to face as part of the witch hunts of Medieval times?



Snow White's Witch

Snow White's Witch

What is a Witch?

According to the dictionary definition, a witch is a woman thought to have evil magic powers, populary depicted as wearing a black cloak and pointed hat, and flying on a broomstick. She is also considered to be ugly or an unpleasant old woman.

popular modern myths about witches might arise from fairy tales and Walt Disney's characters like Snow White's stepmother.

They are often related to certain objects, such as broomsticks, magic couldrons, the colour black, warts and spiderwebs. There are also lots of animals related to witches too; black cats, frogs, bats and mice.

Where did the idea of Witches come from?

The word witch actually means, wise woman. In the past a witch was a woman who had a knowledge of herbs and plants and had the ability to use them for good or ill through the brewing of potions.

During the Middle Ages, witches became feared; partly due to the superstitious and god fearing peasants of the time. The brewing of potions, or really the effects of them was considered as magic by people who had poor knowledge of such matters.

Because of this fact many innocent woman were tortured and killed by men who blamed them for the worlds ills.


Official witchcraft trials were sanctioned before 1750. Witchhunts in Europe and North America led to 40,000 to 60,000 executions of woman between the years 1480 to 1750. Although the last executions of woman took place in Britain at the end of the 18th century.

How did witch hunters convict witches?

There are many trials for woman to prove if they are witches or not:

  • Trial by fire
  • Trial by water
  • Trial by oil
  • Trial by poison
  • Trial by ordeal

Basically these were all tests. If a woman passed through the trial unhurt then she was in a pact with the devil and so killed as a witch. If the woman was hurt or even killed then she was innocent of her crimes.

So, if a woman was accused of being a witch during the middle ages then she was in risk of losing her life soon no matter which trial was picked for her.


1. Trial by Fire

This could take the form of a few different trials:

  • Walking over red-hot coals for a distance of 3 metres.
  • holding a red-hot iron.

The wound would then be bound and examined three days later by a priest. If God intervened and saved this innocent woman then it would be healed. If she was a witch, God would not save her and thus her injuries were there to be seen.

Guilt was punished with death - an execution of burning at the stake.

  • Trial by fire has also been used to convict other people for different crimes over the years too, like that for Infidelity in many cultures.

2. Trial by water

This could take the form of a few different trials:

  • Cold water trial
  • Removing a stone from a pot of boiling water.

Cold water trials took the form of submerging a woman in a stream or river. If she survived then this was proof of a pact with the devil, if she drown then she was innocent.

Another trial involving cold water was to tie a weight to the woman and see if she sank or floated. If she sank then this showed she was innocent, although this mainly resulted in her drowning. If she floated then this proved she had a pact with the devil and therefore was a witch so she was executed.

With the trial by removing an object from a boiling liquid would take place in church. The hand was bound and then examined three days later. If it was healed then god had worked a miricle because she was innocent. If it did not heal she was burnt at the stake as a witch. It is recorded that when a witch from the 6th century tried to remove a stone from boiling water, it took her over an hour to complete because it was boiling so ferociously. The skin was boiled off all the way up to her elbow in this trial.


4. Trial by oil

This was not a practice that took place in Europe or North America but it just shows that every culture had nasty tortures for woman they blamed for the horrors of the world.

It is very similar to the trial by water, but oil boils at a higher temperature.

Again, she retreves an item from boiling oil. If her hand is unscathed then she is innocent. If not then she is guilty. Any who refused the task were found guilty too.


4. Trial by poison

Again this is not from Europe or North America but again it shows the horrible ways that woman have been treated around the world.

A woman was forced to eat a poisonous bean or other food. If she vomits up the food then she is innocent. A defendant who becomes ill or dies is guilty.

5. Trial by ordeal

A witch was found guilty by subjecting her to a dangerous experience.

An example would be a trial by combat. It was thought that God would help the innocent in this trial and perform a miricle to save their life. The guilty would then be murdered and justice would prevale.

This trial could take the form of any of the four mentioned above but it could take the form of any ordeal that would endanger the woman's life in some way or another.

Woman's rights have come along way since the medieval times.

I personally think that intelligent woman should be admired.

There are woman who practiced the art of using herbs and plants for good. They worshipped mother nature and all that brought them. These good witches are called white witches.

White witches exist today, and although it is related very much to pagan thoughts and concepts there is definitely something in herbs and plants and what science can use them for to help human development. There is much to learn from mother nature and those who respect this awesome force has my respect.


Danny on February 15, 2015:

Ohhh that made me laugh so hard!!! Thank you for making my day! (Thus far it has been a bad one) I love HP and have fridnes that weren't allowed to read ik so yes, I know the problems with these (kind of) books. What worries me is that people don't worry about the witchy part but about actual spells in it! But never ever has Wingardium Leviosa done the trick for me ;)(Could be very handy because I am really clumsy).

Jacqueline Williamson BBA MPA MS from Memphis on November 07, 2013:

Some of those trials were pretty extreme. Especially the ones where the woman died whether she was guilty or innocent.