Umm, no Mr. Fry, no…..

And sometimes it\’s great for Stephen Fry going on a rant about something. For instance, during a discussion of Witchcraft he discusses how most witches put on trial in England were acquitted – and fewer than 500 hundred were killed for being witches, he says this about The Da Vinci Code…

\”We were much gentler than you might think. They were acquitted… We were apparently rather resistant to the idea of destroying witches in England, unlike views espoused in certain books – and I use the word book very loosely – like, The Da Vinci Code…\” *makes a spitting noise* \”It is complete loose stool water. It\’s arse gravy of the worst kind… that particular pan of that kind of material claimed that about 5 million women were burned or hanfed around Europe for being witches. There\’s no evidence there was anything like as much as that. Probably about 500 hundred. And they weren\’t burned, they were hanged.\”

No, not really true.

It\’s true that in England there were few to no burnings for witchcraft (although it was used for other offences) but Scotland was another matter.

Although many people might associate burning at the stake with witchcraft, it was much less used for that offence in Britain than in other parts of Europe – particularly France, Switzerland and the Nordic countries. In England witchcraft was a felony and thus punishable by hanging. Alice Molland is thought to have been the last person to suffer for witchcraft, at Exeter in 1684.  However, Scotland did burn witches and there are many recorded instances of both sexes suffering this fate.  On the 18th of May 1671 Janet McMuldroche and Elspeth Thompson were strangled and burned at Dumfries.  The following are the words of the warrant for their execution, dated two days earlier : “Forsamuch as in ane court of Justiciarie holden be us within the Tolbuithe of drumfreis vpon the fyftein day of May instant Jonet McMuldroche and Elspeth Thomsone were found guiltie be ane ascyse of the se[ver]all articles of witchcraft spe[cif]it in the verdict given againest them theiranent Were decerned and adjudged be us the Lords Commissioners of Justiciarie to be tane vpon thursday next the eighteen day of May instant Betuixt tuo and foure houres in the afernoone to the ordinare place of executione the toune of drumfreis And their to be wirried at ane stake till they be dead And theirafter their bodies to be brunt to ashes And all their moveable goods and geir to be escheat.
Note : (wirried means strangled and escheat means confiscated)
The last person to be burned as a witch in Scotland was Janet Horne at Dornoch in Ross shire in 1727.

It\’s also true that many (if not most) were strangled before the body was burnt but that\’s not quite a hanging. and it\’s also not true that this was common across Europe.

7 thoughts on “Umm, no Mr. Fry, no…..”

  1. Fry seems to be confusing England with the whole of Europe – an easy mistake to make, of course. He quotes the figure of 500, which is the figure for England, and the absence of burning, which as you say was the practice in England. I’m assuming that when he writes

    “…that particular pan of that kind of material claimed that about 5 million women were burned or hanfed around Europe for being witches. There’s no evidence there was anything like as much as that. Probably about 500 hundred.”

    …he means 500. That said, he inadvertently gets it right, since 500 hundred in normal English is 50,000, which is close to the generally accepted figure for the whole of Europe over the three centuries when most of the witch-hunting took place.

  2. “t’s true that in England there were few to no burnings for witchcraft (although it was used for other offences) but Scotland was another matter.”

    Well, it’s a lot colder up there, see…

    ‘Och, Jimmy, I’m freezin’ Throw another hag on the fire!’

  3. The main lesson, since Fry’s arseholiness is universally agreed to, is that the Transition to Modernity wasn’t instant; medievalism hung on, and that was one of its nastiest aspects. Minor point; should one add New England to the English score?

  4. Adding the New England executions would not make much difference. There were twenty deaths connected with the Salem hysteria, and I can find no references to any other executions of witches.

    Americans have got a lot of press out something that was pretty minor compared to what was going on in northern and central Europe.

    As for being a holdover of medievalism, the witch hunting business only got really wound up in the late 15th century. There are not a lot of references to witch trials in the early and high Middle ages. It seems to be an obsession of the Renaissance.

  5. “There were twenty deaths connected with the Salem hysteria, and I can find no references to any other executions of witches.”

    According to David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed there were 35 executions for witchcraft in New England between 1620 and 1725.

  6. Thanks Ross. Your resources were obviously better than mine. Still not a huge number though.

  7. Some years ago, I ran across a web site with a listing of every judicial execution in the history of the U.S. – and the preceding colonial governments. I don’t suppose it was an absolutely comprehensive list, but it looked to be pretty complete.

    According to this list, the first execution in Illinois (where I live) was in the mid-1700s, under French rule, for witchcraft or sorcery.

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