The Worst Witch Trial in History Took Place In Spain, Not Salem

Published December 28, 2016
Updated July 31, 2017
Published December 28, 2016
Updated July 31, 2017

The Trials

The Church subjected the accused to a trial, which they displayed for the entire village. In fact, it was something of a social event. People would gather to witness (at times) hundreds of people deemed heretics burned at the stake.

The auto-de-fe, as the Church called it, would be scheduled for the same day as a holiday or festival. At the very least the Church tried to schedule them on Sundays so that citizens would be able to attend.

The accused would be marched into town — usually in some horrific state of dishabille and disillusionment — to their deaths. Of the thousands who suffered this fate, a small percentage of them had not just been deemed heretics, but specifically witches.

Trial Woman

Wikimedia Commons

In its hunt for heretics, the Catholic Church was generally intolerant toward any non-Catholic individual, but witchcraft presented an added layer of intrigue.

The construct of witchcraft has existed in some form, either philosophical or in magical practice, since the beginning of human history. As organized religion began to take hold — namely Christianity — Wicca became anathema in many religious circles. Witchcraft quickly became synonymous with the devil, and those suspected of practicing it were persecuted.

Catholicism in the era of history’s most elaborate and thorough witch hunts rejected witchcraft not just on the basis of “devil worship,” but clear condemnation of witchcraft in the Bible.

Not to mention scripture’s literal instructions to smote those who practice it: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” (Exodus 22:18)

While those accused of witchcraft were most notably burned at the stake, the Bible had actually suggested stoning, another common practice.

Through the persecution of heretics, witches among them, the Catholic Church maintained its authority. The suppression of those who went against the Church, or those who were even suspected of it, allowed the Church to continue to assert its beliefs in its attempt to make Catholicism the dominant force of collective morality.

The Spanish Inquisition was unique only in that the secular rulers of the monarch (which was Catholic) came together with the Church to approve and oversee the administration: an agreement between church and state, you could say.

Black White

Atlas Obscura

For several hundred years, no one really knew the extent of the witch trials that took place in the Basque Country around this time period — mainly because the Catholic Church hadn’t supplied the records.

But the Vatican eventually opened the archives to researchers so that they could better understand not just the motivation for the inquisitions, but the methods.

It was at this point that the sheer scope of the inquisitions first became known. It’s believed that the Church accused around 7,000 people of witchcraft; tried several thousand of them, and about a dozen died as a result (of note: several actually died while being tortured during their trial, and therefore a symbolic effigy was paraded through the village for burning at the stake).

The Basque witch trials put those in Salem (which are far better known in pop culture) into a much broader context: In Salem, Puritans only investigated a few hundred people, which led to 20 deaths.

Salem likewise attacked female members of the community, whereas the demographics of the accused in Basque included men, women, and children from all socioeconomic backgrounds.

What happened in Salem was no less awful just because it wasn’t as large of a scope as what happened in Spain during the Inquisition, but it presents a stark reminder that popular perspectives on history leave out a lot of stories vital to understanding contemporary society, and provide important insights into what motivates organized acts of violence.

After all, religious intolerance and the desire to create a more homogeneous (read: white) society are not simply a thing of the past.


Next, learn about the historical origins of the witch, and meet some modern day witch doctors.

Abby Norman
Abby Norman is a writer based in New England, currently writing a memoir for Nation Books. Her work has been featured on The Rumpus, The Independent, Cosmopolitan, Medium, Seventeen, Romper, Bustle, and Quartz.