The Scotland Witch Hunts and the Reign of Terror

TIMEJanuary 13, 2022

What does the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution have in common with the witch hunts in Europe? More than you might think. It’s interesting that in our current climate with its wide cultural gap, “conservatives” denounce the Terror and “progressives” excoriate witch hunts. Yet, while apart in time and place, the events are eminently comparable.

Before getting deep into this, a little history refresher is in order. By “witch hunts,” I’ll be referring to the European witch hunts, events that occurred mostly in the 15th through 17th centuries. The European witch hunts in general, or the question of Satanism, is too large a topic to address in one article, but I’ll focus on one set of witch hunts: the North Berwick Witch Trials that took place in Scotland in 1590. These trials are a good example of the whole three centuries identified by scholars as the European “witch craze.” They are a good example because just as in almost all the other witch hunts, the roughly 70 victims were killed not by mobs but by the legal process itself.

Meanwhile, the Reign of Terror marks one act in the much larger drama of the French Revolution. The revolution started in 1789 and is generally held to end with rise of Napoleon in 1799. The Reign of Terror takes up less than a tenth of this period, from the fall of 1793 to the summer of 1794. While the Reign of Terror claimed at least 260,000 lives, considering war and mob violence, this article is concerned only with the 2,596 men and women who were sentenced to death by the Revolutionary Tribunal, a court set up by the revolutionary French government to try political crimes.


Both the Revolutionary Tribunal and the North Berwick Witch Trials required certain beliefs and language to fuel their demands for blood. It was a rhetoric that made out its targets to be a different breed of human, or even less than human. In the North Berwick Witch Trials, this rhetoric was widespread. It was used by men of state, such as James VI, king of Scotland; it was even used by the witches speaking about themselves.

Take Agnes Sampson. Accused, she maintained her innocence in spite of torture, that is, until it was required that her body be searched for the “Devil’s mark.” After she endured this humiliating experience, perhaps doubly humiliating for a woman in a Christian society that demanded modesty, it was claimed that this “mark” was found in her private parts. Finally, according to “Newes from Scotland,” Agnes confessed that “the Diuell” made her and the other witches “kisse his Buttocks,” after which, “he receiued their oathes for their good and true seruice towards him.” Already placed outside the pale of humanity by the words and actions of those around her, Agnes upped the ante and cast herself as a witch.

The North Berwick witches meet the Devil in the local “kirkyard,” from a contemporary pamphlet, the “Newes from Scotland.” (PS-US)

During the Reign of Terror, just as in Scotland a century before, the leadership of the state played its role in furnishing the dehumanizing rhetoric that its court would implement. Aristocrats were condemned by their birth, whether they were on the side of the revolution or not. No Rights of Man for them; they must not be human anyway. Then there were all the other kinds of “counterrevolutionaries.” Who was included under this designation? The legislation listed such criminals as “those who have sought to inspire discouragement” or who “disseminated false news.” What was the punishment, according to this legislation? “The penalty provided for all offences under the jurisdiction of the Revolutionary Tribunal is death.” This penalty is only sensible, given that the greatest of the “Terrorists,” Maximilien Robespierre himself, had maintained in one speech that there were “two peoples” in France: the patriots and the counterrevolutionaries. Why consider mitigating any punishments for a “people” who had no human rights to begin with?

The Courts

We’ve already begun to consider the role of law while considering the role of beliefs and rhetoric in these persecutions, and that is fitting. One mark of any good witch hunt and witch trial is how closely they muddle together the judicial system and mere opinions. Surely no court is ever completely unbiased by whatever opinions are popular and “in the air,” but the degree to which the witch trials mix them is unique.

The North Berwick Witch Trials are perfect examples of this because they were promoted by the king of Scotland (and England), James VI, and because the same James VI wrote a treatise on witchcraft, called “Daemonologie.” The private theorist of witchcraft was also a witness for the prosecution, a prosecutor, and if not officially a judge, a major influence in the sentencing.

Suspected witches kneeling before King James VI, from “Daemonologie” (1597). (PD-US)

The Revolutionary Tribunal is hardly a less perfect example of the mixing of opinion and judicial power, given that Robespierre was a public speaker, a legislator, and one of the men who brought the tribunal into being. “Citizens : A Chronicle of the French Revolution” recounts how Robespierre’s preoccupations with “unmasking” traitors were frequently mirrored in the judgments of the courts: His co-revolutionaries were condemned to death on trumped-up charges because they were merely suspected, for example, of having “aristocratic blood.” Robespierre’s obsession with “republican (that is, revolutionary) virtue” showed up in the tribunal’s condemnation of 22 men of a different political party to death. The stated reason was that they lacked “virtue.” What was the proof? They did not support all the extreme measures that Robespierre desired to take in exterminating the unvirtuous.

Shared Beliefs

Finally, a shared phenomenon of self-cannibalism unites these two series of trials. Innocent or not of other crimes, the women and men brought before the courts in North Berwick or the Revolutionary Tribunal in Paris were very often people who shared the same outlook as their persecutors. In the witch trials, people who believed in Christian teaching regarding the power of the devil condemned people who believed in Christian teaching regarding the power of the devil.  In the Reign of Terror, people who believed in the principles of the French Revolution guillotined persons who fully believed in the principles of the French Revolution. The most extreme example is the trial and execution of the female author Olympe de Gouges, who had written a work titled “Declaration of the Rights of Women” and who repeatedly voiced her good revolutionary sentiments throughout her trial.

The execution of Olympe de Gouges, a feminist writer, during the Reign of Terror. (PD-US)

Comparing an event in the French Revolution to a witch hunt gains us greater and deeper understanding of both events. It also broadens one’s capacity for understanding human nature, to see the common political venom in two situations: one commonly thought of as “religious,” and one associated with “enlightened” principles. It sheds light on the potential that new-fashioned moralisms have for violence, when they are dehumanizing and when they get adopted by the official legal and judicial system. Finally, it reveals one hidden danger of insisting too much on ideological purity. You may end up hurting the very people who are on your side. You may even condemn yourself.

Paul Joseph Prezzia received his M.A. in history from the University of Notre Dame in 2012. He now teaches at Gregory the Great Academy and lives in Elmhurst Township, Pa. with his wife and children.