In Scotland from 1590-97 – that’s only three years shy of the 17th century – between 1000 and 1500 people, mostly women, were put to death for the crime of witchcraft, atrocities we associate with much earlier times. What and who drove them is the subject of this one-hour BBC program, a contemporary investigative documentary, with commentary by an off-camera interviewer and actors playing leading figures of the day, reconstructing events and answering questions to camera, based on historical accounts.
In the grip of famine, Scottish peasants looked for someone to blame for the failed harvest and found them in anyone suspected of sorcery. Local minister James Carmichael exploited the ignorance of the people but his zeal was no match for that of the then 24-year-old James VI of Scotland, the future King of England, who was so obsessed that he wrote a treatise on the subject.
The focus of their attention was 45-year-old healer Agnes Sampson. Imprisoned, beaten, tortured and deprived of sleep, she was personally interrogated by the king in scenes that spare no details of her ghastly suffering.
Fuelled by his interest, the witch-hunts reached such a ferocious crescendo, burnings were a common sight around Edinburgh. Witchcraze is interesting enough, but despite the imaginative approach, its treatment is rather plodding and drawn-out, touching only briefly on the broader implications of what some historians in better documentaries on this subject have called “the women’s holocaust”.
They argue that by targeting the female custodians of health and healing, men appropriated the practice of medicine, setting up schools from which women were barred for hundreds of years, thereby establishing a male-oriented medical culture that persists to this day.