Estimates regarding the number of victims of the witchhunts vary widely. At the extreme, as many as nine million burnings and hangings have been suggested. Although a more viable, and widely accepted estimate is 200,000.
Slow to start, the persecutions reached what can be called epidemic proportions towards the end of the 15th century. Pope Innocent VIII can be identified as the central instigator of the persecutions when he wrote his Summis Desiderantes Affectibus of 1484, including the following:
It has recently come to our attention (that) many persons of both sexes, unmindful of their own salvation and deviating from the Catholic faith, have abused themselves with devils male, and female, and by their incantations, spells and conjurations, and other horrid charms, enormities and offenses, destroy the fruit of the womb in women.
The declaration was followed by the announcement that the professors of theology, Jacob Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer, were to be made inquisitors of such heretical depravities. The result, two years later, was their 250,000 word book, Malleus Maleficarum, or The Hammer of Witches.
Detailing the conditions under which witchcraft thrived, how the craft is practised, and how judicial proceedings, torture and sentencing should be carried out, the American historian George Lincoln Burr described it as the terrible book which has caused more suffering than any other work written by human pen.
Published shortly after the invention of the printing press, The Hammer of Witches achieved great fame, running to dozens of editions in several languages. The craze became most rampant in Germany. One town – Bamberg – turned the persecutions into an industry when, in 1627, it built the Hexenhaus; a specially constructed prison for suspected witches. Containing two chapels, torture chambers and cells for 40 witches, some 400 suspects passed through in a single four year period.
With the exception of Germany, Catholic countries indulged in the persecutions more than Protestant. At times whole countries seemed to be geared to building fires to burn those in league with the Devil. Torture was usually sadistic, and those accused had little chance of escaping the stake.
THE ENGLISH PERSECUTIONS
England was, perhaps, less infected than other countries. Apart from the odd rise of mania, witches usually got away with a ducking. Even at its height, the persecutions did not involve the stake – in England witches were hanged. But even here Elizabeth I passed a witchcraft Act in 1663. The final form of this act was not repealed until 1951, when it was replaced with the Fraudulent Mediums Act.
The witchhunts allowed a particularly nasty form of sadist to rise. In England a puritanical failed lawyer called Matthew Hopkins proclaimed himself Witchfinder General in the 1640s. He and his henchmen roamed the eastern counties demanding fees from terrified and superstitious local nobles for ridding their area of witches.
Furthering his entreprenurial spirit, he would tie up suspects and throw them into lakes and rivers. If they drowned they obviously had no supernatural powers to save themselves, so they were innocent. If they floated, they were witches and were hanged.
Hopkins power declined after an attack on him by a Huntingdon clergyman in 1646, highlighting his methods of torture, which were illegal in England at the time. However, in his brief career Matthew Hopkins managed to kill several hundred suspected witches.
Hopkins was a puppy compared to some of the sadists wreaking havoc on continental Europe. Take, for instance, the German Jesuit, Peter Binsfeld, who thought that light torture was no torture at all. His methods were obviously successful, for he saw some 6,500 men, women and children to the stake.
Pierre de Lancre did such a good job in the Basque country that the French King Henry IV eventually made him a state councillor. At one stage he became convinced that all 30,000 residents of one district were witches. There was a mass exodus from the area, but he still managed to put 600 to death in a four month period.
The French lawyer Jean Bodin brought an intellectual bent to his art as well as sadism. Formulating a legal definition of a witch as someone who, knowing Gods law, tries to bring about some act through an agreement with the Devil, he particularly enjoyed participating in the torture of young children and invalids.
He was constantly annoyed by how quickly the condemned died at the stake, and wished he could devise a slower, more painful death for them. But the question must be asked, why did the witchhunts occur in the first place?
One undeniable fact concerning the witchhunts is that most persecutors were men and most victims were women. This has led many commentators to come to the conclusion that the reason for the persecutions was a male dominated establishments need to put down women. However, whilst this is undoubtedly a major reason, the mentally ill, the deformed and loners were also persecuted.
Throughout European history until the Burning Times – as the witchhunts became known – most villages had a wise woman – a relic of the pre-Christian nature religions, showing that most Europeans, away from the establishment, remained pagan. Some women held a degree of authority in their villages, which was undoubtedly contrary to the Christian hierarchy. The persecutions can here be seen as political, with the Church determined to stamp out any form of belief contrary to Christianity.
As the Church turned the villagers against the wise women, persecutions would become inevitable. The idea that witches could cast spells would have led the villagers to blame her for any local natural disaster such as a bad harvest or a prominent citizen becoming ill.
As such, we can see the need to scapegoat as endemic in Medieval society, the Hammer of Witches simply validating an impulse that was already present, turning the persecutions into a national pursuit rather than simply local.
The form of persecution itself fuelled the practice. The vast majority of the accused confessed to witchcraft. One explanation for this is that they WERE witches. But the more probable explanation was that the severe torture produced the confession in order for it to stop.
As Jesuit Father Friedrich Spee advised in his Precautions For Persecutors, 1631, all that was required to find witches was torture, for even if applied to Jesuits, confession would automatically follow.
The fact that, often, a confessed witch was strangled before burning rather than being burned alive – the fate of those who didnt confess – would also be instrumental in the confession.
Torture tended to be eased if the accused named accomplices. Sometimes such namings even led to a pardon. As such, the accused would give the names of all they were associated with, whether innocent or guilty.
Many gave names of dozens more witches, causing mass witch trials, sometimes convicting thousands of witches in the space of a couple of years. This process gave the people the impression that witchcraft was rampant, further fuelling the need to burn more and more.
Such a process can best be identified in the Salem witch trials in New England, USA, beginning in 1692. Beginning with a number of children going hysterical after hearing Voodoo tales by the slave, Tituba, the girls went on to name people they didnt like as witches. Taken into custody, these people accused others to save themselves, and before the madness was stopped, hundreds had been arrested and nineteen executed.
The Salem witch trials are a perfect and well documented vehicle for showing how society can seem to self destruct into superstition and hysteria. And sometimes the process was sparked off by that frail human emotion, jealousy. For in a time when people believed so much in dark powers, it was easy for a person to implicate an enemy in demonic practices. A word here, a word there, and the local population would do the rest.
One such case that lucky backfired was that of Edmund Robinson in 1632. Feeling malice towards his neighbours and wanting power over them, he taught his eleven year old son to start telling a story of finding two dogs in a field which refused to hunt a hare for him. Tying them to a bush he began to whip them, whereupon they turned into an old crone and her imp.
The local population believed the youth and Robinson said that his son could detect a witch at a glance. Taking the boy around the local churches, he identified 17 witches who were then tried and found guilty of witchcraft. However, a sceptical judge took the condemned to London where they were examined by one of Charles Is physicians.
Finding no evidence of black arts, the Robinson boy was summoned and questioned.
He broke down and admitted the fraud. The accused were pardoned. It is not known what happened to Robinson.
The British King James I was perhaps the last monarch to fuel the witchhunts, writing a famous Daemonologie attacking witches. For following him the idea began to circulate that witchcraft was simple superstition.
And perhaps, above all other reasons, this idea hit the nail on the head. For the simple fact is that to the people of the time the Devil, and all the malevolent forces he could invoke, were real. And the village wise woman, whether real or imagined, was tarred by this same despicable brush.
© Anthony North, July 2007