The term "witch trials" generally refers to a period in European history from around 1450 to the mid-18th century, during which it was common for accusations of malicious, harmful, and Satanic witchcraft to be taken seriously, often resulting in the destroyed reputation, imprisonment, torture, and execution of the accused in Europe and to a lesser extent the European colonies. Serious estimates of the numbers of people executed for witchcraft during this period range from forty thousand to one million; some authors have suggested up to nine million executions were performed. Witch trials were especially common in Germany, England, Scotland, France, and Italy; the phenomenon was far less pronounced in Scandinavia, Ireland, and Spain.

The later witch trials were not only performed by the Apostolic Roman Catholic church. After the Protestant Reformation non-Catholic Christian countries continued with the witch hunting and these processes. There were little differences in the customs of Anglican, Lutheran, Puritan, Catholic and other tribunals; although Catholic countries prosecuted witchcraft as a heresy, whereas Protestant countries considered it a violent crime, both invariably viewed malicious witchcraft as necessarily involving the aid of Satan or demons.

The countries that followed the Orthodox rite of the Catholic church were reluctant to accept the Inquisition. In some of these countries it was only accepted to combat the "heretic" movements that arose during the end of the Old Age and the first half of the Middle Age (i.e. the Bogomils). Besides, most of these countries soon were conquered by the Turks and became a part of the Ottoman Empire for centuries.

Table of contents
1 Historical Background
2 What was Witchcraft to the Church
3 The Arrest
4 The Process
5 The Interrogatories
6 The Sentence
7 Attitude of the Tribunals Towards Women
8 Number of executions
9 Some Related Quotes

Historical Background

A thousand years before Joan of Arc was burned at the stake for witchcraft, the neo-Platonic philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria was set upon by a Christian mob in Alexandria for a 'witch'— the first notable 'witch' put to death by Christians.

Although practices that the Christian church demonized as 'witchcraft' had been known since early times, it is worth seeing just what those practices were, in Hypatia's case. An early source for her story, John of Nikiu, portrays Hypatia as a witch:

"And in those days there appeared in Alexandria a female philosopher, a pagan named Hypatia, and she was devoted at all times to magic, astrolabes and instruments of music."

In the decade of the 390s, when all the oracles were silenced, and the sacred oak at Dodona, many priestesses of the oracles were slain, as chroniclers report with satisfaction. Once the old religions had been securely repressed, however, witchcraft concerns ebbed in the Christian imagination.

Once heresy and witchcraft were merged in one "crime", during the 13th century (the Inquisition had been created specifically to combat the Catharist heresy), the witch trials revived in earnest, causing thousands of deaths. There were some sporadic cases before, but they do not count as true witch trials or persecutions (previous persecutions against heretics are not related with witch trials).

As a note, it must be said that, according to Roman Law, now Civil Law (based on the rights of people) all persons are considered innocent until the contrary is proved, but according to Canon Law (based on the "sinful" nature of people) all persons are considered guilty until their innocence is proved.

What was Witchcraft to the Church

To the church not only witchcraft was considered as such, but also divination, Paganism, "witch medicine" practised by people who were not physicians, Alchemy, Satanism, Demonolatry, Atheism, blasphemy (against Christian beliefs, of course), Protestantism (in Catholic countries), Catholicism (in Protestant countries), homosexuality and all type of sexual liberalism (allegedly induced by demons), and many other things that today could make laugh rational people (i.e. if a farmer had an abundant harvest that was more than what considered common, it could be said that a demon or familiar had helped him/her).

The Arrest

To arrest a person to investigate him/her often a mere suspicion or denouncement was enough. Ecclesiastical authorities encouraged denouncements, and there were special places in some churches to put a paper with the name of a person suspected of practising witchcraft. Many midwives were accused due to the infantile mortality of that period, saying that they had killed the children to offer them to the Devil; something similar happened to single mothers, often accused of having been impregnated by demons (incubi). The fact of having a relative or friend accused was cause of suspicion and arrest.

The Process

After the arrest the person was submitted to torment. The voluntary confession was not accepted as valid, because it was believed by the church that the only form to oblige the Devil (supposedly governing the heretic or witch) to say the truth was by means of torture; if torment was not used, then there was not valid cause to pass sentence. There were uncountable torments used on these people.

Besides torture, there were some "proofs" taken as valid to establish that a person practised witchcraft. Peter Binsfeld contributed to establish many of these proofs, described in his book Commentarius de Maleficius (Comments on Witchcraft).

  • The diabolical mark
  • Diabolical pact
  • Denouncement by another witch
  • Relationship with other witch/witches known as such by people
  • Blasphemy
  • Participation in Sabbaths
  • To cause harm that only by means of sorcery could be done
  • Possession of elements necessary for the practice of black magic
  • To have one or more witches in the family
  • To be afraid during the interrogatories
  • Not to cry under torment (supposedly by means of the Devil's aid)
  • To have had sexual relationships with a demon

There were also some tests performed on the accused persons.

One of the common tests was to tie the hands and feet of the person (sometimes introduce him/her into a bag) and throw him/her into the water of a river or pool; it was considered that if the person could be afloat was due to the Devil's help and was found guilty, and so must be condemned; if the person could not be afloat then was considered innocent, but too late because the consequence was the drowning of him/her; in England the person that could be afloat was often considered innocent.

Other test consisted in putting a blessed ring in a pot with boiling water, where the accused had to introduce the hand to extract it. The hand was bandaged and in three days the bandage opened. If no signal of burning was find, the person was considered innocent.

There were other tests, all of them almost impossible to demonstrate the innocence of the accused, as it were the above-mentioned.

As a demonstration of the concern the tribunals had for the accused persons, in most cases they had not the right to have a defender, and if someone offered his services as a such he was often accused too, "because only a warlock could defend a witch or another warlock".

Interrogatories were an important part of the process. As a peculiarity, in England the accuser had to give proofs of the guiltiness of the witch (although these proofs were relatively conceived by the accuser's imagination and generally taken as valid). In Scotland the accused person had the right to a defender.

The Interrogatories

Interrogatories were considered essential to know how witchcraft was practised and how were and acted the demons, but the questions were pre-determined. Some of the questions were as follows:

And so on. The authors of the Malleus Maleficarum seemed to have been particularly interested on the demons' genitalia and the type of sexual relationships they could have with humans.

The Sentence

Sometimes, if the accused could tolerate all torments without confessing, that person was considered innocent. But other tribunals considered that only with the help of the Devil a person could do that and then was considered guilty. So, if the accused confessed, was guilty; if not, many times was also considered guilty; in this way most people was sentenced. Anyhow, there were very few people that could resist the torments used by the tribunals (because there were several, only one was not considered enough).

The confessions (true or invented to avoid more tortures) and the proofs above-mentioned were taken as valid to pass sentence. Often, only the confession or one of the proofs was sufficient.

The sentence generally was to death, but in the worst case, to life prison. There were other sentences, the most common to be chained for years to the oars of a ship, and excommunication.

The sentence to life prison consisted in a public humiliation accepting all accusations, the mocks of the public, a procession exposing the person across the town, and then imprisonment in the most inhuman conditions, with insufficient food and water, no possibilities of any type of cleanness (cleanness of the body was thought to please demons) and generally without little or any light.

The sentence to death was as inhuman as the other, but lasted only for a moment.

The most common death sentence was to be burnt at the stake (alive). In England it was common to hang first the person and then burn the corpse, use adopted sometimes in other countries (in many opportunities the hanging was substituted by strangling). England was also the only country in which the accused had the right to appeal the sentence.

If the witch was pregnant her belly was open with a knife, the foetus extracted and trod under foot (because "it was the offspring of a demon with the woman, or consecrated to the Devil by the witch"), and then she killed.

Other sentence consisted in opening the belly of the person, extract his/her intestines, and let him die (this was often practised to men).

These were the most usual death sentences.

Attitude of the Tribunals Towards Women

The attitude of the tribunals towards women was in general intolerant in a patriarchal society based on a patriarchal religion that even depicted its god as an old man (the image of a patriarch), with a divine son, and surrounded by male angels. Since early times Christianity has considered women inferior to men, partly due to the inheritance pr patriarchal Judaism. Apostle Paul of Tarsus was influent in those conceptions.

The Malleus Maleficarum, handbook of the Inquisition, played a special role on this, citing the Bible, in which a woman induced a man to commit the first sin after she committed it, John Chrysostom, who told that it was preferable to remain single than living with a woman, Cicero, who said that women lead men to all sins, Seneca, who said that when a woman thinks by herself does it wrongly, etc. Another argument mentioned in the Malleus Maleficarum is that the woman is imperfect because she was created from the rib of a man, and because of that women are always liars.

Number of executions

As mentioned earlier, estimates of the amount of men, women, and children executed for participating in witchcraft vary wildly depending on the method used to generate the estimate. The total number of witch trials in Europe which are known to have ended in executions is around 12,000.

Brian Levack (author of The Witch Hunt in Early Modern Europe) took the number of known European witch trials and multiplied it by the average rate of conviction and execution. This provided him with a figure of around 60,000 deaths.

Anne Lewellyn Barstow (author of Witchcraze) attempted to adjust Levack's estimate to accommodate for lost records, arriving at a number of approximately 100,000 deaths.

Ronald Hutton (author of Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles and Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft), in his unpublished essay "Counting the Witch Hunt", counted local estimates, and in areas where estimates were unavailable attempted to extrapolate from nearby regions with similar demographics and attitudes towards witch hunting. He reached an estimate of 40,000 total executions, which appears to be becoming the most widely-accepted figure amongst academics.

Some Related Quotes