Witch trial

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Template:MergeDisputed Template:Message box The term witch trial generally refers a legal action taken during 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 loss of 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, with more accused. Witch trials were more common in Germany, England, Scotland, France, and Italy; the phenomenon was far less pronounced in Scandinavia, Ireland, and Spain. The Salem witch trials of 1692 are the most famous example in colonial America, but not the only example. For more about the attempts to find witches, see witch-hunt.



Both civil and ecclesiastical authorities participated in witch trials. Trials occurred in Roman Catholic and Protestant countries. Catholic countries prosecuted witchcraft as a heresy, whereas Protestant countries considered it a violent crime; both viewed malicious witchcraft as necessarily involving the aid of Satan or demons.

Earlier Witchcraft Trials

A thousand years before the great period of witch trials began during the Renaissance, the neo-Platonic philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria was set upon by a Christian mob in Alexandria as 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 examining just what those practices were, in Hypatia's case. An early source for her story, John of Nikiû, 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, including 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 into one "crime", during the 15th century the witch trials revived in earnest, causing thousands of deaths. There had been sporadic cases before, but they do not count as true witch trials or persecutions (previous persecutions against heretics are not related with witch trials).

It should be noted 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.

The "female nature" of Witchcraft

Template:Wikify Women were the most socially active member in most households. They were responsible for the sale of excess household production, the care of the health of the family, and for the purchasing of provisions from the village. The nature of this arrangement required that women be shrewd and businesslike. This forced them into an already dangerous position for women, as it required them to risk offending or injuring the pride of fellow villagers on a regular basis through the course of business. Even if they were accused or suspected of witchcraft, this did not always mean that a trial would be made. It would require that the woman become very focused and dedicated to build up serious defences in case she was called to trial.

The ways that women defended themselves were very similar to the ways an older woman today would do so. Women were generally attacked when they were without a husband to defend them, or unwilling to defend them. Also, the woman’s children might be called upon to testify in their mother's defence. This left step mothers and barren women at a great disadvantage. Family was a difficult defence to maintain or present in court, as most women married outside of their villages, making close family contact and repertoire difficult to maintain.

The reasons why women were attacked in such a historically visible way is mainly due to the image of the witch, and the pre-existing gender differences that were already present in society at this time. While men were regularly accused, the reasons why women were accused seem to be more methodical and intentional, and therefore seek our interest.

What Witchcraft was to the Church

The church construed witchcraft broadly, including in it divination, Paganism, Witch Medicine practiced by people who were not physicians, Alchemy, Satanism, Demonolatry, Atheism, blasphemy (against Christian beliefs), Protestantism (in Catholic countries), Catholicism (in Protestant countries), homosexuality and all type of sexual liberalism (allegedly induced by demons).

The Arrest

Often a mere suspicion or denouncement was sufficient grounds for arresting a person and investigating him or her as a witch. 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, at a time when infant mortality was high, of having killed children to offer them to the Devil. Single mothers were 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. A 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 practiced witchcraft. Peter Binsfeld contributed to the establishment of 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 (and sometimes enclose the person in a bag) and throw him or her into a river or pool. It was held that if the person managed to float, this was due to the Devil's help. Such a person was thus found guilty of witchcraft. If the person could not float then he or she was considered innocent, but this acquittal came too late because the accused had by then drowned. In England the person that could float was often considered innocent.

Another test consisted in putting a blessed ring into 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 sign of burning was found, the person was considered innocent.

There were other tests, all of which, like those mentioned above, made it nearly impossible for the accused to demonstrate his or her innocence, except perhaps by being killed.

In most cases the tribunals did not accord the accused a right to legal representation, and if someone offered his services as such he was often accused too, "because only a warlock could defend a witch or another warlock".

Interrogations 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 Interrogations

Interrogations were considered essential for learning how witchcraft was practised and how the demons acted, but the questions were pre-determined. Some of the questions were as follows:

  • Why did you become a witch, since when, and how?
  • What have you done as a witch?
  • What was the name of your master demon?
  • What type of oath did you make to him and how?
  • Who was your incubus (succubus in case of men)?
  • How is the phallus of your incubus (or the vagina of your succubus)?
  • How is the Devil's phallus?
  • How is the sperm of the demons?
  • What type of sexual practices did you have with demons?
  • Who else was present at the Sabbaths you attended?
  • What did you eat there?
  • How was the dance during the Sabbath?
  • How were the ceremonies celebrated there?
  • What harms have you caused to people and/or animals?
  • Which herbs have you used to do that? What other elements?
  • Do you change your shape into that of an animal?
  • Why the Devil knocks at your door by night?
  • What do you do to fly?
  • Who are your accomplices?

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 a person could accomplish this only with the aid of the Devil, so the accused was considered guilty anyway. In any case, there were very few people who could resist the severe torments used by the tribunals.

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 death (as the Bible states "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live"), 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 in prison consisted of a public humiliation accepting all accusations, the mockery 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 possibility of any type of cleanliness (cleanliness of the body was thought to please demons), and generally little or no 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 while still alive. In England it was common to hang the person first and then burn the corpse, a practice adopted sometimes in other countries (in many cases the hanging was replaced by strangling). Drowning was sometimes used as a means of execution. England was also the only country in which the accused had the right to appeal the sentence.

If the condemned was pregnant her belly was opened 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 was killed.

Other sentence consisted of opening the belly of the person, extracting his/her intestines, and letting him die (this was often practised on men).

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 from patriarchal Judaism. Apostle Paul of Tarsus was influential 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 number 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 account 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 emerging as the most widely-accepted figure among academics.

Some Related Quotes

  • "Witchcraft is an art serving for the working of wonders, by the assistance of the devil, so far as God shall permit." -Sir Robert Filmer, 1653
  • "A belief that there are such things as witches is so essential a part of the Catholic faith that obstinately to maintain the opposite opinion savours of heresy." -Jakob Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer, Malleus Maleficarum, c1486
  • "I suffered terrible agony ... I said to Dr. Braun, 'God forgive you for thus misusing an innocent and honorable man.' ... When at last the executioner led me back to the cell, he said to me, 'Sir, I beg you, for God's sake, confess something, whether it be true or not.'" -Johannes Junius, letter from prison, 1628
  • "One can but exclaim, O Christian religion, how long shalt thou be vexed with this direst of superstitions? and cry aloud, O Christian commonwealth, how long in thee shall the life of the innocent be imperilled?" -Anonymous Catholic confessor, 1592

Protest against witch trials

There have been comtemporary protesters against witch trials and against use of torture.

See also

External Links


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