Witch-Hunting Inquisitorial Courts and Belief in Spirits or Magic

R. E. Hemphill

R. E. Hemphill

The invention and propagation of the witchcraft delusion extended for over two centuries. It involved persons in every rank of society and did incalculable harm to the progress of science, medicine, culture and humanity. Thousands of mental patients were sacrificed, and probably every manifestation of witchcraft can be explained by psychological mechanisms, mental illness, or the action of deliriant drugs.

Sorcery is “an attempt to control nature, and to produce good or evil results, generally by the aid of evil spirits” (Robbins 1959). Closely allied to magic, it has existed in every culture, race and religion from the dawn of society.

Sorcery was punishable by death in the secular and ecclesiastical courts in Europe from early times. It is to be distinguished from witchcraft proper (historical) in which a contract between the witch and the Devil was implied. Witchcraft, therefore, was a heresy and was punished as such from the middle of the fifteenth-century.

During the twelfth- and thirteenth-centuries, popes with their state police and great secular powers established ecclesiastical courts for the detection and eradication of heresy. Heresy, one of the greatest of crimes, was holding views or performing acts contrary to the teaching of the Church. The heretic would not only contaminate others by leading them away from the Church, but by dying unrepentant would spend eternity in hellfire. Thus in the spiritual interest of heretics the Inquisition sought to obtain a confession, conviction and repentance; this was achieved by torture. The heretics were “relaxed”, i.e. handed over to the civil authorities for punishment. Those who confessed were graciously strangled before being burned, and the unrepentant were burned alive in public. Few accused heretics are known to have been acquitted.

The legal procedure was unusual. Prisoners were arrested on suspicion or denounced, and were deemed guilty until they could prove the reverse. They were allowed neither witnesses nor defending counsel, for these would be regarded as supporting heresy, and would themselves risk being charged as heresy lovers or later as witch lovers. Church witnesses were permitted to be anonymous. The inquisitors would plead with the prisoner, trying to get him to confess and see the error of his ways for the benefit of his soul.

In theory, the Inquisition was intended to establish the truth and correct spiritual mistakes, so that the notion of defending counsel is out of place. With this procedure, tens of thousands of so-called heretics were burned. The last sentence passed by the Inquisition was in Spain in 1808.

Christians of the medieval world believed that good and bad spirits could assume the shapes of living creatures and that the devil was a physical reality who had been given limited powers by God to bring about happenings in the material world and to possess, if he could, the souls of men. With the evidence that the Bible provided (e.g. Witch of Endor, 1 Sam. xxviii.7), no educated Christian could doubt that demons and witches existed or that the holy writ stated that a witch should not be permitted to live (Exodus xxii. 18).

Life was short, infant mortality high, plagues and epidemics decimated the population, chronic illnesses, notably intestinal infections, were accepted as normal, therapeutic medicine was ineffective, Christians were terrified of being condemned after death to torture and the fire of hell for eternity, from which only the Church could ensure salvation. On the deathbed a demon might snatch the soul; thus the fears of heresy and of the power of the Devil were more potent than that of death itself.

However, in the fifteenth-century, as these superstitions were increasingly challenged by the scepticism and scientific thinking of the Renaissance, the Church, seeking to extend the powers and scope of the Inquisition, designated witchcraft as a heresy. Following Saint Thomas Aquinas (1227-1274) the official instruction of the Church was that acts of witches were illusions or fantasies originating in dreams and that it was heresy to believe in the actuality of witchcraft.

In 1489, Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger published the ‘Malleus Maleficarum’. This great textbook defined witchcraft and codified the actions to be taken against witchcraft as heresy. Pope Innocent VIII recognized the book, and in a Bull established witchcraft as the most extreme form of heresy. He was one of the most corrupt of Popes. He died in 1492, and in his struggle to survive and be rejuvenated it is said that he was suckled by a woman and that three boys were sacrificed in an attempt at blood transfusion, no doubt one of the earliest attempts recorded. His Bull established the witchcraft delusion and the era of historical witchcraft.

The Reformation did not question the validity of witchcraft, and with it, witch trials were promoted with even greater severity by Calvinist, Lutheran and other reform governments. The prosecution of witchcraft was taken over by the secular courts. The German Rhineland and Swiss states, particularly the great centres of cultures such as Bonn, Strasbourg, Bamberg and Treves, exceeded all others in savagery. Scotland was close behind, with at least 4,400 executions by fire. One hundred thousand witches were burned in Germany; from 1615 to 1653 five thousand were burned in Strasbourg alone. In seven years two villages near Treves were burned out, and in another village, only two women remained alive. Bamberg was named the Shrine of Horror, and a traveller through Switzerland and the Rhineland in the seventeenth-century described the forests of burned stakes on the outskirts of the towns. One Prince Archbishop boasted of having himself condemned nine hundred persons.

England was relatively moderate. Trials were common chiefly in the counties where Calvinist refugees from the Continent had settled. Probably less than 1,000 persons were executed altogether. In 1727, however, in Scotland, a woman was burned for “having used her daughter as a flying horse”.

The first witch trial in Ireland was that of the Lady Alice Kyteler, charged with sorcery, and not more than seven others up to 1711 have been recorded. But the last killing for witchcraft in Europe was the burning of a so-called witch by her relatives near Clonmel in County Tipperary in March 1894. The culprits were found guilty of manslaughter.

The last execution for witchcraft took place in Germany in 1775.

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