Persecutions of Witches


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    Loath they are to confess without torture, which witnesseth their guiltiness.
    King James I of England (VI of Scotland), Daemonologie, 1597


    To the extent that they existed at all, the so-called witches of the Middle Ages were probably adherents of old religions. The rites of Dionysus for example are reminiscent of the rites of supposed witches. These rites took place at night, generally in locations associated with fertility or the powers of the underworld. Worshippers were mainly women, who bore torches and carried phallic images. Dionysus himself was shaggy and horned, and represented by a goat, an animal symbolising fertility. Rites included the drinking of wine, ecstatic dancing and animal sacrifice.

    Mediterranean gods were dragooned by Christianity at an early stage into the armies of Satan. Later the gods of the Celts and the Teutons were also pressed into the ranks of Satan's hordes, so that those who worshipped them could be condemned as Devil worshippers as well. Church leaders promoted the persecution of such people, claiming that they were powerful malignant agents of Satan. The idea did not really stand up to reason. As Gibbon noted of those who affirmed the reality of witchcraft:

    They believed with the wildest inconsistency, that this preternatural dominion of the air, of earth, and of hell was exercised, from the vilest motives of malice or gain, by some wrinkled hags and itinerant sorcerers who passed their obscure lives in penury and contempt

    Countless thousands of people whose only crime was to reject Christianity were judicially killed in Europe over the course of several hundred years. They owed their untimely deaths to men like Pope Gregory IX, who explicitly authorised the killing of witches in the thirteenth century. In Germany a priest called Conrad discovered that torture could elicit the most astonishing confessions. The more he tortured people, the more astonishing the confessions they were prepared to make. They could be induced to implicate others, and when in turn the people who had been implicated were tortured they confessed as well. The obvious fact that almost anyone can be induced to confess to almost anything under torture does not seem to have impinged upon Conrad's godly mind. His only explanation was that witchcraft was rampant, and Christendom was in danger.

    Pope Innocent VIII perceived the threat. His "witches" bull Summis desiderantes affectibus, of 5 th December 1484, called for action of the utmost severity against witches. He wrote that witches were hindering men from performing the sexual act and women from conceiving. In these and in other ways devils were interfering with peoples" sex lives. (The powers of evil seem never to have lost a chance to involve innocent Christians in sexual matters.) To help with his struggle against the powers of evil His Holiness commissioned two Dominican inquisitors in northern Germany to write the book Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches). This book reinforced the fiction that women who worshipped the goddess Diana were actually agents of the Devil, providing a reason to extirpate the last vestiges of rival gods. According to the authors "…although these women imagine they are riding (as they think and say) with Diana or Herodias, in truth they are riding with the devil, who calls himself by some such heathen name.... ".

    Malleus Maleficarum is an inquisitors" handbook, giving practical instructions for the discovery, examination, torture, trial and execution of witches. It was furnished to inquisitors and judges throughout Western Christendom, from its publication in 1486. It was one of the earliest books to be printed, and by 1520 had already been reprinted fourteen times. It is full of sexual fantasy: witches flying through the air to meet the Devil and copulate with him; dismembered human sex organs living like chicks in birds" nests ; demons copulating with men, then changing gender to copulate with sleeping women, and impregnating them with human sperm illicitly acquired from their earlier male partners. The book was used to condemn untold thousands to torture and death. According to the authors, witchcraft was both heresy and high treason against God's majesty, and so:

    Any person, whatever his rank or position, upon such an accusation may be put to the torture, and he who is found guilty, even if he confess his crime, let him be racked, let him suffer all other tortures prescribed by law in order that he may be punished in proportion to his offences.

    In the Christian imagination penises grew on trees (so it was only a short step to imagine then in a bird's nest). This image is from a 14th-century copy of the Roman of the Rose.

    Penises growing on a tree.

    Legal technicalities could easily be accommodated. Roman law had prescribed burning alive for sorcerers, so this could easily be extended to witches, either by redefining the words "sorcerer" and "witch", or by extracting confessions of sorcery through torture. Confessions were guaranteed by the use of torture, and these confessions confirmed the reality of witchcraft. The reality of witchcraft promoted terror of witches. Terror generated accusations. Accusations called for torture. And torture produced confessions and yet more accusations. It was a vicious circle, a huge terrible wheel powered by the authority of the Church. The questions asked were not whether offences had been committed, but where and when the offences had been committed, and who else had been involved. Guilt was assumed. It was merely the details that needed filling in.

    In 1524 alone, more than 1,000 people were convicted and burned in the district of Como. Between 1587 and 1593 the Archbishop of Trier (Johann von Schönburg) had 368 witches burned. Between 1623 and 1631 the Bishop of Würzburg (Philip Adolf von Ehrenberg) burned more than 900, many of them children. A witch-burning count as high as 900 was not unusual for a top inquisitor. Some inquisitors lost count. The Bishop of Bamberg (Johann Georg II) had a famous witch-house built, complete with cells and torture chambers. It contained common instruments of torture: thumbscrews, leg vices, whipping stocks fitted with iron spikes, scalding lime-baths, racks, strappados and other devices. Weights were sometimes attached to the victim's feet or testicles to make the pain unbearable. In the ten years to 1633 the bishop burned more than 600 people. Johannes Junius was one of the victims at Bamberg. He bribed a gaoler to smuggle out to his daughter a letter dated 24 th July 1624:

    …and then came also — God in highest heaven have mercy — the executioner, and put the thumb-screws on me, both hands bound together, so that the blood ran out at the nails and everywhere, so that for four weeks I could not use my hands, as you can see from the writing.... Thereafter they first stripped me, bound my hands behind me, and drew me up in the [strappado]. Then I thought heaven and earth were at an end; eight times did they draw me up and let me fall again, so that I suffered terrible agony…And so I made my confession…but it was all a lie…Then I had to tell what crimes I had committed…So I said that I was to kill my children, but I had killed a horse instead. It did not help. I had also taken a sacred wafer, and had desecrated it. When I had said this they left me in peace…Good night, for your father Johannes Junius will never see you more.

    To deny that witches existed was "plainly heretical". No one could point out that the inquisitors were propounding nonsense and expect to live. Roger Bacon had attributed witchcraft and sorcery to either fraud or delusion, but Bacon was himself condemned as a heretic. Spanish inquisitors also seem to have attributed witchcraft to madness and delusions, and so left the secular authorities to deal with it, perhaps because they had other fish to fry - Jews and Moslems. Throughout Western Christendom witches were burned by the Church or hanged by the State. The prevailing view was that God himself would intervene to save anyone falsely accused, but God consistently failed to live up to expectations.

    Friedrich von Spee saw the process at close quarters as confessor at Würzburg. He mused that the authors of Malleus Maleficarum were themselves responsible for introducing witches to Germany through their "ingenious and subtly apportioned tortures". Although von Spee found only innocence among the victims, and acknowledged that anyone would confess under torture, he nevertheless continued to see them burned at the stake without protest. He published an exposé, Cautio Criminalis, in 1631 and had the good fortune to die of the plague before the Inquisition could get to him. In his book he exposed the techniques used and enumerated the abuses. As he pointed out, the inquisitors" arguments could never fail. If the witch had led an evil life she was obviously guilty, but if she had led a good life this was equally damning, since witches were known to deceive by appearing especially virtuous. When she was put in prison a similar double-edged argument was applied. If she showed fear when she heard others being tortured, she was obviously guilty. If she did not then this too was proof of guilt, since witches were known to mimic the innocent and present a bold facade. Anyone who gave assistance to the accused or protested about the procedure was labelled a supporter of witchcraft so that everyone kept silent for fear of the consequences. During the trial itself, the replies given by the victim were not even recorded, so that even if she had a perfect defence it could be ignored. The torture came in two stages, only the second of which was referred to as torture. If the victim confessed during the first stage she was therefore said to have confessed without being tortured. If she grimaced while being tortured the torturers said she was laughing. If she passed out they said that she was asleep or bewitched. If she died under torture, they said that the Devil had broken her neck. There was no way out. Confessing led to death. Refusing to confess also led to death.

    Although torture was almost always enough to obtain a confession, Christian authorities were also given to forging evidence when torture failed. Priests were usually spared the sort of treatment meted out to others, but when it suited the Church authorities even priests could fall victim. Urbain Grandier, a French priest accused of witchcraft at Loudan, was acquitted at his first trial but at a second trial the prosecuters appointed by Cardinal Richlieu produced two pacts signed by Grandier and Satan himself, and sealed by a number of demons - Lucifer, Beelzebub, Astori, Elimi, and Laviathan were all implicated. Grandier was found guilty and sentenced to death. The judges who condemned him ordered that he be put to the "extraordinary question", a form of torture which was usually, but not immediately, fatal, and was therefore generally administered to victims shortly before execution. Grandier never confessed to witchcraft, even under torture, but was found guilty on the strength of the forgeries and burned alive at the stake in 1634.

    Almost any activity could count as witchcraft, if the perpetrator was unpopular or an outsider. Old women were burned alive for keeping pets.

    Every old woman with a wrinkled face, a furrowed brow, a hairy lip, a gobber tooth, a squint eye, a squeaking voice or scolding tongue .... and a dog or cat by her side, is not only suspected but pronounced a witch.
    John Gaule, Select Cases of Conscience Touching Witches and Witchcraft , 1646

    Young boys were burned alive for reciting doggerel that was reputed to have the power to raise the Devil. To deny the efficacy of witchcraft, or even to be seen to be less than zealous in their detection and punishment invited danger. Johann Weyer (c.1515-1588), in his book on magic, De Praestigiis Daemonum, had argued that cases of witchcraft had natural explanations and that self-confessed (genuinely self-confessed) witches were merely suffering from mental disorders. He was himself charged with witchcraft. Dietrich Flade, a secular judge at Trier, was insufficiently enthusiastic as a witch-hunter for the tastes of his local bishop. When he tried to control the local witch mania, he was himself charged with witchcraft. Various people were induced to perjure themselves, including a woman who was herself already condemned to be burned alive (her inducement was that she should be strangled before being burned). Flade's fate was sealed. He confessed under torture that he had turned mud into living slugs to damage local crops, and was executed at Trier in 1589.

    There was no question of anything approaching a fair trial. All elements of natural justice were abandoned. The accused was regarded as guilty from the outset, being referred to as the witch or wizard rather than the accused. By statute the accused were not permitted to know the identity of their accusers (Malleus Maleficarum III, q 2 ). Hearsay evidence was accepted by the court (III, q 6 ). The evidence of known perjurers was accepted, as long as they were acting out of zeal for the faith (III, q 4 ). The earlier conviction of other members of the family of the accused, or even suspicions of witchcraft on their part, counted as evidence (III, q 6 ). This led to the persecution of whole families. Eight members of a single family were executed for witchcraft within the space of the eighteen months to June 1630. The accused were stripped, shaved all over, and searched intimately, on the grounds that they might conceal some magical charm "even in the most secret parts of their bodies which must not be named" (III, q 15 , the text here assumes that the accused would be a woman). Torture was to be applied "often and frequently" (III, q 14 ). The accused had no right to legal counsel and if the judge allowed counsel to defend them they could not choose their own (III, q 10 ). If defence counsel was appointed they had no right to see critical evidence (such as the names of witnesses), and they ran the risk of incurring a charge themselves of defending heresy (III, q 10 ).

    Sometimes brute force was supplemented by deceit. The authors advised ploys to elicit what the witch-hunters wanted to hear. They suggested ways of deceiving a woman about the sentence she would get if she confessed. Inquisitors could assure her that they would not condemn her to death if only she would confess (III, q 14 ), but this was a trick, for she would still be killed one way or another. She could be led into believing that she would be given a lesser penance if she implicated others. When she confessed she could be sentenced to life imprisonment on a diet of bread and water, on which she might be able to survive for a few months. Another option was to sentence her to imprisonment for a while before having her burned. A third option was to disclaim the duty of passing sentence and have a deputy sentence her to death instead (III, q 14 ).

    Not all accused were executed for a first offence, but as was the case for other heresies, repetition of the supposed offence virtually guaranteed death. A mere suspicion of inconstancy was sufficient grounds for an ecclesiastical judge to ensure that the suspect was put to death (II, q 6, Ch.16 ). There was no need to record the sentence in writing (III q 18 ). There was no appeal, however badly the accused had been treated (II, q 1, Ch.16 ). Temporal Lords were forbidden to interfere (II, q 1, Ch.16 ), although the civil authorities were obliged to carry out the sentence of the ecclesiastical court (II, q 1, Ch.16 ). Canon law required an ecclesiastical judge to try the case, but a secular one to carry out a sentence of death (III ). Customary indulgences were granted to those who came to watch the death sentence being carried out (III, q 29 ff. ).

    In an anti-Semitic society it was natural that imaginary witches" should adopt Jewish terminology. Thus their meetings, or meeting places, were referred to as synagogues in the twelfth century. Later, they would come to be called sabbats, thus identifying the Jewish holy day with Satan's holy day. Again, in a feudal society it was natural that Satan should adopt feudal practices, and sure enough Satan not only required a written contract from his adherents but also required them to pay homage, like any other vassal to a new feudal Lord.

    Since babies who died before baptism were condemned to Hell, it followed that Satan would have an interest in procuring the deaths of new-born infants. Midwives who delivered a stillborn baby were thus suspect. According to evidence given to the authors of Malleus Maleficarum "No one does the Catholic faith more harm than midwives". It was a rare midwife who never lost a baby, and many paid the price as satanic murderers. Midwives at Cologne were almost extirpated between 1627 and 1630.

    There seems to have been no limit to the credulity of churchmen in their pursuit of Satan's servants. In 1550 a woman was sentenced in Basle to burn as a witch for having kept "a live female gnome". In 1583 at Vienna a 16-year-old girl suffered stomach cramps. Over a period of eight weeks a team of Jesuits succeeded in exorcising 12,652 demons from her body. They discovered that her grandmother had kept these demons in glass jars disguised as flies. Granny confessed under torture. Yes, she was a witch and yes, she had engaged in sex with the Devil. As they watched granny being dragged off to the stake, the Jesuits must have congratulated themselves on another godly job well done. In 1586 the Archbishop of Trèves had 118 women and two men burned for making incantations that lengthened the winter. Old women of 90, young girls of 6, all were agents of the Devil, and all deserved death and damnation.

    The Nightmare, a 1781 oil painting by Henry Fuseli (1741–1825).
    According to theologians, demons would adopt female form to seduce sleeping men and obtain their semen, then adopt male form to seduce sleeping women, and impregnate them with their ill-gotten semen. A demon in female form was a succubus, and in male form was an incubus. St. Augustine in De Civitate Dei ("The City of God") affirmed that there were too many attacks by incubi to deny them. Saint Thomas aquinas also affirmed their existence, as did the Inquisitors' handbook Maleus Maleficarum.
    These demons were also given to sitting on the chests of their sleeping victims, causing nightmares.


    Protestants as well as Catholics were convinced that Satan adopted human form to seduce both men and women. As Luther put it

    The Devil can so completely assume the human form, when he wants to deceive us, that we may well lie with what seems to be a woman, of real flesh and blood, and yet all the while 'tis only the Devil in the shape of a woman. 'Tis the same with women, who may think that a man is in bed with them, yet 'tis only the Devil; and...the result of this connection is oftentimes an imp of darkness, half mortal, half devil....

    A long succession of popes confirmed the existence of witches and their sexual proclivities. In theory at least, heretics were burned only if unrepentant or on a second conviction, but from the fifteenth century this concession was denied to those accused of witchcraft. Despite the dice being so heavily loaded, churchmen frequently found it necessary to fabricate evidence to support their claims. They were implicated for example in fabrications as at Laudun (1630) and Louviers (1647). In France a leading Christian philosopher, Jean Bodin, published an influential work in the late sixteenth century that confirmed the existence of witches. He leant his weight to the belief that those who deny the existence of witchcraft must be witches themselves. No penalty could be too harsh. Even slow burning was insufficient penalty. He confirmed that judges who do not convict witches to the stake should themselves be put to death.

    In Merlin's traditional biography he is a cambion: born of a mortal woman, sired by an incubus, from whom he inherits his supernatural powers and abilities.
    The Conception of Merlin (detail), Histoire de Merlin, France (Poitiers), 1450-1455.
    BNF, Français 96, fol. 62v.jpg

    Roman Catholics were not the only Christians to kill people on charges of witchcraft. Malleus Maleficarum was so respected that it was used by Protestant authorities as well as Roman Catholic ones. It lay on the bench of every judge and magistrate, authoritative and irrefutable. Protestants rivalled Roman Catholics in their zeal as witch-finders. Being accused of heresy himself, Luther was initially opposed to burning heretics, but still argued that witches should be burned, even if they had done no harm to anyone. He himself had four supposed witches roasted at Wittenburg. Calvin was also a keen advocate of killing witches, since "the Bible teaches us that there are witches and that they must be slain".

    Indeed Calvinism excelled all other Protestant sects in its zeal against witchcraft, and witches were systematically hunted wherever Calvinism flourished. Calvin himself was active in proceedings. He personally laid information against sorcerers and in 1545 was involved in actions against people accused of spreading the plague. Some of the men were sentenced to have their flesh torn off with pincers, and women to have their right hands cut off before being burnt at the stake. Calvinists exported witch-hunting to the Puritan American colonies culminating in the famous Salem episode of 1689-93.

    Ann Hibbins (see right) was executed for witchcraft in Boston, Massachusetts, on June 19, 1656. Her execution was the third for witchcraft in Boston and predated the Salem Witch Trials. She was later fictionalized in Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel The Scarlet Letter.

    Salem Witch Trials - One of many cases

    In continental Europe the burning of witches continued well into the eighteenth century. In 1749 a nun came under suspicion at Würzburg. Other nuns testified that they had seen her adopt the form of a pig and climb over the convent walls. In that form she drank the convent's best wine. In the form of a hare she would milk the convent's cows dry, and in the form of a cat she would prowl around the convent annoying the sisters. For these crimes she was burned alive in the local market place.

    Giles Cory refused to plead against charges of witchcraft during the Salem With Trials (so he could not be tried and consequently could not have his proprty sequestered). He was pressed to death in an attempt to force him to plead.

    The Giles Cory Marker on Crystal Lake in Peabody, Massachusetts

    The Giles Cory Marker on Crystal Lake in Peabody, Massachusetts

    For various reasons the use of torture was restricted in certain areas, and in those areas the witch terror never approached the heights of those areas where torture was applied freely. Examples are the Jura, Spain and England. In the Jura the authorities restricted the use of torture, paid little attention to the accusations of children, and required accusations to be made openly. In Spain the Inquisition concentrated on heretics and apostates, and (perhaps surprisingly) generally discouraged witch-hunting. In England, witchcraft was regarded as a civil crime rather than an ecclesiastical one. It was for this reason that convicted witches were hanged rather than burned, as they were on the continent and in Scotland. And it was also for this reason that far fewer people lost their lives in England than in continental Europe, where the Church exercised unrestrained power. Again, when German bishops stopped applying torture so liberally after von Spee's exposé, the incidence of witchcraft there miraculously subsided.

    Even in England prosecutions were heavily one-sided. As on the continent of Europe, the accused were asked loaded questions, for example not whether they had consorted with the Devil, but how they had come to consort with the Devil. The only hope was that the secular judge was an educated rationalist, who might expose the accusers as fraudulent. Standard tests for a witch included the old ordeal by water, now called "swimming", and advocated by James VI of Scotland in his book about witchcraft Demonologie, published in 1597. The theory was that water, as the instrument of baptism, would reject those who had renounced their baptism: the water would reject them, just as they had rejected it. The term swimming is perhaps misleading, since hardly anyone then learned to swim, and in any case the victims had their right thumb tied to their left foot, and their left thumb to their right foot. They were then cast into open water. If they floated they had been rejected by the water on behalf of God, and were thus proved guilty. If they sank then they were innocent, but their innocence was often not apparent until they had drowned. Another method was to weigh the accused against a large bible. Heavy people were pronounced innocent, light ones found guilty.

    Witches were burned in Catholic countries under cannon law, but hanged in England

    Soon after James VI's accession to the English throne in 1604 (as James I of England), the existing English Witchcraft Act was reviewed. Twelve bishops sat on the Committee to which the bill was referred on its second reading in the House of Lords. In the same year, with the bishops" help, the old English Act was replaced by a new British Act introducing into English law continental themes like the diabolical pact and devil worship. The Devil and his followers duly amended their behaviour to conform to expectations, making pacts and organising formal sessions of Devil worship.

    Under the earlier Elizabethan statute, a witch must have been accused of doing harm to deserve death, now anyone accused even of keeping an imp was liable to the death penalty. Imps generally took the form of ordinary animals. A common way of establishing that someone was a witch was to isolate that person in a room. Any animal that came into the room established guilt — anything from a fly to a pet cat. This animal visitor was clearly the witch's familiar, come to suckle. In earlier times people had been able to break a witch's spell by the application of a little counter magic (for example by scratching the suspected witch and drawing blood). Now, the Church disapproved of such techniques, on the grounds that they also depended upon diabolical magic. Now the only acceptable way to break a witch's spell was to kill her — it was usually "her". Instead of receiving a scratch on the face, she was now likely to receive a noose around the neck.

    One authority has estimated that as many as 70,000 people were put to death under the 1604 statute. The new translation of the Bible issued in James's reign, the Authorised Version (also known as the King James Bible) used the word witch more frequently than earlier versions, providing biblical authority for killing people. In 1612, a year after James's new version of the Bible was published, eight people were hanged as witches in Pendle, Lancashire. Their real crimes seem to have been that they were poor and unpopular. They included a mentally subnormal youth and an 80-year-old woman. The story that led to their conviction had been fabricated, and was widely known to have been fabricated, but those responsible for it were never brought to court to answer for their perjury.

    Many ordinary people already doubted the reality of witchcraft, but the Church and the learned professions that it controlled were agreed that it was a reality. As Robert Burton noted in 1621 "Many deny witches at all, or, if there be any, they can do no harm, but on the contrary are most lawyers, divines, physicians, philosophers".

    King James came to doubt the reality of witchcraft. In 1616 nine women were found guilty of witchcraft by Leicestershire Summer Sessions, on the evidence of a 13-year-old boy. All of the women were executed. Afterwards the King himself examined the boy and deduced that his evidence was false. Nine women had been killed for no good reason. A few years later another case, that of William Perry, "The Boy of Bilston" increased James's scepticism. At the Staffordshire Assizes on 26 th July 1621 the boy admitted that he had fabricated accusations of witchcraft. He had been trained by a Roman Catholic priest to simulate the symptoms of being bewitched. This was not an isolated case: as on the continent, a number of Catholic priests had been discovered training children to feign such symptoms either to demonstrate their own powers of exorcism, or else to provide evidence with which to accuse their enemies.

    James now turned detective. He developed rationalist experiments to test the victims of witchcraft. In the light of the evidence obtained, James attributed the workings of devils and witches to falsehoods and delusions, and in the latter part of his reign witch-hunting declined. It would now be the domain of extremists: Puritans on one wing, Papists on the other.

    Puritans were soon in power under Cromwell's Commonwealth, and witch-hunting was underway once again. Torture was illegal in England, but was thought of as purely physical. Witch-finders discovered that sleep deprivation worked just as well as the application of physical pain, and no one considered it to constitute torture. Teams of helpers kept the accused awake continuously for a few days and nights, and thus obtained confessions just as convenient, detailed, incriminating and contrived as continental torturers. This became a favourite technique of Calvinists like Matthew Hopkins, known as England's Witchfinder General, who was responsible for an unknown number of deaths, certainly hundreds, probably thousands. When other techniques failed, witch-hunters like Hopkins were prepared to use fraud to obtain the evidence they required — for example using a specially made blunt needle, which retracted into a wooden handle like a stage dagger when the needle's point was pressed against a part of the body. The needle would leave neither puncture hole nor blood, and neither would the victim feel pain, although innocent onlookers thought they could see the needle sinking into the victim's flesh. England was comparatively restrained, but it was still possible as late as 1716 to hang a little girl, along with her mother, for having sold their souls to the Devil and for having caused their neighbours to vomit pins.

    King James's 1604 Act was replaced by a new one in 1736 , which was directed at those pretending to possess magical powers. But belief in the reality of witchcraft continued in mainstream Christian denominations. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodists in the eighteenth century, was a keen advocate of witch-hunting. He wrote in support of it after even Roman Catholics were starting to be embarrassed by the subject. He saw that denial of witchcraft amounted to denial of the Bible.

    the giving up of witchcraft is, in effect, giving up the Bible
    (John Wesley , Journal, 1768)

    If there were no witches then the Bible was in error. And if the Bible was in error then the whole of Christianity was mistaken. It was therefore necessary to fight against rationalists, who were now in the majority. As an authority on the history of witch beliefs says:

    It is probable that the Methodist movement gave an impetus to mob violence against witches in the latter part of the eighteenth century and helped witch-beliefs to survive so late into the following century…John Wesley himself — almost alone in his day amongst men of his high intellectual and cultural level — repeatedly and emphatically affirmed his belief in the stern reality of witchcraft.

    As a general pattern, prosecutions for witchcraft dried up earliest in areas where the Church's influence was weakest. The last official executions took place in Holland in 1610, in America in 1692, and in Scotland in 1727. In France the last execution took place in 1745, and prosecutions ceased altogether after a series of impostures were exposed. The last official executions took place in Germany in 1775, in Switzerland in 1782, and in Poland in 1793. It is apparently not known when they ceased in areas under Church control like Italy and Spain, but it cannot have been earlier than the nineteenth century.

    The last official executions in England took place in 1716. The judiciary were already sceptical. Proceedings were conducted according to the law, but some judges were clearly unsympathetic to witchcraft prosecutions. When, at her trial in 1712, Jane Wenham was accused of having flown through the air, Mr Justice Powell is reputed to have pointed out that there was no law against flying. Witchcraft was longer being taken seriously in educated circles, and even though the jury convicted Jane Wenham and sentenced her to death, the judge succeeded in getting the sentence repealed. The last witchcraft trial in England took place in 1717.

    Although in most countries witch trials stopped in the eighteenth century, true believers continued to kill imagined witches in remote areas well into the nineteenth century — in Britain as in the rest of Europe. Wales, which seems to have been relatively free from the witch terrors in earlier times, became one of the last strongholds of witch beliefs after the spread of Methodism there. Another stronghold of witch belief was the Southwestern peninsula ( Cornwall, Devon and Somerset), where Methodism was also popular. Legal records in England show the continued popularity of drowning witches in the nineteenth century. The Times reported such a case as late as 24 th September 1863.

    Many Christians still believe in witchcraft and feel that it needs to be held in check. Churches still maintain exorcists to keep up the fight against Satan's army. Some look back with affection to the times when witches could be dealt with properly. At Pendle, where eight people had been hanged as witches in 1612, representatives of many denominations decided in the 1980s that far from needing to feel regret, they still needed to protect themselves from the agents of Satan. They planned to erect a huge cross on Pendle Hill to help keep the forces of darkness in check — but were denied planning permission by the Ribble Valley Borough Council.

    Reverberations of witch-hunting continued into the twentieth century. In England a Mrs Helen Duncan was charged with witchcraft in 1944, under the 1736 Act, and imprisoned. The 1736 Act was repealed in England in 1951, and replaced by the Fraudulent Mediums Act, though Christian bodies were demanding the reintroduction of witchcraft laws as late as 1963. Other countries still have witchcraft statutes in force. In 1986 a Frenchwoman was charged in South Africa for having threatened to turn two policewomen into frogs. The occasional unofficial killing of witches also persisted in Europe into recent times. There was an attempted murder of a poor elderly spinster suspected of witchcraft in Germany as late as 1976.

    Many traditionalist Christian groups still believe in the reality of witches and witchcraft

    Witchcraft is now something of a joke, except to traditionalist Christians. Exactly how many people lost their lives because of Christian teachings about witchcraft is not known. Church records have been mysteriously "lost" — this is one reason why it is impossible to say when the last witch executions took place in particularly religious countries. From surviving civic records it is apparent that hundreds were sometimes killed in a single town on a single day. Taking the whole of Europe, an estimate of 2 million victims is not unrealistic and may be an underestimate.



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    § The strappado was a hoist for lifting the accused into air by his or her arms, which had been tied behind the person's back.

    §. Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Penguin, p 474.

    §. The authors were Heinrich Kramer, later condemned for embezzlement by his own, Dominican, order, and Jakob Sprenger (who later repented of his part in the book).

    §. Kramer and Sprenger, Malleus Maleficarum, Pt I, q1.

    §. George Lincoln Burr (ed.), "The Witch-Persecution at Bamberg", Translations and Reprints from Original Sources of European History, vol. 3 (University of Pennsylvania, 1896), pp 23-8.

    §. Kramer and Sprenger, Malleus Maleficarum, Pt I, q1. The Pope, speaking on behalf of the Church, was quite clear about the reality of witches. As the two authors wrote: "Alas, the judgement of the Apostolic See, who is alone the Mistress and the Teacher of truth, that judgement, I say, which has been expressed in the Bull of our Holy Father the Pope, assures us and makes us aware that these crimes and evils flourish amongst us, and we dare not refrain from inquiring into them lest we imperil our own salvation, Malleus Maleficarum, Pt I, q2.

    §. Friedrich von Spee, Cautio Criminalis, q 23 {EFH p 203}.

    §. Friedrich von Spee, Cautio Criminalis, q 11.

    §. In practice there seems to have been some discretion in this matter, see Malleus Maleficarum, Pt III, q9.

    §. Kramer and Sprenger, Malleus Maleficarum, Pt I, q11.

    §. Uta Ranke-Heinemann, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven, p 204.

    §. Jean Bodin, De la Démonomanie des Sorciers (Paris, 1580). Davies, Four Centuries of Witch-Beliefs, pp 25-28, quotes Bodin's French text from a later edition ( Antwerp, 1593).

    §. Davies, Four Centuries of Witch-Beliefs, pp 6-8.

    §. E. William Monter, Witchcraft in France and Switzerland, Cornell University Press (Ithica and London, 1976), pp 195-6.

    §. The first English statute against witches was passed in 1542 under Henry VIII but was repealed in 1547. The death penalty for witches, enchanters and sorcerers was established in 1563 by a new statute under Elizabeth I.

    §. "An Act against Conjuration, Witchcrafte and dealing with evil and Wicked Spirits", I Jas, c 12, 1604 replacing Elizabeth's statute of 1563.

    §. R. Steele in Social England, ed. H. E. Traill ( London, 1903), vol. 4, p 120, cited by Davies, Four Centuries of Witch Beliefs, p 42.

    §. Robert Burton, Anatomy (1621), I, pp 202-3, cited by Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, p 685.

    §. Davies, Four Centuries of Witch Beliefs, pp 58 and 139.

    §. Davies, Four Centuries of Witch Beliefs, pp 59 and 78-9. See also Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, p 583, citing a number of detailed sources.

    §. Davies, Four Centuries of Witch Beliefs, pp 21 and 77.

    §. Hibbert, The Roots of Evil, p 47, citing W. C. Sydney, England and the English in the Eighteenth Century (1892), i, 281.

    §. Joachim Kahl, The Misery of Christianity (English translation by N. D. Smith).

    §. John Wesley's Journal for the year 1770, (Everyman's Library), vol. 3, pp 411ff.

    §. Davies, Four Centuries of Witch Beliefs, pp 190-1.

    §. Hibbert, The Roots of Evil, p 47, citing W. C. Sydney, England and the English in the Eighteenth Century (1892), i, 285 and 290.

    §. "Bail for Woman on Witch charge", The Times, 22 nd January 1986.

    §. Hans Sebald, Witchcraft: the Heritage of a Heresy (New York, 1978), p 223.

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