The Witch Hunts:
The End of Magic and Miracles
1450-1750 C.E.
by Helen Ellerbe
from The Dark Side of Christian History

The Reformation did not convert the people of Europe to orthodox Christianity through preaching and catechisms alone. It was the 300 year period of witch-hunting from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century, what R.H. Robbins called "the shocking nightmare, the foulest crime and deepest shame of western civilization," that ensured the European abandonment of the belief in magic. The Church created the elaborate concept of devil worship and then, used the persecution of it to wipe out dissent, subordinate the individual to authoritarian control, and openly denigrate women.

The witch hunts were an eruption of orthodox Christianity's vilification of women, "the weaker vessel," in St. Paul's words. The second century St. Clement of Alexandria wrote: "Every woman should be filled with shame by the thought that she is a woman." The Church father Tertullian explained why women deserve their status as despised and inferior human beings:

Others expressed the view more bluntly. The sixth century Christian philosopher, Boethius, wrote in The Consolation of Philosophy, "Woman is a temple built upon a sewer." Bishops at the sixth century Council of Macon voted as to whether women had souls. In the tenth century Odo of Cluny declared, "To embrace a woman is to embrace a sack of manure..." The thirteenth century St. Thomas Aquinas suggested that God had made a mistake in creating woman: "nothing [deficient] or defective should have been produced in the first establishment of things; so woman ought not to have been produced then." And Lutherans at Wittenberg debated whether women were really human beings at all. Orthodox Christians held women responsible for all sin. As the Bible's Apocrypha states, "Of woman came the beginning of sin/ And thanks to her, we all must die."

Women are often understood to be impediments to spirituality in a context where God reigns strictly from heaven and demands a renunciation of physical pleasure. As I Corinthians 7:1 states, "It is a good thing for a man to have nothing to do with a woman." The Inquisitors who wrote the Malleus Maleficarum, "The Hammer of the Witches," explained that women are more likely to become witches than men:

King James I estimated that the ratio of women to men who "succumbed" to witchcraft was twenty to one. Of those formally persecuted for witchcraft, between 80 to 90 percent were women.

Christians found fault with women on all sorts of counts. An historian notes that thirteenth century preachers

According to a Dominican of the same period, woman is "the confusion of man, an insatiable beast, a continuous anxiety, an incessant warfare, a daily ruin, a house of tempest ... a hindrance to devotion."

As reformational fervor spread, the feminine aspect of Christianity in the worship of Mary became suspect. Throughout the Middle Ages, Mary's powers were believed to effectively curtail those of the devil. But Protestants entirely dismissed reverence for Mary while reformed Catholics diminished her importance. Devotion to Mary often became indicative of evil. In the Canary islands, Aldonca de Vargas was reported to the Inquisition after she smiled at hearing mention of the Virgin Mary. Inquisitors distorted an image of the Virgin Mary into a device of torture, covering the front side of a statue of Mary with sharp knives and nails. Levers would move the arms of the statue crushing the victim against the knives and nails.

The witch hunts also demonstrated great fear of female sexuality. The book that served as the manual for understanding and persecuting witchcraft, the Malleus Maleficarum, describes how witches were known to "collect male organs in great numbers, as many as twenty or thirty members together, and put them in a bird's nest..." The manual recounts a story of a man who, having lost his penis, went to a witch to have it restored:

A man in 1621 lamented, "of women's unnatural, unsatiable lust ... what country, what village doth not complain."

While most of what became known as witchcraft was invented by Christians, certain elements of witchcraft did represent an older pagan tradition. Witchcraft was linked and even considered to be synonymous with "divination," which means not only the art of foretelling the future, but also the discovery of knowledge by the aid of supernatural power. It suggests that there is such power available -- something orthodox Christians insisted could only be the power of the devil, for God was no longer to be involved with the physical world.

The word "witch" comes from the old English wicce and wicca, meaning the male and female participants in the ancient pagan tradition which holds masculine, feminine and earthly aspects of God in great reverence. Rather than a God which stood above the world, removed from ordinary life, divinity in the Wiccan tradition was understood to imbue both heaven and earth. This tradition also recalled a period when human society functioned without hierarchy -- either matriarchal or patriarchal -- and without gender, racial or strict class rankings. It was a tradition that affirmed the potential for humanity to live without domination and fear, something orthodox Christians maintain is impossible.

The early Church had tried to eradicate the vestiges of this older non-hierarchical tradition by denying the existence of witches or magic outside of the Church. The Canon Episcopi, a Church law which first appeared in 906, decreed that belief in witchcraft was heretical. After describing pagan rituals which involved women demonstrating extraordinary powers, it declared:

Nevertheless, the belief in magic was still so prevalent in the fourteenth century that the Council of Chartres ordered anathema to be pronounced against sorcerers each Sunday in every church.

It took the Church a long time to persuade society that women were inclined toward evil witchcraft and devil-worship. Reversing its policy of denying the existence of witches, in the thirteenth century the Church began depicting the witch as a slave of the devil. No longer was she or he to be associated with an older pagan tradition. No longer was the witch to be thought of as benevolent healer, teacher, wise woman, or one who accessed divine power. She was now to be an evil satanic agent. The Church began authorizing frightening portrayals of the devil in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Images of a witch riding a broom first appeared in 1280. Thirteenth century art also depicted the devil's pact in which demons would steal children and in which parents themselves would deliver their children to the devil. The Church now portrayed witches with the same images so frequently used to characterize heretics: "...a small clandestine society engaged in anti-human practices, including infanticide, incest, cannibalism, bestiality and orgiastic sex..."

The Church developed the concept of devil-worship as an astoundingly simplistic reversal of Christian rites and practices. Whereas God imposed divine law, the devil demanded adherence to a pact. Where Christians showed reverence to God by kneeling, witches paid homage to the devil by standing on their heads. The sacraments in the Catholic Church became excrements in the devil's church. Communion was parodied by the Black Mass. Christian prayers could be used to work evil by being recited backwards. The eucharist bread or host was imitated in the devil's service by a turnip. The baptismal "character" or stigmata of the mysteries was parodied by the devil's mark impressed upon the witch's body by the claw of the devil's left hand. Whereas saints had the gift of tears, witches were said to be incapable of shedding tears. Devil worship was a simple parody of Christianity. Indeed, the very concept of the devil was exclusive to monotheism and had no importance within the pagan, Wiccan tradition.

The Church also projected its own hierarchical framework onto this new evil witchcraft. The devil's church was to be organized such that its dignitaries could climb the ranks to the position of bishop, just like in the Catholic Church. Julio Caro Baroja explains:

Again, such hierarchy was entirely a projection of the Church that bore no resemblance to ancient paganism. By recognizing both masculine and feminine faces of God and by understanding God to be infused throughout the physical world, the Wiccan tradition had no need for strict hierarchical rankings.

Pope John XXII formalized the persecution of witchcraft in 1320 when he authorized the Inquisition to prosecute sorcery. Thereafter papal bulls and declarations grew increasingly vehement in their condemnation of witchcraft and of all those who "made a pact with hell." In 1484 Pope Innocent VIII issued the bull Summis desiderantes authorizing two inquisitors, Kramer and Sprenger, to systematize the persecution of witches. Two years later their manual, Malleus Maleficarum, was published with 14 editions following between 1487-1520 and at least 16 editions between 1574-1669. A papal bull in 1488 called upon the nations of Europe to rescue the Church of Christ which was "imperiled by the arts of Satan." The papacy and the Inquisition had successfully transformed the witch from a phenomenon whose existence the Church had previously rigorously denied into a phenomenon that was deemed very real, very frightening, the antithesis of Christianity, and absolutely deserving of persecution.

It was now heresy not to believe in the existence of witches.

As the authors of the Malleus Maleficarum noted, "A belief that there are such things as witches is so essential a part of Catholic faith that obstinately to maintain the opposite opinion savors of heresy." Passages in the Bible such as "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" were cited to justify the persecution of witches. Both Calvin and Knox believed that to deny witchcraft was to deny the authority of the Bible. The eighteenth century founder of Methodism, John Wesley, declared to those skeptical of witchcraft, "The giving up of witchcraft is in effect the giving up of the Bible." And an eminent English lawyer wrote, "To deny the possibility, nay, actual existence of Witchcraft and Sorcery, is at once flatly to contradict the revealed Word of God in various passages both of the Old and New Testament."

The persecution of witchcraft enabled the Church to prolong the profitability of the Inquisition. The Inquisition had left regions so economically destitute that the inquisitor Eymeric complained, "In our days there are no more rich heretics ... it is a pity that so salutary an institution as ours should be so uncertain of its future." By adding witchcraft to the crimes it persecuted, however, the Inquisition exposed a whole new group of people from whom to collect money. It took every advantage of this opportunity. The author Barbara Walker notes:

In 1592 Father Cornelius Loos wrote:

In many parts of Europe trials for witchcraft began exactly as the trials for other types of heresy stopped.

The process of formally persecuting witches followed harshest inquisitional procedure. Once accused of witchcraft, it was virtually impossible to escape conviction. After cross-examination, the victim's body was examined for the witch's mark. The historian Walter Nigg described the process:

Should a woman show no sign of a witch's mark, guilt could still be established by methods such as sticking needles in the accused's eyes. In such a case, guilt was confirmed if the inquisitor could find an insensitive spot during the process.

Confession was then extracted by the hideous methods of torture already developed during earlier phases of the Inquisition. "Loathe they are to confess without torture," wrote King James I in his Daemonologie. A physician serving in witch prisons spoke of women driven half mad: frequent torture ... kept in prolonged squalor and darkness of their dungeons ... and constantly dragged out to undergo atrocious torment until they would gladly exchange at any moment this most bitter existence for death, are willing to confess whatever crimes are suggested to them rather than to be thrust back into their hideous dungeon amid ever recurring torture.

Unless the witch died during torture, she was taken to the stake. Since many of the burnings took place in public squares, inquisitors prevented the victims from talking to the crowds by using wooden gags or cutting their tongue out. Unlike a heretic or a Jew who would usually be burnt alive only after they had relapsed into their heresy or Judaism, a witch would be burnt upon the first conviction.

Sexual mutilation of accused witches was not uncommon. With the orthodox understanding that divinity had little or nothing to do with the physical world, sexual desire was perceived to be ungodly. When the men persecuting the accused witches found themselves sexually aroused, they assumed that such desire emanated, not from themselves, but from the woman. They attacked breasts and genitals with pincers, pliers and red-hot irons. Some rules condoned sexual abuse by allowing men deemed "zealous Catholics" to visit female prisoners in solitary confinement while never allowing female visitors. The people of Toulouse were so convinced that the inquisitor Foulques de Saint-George arraigned women for no other reason than to sexually abuse them that they took the dangerous and unusual step of gathering evidence against him.

The horror of the witch hunts knew no bounds. The Church had never treated the children of persecuted parents with compassion, but its treatment of witches' children was particularly brutal. Children were liable to be prosecuted and tortured for witchcraft: girls, once they were nine and a half, and boys, once they were ten and a half. Younger children were tortured in order to elicit testimony that could be used against their parents. Even the testimony of two-year-old children was considered valid in cases of witchcraft though such testimony was never admissible in other types of trials. A famous French magistrate was known to have regretted his leniency when, instead of having young children accused of witchcraft burned, he had only sentenced them to be flogged while they watched their parents burn.

Witches were held accountable for nearly every problem. Any threat to social uniformity, any questioning of authority, and any act of rebellion could now be attributed to and prosecuted as witchcraft. Not surprisingly, areas of political turmoil and religious strife experienced the most intense witch hunts. Witch-hunting tended to be much more severe in Germany, Switzerland, France, Poland and Scotland than in more homogeneously Catholic countries such as Italy and Spain. Witch-hunters declared that "Rebellion is as the sin of Witchcraft." In 1661 Scottish royalists proclaimed that "Rebellion is the mother of witchcraft." And in England the Puritan William Perkins called the witch "The most notorious traytor and rebell that can be..."

The Reformation played a critical role in convincing people to blame witches for their problems. Protestants and reformed Catholics taught that any magic was sinful since it indicated a belief in divine assistance in the physical world. The only supernatural energy in the physical world was to be of the devil. Without magic to counter evil or misfortune, people were left with no form of protection other than to kill the devil's agent, the witch. Particularly in Protestant countries, where protective rituals such as crossing oneself, sprinkling holy water or calling on saints or guardian angels were no longer allowed, people felt defenseless. As Shakespeare's character, Prospero, says in The Tempest:

It was most often the sermons of both Catholic and Protestant preachers that would instigate a witch hunt. The terrible Basque witch hunt of 1610 began after Fray Domingo de Sardo came to preach about witchcraft. "There were neither witches nor bewitched until they were talked and written about," remarked a contemporary named Salazar. The witch hunts in Salem, Massachusetts, were similarly preceded by the fearful sermons and preaching of Samuel Parris in 1692.

The climate of fear created by churchmen of the Reformation led to countless deaths of accused witches quite independently of inquisitional courts or procedure. For example, in England where there were no inquisitional courts and where witch-hunting offered little or no financial reward, many women were killed for witchcraft by mobs. Instead of following any judicial procedure, these mobs used methods to ascertain guilt of witchcraft such as "swimming a witch," where a woman would be bound and thrown into water to see if she floated. The water, as the medium of baptism, would either reject her and prove her guilty of witchcraft, or the woman would sink and be proven innocent, albeit also dead from drowning.

As people adopted the new belief that the world was the terrifying realm of the devil, they blamed witches for every misfortune. Since the devil created all the ills of the world, his agents -- witches -- could be blamed for them. Witches were thought by some to have as much if not more power than Christ: they could raise the dead, turn water into wine or milk, control the weather and know the past and future. Witches were held accountable for everything from a failed business venture to a poor emotional state. A Scottish woman, for instance, was accused of witchcraft and burned to death because she was seen stroking a cat at the same time as a nearby batch of beer turned sour. Witches now took the role of scapegoats that had been held by Jews. Any personal misfortune, bad harvest, famine, or plague was seen as their fault.

The social turmoil created by the Reformation intensified witch-hunting. The Reformation diminished the important role of community and placed a greater demand for personal moral perfection. As the communal tradition of mutual help broke down and the manorial system which had provided more generously for widows disappeared, many people were left in need of charity. The guilt one felt after refusing to help a needy person could be easily transferred onto that needy person by accusing her of witchcraft. A contemporary writer named Thomas Ady described a likely situation resulting from a failure to perform some hitherto customary social obligation:

The most common victims of witchcraft accusations were those women who resembled the image of the Crone. As the embodiment of mature feminine power, the old wise woman threatens a structure which acknowledges only force and domination as avenues of power. The Church never tolerated the image of the Crone, even in the first centuries when it assimilated the prevalent images of maiden and mother in the figure of Mary. Although any woman who attracted attention was likely to be suspected of witchcraft, either on account of her beauty or because of a noticeable oddness or deformity, the most common victim was the old woman. Poor, older women tended to be the first accused even where witch hunts were driven by inquisitional procedure that profited by targeting wealthier individuals.

Old, wise healing women were particular targets for witch-hunters. "At this day," wrote Reginald Scot in 1584, "it is indifferent to say in the English tongue, 'she is a witch' or 'she is a wise woman.'" Common people of pre-reformational Europe relied upon wise women and men for the treatment of illness rather than upon churchmen, monks or physicians. Robert Burton wrote in 1621:

By combining their knowledge of medicinal herbs with an entreaty for divine assistance, these healers provided both more affordable and most often more effective medicine than was available elsewhere. Churchmen of the Reformation objected to the magical nature of this sort of healing, to the preference people had for it over the healing that the Church or Church-licensed physicians offered, and to the power that it gave women.

Until the terror of the witch hunts, most people did not understand why successful healers should be considered evil. "Men rather uphold them," wrote John Stearne, "and say why should any man be questioned for doing good." As a Bridgettine monk of the early sixteenth century recounted of "the simple people", "I have heard them say full often myself ... 'Sir, we mean well and do believe well and we think it a good and charitable deed to heal a sick person or a sick beast.'" And in 1555 Joan Tyrry asserted that "her doings in healing of man and beast, by the power of God taught to her by the ... fairies, be both godly and good..."

Indeed, the very invocations used by wise women sound quite Christian. For example, a 1610 poem recited when picking the herb vervain, also known as St. Johnswort, reads,

But in the eyes of orthodox Christians, such healing empowered people to determine the course of their lives instead of submitting helplessly to the will of God. According to churchmen, health should come from God, not from the efforts of human beings. Bishop Hall said, "we that have no power to bid must pray..." Ecclesiastical courts made the customers of witches publicly confess to being "heartily sorry for seeking man's help, and refusing the help of God..." An Elizabethan preacher explained that any healing "is not done by conjuration or divination, as Popish priests profess and practice, but by entreating the Lord humbly in fasting and prayer..." And according to Calvin, no medicine could change the course of events which had already been determined by the Almighty.

Preachers and Church-licensed male physicians tried to fill the function of healer. Yet, their ministrations were often considered ineffective compared to those of a wise woman. The keeper of the Cantebury gaol admitted to freeing an imprisoned wise woman in 1570 because "the witch did more good by her physic than Mr. Pudall and Mr. Wood, being preachers of God's word..." A character in the 1593 Dialogue concerning Witches said of a local wise woman that, "she doeth more good in one year than all these scripture men will do so long as they live..."

Even the Church-licensed male physicians, who relied upon purgings, bleedings, fumigations, leeches, lancets, and toxic chemicals such as mercury, were little match for an experienced wise woman's knowledge of herbs. As the well-known physician, Paracelsus, asked, "...does not the old nurse very often beat the doctor?" Even Francis Bacon, who demonstrated very little respect for women, thought that "empirics and old women" were "more happy many times in their cures than learned physicians..."

Physicians often attributed their own incompetence to witchcraft. As Thomas Ady wrote:

When an illness could not be understood, even the highest body of England, the Royal College of Physicians of London, was known to accept the explanation of witchcraft.

Not surprisingly, churchmen portrayed the healing woman as the most evil of all witches. William Perkins declared, "The most horrible and detestable monster ... is the good witch." The Church included in its definition of witchcraft anyone with knowledge of herbs for "those who used herbs for cures did so only through a pact with the Devil, either explicit or implicit." Medicine had long been associated with herbs and magic. The Greek and Latin words for medicine, "pharmakeia" and "veneficium," meant both "magic" and "drugs." Mere possession of herbal oils or ointments became grounds for accusation of witchcraft.

A person's healing ability easily led to conviction of witchcraft. In 1590 a woman in North Berwick was suspected of witchcraft because she was curing "all such as were troubled or grieved with any kind of sickness or infirmity." The ailing archbishop of St. Andrews called upon Alison Peirsoun of Byrehill and then, after she had successfully cured him, not only refused to pay her but had her arrested for witchcraft and burned to death. Simply treating unhealthy children by washing them was cause for convicting a Scottish woman of witchcraft.

Witch-hunters also targeted midwives. Orthodox Christians believed the act of giving birth defiled both mother and child. In order to be readmitted to the Church, the mother should be purified through the custom of "churching," which consisted of a quarantine period of forty days if her baby was a boy and eighty days if her baby was a girl, during which both she and her baby were considered heathen. Some thought that a woman who died during this period should be refused a Christian burial. Until the Reformation, midwives were deemed necessary to take care of what was regarded as the nasty business of giving birth, a dishonorable profession best left in the hands of women. But with the Reformation came an increased awareness of the power of midwives. Midwives were now suspected of possessing the skill to abort a fetus, to educate women about techniques of birth control, and to mitigate a woman's labor pains.

A midwife's likely knowledge of herbs to relieve labor pains was seen as a direct affront to the divinely ordained pain of childbirth. In the eyes of churchmen, God's sentence upon Eve should apply to all women. As stated in Genesis:

To relieve labor pains, as Scottish clergymen put it, would be "vitiating the primal curse of woman..." The introduction of chloroform to help a woman through the pain of labor brought forth the same opposition. According to a New England minister:

Martin Luther wrote, "If [women] become tired or even die, that does not matter. Let them die in childbirth -- that is why they are there." It is hardly surprising that women who not only possessed medicinal knowledge but who used that knowledge to comfort and care for other women would become prime suspects of witchcraft.

How many lives were lost during the centuries of witch-hunting will never be known. Some members of the clergy proudly reported the number of witches they condemned, such as the bishop of Würtzburg who claimed 1900 lives in five years, or the Lutheran prelate Benedict Carpzov who claimed to have sentenced 20,000 devil worshippers. But the vast majority of records have been lost and it is doubtful that such documents would have recorded those killed outside of the courts.

Contemporary accounts hint at the extent of the holocaust. Barbara Walker writes that "the chronicler of Treves reported that in the year 1586, the entire female population of two villages was wiped out by the inquisitors, except for only two women left alive." Around 1600 a man wrote:

While the formal persecution of witches raged from about 1450 to 1750, sporadic killing of women on the account of suspected witchcraft has continued into recent times. In 1928 a family of Hungarian peasants was acquitted of beating an old woman to death whom they claimed was a witch. The court based its decision on the ground that the family had acted out of "irresistible compulsion." In 1976 a poor spinster, Elizabeth Hahn, was suspected of witchcraft and of keeping familiars, or devil's agents, in the form of dogs. The neighbors in her small German village ostracized her, threw rocks at her, and threatened to beat her to death before burning her house, badly burning her and killing her animals. A year later in France, an old man was killed for ostensible sorcery. And in 1981, a mob in Mexico stoned a woman to death for her apparent witchcraft which they believed had incited the attack upon Pope John Paul II.

Witch hunts were neither small in scope nor implemented by a few aberrant individuals; the persecution of witches was the official policy of both the Catholic and Protestant Churches. The Church invented the crime of witchcraft, established the process by which to prosecute it, and then insisted that witches be prosecuted. After much of society had rejected witchcraft as a delusion, some of the last to insist upon the validity of witchcraft were among the clergy. Under the pretext of first heresy and then witchcraft, anyone could be disposed of who questioned authority or the Christian view of the world.

Witch-hunting secured the conversion of Europe to orthodox Christianity. Through the terror of the witch hunts, reformational Christians convinced common people to believe that a singular male God reigned from above, that he was separate from the earth, that magic was evil, that there was a powerful devil, and that women were most likely to be his agents. As a by-product of the witch hunts, the field of medicine transferred to exclusively male hands and the Western herbal tradition was largely destroyed. The vast numbers of people brutalized and killed, as well as the impact upon the common perception of God, make the witch hunts one of the darkest chapters of human history.