Historical Questions

Shorthand Notes on Witchcraft

by Anthony Schratz

The (Canadian) National Film Board made a documentary some years ago (The Burning Times) in which it stated that up to 9 million witches were executed in Europe. Throughout the movie it blamed the Catholic Church for this.

It is generally believed that the Catholic Church through its Inquisition burnt many witches in the Middle Ages.

What is Witchcraft?

What is witchcraft? It is not easy to define. Different definitions and different terms. Almost all cultures believe that certain people have special powers. Magical powers rather then religious. These can range from powers derived from a pact with the devil, to purely natural ones such as the power to tap into natural forces and use them to cause good or evil (to cure to curse or to kill).

High magic and low magic. High magic usually white: alchemy, astrology, etc. We will limit ourselves to Europe. This is what interests us. The witch could be good or evil. White witchcraft practiced by the wise woman (love potions, healing, finding lost objects, telling the future, etc.). Counteracted the effects of the witch. Sorcery was considered an acquired skill and required techniques, devices or substances. The sorcerer could use his craft for good or evil as well.

Is there anything to witchcraft? Were there really witches - people who practiced witchcraft; or was it all imaginary? And were they able to obtain any results? As we shall see, the two main elements of witchcraft were the pact with the devil or devil worship and seeking to cause harm to others.

There is abundant evidence to the effect that some of those accused did practice witchcraft. This is especially true in cases of individual trials and less true of the witch hunts where accomplices were named. Many of those accused had been accused for years of casting spells on others and boasting about it. In their trials they tell of the spells they cast and the words they use and in some cases they produced images of the person they want to harm with needles pushed through them, etc.

Most were women. In most countries. 75% - 80% of those accused. Indeed, in a society where a woman had few legal rights and could not take up arms, witchcraft was one of the few ways she had of defending herself. Did these women worship the devil or make a pact with him? Most clearly did not. Some may have dreamt that they did. Some may actually have gone through a form of worshipping the devil in the form of a black cat or some other animal. Some of these women were clearly senile and not in their right mind. There were dualist heresies still around in the late Middle Ages. Some of these worshipped the devil and some heresy trials of these people include elements of witchcraft.

Is there any reality to witchcraft? The Church has always held belief in the devil as a dogma of faith. The devil can only do what God allows him to do. If God so allows it, one could work evil through the instrumentality of the devil. Or the devil could use a human to work evil.

The other question is whether there is anything to natural magic (as distinct from supernatural). The theory here would be that there are forces in nature which can be tapped if one knows how. The occult, parapsychology, etc. In the Far East, those who practice martial arts, yoga, etc., seem to be able to access forces unknown to Western science. Whether those forces are purely natural or diabolical is anybody’s guess. There are well documented cases where people believed they had been put under a spell, went to bed, refused food, fell sick and died. But there are possible psychological explanations for this. Even if there is a natural explanation, it would seem to be something which a Christian should not get involved in. Those who have end up in bad shape.

Some people think that St. Paul warns the Galatians and Colossians against such practices, which he refers to as the elements of the world. (Gal 4:3 Col. 2:8 and 2:20). The Development of the Image of the Witch in Europe Christian Europe at the beginning of the Middle Ages inherited an image of the witch from the Greco-Roman world, from the Germanic invaders of the Empire and from the Bible. That image developed over the next 1,000 years. We will look at how. In the Roman Empire the witch was seen as someone who could harm others by casting spells. She could also work cures. If she caused harm or death of another she was to be put to death. The sorcerer of Germanic folklore: changing shape; riding or flying; cannibalism; eating children; demons; choice of night time for activity; wild dances; passing through doors or walls; fertility Goddess; and above all, causing misfortune using spells.

The other legacy of Medieval Europe was the Bible. Thou shalt not suffer the witch to live. Exodus 22:17. St. Paul had included witches with the immoral and idolatrous (Gal. 5: 19-21) and St. John had put her with the liars and murderers (Apoc 9:21; 18:23; 21:8; 22: 15). The image of the witch which was built up over the period from 500 to 1500 put together elements of these different streams: from the Greco-Roman world, from Germanic folklore and from Christianity. The Medieval Church also showed scepticism as regards the reality of witchcraft. We have Church documents from the 9th Century stating that witches are harmless and are fooling themselves. The Medieval Church did not persecute witches. Nor did medieval secular tribunals.

The few exceptions were when a noble felt he had been bewitched. The Church punished witchcraft as a form of superstition with penalties such as fasting. The Church was making an effort to Christianize Europe. This meant scoffing at pagan superstitions, punishing them as superstitions, etc. Why? Everyone believed in witches. When one caused problems you had recourse to a good one to heal you. It was part of life. The Black Death (1347 - 1349) aroused an interest in witchcraft. You had to blame someone. The Jews were poisoning the wells, the witches were casting spells. Margaret Murray’s thesis that witches were essentially practicing a pagan religion has been shown to be false. They were Christians. Most were falsely accused. Many who did cast spells did so to get revenge. But they believed in the teaching of the Church.

As the European world view became more Christian, this image of the witch developed. Augustine argued that if these witches were using magic to harm others, it could only be by the power of the devil. It could not be by divine power. It could not be by the false gods of paganism, which did not exist. In the 13th Century Aquinas argued that it was impossible to control the devil, so what must really be happening was that the devil was using the witch to work evil. This began to be picked up by the courts. As we shall see in a minute, it was lay judges in secular courts and not ecclesiastics in inquisitorial courts or Episcopal courts who refined the notion of the witch. By the year 1400 the image of the witch was complete. Since the witch made a pact with the devil and worshipped the devil she must be a heretic.

The first real witch trials took place in Switzerland between 1395 and 1406. The first in the sense that all the elements of the future witch hunts were included. In addition to the classical ones, there were secret meetings; desecration of the Cross; sex orgies; formal repudiation of the Church. Elements of conspiracy, devil worship, pact, the devil’s mark. So, the Christian world view ended up enlarging the image of the witch from simply causing misfortune to others to a pact with devil and hence heresy.

The Persecution of Witches

But didn’t the medieval church burn witches? What about the inquisition? As we have seen, it was not until the year 1400 that the image of the witch as a devil worshipper and heretic was complete. Until then the Church had no cause to try them. In addition, there was a general scepticism in both ecclesiastical and educated circles.

As you may know, the Inquisition began in the 13th Century. So, although the witches as devil worshippers would fall into the category of heretics, the Inquisition did not generally prosecute them. There are only a handful of cases before the year 1450, and these are mixed up with the other cases of heresy they are investigating. It was not believed. In 1258 Pope Alexander IV explicitly refused to allow the Inquisition to investigate charges of witchcraft. It was not yet considered heresy. 200 years later, this changes.

In 1484 Innocent VIII issued a papal bull (summis desiderantes) authorizing two Dominican inquisitors to prosecute witchcraft in Germany. They had met opposition from bishops. The two inquisitors (Kramer and Sprenger) drafted a handbook for those prosecuting witches (Malleus Maleficarum). The papal bull is very short. In summary it says: It has come to our ears that many persons are giving themselves over to the devil and through incantations, charms, conjuring and crimes are harming the person and property of many innocent people and are abjuring the Faith. We therefore mandate these two Dominicans to exercise the office of Inquisitors to investigate and suppress these practices.

The pope had clearly been fooled into believing all this and so he granted powers to these two Dominicans to investigate and suppress witchcraft in Germany. There is no doctrinal statement in the bull. It has come to our ears. This is an example of papal policy. Papal policy can be more or less prudent. It is not infallible. Distinguish from documents which reflect papal teaching. The handbook (which was not endorsed by the papal bull) was notorious. It did not say anything new. It collected the conventional wisdom on witches. It was marked by a strong misogynist overemphasis. Insisted on the point of ritual copulation with the devil. An altogether unfortunate work. It was repudiated by the Inquisition and not used in its proceedings. One of the two authors was censored by the Inquisition shortly after this.

It became the handbook for prosecutors in secular courts. It is sometimes thought that because the most famous handbook was written by Dominicans, the Church must have been in the forefront of the persecution of witches. But this has been shown not to have been the case. The witch hunts took place mainly in the late 16th and early 17th century and the trials were usually conducted before secular courts.

The forgeries

In 1829, a hack writer named Lamothe-Langon wrote a history of the Inquisition in France. He was known also as a forger and was not an historian. He invented thousands of witch trials carried out by the French medieval Inquisition. They never happened. But at the beginning of this century, the prominent historian, Jacob Hansen incorporated this material into his work on medieval witchcraft. He failed to verify the sources himself. The forgery was uncovered in 1972 by two medieval historians. Beware of anything on medieval witchcraft written before 1975. All secular courts and even the inquisition occasionally used torture in its proceedings. If there had been no torture there would not have been large scale witch hunts.

In order to convict someone, Roman Law required either a confession or two eye witnesses. Circumstantial evidence, even combined with one eye witness was insufficient. Hence the perceived need to use torture to extract a confession from someone who was obviously guilty but who refused to confess.

Strict rules were laid down. In virtue of Roman Law it could only be used when there was proof that a crime had been committed and there was strong proof of the accused’s guilt but not two witnesses. No leading questions were allowed. It had to be the last resort. Threat before using it. Could not cause the death of the victim. No repetition of the torture was allowed. Confession to be repeated outside place of torture. No elderly, pregnant women or children. Could not be used to obtain names of accomplices.

When Roman Law was re-introduced into Europe in the 12th century, these rules were also supposed to apply. All the evidence that we have is that the Inquisition used torture seldom. Its use was not questioned. But it followed the rules usually. There were some abuses, but few.

As we will see, it was because the rules were not followed by secular tribunals that the witch hunts took place. Both confessions and the names of accomplices were extracted from witches by torture illegally applied. We come now to the chronology. Great deal of work in the past 25 years. Archives. The historians are puzzled. Computer has not helped to understand the phenomenon.

Historians have tried to find social, religious, economic or political tensions common to places where witch hunts took place, but have failed. The opposite is true. Conditions which lead to a witch hunt in one place did not do so in another. Scholars all agree that between 40,000 and 60,000 persons were executed as witches between 1450 and 1750. Most (70%) between 1550 and 1650. 90% by secular courts and not by Inquisition or Episcopal courts. Between 75% and 80% were women. Most were old or poor. Many unmarried. Often evidence that they were alienated from the community.

Why women?

In popular culture witches had usually been women. Not a Christian invention. They were seen as morally weaker and more lustful. Finally, it was one of their few forms of protection. Not misogyny - most accusers were women. Where? Germany and France together make up 70% of the executions. Scotland, England, Poland, Scandinavia. Almost none in Italy and Spain. We will see why. Salem (1692) is the most studied witch hunt of all. 162 accused; 76 tried; 30 found guilty; 20 were executed by hanging. (medium to large hunt).

It has been closely studied. The accusers were poor and religious. Most of the accused were more well to do capitalists or merchants. The governor was absent and the proceedings were conducted by a lieutenant governor who was a Puritan fundamentalist. When governor Phipps took charge of the proceedings he quickly put an end to them. It might be that if as much were known of conditions of other witch hunts, an adequate explanation could be found. Salem provides a paradigm for witch hunts in Europe. By a witch hunt we mean when a group of witches were tried and executed. They took place mainly in border areas, usually where the border separated a Catholic and a Protestant land. They took place where central authority was weak and local courts handled the trial. No distinction between Catholic and Protestant countries or areas.

More rural than urban - unlike the Inquisition

The initiative almost always from the locals. Scapegoating as a result of individual or collective misfortune (bad harvest, storm, cow dies, baby dies, illness, etc.). This would lead to an individual trial of a known witch. It was when the authorities came in that the hunt began.

The mentality. Everyone believed in witches. There was almost always a witch in your village. The cunning folk were there to protect you. Healers. Midwives, etc. You lived with them. The local was concerned about the witch’s ability to cause harm. The authorities were concerned about diabolical conspiracy. This is why the hunts only took place once the authorities stepped in. Causing harm was the local image of the witch. Devil worship was the scholarly aspect. The educated judges brought that with them when the trial began. Why? It was the diabolical conspiracy to overthrow the established Christian order which was feared. They were the authorities.

This has to be placed in the context. Fear of conspiracy. Protestant or Catholic conspiracy. Jewish conspiracy. Peasant uprisings. Tradition of heretical conspiracies. Being on border regions may well have heightened the fear of conspiracy. The worst hunts took place between 1550 and 1650. Some claimed several hundred victims. The worst hunts were when the local tribunal handled the case. When recourse had to be had to a distant authority, less chance. The Paris Parliament overturned many convictions.

Why secular tribunals?

By 1450 in Germany and France the Inquisition had lost most of its authority. Rise of the Nation State. The prosecution of witches fell under the jurisdiction of the secular courts. The vast majority of the trials were held by secular courts. Precisely in border regions where the central government was weakest and the ecclesiastical courts had lost power. Local courts went at it with intensity. Why? The heretical side was of ecclesiastical jurisdiction and the harming was of secular. The national states passed witchcraft statutes making it a criminal offense punishable by the secular arm. Only in Spain and Italy did the inquisition continue to hold authority. In Spain independent from the pope. But in both countries there were very few prosecutions of witches. And they almost always ended in non capital punishment. Almost never used torture and stuck to the rules. When someone confessed to witchcraft there was no capital punishment in Spain and Italy. Spain did experience a witch hunt in 1610-1614. However, when the Inquisitor Salazar reviewed the cases he judged that it was all nonsense. He said that there had been no charges of witchcraft until a new preacher had begun to preach against witches.

It was all in peoples’ minds. Of course, in Protestant countries it was the secular tribunals. Unlike the Inquisition, the secular tribunals did not respect the rules regarding the torture of victims. Repeated, leading questions, illegal tortures, asking for accomplices. The witch hunts ended in the 18th Century. Scientific revolution led to an image of an orderly universe which could be explained by physical laws. Scepticism about magic. Decline in religious fervour and passion and a better theological understanding of the activity of the devil. But as we have seen, it was not religious superstition that had provoked the witch hunts. It is not as though the age of reason overcame religious prejudice. The witch hunts coincided with the Renaissance after the supposedly superstitious middle ages were over.

To date, the only satisfactory explanation is that the period of upheaval (Reformation and religious wars) coincided with a power vacuum in certain areas and this led to the witch hunts. The local authorities inherited all the prejudices and superstition without the benefit of the restraint exercised by the Church and by a strong central authority. If the Church had maintained control of the issue there were have been no massive witch hunt. In 1981 a Mexican mob stoned a woman to death after her husband had accused her of witchcraft. In 1976 in a small village in Germany Elizabeth Hahn was suspected of witchcraft. Her house was burnt down and all her animals killed. There are still witch hunts.


The witch hunts have to be placed in their context. An unfortunate combination of the human need to find a scapegoat and a time of great political, social and economic upheaval. The Jews in the Middle Ages; other minorities. What was the role of the Church? As we have seen, it was not something that was either initiated or propelled by the Church. The secular authorities used Christian theological notions about the devil to justify the hunt. The Inquisition also prosecuted witches, though very few and much more leniently that the secular tribunals. As always when there are humans involved, mistakes are made. Some of the Inquisitors allowed themselves to go to excess. Also, preachers would have exhorted the faithful against witchcraft and this would have led to some accusations. The Church is in the world, at one and the same time immersed in the culture of her times while also transcending it. So, like everyone else, Churchmen believed in witches and were concerned about witchcraft, preached against it, etc. But in practice the more educated Churchmen showed a scepticism about the reality of witchcraft and so were less ready to prosecute it with severity. One cannot expect ecclesiastics to be entirely free from the influence and prejudices of their cultural and social milieu. They sincerely believed that witches were engaged in devil worship; that this was heresy and that in a Christian state such activity should be suppressed by the secular arm. This was not questioned by almost anyone at the time.

Anthony Schratz
The Catholic Legate
February 18, 2004