Hunt for Witches in Medieval Era
by Bonnie Moss (c) 2012, February
Women in History- The Witch Hunt in Medieval Europe
To be or not to be : A Witch, A Mystic or A Virgin- this was a daunting choice women had to make
in medieval Europe. This article is about the witch hunt and persecution of the medieval era in Europe.
In almost all cultures and societies, witchcraft is part of local beliefs and traditions. This is an earth-based
religion where practitioners believe in a super power definitely not called God. Scholars of witchcraft define
it as a belief system whose origins predates the majority of well known religions. Some claim that witchcraft
dates back to the Paleolothic period and has been evolving ever since.Today's witchcraft is different from
what it was thousands of years back. It was probably not even called witchcraft. Covens are as different as
there are different practises and practitioners to perform the craft.
The fifteenth and eighteenth centuries marked the era of witch hunt and trials in early modern Europe.The
continent was swept with large scale and fever- pitch witch hunt. Christianity was threatened by an apocalyptic
battle agains the Devil who had a diabolical pact with his advocates- his secret army of witches. This era
started a campaign and subsequent massive persecution of tens of thousands of suspected witches. Majority
of the accused were women in most regions. They were imprisoned, tortured, banished and had all their
worldy possessions confiscated. Along with the accusation of witchcraft was heresy. The persecution did
not only involve individuals but certain groups like the Cathars and Waldensians. Today's historians
claim that less than fifty thousand is the more accurate figure of executions. As with any issue, there
is a disagreement.
As early as the fifth century A.D., according to St. Augustine of Hippo,pagan magic and their religion
were the invention of the devil. This form of magic may show real or illusory effects.This was Satan's way of
tempting humanity away from their Christian beliefs. His argument was that Satan and witches who claim
supernatural powers were wrong. Pagans believe in a divine power other than God.
In the eighth century,St. Boniface ruled that it was un-Christian to believe in witches, so did
Charlemagne who as well decreed that the supposed burning of witches was a pagan custom and
should be punishable by law. Could witches fly in the night, make bad weather or change their shape?
The Bishop of Lyon in 820 A.d. did not think so.
During the following centuries, since the church claimed that witches were not powerful, there was no need
to be concerned about pagan magic and spells, nor should they bother to track them down. The early
medieval church accepted this view for the next several centuries.
However, by the 15th century, belief in witches was once again openly accepted in European
society. The typical penalties were harsh public penance.
Noted areas of persecution were:
Briancon, Dauphine- where Claude Tholosan had accused and tried over two hundred people for witchcraft in 1420.
In northern Italy, Switzerland and southern Germany, the Council of Basel assembled from 1431-1437. This was
a Church Council attended by anti-witchcraft figures who helped to identify, persecute and standardize the
stereotype Satanic witch, the basis of witch trials.
The publication of the book Malleus Maleficarum, advocated that witchcraft was a real and
dangerous phenomena. Persecution of witches became more brutal .
This book is considered an infamous witch-hunting manual used by Catholics and Protestants. This book defines a
witch as evil and typically female. Some claim that this book is a work of misogyny since it focuses on women
as witches. Historians of early European witchcraft see it as an ideology that was manifested in different ways.
The accusations were based on general issues:
1. A person caught in the act of positive or negative sorcery
2. A well-meaning sorcerer or healer who lost their clients' or the authorities' trust
3. A person who did nothing more than gain the enmity of their neighbours
4. A person who was reputed to be a witch was surrounded with an aura of witch-beliefs
Women were characterized as inferior, subordinate, not rational beings and seductive to men. This was a time
of political and social upheavals, a time of Reformers like Martin Luther who did not speak out against the
persecutions by the Catholic church.
Eva Pocs identifies three varieties of witch in popular belief:
The "neighbourhood witch" or "social witch": a witch who curses a neighbour following some
conflict. This was in response to tensions in the community, anyone can be innocently accused.
The "magical" or "sorcerer" witch: either a professional healer, sorcerer, seer or midwife,
or a person. Due to neighbourly or community rivalries and the ambiguity between positive and negative
magic, such individuals can become labelled as witches.
The "supernatural" or "night" witch: portrayed in court narratives as a demon appearing in
visions and dreams. This kind of witch has nothing to do with community social tensions, but is believed to
respond to tensions between the human world and the supernatural. They were suspect in the event of a
calamity in their neighborhood.
The Malleus Malificarum- The Hammer of the Witches
This book was published in 1487, written by a German Dominican monk, Heinrich Kramer, allegedly with
the help of Jacob Springer. In this book, they set down the stereotypical image of the Satanic image and
prescribed torture as a means of interrogating suspects. The main purpose of the Malleus was to systematically
refute and discredit those who were skeptical about the reality of the existence of witches and that they
were more often women than men. Thus, witch hunt was legalized and well organized.
Many claim this book as a work of misogyny. It focuses on women as inclined and susceptible to demonic
temptations. It was mostly women who were hunted and persecuted as witches. The title is a clear
indication that women were the villains who do the work of the devil. Maleficarum is a Latin noun
for feminine, maleficorum is the masculine form.
The Malleus Maleficarum asserts that three elements are necessary for witchcraft: the evil-intentioned witch,
the help of the Devil, and the Permission of God.The treatise is divided up into three sections.The first section
tries to refute critics who deny the reality of witchcraft, thereby hindering its prosecution. The second section
describes the actual forms of witchcraft and its remedies. The third section is to assist judges confronting
and combating witchcraft. However, each of these three sections has the prevailing themes of what is
witchcraft and who is a witch. The Malleus Maleficarum can hardly be called an original text, for it heavily
relies upon earlier works such as Visconti and, most famously, Johannes Nider's Formicarius of 1435.
The Catholic Church did not give it the official insignia of approval- the Imprimatur. It was believed the
book was not approved by the Catholic church although it had the blessing of Pope Innocent V111.
On December 5, 1484, Pope Innocent VIII issued a papal bull, referred to as the Witch-Bull of 1484
in which he recognized that witches did exist and gave papal approval to the Inquisition to move against
witches and do whatever was necessary to get rid of them. In this paper, witches were explicitly accused of
having slain infants that were still in the mother s womb, today referred to as abortion. They were also
guilty of hindering men from having sex to prevent women from conceiving, now called contraception.
Contrary to some popular accusations, this book was not used by the Inquisition in their pursuit of heretics in
which witchcraft was a dominant issue. In Renaissance Europe, secular courts referred to the Malleus as a
handbook. Worthy of note is the disputed approbation by the University of Cologne's Faculty of Theology.
Joseph Hansen questioned the authenticity of this endorsement which appears on the preface and believed
to add to the popularity of the Malleus. Some historians claim that the university condemned the book for
unethical legal practices which was contrary to Catholic teachings on demons.
This book outlined the range of offenses by which the charge of witchcraft could be applied, from political
subversion and religious heresy to lewdness and blasphemy. However, three central accusations emerged
repeatedly in the history of witchcraft throughout northern Europe:
First: Witches are accused of every conceivable sexual crime against men. Quite simply, they are "accused"
of female sexuality.
Second: They are accused of being organized.
Third: They are accused of having magical powers affecting health-- not only of harming, but also of healing.
They were often charged specifically with possessing medical and obstetrical skills.
Was Witchcraft punished by death on the basis of
Exodus 22:18: "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live"
Leviticus 20:27: "A man also or woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to
death: they shall stone them with stones."
Witches were not given a fair trial. They did not get past the first accusation, and very rarely was a witch
allowed freedom after repenting. Once suspected of witchcraft, death was sure to follow. They were
considered so evil that they had to be banished from the face of the earth at any cost. Burning and hanging
were the popular choice of execution. Continental Europe preferred burning witches while hanging was the
choice in Britain. And it extended to the then American colonies.
Today, in the 21st century, looking back in history,some Christians from all backgrounds share a common
shame with regards to the mass persecution and execution of witches. It was a very dark time in history where
there was a massive search and execution of witches and purge their influence regardless of whether it was in a
Catholic or Protestant society. It was the time of the Inquisition.
Why is there such an aversion towards women throughout history? Was the witch hunt just another means
to quell, to conquer the female spirit? Women can be strong and confident ally. Women continue to claim
and assert their rightful and equal status beside man. Man is born of a woman .Why is it so difficult for women
to be acknowledged as equal by their male counterpart? Was the witch hunt of medieval era just another
act of misogyny?
Which are the facts or fiction, the motives around the witch hunt persecutions and executions of the
Middle Ages? Joan of Arc is remembered today as having been burned as a heretic, as a witch.
Today, she is honored as a Saint.
Wikipedia, wikimedia- witch hunt of Medieval era
Excerpts from Malleus Malificarum
wikipedia.org/ Johannes Nider
The Bible, the Book ,the Bridges ,the Millennia ,© 1998 Maxine Clarke Beach.
Between the Living and the Dead: A Perspective on Witches and Seers in the Early Modern Age