“THOU SHALL NOT SUFFER A WITCH TO LIVE” ( EXODUS 22:17). Too bad for the tens of thousands of innocent men and women who were later put to death on behalf of this fatal verse that no guidance was given as to how to determine if somebody was a witch or not. In early Christianity witches were small potatoes. If somebody’s cow died or if lightning hit a barn the blame would have been put on demons if natural causes were thought to be lacking. For some unknown reason the thinking shifted from horned demons out to cause the faithful a hard time to witches putting spells and curses on people. It is difficult to pinpoint when this happened but in the year 1208 Innocent III used witchcraft to discredit a heretical sect, the Cathars, by accusing them of practicing witchcraft. Propagandists for the Church, in woodcuts distributed to the peasants, depicted Cathars kissing the anus of Satan in a ceremonial show of loyalty to him. In the year 1484, a medieval Pope, Innocent VIII, sent two Dominican inquisitors, Kramer and Sprenger, to Germany. The two men wrote a book together, considered at the time the best textbook on Witchcraft. The name of this book was, in Latin, Malleus Maleficarum, which means The Witch’s Hammer. This volume is a compendium of hate, nonsense, sadism and sheer cruelty and its publication did much to inspire the periodic outbreaks of witchcraft hysteria. The basic contention by these nitwit authors was that if you are accused of witchcraft you must be guilty, it is just then a matter of how best to torture you to gain a confession. So every half-wit and village idiot went around accusing people of witchcraft, old women were common targets but nobody was really safe. Men, women, children, old or young, it made no difference. To make things worse the property of the victims were confiscated. Many private scores were settled although sometimes the accusations would rebound upon the accusers at a later date as friends and family got even.
Outbreaks of witchcraft hysteria, with subsequent mass executions, began to appear in the early 1500s. Authorities in Geneva, Switzerland burned 500 accused witches at the stake in 1515. Nine years later in Como, Italy, a spreading spiral of witchcraft charges led to as many as 1000 executions.
The Reformation divided Europe between Protestant regions and those loyal to the Pope, but Protestants took the crime of witchcraft no less seriously–and arguably even more so–than Catholics. Germany, rife with sectarian strife, saw Europe’s greatest execution rates of witches–higher than those in the rest of the Continent combined. Witch hysteria swept France in 1571 after Trois-Echelles, a defendant accused of witchcraft from the court of Charles IX, announced to the court that he had over 100,000 fellow witches roaming the country. Judges responding to the ensuing panic by eliminating for those accused of witchcraft most of the protections that other defendants enjoyed. Jean Bodin in his 1580 book, “On the Demon-Mania of Sorcerers,” opened the door to use of testimony by children against parents, entrapment, and instruments of torture.
In 1591 Scotland’s witch-hunting had its origins in the marriage of King James to Princess Anne of Denmark. Anne’s voyage to Scotland for the wedding met with a bad storm, and she ended up taking refuge in Norway. James traveled to Scandinavia and the wedding took place in at Kronborg Castle in Denmark. After a long honeymoon in Denmark, the royal newlyweds encountered terrible seas on the return voyage, which the ship’s captain blamed on witches. When six Danish women confessed to having caused the storms that bedeviled King James, he began to take witchcraft seriously. Back in Scotland, the paranoid James authorized torture of suspected witches. Dozens of condemned witches in the North Berwick area were burned at the stake in what would be the largest witch-hunt in British history. Later, after reviewing confessions of so-called, “witches” he would come to doubt the whole issue of witchcraft.
In 1643-1645, the largest witch-hunt in French history occurred. During those two years there were at least 650 arrests in Languedoc alone. The same time was one of intense witch-hunting in England, as the English civil war created an atmosphere of unrest that fueled the hunting, especially under Matthew Hopkins later played brilliantly by Vincent Price in the movie, “The Conqueror Worm“. The Thirty Years War, a conflict that raged in several European states from 1618-1648 following an attempted rebellion by Protestants in Bohemia from the Roman Catholic Hapsburg rulers, produced slaughter and suffering that sparked additional witch hunts.
In 1692 the hunt for witches came to America. Nineteen people in Salem were hung for witchcraft not counting the ones who died in prison. Of course they endured terrible hardships and privations before, during and after the trial and were in all likelihood ready to die than to continue such treatment at the hands of their fellow citizens.
After this the hunt for witches died off, the rise of knowledge from the renaissance coupled with the rise of humanistic thinking made people look for other explanations for disease and natural phenomenon rather than thinking such things were the result of curses and hexes.
Christians are very defensive about this subject. When once I brought the subject of the torture and execution of accused witches by Christians up to a former employer, a conservative Christian, he got highly indignant and told me, “They [ the witches ] shouldn’t be allowed to live !”