A FEW centuries ago in Europe, the fear of witchcraft led to witch hunts and executions. These occurred largely in France, Germany, northern Italy, Switzerland, and the Low Countries—Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. “Tens of thousands of people in Europe and European colonies died,” and “millions of others suffered torture, arrest, interrogation, hate, guilt, or fear,” says the book Witch Hunts in the Western World.(The European colonies included the Americas.) How did this paranoia begin? What fed it?
The Inquisition and The Hammer of Witches
Looming large in this story is the Inquisition. It was created by the Roman Catholic Church in the 13th century “to convert apostates and prevent others from falling away,” explains the book Der Hexenwahn (The Witch Mania). The Inquisition functioned as a police force for the church.
On December 5, 1484, Pope Innocent VIII issued a papal bull, or document, that condemned witchcraft. He also authorized two inquisitors—Jakob Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer (also known by his Latin name, Henricus Institoris)—to combat the problem. The two men produced a book entitled Malleus Maleficarum, that is, The Hammer of Witches. Both Catholics and Protestants accepted it as the authority on witchcraft. The work contained imaginative stories about witches based on folklore, presented theological and legal arguments against witchcraft, and provided guidelines on how to identify and eliminate witches. The Hammer of Witches has been described as “the most vicious and . . . the most damaging book in all of world literature.”
The Hammer of Witches has been described as “the most vicious and . . . the most damaging book in all of world literature”
Accusations of witchcraft required no evidence of guilt. The book Hexen und Hexenprozesse (Witches and Witch Trials) states that trials were “intended only to produce a confession by the accused, by means of persuasion, pressure, or force.” Torture was common.
In response to The Hammer of Witches and the papal bull issued by Pope Innocent VIII, major witch hunts broke out in Europe. Moreover, these were aided by a new technology, the printing press, which helped to spread the mania, even across the Atlantic to America.
Who Were the Accused?
Well over 70 percent of the accused were women, especially widows, who often had no one to defend them. Victims included the poor, the elderly, and women who dispensed herbal remedies, especially if these failed. No one was truly safe—rich or poor, male or female, lowly or prominent.
People thought to be witches were blamed for all manner of evils. They allegedly “caused frost and brought forth plagues of snails and caterpillars to destroy the seed and fruits of the earth,” says the German magazine Damals. If hail struck a crop, if a cow failed to give milk, if a man was impotent or a woman barren, witches were surely to blame!
How were witches identified? Some suspects were bound and put into a “blessed” body of cold water. If they sank, they were deemed innocent and pulled out. If they floated, they were considered witches and executed on the spot or handed over to be tried. Other suspects were weighed because it was thought that witches had little or no weight.
Another test involved searching for “the Devil’s mark,” which was “a tangible sign left by the Devil of his compact with the witch,” says Witch Hunts in the Western World. Officials would search for the mark “by shaving all hair off the accused and examining every nook and cranny of the body”—in public! They would then stick a needle into any spots they found, such as birthmarks, warts, and scars. If the prick did not hurt or bleed, the spot was considered a mark of Satan.
Both Catholic and Protestant governments promoted witch hunts, and in some regions Protestant rulers were more severe than their Catholic counterparts. In time, however, reason began to prevail. In 1631, for example, Friedrich Spee, a Jesuit priest who had accompanied many people judged to be witches to the stake to be burned alive, wrote that in his view none were guilty. And if witch hunting continued unabated, he warned, the land would become empty! Meanwhile, physicians began to recognize that such things as seizures could be linked to health and not demon possession. During the 17th century, the number of trials sharply decreased, and by the end of that century, they had all but ended.
What does that ugly era teach us? One key lesson is this: When professed “Christians” began to substitute religious lies and superstition for the pure teachings of Jesus Christ, they opened the door to enormous evil. Foretelling the reproach that would be brought on true Christianity by such unfaithful men, the Bible warned: “The way of the truth will be spoken of abusively.”—2 Peter 2:1, 2.