Trial by Ignorance - A  History of the European Witchhunts
Metroland - October 25, 2002
Glenn Weiser

Written for the Halloween 2002 issue.-GW

Like May Day, the two solstices, and other times, Halloween is one of the traditional witches' Sabbaths. The familiar sight of little girls in witch costumes trick - or - treating, however, stands in stark contrast to the gruesome story of the European witch-hunts of the 15th to18th centuries. As with the Holocaust and other horrors of times past, the tragedy of countless lives lost to ignorance and superstition is a lesson of history not to be forgotten. 

    After Europe was evangelized in the centuries following the fall of Rome, pockets of pagan belief with its goddess worship persisted, and wise women skilled the use of herbal medicines were also not uncommon. Christianity, though, had been developing a contemptuous view of women ever since St Peter pronounced them "the weaker vessel." St. Clement of Alexandria wrote in the 2nd century that "Every woman should be filled with shame by the thought that she is a woman," and the 6th century Christian writer Bothius declared in his work The Consolation of Philosophy "Woman is a temple built upon a sewer." 

Elements of the coming confrontation were already falling into place by the 8th century as the Church legislated against wicce-craeft - heathen practices such as evil spells, sacrificing to demons, and divinations. By the 9th century women claiming to have flown at night astride animals with many other women in the company of the goddess Diana came to the attention of the Council of Ancyra. The council, however, soberly dismissed these assertions as products of dreams and officially dismissed them as illusory, thus impeding the persecution of witches for centuries to come. 

In his classic 1958 study Witchcraft, British scholar Geoffrey Parrinder suggests that some of these claims, a common thread in the confessions of witches, could have been inspired by the use of the hallucinogen belladonna, and that flying dreams without the use of drugs are not unusual anyway. After rats on grain ships from the Crimea brought bubonic plague to Europe in 1346, killing an estimated third of the population within three years, a demand for scapegoats arose. 

The Inquisition, which had been established to root out heresies in the 12th century and on the continent of Europe was armed with torture as a means of extracting confessions, started with Jews rather than the as yet undiscovered bacterium Yersinia pestis as the probable cause. In Germany, most Jews were executed, although some fled to Eastern Europe. But with the plague continuing to recur about once every ten years, a great fear of witches seized Europe. The Inquisition's gaze then turned to those it suspected of the banned heathen practice. And they were mostly women. 

The Council of Ancyra's decree holding that there was no such thing as night-riding and nocturnal congregations of witches stood in the Inquisition's way, though. In an instance of ecclesiastical chicanery, the old edict was circumvented in 1458 when an inquisitor named Nicholas Jaquerius held that witchcraft was a new sect altogether different from that the Council had spoken of, and tied it to Satan by claiming that woman had confessed to consorting with devil in the shape of goat during their Sabbaths. And besides, he maintained, even if night riding was an illusion, these women still clung to Satan during the day. The Inquisition was only too happy to see it Jaquerius' way. 

In 1484 Pope Innocent VIII issued a papal bull declaring war on witches in which both the Church and secular authorities were given full power to proceed against them. Within five years, Germany's two chief inquisitors, Fathers Kramer and Sprenger, wrote a notorious textbook for conducting witch trials, the Malleus Maleficarum, translatable as "the hammer of witches." Under the new rules, torture could be kept up for days on end, children could turn in their parents, criminals could give evidence, and even defense lawyers could become suspect. A denial of witchcraft was seen as sure sign of guilt. Convicted witches were to be handed over to local authorities and burnt at the stake. And conveniently, only the inquisitors themselves were somehow immune from the satanic influence that seemed to be spreading like the plague itself. 

With Innocent VIII's bull in one hand and the Malleus Maleficarum in the other, the inquisitors fanned out through Europe hunting, torturing and burning witches. The popular belief was that witches engaged with lustful revels with Satan, mocked the Christian religion, and, worst of all, and ate unbaptized babies at their Sabbaths. The hapless people accused by friends, neighbors, and relatives trying to save themselves from the stake were expected to confess to all this. Only a steadfast denial of guilt under torture could save the accused. Most, of course, confessed to avoid the agony of the racks, thumbscrews, and other tools of the inquisitors' trade. 

Estimates of how many perished range from one hundred thousand to a million, with the greatest loss of life occurring in France and Germany. Fortunately for England, common law forbade torture in most cases, and relatively few executions took place. In Spain, too, the chief inquisitor, Frias Salazar, examined hundreds of cases and found merit in none of them. But elsewhere on the Continent, entire villages were sometimes wiped out. With the Reformation, Protestant inquisitors joined the hunt as well The witch-hunts were an orgy of misogyny - scholars estimate that 80 to 90 percent of those burned as witches were women. Of the male victims, many were simply trying to protect the accused women from the hunters. Single women, elderly and feeble peasant women, midwives, lesbians, and women who had pets that could be brought into evidence as "animal familiars" all became targets. 

And yet, through it all, history does not record a single instance of anyone ever having witnessed a witches' Sabbath. The phenomenon of witchcraft, Parrinder writes, was entirely in the minds of the inquisitors. And even though the Age of Enlightenment brought the witch burnings to an end, history always seems to provide enough events to prove that wherever ignorance and blind obedience to either religious or temporal authority prevail, innocent people will be in danger.

 List of Metroland Stories by Glenn Weiser                          2002 by Glenn Weiser. All rights reserved.

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