The Witch Craze

From Ch. 9 of In Search of the Loving God
by Mark Mason

. . .

An illuminated letter Critics of Augustine could say that he opposed the reality of free will in human beings, and was such an organization man and apologist for the institutional church, precisely because his own free will was paralyzed by his weakness of character. They could go on to say that a stronger man might have continued to struggle to acquire the will power needed to constructively exercise his free will, but that being a weak, though brilliant, man, he was content to indulge his weakness, and instead built up an elaborate philosophical justification for his personal lack of free will, which boiled down to his saying that no-one else has any free will either.

After Augustine, the church weathered the dark ages in Europe, while the Goths, Vandals, Vikings and other marauders laid waste to the former Roman Empire and caused it to revert to feudalism. The beginning of a dawn after this long night of wars, feudalism and illiteracy, was the rise to power of Charlemagne, whom the pope crowned the first Holy Roman Emperor - emperor of the West - on Christmas Day 800 A.D. As the marauders settled down in their new lands, and the advance of the Islamic empire was finally halted by the military genius of Charles Martel, Charlemagne's grandfather, at the battle of Tours, eventually the stage was set where Charlemagne was able to inherit a large kingdom, extend it, and rule it in a stable and enlightened way.[9] The papacy of the time, a refuge of culture, found a strong supporter in Charlemagne. Most of Charlemagne's nobles were illiterate, as was the pattern in that brutal age, but Charlemagne himself valued learning highly, and wanted to educate his realm. He founded public schools in which, for the first time in centuries, learning and literacy were cherished. Anyone, even a peasant, who wanted to learn could attend these schools. He also established scriptoria, where Bibles and other books were copied and decorated. At the start of Charlemagne's reign there were not enough books in the whole of Western Europe to fill a modern local library, but this began to change. The beginnings of modern free education can be traced back to Charlemagne's schools, and a new sense of the worth of people arose, irrespective of their station in life, and in this can be seen the seeds of modern democracy.[10]

Although the Papacy had been a shelter for culture, the only place where a strong literary tradition had been preserved was in certain Irish monasteries. Only in them was Greek still taught. Charlemagne's minister, Alcuin, who was given the major literary task of overseeing the revision and copying of the Latin Vulgate Bible, was an Englishman educated in Ireland. By this time Irish monks had been to Egypt and measured the pyramids, which they called "the granaries of St Joseph," and in their written account of the journey they cited more than thirty classical authors. Irish scholars in that age were known to travel a lot, and one of the reasons was the presence of Danish longboats sailing the north seas, plundering the area, and often making even those in monasteries feel unsettled:

"Bitter and wild is the wind tonight
Tossing the tresses of the sea to white.
On such a night as this I feel at ease
Fierce Northmen only course the quiet seas."[11]

At around this time, it is said two Irish monks landed at a French seaport and went into the streets offering knowledge for sale. They were quickly taken to Charlemagne, who for a time kept them at his court and set them to work as teachers. After a while Charlemagne sent one to Italy to collect books and manuscripts, while retaining the other to help establish his first public school.[12]

Gothic civilization in medieval Europe started to emerge with Charlemagne, slowly at first, but then with growing enthusiasm. Some maintain the dark age continued into the tenth century, as Charlemagne didn't attempt to preserve his empire, but rather divided it up among his children, and political chaos reigned again. Nevertheless, the cultural and economic climate continued to improve. The seeds which bore fruit in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries had been planted. Under monks' directions new land was opened up to agriculture; forests were cleared, drainage channels cut. New harnesses made draught animals more efficient, and water mills became much more effective and widespread. This has been called the first industrial revolution. In the four hundred years after Charlemagne, Europe's population almost trebled to over one hundred million, and about three thousand new cities were founded. By the twelfth century Gothic cathedrals were expressing the aspirations of an optimistic new society. For the first time in many centuries, the world rose from abject filth and squalor,[13] and was seen as a beautiful place. The cathedrals were seen as symbols of society as a whole, based on the order and beauty of the Bible, but containing the image of society, in all its parts, as well. Cathedrals were usually financed by subscription, with a large variety of people from kings to craftsmen donating to them. People often donated stained-glass windows illustrating Biblical themes relating to their own profession. A guild of coopers donated a window showing Noah, who was a carpenter and also the first man to plant a vine. French kings donated windows showing their patron saint St Denis.[14] All parts of society felt united in these adventurous new buildings which flung themselves up toward heaven in grandeur and beauty.

And in this society the Bible was the guiding principle, the common truth, the rule book which justified and explained the world, right down to and including all its physical manifestations. Science was yet to provide its elegantly simple and powerful explanations of the physical world, so the Bible was asked to say it all. In the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas built a complex system of thought around the Bible, which sought to explain everything there is to explain, and which was a machine that created proofs of faith. Aquinas' writings, especially his Summa Contra Gentiles and Summa Theologica, have remained an important basis of Catholic theology to this day. As science later began to unravel the secrets of the universe, it came into conflict, again and again, with Aquinas' edifice, which the church was loath to let go of, or see modified in any way.

Like most of the Scholasticism of the time, Aquinas' world view was firmly based on the philosophy of Aristotle, who was, of course, the man who thought the earth stood at the center of the universe, and had the sun and all the planets revolving around it. Christian scholars of that time often considered Aristotle an infallible oracle, who had exhausted the resources of the human mind. The other great influence on Aquinas was Augustine, to whose theology, including that of predestination, he largely subscribed. Not all the Scholastics followed Augustine, though; Duns Scotus, for instance, was more inclined to Semi-Pelagianism. Aquinas, like Augustine, was an organization man, and staunch supporter of the absolute authority of the institutional church, so it is not surprising that the church so enthusiastically adopted his theology and view of the physical world. The concept of implicit faith was coming to be taken to mean unlimited submission of the mind to the authority of the church. With this the power of the pope increased, and the idea of papal infallibility, though not yet an official doctrine, began to take root, and was sanctioned by Aquinas.[15]

The high officers of the church really were in a frame of mind where they thought they could do no wrong, and where they thought they had a right, even a duty, to impose their views and ways on all levels of European society - and, what is more, by the twelfth century the church found it was often in a politically and militarily powerful enough position to exert this supposed right. But although the leaders of the church were often corrupted and made arrogant by power, up until this time most of the common priests, monks and nuns lived exemplary and faithful lives. Ironically, it was upon the confidence created by the example of these lives that the much-abused power of the church depended. And when, in the fourteenth century, the power of the popes waned, it was partly because people had come to see that many priests were no longer good men, that they were now often hunting around for money and legacies, and ways to throw their weight around.

The twelfth century was the height of papal power. Popes claimed the power to excommunicate a prince, absolve his subjects from their allegiance to him, and recognize a successor. They could put a nation under an interdict, where nearly all priestly functions would cease, and priests could not hold church services, marry people, or bury the dead. The most recalcitrant princes were overawed by these powerful weapons. Scotland, France and England were all placed under interdict during this century. But the popes were silly enough to use these powers so frequently that they staled their effect, and they preached crusades against offending princes until the crusading spirit died. This, combined with a neglect of the common touch - its ties with everyday people - led the church to its downfall. Up till the eleventh century Roman priests could marry, and had close ties with the people they lived among. Gregory VII made priests celibate, cutting them off from too great an intimacy with laymen in order to bind them more closely to Rome. The church also intruded its heavy hand into civil life by having its own law courts. Cases involving priests, monks, students, crusaders, widows, orphans, wills, marriages, oaths, and all cases of sorcery, heresy and blasphemy, were reserved for these clerical courts. The responsibility for producing wealth, and fighting wars to defend it, fell largely to the layman, yet he could very easily fall foul of the church and be tried for his life in a clerical court. In this atmosphere a jealously and hatred of priests grew up.[16]

The Roman Catholic church never seemed to realize that its greatest power was in the consciences of ordinary men and women. Religious enthusiasm should have been its ally, but it fought against it, and brutally forced doctrinal orthodoxy on honest doubt and liberal opinion. The Waldenses, in the south of France, were a sect teaching a return to the simplicity of Jesus in their faith and life. The church would have done well to encourage them, but Pope Innocent III instead preached a crusade against them, and allowed them to be suppressed by being burned, hacked to death, raped, and subjected to the most abominable cruelties. Even the Franciscans, followers of St Francis of Assisi, were persecuted, imprisoned and dispersed. Four Franciscan monks were burned alive at Marseilles (in 1318). On the other hand, the fiercely orthodox Dominicans, the order Thomas Aquinas was soon to join, were strongly supported by Innocent III. Early in the thirteenth century Innocent III and the two next popes, with the help of the Dominicans, revived and strengthened an organization first established 200 years earlier. Its new form was designed to even more thoroughly and systematically hunt out and destroy heresy and stifle free thought: it was the Holy Inquisition.[17] It is revealing to note that the Inquisition was strengthened and formalized, into its final insidious form, not during the church's rise to great political power, or even during its time of greatest power, but rather afterward, as its power was declining, in a desperate effort to hang on to the influence it had grown accustomed to wielding.[18]

The Holy Inquisition was a special court with power to judge intentions as well as actions. It consisted of one very powerful official called an inquisitor, who was prosecutor, judge and jury all in one, and a number of other officials including delegates, who handled preliminary investigations and formalities, familiars, who were guards, prison visitors and secret agents, and notaries, who carefully collected evidence, and filed it for future use. Mere suspicion was enough to be summoned to appear before the Inquisition, so those being tried were classified as lightly suspect, vehemently suspect, or violently suspect. The web was carefully woven to trap suspects, and it was often simpler for people to confess than to try to defend themselves. Typically, an inquisitor would suddenly arrive in a town and deliver a sermon to the people calling for reports of anyone who might be suspected of heresy, and for all who felt heresy within themselves to come forward and confess within a period of grace. When this "general inquisition" was over, the "special inquisition" began with summonses to suspected heretics, who were then imprisoned until trial.

The proceedings of the trial were not public, usually only the general nature of the charges was revealed, and evidence from two witnesses, even if they were of the most questionable character, was enough to bring a conviction. Suspects could not obtain defense lawyers, as lawyers quickly discovered that defending a suspected heretic could result in them being summoned for heresy themselves. Trials often continued for years, while the suspects languished in prison. Torture was often used to secure repentance, and though it could not be repeated, it could be continued. Torture of children and old people had to be relatively light, but only pregnant women were exempt, and then only until after the delivery. There were three levels, or degrees, of torture. In the first degree a lot of people got through without confessing. In the second degree nearly everyone confessed, as the torture was monstrous. In the third degree of torture, if they didn't die in the process, everyone ended up confessing. This is where the expression of giving someone the "third degree" comes from. The penance required following confession was light for some heretics, but for others, the "unreconciled," who were classified as insubordinate, impenitent or relapsed, the fate was far worse. The first two categories could still save themselves from the flames by confessing, and secure a lesser punishment, but for the "relapsed," along with those found to be witches, there was only one possible punishment: being burned at the stake. The Inquisition handed offenders over to the secular authorities for burning, as canon law prevented the church from shedding blood.[19]

Three main categories of people were targeted by the Inquisition during its centuries-long reign of terror. The original targets were religious heretics. These included groups such as the Cathars and Waldensians. The Cathars, also known as Albigensians in France, believed, like the earlier Manicheans, in two gods, a good god who created the invisible spiritual world, and an evil god who created the material world. The evil god, who they identified as the God of the Old Testament, was supposed to have imprisoned the soul in its earthly body, and death merely caused the soul to migrate to another body, human or animal. Salvation could only be obtained by breaking free from this cycle, and Christ, the Son of the good God, had been sent to humanity to show the way of this salvation. Christ was a life-giving Spirit, whose earthly body was only an illusion. They accepted the New Testament, but rejected all the church's sacraments, replacing them with the one sacrament of spiritual baptism by the laying on of hands. They held Christ instituted this baptism to give recipients the Holy Spirit. They claimed this baptism had been handed down from the apostles by a succession of "good men" but that the church had perverted Christ's teachings and had become enslaved by the evil god of matter. Cathars were divided into two classes, the Perfect, who had received their spiritual baptism, and the Believers, who had not. The Perfect lived in strict poverty as ascetics. They lived in chastity, often fasted, ate only vegetarian food, and renounced marriage and oaths. The Believers followed the Perfect with great veneration and unquestioning obedience, as only the Perfect could pray directly to God. Most Believers delayed receiving spiritual baptism until they were in danger of death, as they felt the discipline required of a Perfect would be too much for them. The holiness and austerity of the Perfect contrasted starkly with the riches of the Catholic Church and the corruption of many of its clergy. Many found the Cathars answered their spiritual needs in a way Catholicism did not. At the beginning of the thirteenth century it seemed as if southern France might become entirely Cathar, and this provoked Innocent III's crusade against them, which (between 1208 and 1250) destroyed their political power and ruined the civilization and economy of the area where most of them lived. The Inquisition was very much involved in this process.[20]

The Waldensians were followers of Peter Waldo, who had been a wealthy merchant in Lyons until he was converted to Christianity (in 1175). He gave away his worldly goods in order to live a simple life of poverty and preaching, in imitation of Jesus. He had a French translation of the New Testament made from the Latin to help with his evangelism. Many devoted men and women supported him. Initially Pope Alexander III gave his approval to this ideal of illiterate lay people living in simple poverty, on the condition that they must obtain the permission and supervision of local church authorities before doing any preaching. But in spreading the message of the Bible (otherwise not much read by lay people in those days), and exalting the virtues of poverty, they were a living condemnation of the wealth and laxity of the established church. Within two years the Archbishop of Lyons prohibited them from preaching from the Scriptures at all. They responded by preaching all the more zealously. Three years later they were excommunicated by Pope Lucius III, who also ordered that they be eliminated by episcopal inquisition and secular punishment. Within ten years this enthusiastic popular movement had been branded a heresy. Rather than submit to the church, the Waldensians fled from Lyons and organized their own church, with their own bishops, priests and deacons. They claimed to be the true church, and became well established in some areas. Pope Innocent III denounced them as heretics and set to work to persecute them through the organization he was establishing to wipe out heresy - the Inquisition. The pope's outbursts had the effect of convincing the Waldensians that the Catholic Church really was the "Whore of Babylon" and needn't even be acknowledged. Although they were continually hounded by the Inquisition, the Waldensians infiltrated most of Europe, and strongly influenced Protestant thought. The Catholic Church's two main objections to the Waldensians were their unauthorized preaching from the Bible, and their rejection of the role of priests as intermediaries between people and God. It was largely for these two reasons that they were declared heretics.[21]

Even the gentle Franciscans were persecuted by the Inquisition. Shortly after St Francis of Assisi died, his order ran into trouble with the church. The Franciscans split over the question of whether they should be allowed to own property, or whether they should keep to St Francis' original ideal of poverty. Pope Innocent IV supported the right to own property, the "Conventual" position. The "Spirituals," who supported the ideal of poverty, finally decided to cut all ties with the order, since it owned property. Pope John XXII ordered them to rejoin the other Franciscans. Spirituals who refused to obey were judged by the Inquisition, and four were executed. The Spiritual Franciscans were a thorn in the side of the Papacy because they drove home the point that poverty was the ideal practiced by Jesus and his disciples. From this came the idea that the church hierarchy should be aloof from entanglements in the world. It put the massive wealth and worldly power of the Papacy under scrutiny. The pope condemned the Franciscan doctrine of poverty, and some Franciscan leaders were excommunicated. Nevertheless, those favoring poverty eventually predominated in the order.

The second category of people persecuted by the Inquisition were scientists. The burning of Bruno at the stake, and the famous trial of Galileo, are amongst the most remembered acts of the Inquisition. The scientific community has, quite rightly, never allowed the church to forget its persecution of scientists and its obstruction of scientific progress. The church stuck obstinately to the world view of Aristotle which it had adopted through Thomas Aquinas. In its pride it thought it should be able to dictate the nature of the truth about God's universe. It never had the modesty and discernment to see that Aristotle's cosmology, useful though it was, should have been seen merely as a starting point, which scientists could modify and add to in the process of discovering the way God's universe actually works. The church alienated large numbers of educated people through its obstruction of science, and is still, to some extent, doing so today.

So successful has been the scientific community's highlighting of the atrocities it suffered at the hands of the Inquisition, that it is easy to form the impression that this was the main evil of this barbaric institution. This is far from being the truth, though. The third, and by far the largest, group of people to suffer under the Inquisition were women. Only now, in the late twentieth century, are historians coming to realize the extent of the holocaust perpetrated by the church through the Inquisition and Protestant courts. Some have estimated that as many as nine million people were tortured and executed for witchcraft, over three centuries, and that eighty-five percent of them were women.[22] Others claim the figure should be much lower, on the basis that only about 200,000 people in western Europe between 1450 and 1700 were killed as a result of formal investigations that we know about.[23] Considering, however, that only a minority of the people persecuted as witches were formally tried,[24] accurate records were often not kept,[25] and that over the centuries many, if not most, of the records of trials and executions are likely to have been lost, it is reasonable to suppose that the 200,000 documented cases are just the tip of the iceberg, and that the real figure must run into the millions. Both the Inquisition and the Protestant churches were guilty of this slaughter - in fact the Protestant church in Germany was the most vehement burner of witches, and persisted for the longest in doing so.[26] Both Luther and Calvin fully supported the burning of witches,[27] and just about everywhere their Protestant theology spread, this hideous practice went with it.[28] Any woman who claimed a degree of independence or influence, or who was at all unusual or mysterious, was in danger of being declared a witch, and the punishment for being a witch was to be burned to death at the stake.

Toward the end of the "dark ages," the Emperor Charlemagne had forbidden the burning of supposed witches, and decreed the death penalty for anyone in the newly converted Saxony who did so. Shortly afterward, in the ninth century, the church repudiated the belief that witches had supernatural powers, and declared anyone who believed in them to be an infidel and a pagan. This statement was accepted into the canon law, and became known as the canon Episcopi.[29] Up until the fourteenth century the church retained this sensible policy that witches don't exist, but then the reversal of thinking began. The Dominicans, who had been entrusted with the task of fighting heresy through the Inquisition, and once these heresies had been brutally suppressed, brought pressure on the popes to allow the Inquisition to go on to eliminate the witchcraft.

Finally, in the fifteenth century, two Dominican inquisitors, Heinrich Kramer and Jakob Sprenger, convinced the pope to act. Pope Innocent VIII issued the bull Summis Desiderantes Affectibus (of 1484), which deplored the spread of witchcraft in Germany and authorized his "beloved sons," Kramer and Sprenger, to "extirpate" it. Two years later these two Dominicans published the Malleus Maleficarum, "The Hammer of Witches," a handbook on how to detect and eradicate witches. With this book, one of the first to be widely distributed through Europe after the advent of the printing press, witchcraft came to be considered a terrible heresy, and the main purpose of the Inquisition was seen to be to eliminate it. The two hundred years of torture and slaughter that resulted came to be known as the "witch craze."[30] Even then, the persecution of witches looked like dying out soon after it began, in the early sixteenth century, until it was fired up again into two centuries of intolerance, hatred and mass carnage by the Reformation and the Counter Reformation. Witchcraft came to be identified with paganism, and the competition between Protestants and Catholics in evangelizing and converting the many pagan areas left in Europe led to a huge harvest of supposed witches, who were burned at the stake to cleanse newly converted areas and eradicate old pockets of paganism such as those in the Alps and Pyrenees.[31] This Reformation evangelism had a lot in common with modern fundamentalism, including a fervent return to the belief that the end of the world was about to occur, and that the Millennium would soon be established.[32] Without any effective separation of church and state, havoc reigned.

There are a number of reasons why medieval society was able to take this sinister turn. The reduced political power of the church after Innocent III, leading to its fragmentation during the Reformation, was one contributing factor. As the church lost its political power to princes, it increasingly concentrated on exerting its power over the life style of ordinary people. The church was intent on imposing an hierarchical, male-dominated power structure, such as it had within itself, onto all parts of society. It faced stiff opposition in doing so, though. For thousands of years the village life style over most of Europe had been quite a fair and equal one. Women and men worked side-by-side, and both often held positions of prestige, and were looked up to as leaders and healers. In particular, most of the healers were women, as they did so in the tradition of their society's pagan past, where earth goddesses were worshiped. Healing has, in all societies and at all times, been considered a divine function,[33] so the practice of healing fell largely to women, who were more intuitively in tune with the feminine "earth" nature of their most important gods. As healers, these women were often looked up to as wise counselors, and were much respected. In these times the word "witch" was not associated with darkness and evil as it later was; rather it signified someone wise. The word came from the Anglo-Saxon root wic - to bend or shape, and a witch was someone who could bend or shape consciousness or events in life. Their powers were descended from the old shamanic tradition, which induced altered states of consciousness without using drugs, through simple techniques like meditation, chanting and singing.[34]

Priests were enraged when village wise women received the honor and gratitude the church claimed for God alone. The church believed in a male God, and that, consequently, men were superior, and should occupy all the prestigious positions, particularly those involved with healing. It claimed this reflected the divine order. The church also believed it had a right to impose its views on society by force, if necessary, and it set about destroying the ancient social order of Europe, and establishing a new structure in its place. This new structure was hierarchical, dictatorial, conservative and male-dominated, and expected slavish, unquestioning loyalty from each level of the hierarchy to the level above it. It was a hardened form of the dictatorships of the Roman Empire, and closely resembled modern Fascism. One of its aims was to domesticate women and make good housewives of them. By the time the witch craze ended in the eighteenth century, it had largely succeeded in doing this.

Even after men had come to dominate most areas of medicine, women continued to be midwives, and to be in demand for their general healing ability.[35] This led the Inquisition to announce that no-one did more harm to the Catholic faith than midwives. They eased the pain of labor, God's punishment for Eve's sin, and they interfered with God's will through the use of birth control and abortion. New laws proclaimed that any woman who dared heal people without having studied was a witch, and must die. Since most women were barred from universities, the rise of the male medical profession was guaranteed. Women healers who continued to practice lived in constant fear of their lives. An example is Alison Peirsoun of Byrehill, who had a reputation as a gifted healer. The archbishop of St Andrews sent for her to try and heal him, as he suffered from various disorders which other practitioners had been unable to bring him relief from. Alison cured him, however, in response, he not only refused to pay her bill, but also had her arrested. She was charged with witchcraft and executed.[36]

This was a battle between the traditional leaders and informers of society, and the church, which was intent on assuming the role. Although the church faced strong resistance from the traditional wise women and men of European society in establishing its antithetical hierarchy and values, it had an ally which ruling establishments have long used to get their way: the intolerance and fear of non-conformity of the masses of ignorant people. The church exploited this mercilessly.

In these superstitious times, Jews were hated and persecuted, and were the main target of the Spanish Inquisition.[37] And women were feared by men, often just because they were different - because the sexes always find it difficult to understand each other. Women were also feared for their sexuality and procreative power, which, again, men didn't understand. This enabled the officially sanctioned witch burnings to grow into an almost out-of-control holocaust. It was an application of the technique of "divide and conquer." In largely Protestant Germany alone, one hundred thousand witch burnings have been carefully documented. At the turn of the seventeenth century, a contemporary observer noted that: "Germany is almost entirely occupied with building fires for the witches. Switzerland has been compelled to wipe out many of her villages on their account. Travelers in Lorraine may see thousands and thousands of the stakes to which witches are bound."[38] In Germany inquisitors had ovens built to handle the mass burning of witches, of much the same design as those later built by Hitler for the Jews. The prince-bishop of Würzburg, one of the places where these ovens were built, stated that man's greatest misfortune was to have been born from the stinking private parts of women. In Würzburg, and many other parts of Germany, even the most virtuous, beautiful and modest girls were burned, and three hundred children were burned, many having been accused of having had intercourse with the devil.[39]

Just about every sort of unexplained misfortune was blamed on witches. If a cow failed to give milk, a witch was blamed. The witch could be anyone the accuser disliked or distrusted, or anyone who was unusual or had been seen near the cow. Identification and execution of the witch were believed to reverse the troublesome condition. It was believed impotence could be cured if the witch causing the problem could be found and punished or killed. The justification for this was that Thomas Aquinas had earlier written into church records that a witch was likely to be to blame if a man's penis wilted.[40] King James I of England believed that plots and supernatural forces threatened his life, and it was he who commissioned the first translation of the Bible containing the word "witch." Exodus 22:18: "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live," was used to help justify the murdering of hundreds of thousands of women. This is despite the fact that as early as 1584, Reginal Scot pointed out that the Hebrew word in question, Kashaph, is not accurately translated as "witch," and would be better rendered as "poisoner." He was ignored, and the witch burning went on.[41]

This witch hysteria was exacerbated by the conditions in Europe during the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The plague pandemic called the Black Death raged during this time and halved the population of Europe. It returned again and again to ravage society. In one year alone (1478), the Black Death killed off one third of the population. At the same time many other diseases, such as syphilis and small pox, took their toll. Women seemed to be more resistant to the Black Death than men, and this, along with the toll on men taken by wars, meant that there were many more women in society than men. The large number of women who were unable to marry lived independent lives, not under the control of husbands, and this threatened the male hierarchy.[42] Also, life had been made cheap by the devastation of disease, and the economy had suffered in the process. Much property ended up in the hands of elderly widows and spinsters. Such women became objects of suspicion and envy, and consequently were vulnerable to charges of witchcraft. They became scapegoats for communities plagued by war, disease, and rapid social change. Pressure was taken off the establishment by convincing people that their difficulties arose from the fact that witches were present, blighting the harvest, causing barrenness in the marriage bed, and striking people down with disease. People were easily enough convinced that it was not the state, nor the pope, nor the bishop who was the source of their problems; but that it was, rather, the accursed presence of witches.

There was great social upheaval during these times. Peasants were forced off their land into cities, so land owners could establish larger farms, and calls for reform, and peasant rebellions, led to charges of witchcraft being laid against them. Repression increased. The helpless, mysterious and nonconformist were victimized. Punishments became public spectacles. Many suffered, but women most of all. Husbands were advised from the pulpit to beat their wives, not in rage, but out of charity for their souls.

The Inquisition was also a good way of redistributing the wealth which accumulated in the hands of elderly women. The bureaucratic state and capitalism were emerging. A new profit ethic was beginning to take hold. Witch hunts were a profitable business. There was meticulous bookkeeping. Each step of the trial was costed and charged for. There were charges for seizing the witch, escorting her, and locking her up. Her torture and execution were charged for. If the witch owned any property, it would be confiscated to pay for these costs. It generated widespread employment opportunities for lawyers and judges, torturers, and those sitting on tribunals and helping in many capacities.[43]

Anyone could be accused of witchcraft. One accusation by a neighbor could set the wheels in motion. After having been in jail for some time, and probably already having been tortured, a woman accused of being a witch would be brought before the Inquisition. Nearly all witch trials were in small country towns, and took place in the town square, which was usually in front of the church. Nearly everyone came out to look at the spectacle. The suspected witch was brought out, then stripped of all her clothes, as it was thought she may have a spell in her clothes, or an item sown into the hem which was made of something sinister like the skin of an unbaptized child. Both the hair on her head and her pubic hair were shaved, as hair had always been thought to have a lot of power, and when women braided their hair they were thought to braid men's fate. She then had to approach the Inquisitor walking backwards so she couldn't give him the evil eye. After this the trial would proceed through the first, second and third degrees of torture, in order to obtain the desired confessions. Finally the convicted witch would be handed over to the secular authorities for burning.

This is a contemporary description of the torture of a witch:

"The torturer made her sit on the rack, undressed her, and applied the thumb screws. When the thumb screws were applied to her toes she cried out louder than before. The Inquisitor inserted the mouth pear and demanded that she confess. When it was removed, she told her story. Ten years ago it happened that the devil came to her in the guise of a man. First they danced, then they dined, then she and others knelt before the goat and kissed him. Here she named eight neighbors."[44]

Only one letter from a suspected witch survives. It was written in 1590 by Rebecca Lamp:

"Oh husband, they take me from thee by force. How can God suffer it? My heart is nearly broken. Alas, alas, my poor dear children orphaned. Husband, send me something that I might die, or I must expire under torture. If thou canst not today, do it tomorrow. Write to me directly. R.L.[45]

When the records of witch trials were studied, it was found that witches right across Europe made much the same confessions under torture. When women made a contract with the devil, it appeared almost always to be finalized by some sexual act, and the women always seemed to say that sexual union with the devil is a very painful thing, and never enjoyable. Apparently the devil's penis is as cold as ice. This discovery caused much consternation, for if there wasn't such a thing as witchcraft, what could the explanation be for all these women responding in such a similar way? It turned out the reason was that Inquisitors were all supplied with handbooks specifying the type of questions to pose, and the particular confessions to seek from the tortured women. The most popular handbook was the Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer against Witches). This is a highly sexual book, involving a lot of repression and projection of men's fears about many things, including women and sexuality.[46] The nature of the confessions sought, and the way women were stripped and shaved of all their hair before being tried or tortured, both confirm that there were strong sadistic overtones to the witch trials. St Thomas Aquinas belonged to the Dominican order during the decades when the Dominicans were first entrusted to run the Inquisition, and there can be little doubt he was a sadist; this is obvious from his infamous statement about the pleasures of heaven. Aquinas wrote that next to contemplating God, the greatest pleasure for the blessed ones in heaven would be watching the tortures of the eternally damned.

Near the city of Trier in Germany, in the space of one year (in 1585), the Inquisition left two entire villages with only one female inhabitant alive in each, and in the following eight years twenty-two more villages were decimated.[47] Yet all this was just a part of a continuing carnage. People in Trier have now forgotten that for hundreds of years women there lived in terror, and that six generations of children watched as their mothers burned at the stake. The reason they have forgotten this is that history is written by the winners, and for hundreds of years little has been said about this holocaust.[48] Instead, history has concentrated on the Renaissance, the Reformation and the scientific revolution, which were happening, in a very male-dominated way, at the same time that women were being tortured and burned into submission.[49] However, the effect of these burning times still smolders in the church and in society, in their relationships with women, and in the suppression of the "feminine," feeling, side of men, and will continue to do so until the problem is addressed. One way it can be addressed, and indeed is already beginning to be, is to bring the issue right out into the open, and fully acknowledge the terrible wrongs that were done. The witch craze haunts our society in much the same way as suppressed and un-dealt-with childhood traumas haunt the lives of many adults.
. . .

From: In Search of the Loving God by Mark Mason - Copyright © 1997.

To find out about options for purchasing the book (384 pp.), including buying an autographed copy directly from the author, visit my Bookstore Page.

Return to Chapter Summaries and Excerpts

Home Page of this Site