Winter, 1484. Pope Innocent VIII decrees an approval for the Inquisition to proceed in “correcting, imprisoning, punishing” perpetrators of witchcraft “according to their deserts.” With such a papal order, the age of the witch-hunt in Europe had begun.
1324, County Kilkenny, Ireland. Over a century before the Vatican’s edict and three and a half centuries before the sleepy New England village of Salem fell madly into infamy, Alice Kyteler, an aging noblewoman came under suspicion of poisoning her four husbands, sacrificing animals at crossroads, having sex with a demon named Robert, and worst of all denying the faith of Christ. Kyteler would flee and escape her fate, but her maidservant would pay for the purported crimes against God. She was tortured to confession in unknown ways, flogged and finally burned at the stake. She would be the first in the British Isles to be burned for witchcraft and condemned to death for heresy. This would mark the first real witch trial in Europe, setting the stage for centuries of suffering to come.
Prior to the Early Modern Period, Christianity had a relatively mild approach to witchcraft. Medieval Christianity considered magic a rural folk religion; more healers and charmers than Satanic sorcerers. The Church officially denied the existence of witches, condemning them as pagan superstition, the absence of God rather than an act against him. Cases involving such matters were left to the secular courts, rather than being prosecuted through the church. This medieval persecution of paganism would, however, set a template for witch-hunting in the Modern era. The Church’s indifference would begin to change in the Late Medieval Period, notably with Thomas Aquinas’ 13th century writings, aligning sorcery with heresy and the Devil. Riding on the heels of the Protestant Reformation, coupled with Renaissance occultism, Christianity’s view on witches had changed. Maleficium, witchcraft, was a pact with the Devil, heretics giving their souls to Satan with sex and sacrifice, gaining new powers to be set against God’s children. This radical shift in perception of the witch as less shaman and more Satanic spell-caster led to a new conviction as to what had to be done. The witches of Europe must be purged. Thus the witch-craze truly began and the countryside was set ablaze. The holy fire would rage across Europe unchecked for centuries, taking an estimated 40,000 to 100,000 lives with it.
The first mass trials occurred in the shadows of the Western Alps in 1428, sending hundreds to the pyres. In the
torture-induced confessions, it was said that Sabbaths with the devil took place in basements, the Devil appearing as a black bear or ram, holding anti-Christian sermons and mock confessions of good deeds done. An early example of the flying witch is described, riding a chair instead of a broom stick. What torture was used to bring these confessions was not well documented, but as the witch-hunts spread into the rest of Europe, that would eventually change.
1487, Germany. The Malleus Malificarum, The Hammer of Witches (a bestseller of its time, second only to the Bible for two centuries) is published. It and other treatises codified the practice of witch finding and torture techniques to secure confessions. It was also in Germany that some of the most heinous acts in the extermination of accused witches took place. In 1581 the western city of Triers became the site of possibly the largest mass executions of Europe in peace time, tolling 368 victims. There were so many prosecutions of witches that it is written that the executioner, abundant with work, “rode a blooded horse like a nobleman of the court, dressed in silver and gold.” A woman in the trials of Fulda pleaded for mercy on grounds of pregnancy. Under torture, she was made to admit that the child was a product of carnal relations with Satan himself. Her and her unborn child were burned. The Würzburg trials, among the largest of the Early Modern Period, totaling some 900 deaths in the entirety of the region, saw children as young as three executed for sex with demons. The hysteria was epidemic. People were tortured and killed for charges ranging from murder to humming a song with the Devil. The trials took high ranking nobles and church officials. Farmers and politicians. Vagrants who had no satisfactory reason for passing through town were sent to the Malefizhaus, the witch prison. The insanity was only matched by its cruelty.
The Pappenheimer family was tried and executed for witchcraft in Germany in 1600, during the height of the witch trials. The mother, father, and three sons were taken from their beds in the night, accused of assisting a thief in the murder of pregnant women for the purpose of making candles out of their unbaptized fetuses. They were ordered to be tortured, eventually confessing to all charges, including every unsolved murder in Bavaria and a slew of other impossible crimes. The parents and the eldest sons were to be executed together with two other men. The men were torn with piercing irons, their bones broken on the wheel, and the father impaled on a pike. The breasts of the mother were cut off while she was still alive, smeared in her face as well as the mouths of her adult sons. All were then sent to the flames. The witch-hunters, men of God, forced the youngest son, only ten, to watch the atrocity. He would be spared that day, but two years later, after a forced baptism and name change, the boy would be strangled and the body burned.
Europe’s witch-craze reached its climax in the 16th and 17th centuries, finally waning in the 18th century, but not before unleashing its madness on an entire continent, a belief that the Devil’s disciples infested the whole of Christendom from top to bottom. With a death toll that lowered the populations of cities, only blood and fire would cleanse the land, an outbreak of church sanctioned violence, sending noblemen and peasants alike to the stake, torturing and killing children for keeping demonic paramours, and ultimately making executioners wealthy and holy men murderers.