Witches and The Inquisition

Christians of all backgrounds share a common shame with regards to their treatment of witches. It was a very dark time in history regardless of whether it was in a Catholic or Protestant society. In this article we're going to try to sort out the fact from fiction about the witch burnings of the Middle Ages.

In the last 20 years virtually all reputable secular historians have revised witch death rates to 40,000 - 60,000, and that less than 500 of those deaths were caused directly by the Church through the Inquisition

Although these deaths are inexcusable, they are a long way from the 9 million number quoted in the Nation Film Board's popular (but unhistorical) movie called "The Burning Times." Jenny Gibbons belongs to a wiccan movement and she is also an historian with an MA in medieval history and a minor in the Great Hunt. If anyone should be against the Church it would be her. She wrote an article for a pagan web site "Covenant of the Goddess." We would not agree that the wiccan path is viable for humans to become holy. However, we have a great respect for the integrity with which she reveals the truth about the burning times to her wiccan associates. Here is an excerpt:

Since the late 1970's, a quiet revolution has taken place in the study of historical witchcraft and the Great European Witch Hunt. ... many theories which reigned supreme thirty years ago have vanished, swept away by a flood of new data. the quantity and quality of available evidence has dramatically improved...Today, for the first time, we have a good idea of the dimensions of the Great Hunt: where the trials occurred, who was tried in them, who did the killing, and how many people lost their lives. Every aspect of the Great Hunt, from chronology to death toll, has changed. And if your knowledge of the "Burning Times" is based on popular or Pagan literature, nearly everything you know may be wrong.

For years, the responsibility for the Great Hunt has been dumped on the Catholic Church's door-step. 19th century historians ascribed the persecution to religious hysteria. And when Margaret Murray proposed that witches were members of a Pagan sect, popular writers trumpeted that the Great Hunt was not a mere panic, but rather a deliberate attempt to exterminate Christianity's rival religion. Today, we know that there is absolutely no evidence to support this theory.

When the Church was at the height of its power (11th-14th centuries) very few witches died. Persecutions did not reach epidemic levels until after the Reformation, when the Catholic Church had lost its position as Europe's indisputable moral authority. Moreover most of the killing was done by secular courts. Church courts tried many witches but they usually imposed non-lethal penalties. A witch might be excommunicated, given penance, or imprisoned, but she was rarely killed. The Inquisition almost invariably pardoned any witch who confessed and repented.

... in York, England, as described by Keith Thomas (Religion and the Decline of Magic). At the height of the Great Hunt (1567-1640) one half of all witchcraft cases brought before church courts were dismissed for lack of evidence. No torture was used, and the accused could clear himself by providing four to eight "compurgators", people who were willing to swear that he wasn't a witch. Only 21% of the cases ended with convictions, and the Church did not impose any kind of corporal or capital punishment.

... Ironically, the worst courts were local courts. ..."Community-based" courts were often virtual slaughterhouses, killing 90% of all accused witches... national courts tended to have professional, trained staff -- men who were less likely to discard important legal safeguards in their haste to see "justice" done.

But what of the Inquisition? For many, the "Inquisition" and the "Burning Times" are virtually synonymous. The myth of the witch-hunting inquisition was built on several assumptions and mistakes, all of which have been overturned in the last twenty-five years.

...a common translation error ... said that a witch was tried "by inquisition"..Later, when historians examined the records in greater detail, they found that the majority did not involve the Inquisition, merely an inquisition ...older and more popular texts (such as Rossell Hope Robbins' Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology) still have the Inquisition killing witches in times and places where it did not even exist.

...In the 1970's, when feminist and Neo-Pagan authors turned their attention to the witch trials, the Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches) was the only manual readily available in translation. Authors naively assumed that the book painted an accurate picture of how the Inquisition tried witches. Heinrich Kramer, the text's demented author, was held up as a typical inquisitor. His rather stunning sexual preoccupations were presented as the Church's "official" position on witchcraft. Actually the Inquisition immediately rejected the legal procedures Kramer recommended and censured the inquisitor himself just a few years after the Malleus was published. Secular courts, not inquisitorial ones, resorted to the Malleus.

...Lamothe-Langon's [who's notoriously forged] trials were the last great piece of "evidence", and when they fell, scholars re-examined the Inquisition's role in the Burning Times. What they found was quite startling. In 1258 Pope Alexander IV explicitly refused to allow the Inquisition from investigating charges of witchcraft: "The Inquisitors, deputed to investigate heresy, must not intrude into investigations of divination or sorcery without knowledge of manifest heresy involved." The gloss on this passage explained what "manifest heresy" meant: "praying at the altars of idols, to offer sacrifices, to consult demons, to elicit responses from them... or if [the witches] associate themselves publicly with heretics." In other words, in the 13th century the Church did not consider witches heretics or members of a rival religion.

It wasn't until 1326, almost 100 years later, that the Church reversed its position and allowed the Inquisition to investigate witchcraft. But the only significant contribution that was made was in the development of "demonology", the theory of the diabolic origin of witchcraft. As John Tedeschi demonstrates in his essay "Inquisitorial Law and the Witch" (in Bengt Ankarloo and Gustav Henningsen's Early Modern European Witchcraft) the Inquisition still played a very small role in the persecution. From 1326-1500, few deaths occurred. Richard Kieckhefer (European Witch Trials) found 702 definite executions in all of Europe from 1300-1500; of these, only 137 came from inquisitorial or church courts. By the time that trials were common (early 16th century) the Inquisition focused on the proto-Protestants. When the trials peaked in the 16th and 17th century, the Inquisition was only operating in two countries: Spain and Italy, and both had extremely low death tolls.

In fact, in Spain the Inquisition worked diligently to keep witch trials to a minimum. Around 1609, a French witch-craze triggered a panic in the Basque regions of Spain. Gustav Henningsen (The Witches' Advocate) documented the Inquisition's work in brilliant detail. Although several inquisitors believed the charges, one skeptic convinced La Suprema (the ruling body of the Spanish Inquisition) that this was groundless hysteria. La Suprema responded by issuing an "Edict of Silence" forbidding all discussion of witchcraft. For, as the skeptical inquisitor noted, "There were neither witches nor bewitched until they were talked and written about."

...The Witches Court records showed that there was no such thing as an "average" witch: there was no characteristic that the majority of witches shared, in all times and places. Not gender. Not wealth. Not religion. Nothing. The only thing that united them was the fact that they were accused of witchcraft. The diversity of witches is one of the strongest arguments against the theory that the Great Hunt was a deliberate pogrom aimed at a specific group of people. If that was true, then most witches would have something in common.

Jenny is a wiccan historian writing for the Covenant of the Goddess website. If any web site would be against Catholicism this site would be but she had the integrity to report the results of her research. We also have found similar information from secular and religious historians. The article originally appeared in the The Pomegranate, the New Journal of Neo-pagan Studies. Lammas 1998, Volume #5.

What is Witchcraft?

We won't go into a detailed description of the witchcraft of the Middle Ages here but here are a few basics. Witchcraft was the use of power other than divine powers, to perform paranormal activities. In the case of black magic the intention was to cause harm, perhaps to cause sickness, death of adults, infants or livestock, hailstorms, etc...  White magic was used to to counteract the black magic, however, the Church would say even white magic is dangerous. Witchcraft was an acquired skill, it was something that was learned.  It was not something that one is born with.  White magic is used against black magic,

Up until the late 1400's the Church downplayed the role of witchcraft. The Church's opinion on witchcraft did not begin to formulate from a theological perspective until the end of the Middle Ages. Before that the church tried to discourage it as superstitious, rather than an actual power. However, after the Black death, things changed a lot.  People began to take witchcraft seriously and to consider it as a genuine threat. Everyone at that time believed that witchcraft was real, and that it actually could cause harm. So they treated it much the same way as they treated other forms of serious harm such as murder. There are many biblical verses upon which the Church was willing to draw. (i.e., Ex 22:17,  Gal 5:19-21and the book of Revelation)

The Catholic Encyclopedia says this:

...In Witchcraft, as commonly understood, there is involved the idea of a diabolical pact or at least an appeal to the intervention of the spirits of evil. In such cases this supernatural aid is usually invoked either to compass the death of some obnoxious person, or to awaken the passion of love in those who are the objects of desire, or to call up the dead, or to bring calamity or impotence upon enemies, rivals, and fancied oppressors. This is not an exhaustive enumeration, but these represent some of the principal purposes that witchcraft has been made to serve at nearly all periods of the world's history.

There is a lot of misinformation that assumes the witch craze was at the heart of Catholic Inquisition. It is true the Church put witches on trial. The Bull (bulletin) "Summis desiderantes affectibus", of Pope Innocent VIII (1484) dealt with witchcraft and heresy. Henrick Kramer and James Sprenger, inquisitors put out a manual called "Malleus Maleficarum" (the hammer of witches). It was a bad book.

  • The Catholic Church had nothing to do with the Salem Witch executions in the colonies (now the US), that was a Protestant thing, as were the witch burnings in Scotland, England and most of Germany. There were also many secular entities that burned witches. There were 20 deaths of 162 trails at Salem and there were 67 total witch deaths in North America during the Burning Times.
  • The book by Lamothe-Langon called "Histoire de l'Inquisition en France" responsible for many of the overestimations of inquisition related witch deaths in southern France was a forgery. This book was a major influence on the Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology. New York : Julian Press, Inc., 1958. Encyclopaedia Britanica. Third Edition, 1970. ...Robbins, Rossel Hope. More about the forgery below. If you are reading a book that was produced before 1972 or a book that is influenced by anything writing between1890-1972 then the numbers are probably skewed by this book.us
  • The Catholic Inquisition only applied to baptized Catholics who were practicing witchcraft. The Inquisition had nothing to do with pagan, secular or protestant witches.
  • By 1485 the Inquisition's involvement with witch hunting was dying down. Institoris started a witch campaign at Innsbruck in 1485, but he was severely criticized and resisted by the Bishop of Brixen (see Janssen, "Hist. of Germ. People", Eng. tr., XVI, 249-251).
  • Although there were trials of witches prior to the "witch crazes" of 1580-1645A.D., before that period trials were scattered and not very prevalent. The Reformation was in full swing during the witch crazes and it was no longer a "one Church" world.
  • Approximately 25% (or more) of the witches who died were men. Although the "Malleus Maleficarum" reflected the unfavorable attitudes toward women during that time period, the Catholic witch trials were not a gender thing, it was about rooting out people who thought to have made a pact with the Devil (men and women). More about the Catholic Church and women here.
  • Luther, Calvin, and their followers were totally into the popular belief that the power of the Devil as exercised through witchcraft and other magic practices must be stopped through violence. It was in virtue of the Biblical command that he advocated the extermination of witches.
  • In Iceland there was a witch hunt where 90% of the victims were men.

From www.summerlands.com, a Celtic Pagan "witch friendly" community

....Older texts do indeed say that mass trials first appeared in 14th century France. Up until 1972, historians believed that the first great Witch crazes occurred around 1320, in the French cities of Toulouse and Carcassonne. The handiwork of the French Inquisition, they were some of the worst crazes of the Burning Times. Many popular and Pagan texts mention these monstrous affairs where as many as 400 women were killed in one day!

In reality, these trials never happened. They're the product of a creative 19th century forger, Etienne Leon de Lamothe-Langon.

Lamothe-Langon wrote a book called Histoire de l'Inquisition en France which purported to be a study of the French Inquisition. In it, he described the great 14th century Witch crazes of southern France. Lamothe-Langon is our only source for these trials. No trial records exist for them. No sermon or Witch hunting manual mentions them. None of the Inquisition's records breathes a word about them. And when scholars tried to check the sources Lamothe-Langon "cited", they found they didn't exist.

By the 1950s, historians were extremely skeptical about the 14th century crazes. They simply didn't fit the pattern of Witch hunting. Their demonology was far too elaborate for a medieval trial, more complex even than that in the "Malleus Maleficarum" of 1484. Why would the Inquisition develop this convoluted demonology and then apparently "forget" it for several centuries? Moreover the vocabulary of the trials was wrong. An example: most early trials called a group of Witches a "synagogue". These 14th century trials called such groups "sabbats", a word that wouldn't appear in a Witch trial again for over a hundred years. For these and many other reasons, the 14th century trials seemed terribly odd. It was as if someone had taken a trial from the 16th century, from the height of the Burning Times, and plunked it down in the late Middle Ages.

In 1972, we learned that that was exactly what someone *had* done. Two historians -- Norman Cohn and Richard Kieckhefer -- independently discovered that "Histoire de l'Inquisition en France" was a forgery. They learned that Lamothe-Langon was a noted forger, writing fake autobiographies of numerous 18th century notables. He claimed that his book was based on unpublished documents given to him by a famous French librarian, but Cohn found a letter in which this librarian stated that this was not true -- there were no unpublished sources. And under close examination, errors appeared in Lamothe-Langon's supposedly "ancient" documents. For instance, the inquisitor he said presided over the trials wasn't an inquisitor at the time the panics supposedly occurred.

For these and dozens of other reasons, historians today are confident that these 14th century trials never occurred. There were no mass trials before the 15th century, and there never was a craze where 400 women died in one day.

Related articles

  1. Joan of Arc and the Inquisition
  2. Did the Church squash women mystics?
  3. Is the Church against women?