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How the Great Witch-hunt really started



Extract from Europe's Inner Demons
The Demonization of Christians in Medieval Christendom


Revised Edition, 1993 © Estate of Norman Cohn, 1975, 1993

Norman Cohn was born in 1915 and died on 31 July 2007 at the age of ninety-two. For a links to his obituaries, click here. This shortened version of chapter 12 of his study of the origins of the Great European Witch-hunt is (after a discussion with Nik Cohn, Norman Cohn's son) published here as a tribute to one of the greatest of all modern historians.

In this chapter (the second of two in the revised edition which bear the same heading) Norman Cohn examines the interplay between popular fears and anxieties about the possibililty of occult harm and official attitudes towards 'witchcraft'. The popular fears were real and significant. They sometimes led to disorder and even revenge killings. But it was only when the authorities - bishops, inquisitors, magistrates and lawyers - reversed legal procedures which favoured defendants and espoused a new idea of witchcraft, that the great European witch-hunt effectively came into being. In the new, educated and literate view of witchcraft, a witch was above all a member of a secret, conspiratorial body organized and headed by Satan. It was only when witches were demonized in this manner by members of the educated elite, and seen as belonging to a non-existent conspiracy, that the persecution, torture and execution of suspected witches by their fellow citizens became systematic and the great witch-hunt began.


IT WAS NO NOVELTY FOR PEASANTS to suspect certain of their neighbours of harming them by occult means. The enormous compilation of canon law known as the Decretum or Collectarium composed by Burchard, bishop of Worms, and collaborators around 1008-12, contains a chapter (the fifth in the nineteenth book) that throws much light on the matter.

That chapter is in effect a penitential: it consists of a long series of questions to be addressed by the confessor to his penitent, each question dealing with a different sin and being followed by a note of the appropriate penance.[1] This fifth chapter is known to be based on earlier penitentials, and the nature of the questions shows that it is designed for a congregation of peasants. To the historian it offers some fine insights into the popular mentality of the early Middle Ages.

Now this source shows quite clearly that many men – ordinary peasants of the tenth century or earlier – were afraid of being bewitched into impotence.[2] In particular, when a man left his mistress to marry another, he was apt to find himself impotent with his new wife. The modern psychologist knows that such things do happen, and so did the author of the Corrector; only he attributed them to a different cause. From his experience as a confessor he knew that deserted women sometimes practised maleficium against their ex-lovers; and whereas he was sceptical about the efficacy of some forms of maleficium, he had no doubts at all about this one. From other sources we know the technique employed: during the wedding, the outraged woman would make three knots in a lace or a string. This was intended to block the way to orgasm – and no doubt when the bridegroom knew or suspected what was afoot, it often worked. It was when some unforeseeable, unaccountable disaster occurred that people looked to maleficium as an explanation. But whereas mysterious illnesses and deaths, or sudden impotence in marriage, could happen to anyone in any stratum of society, some kinds of disaster were peculiar to peasant life. There were accordingly some beliefs about maleficium, and also some techniques of maleficium, that flourished amongst the peasantry in particular. Here again the fifth chapter of the Corrector provides valuable insights. The confessor’s questions show that peasants often practised sorcery to improve their own position at their neighbour’s expense. Swineherds and cowherds would say spells over bread, or herbs, or knotted cords, which they would then deposit in a tree or at a road-fork; the object being to direct pest or injury away from their own animals and on to other people’s.[3] A woman would use spells and charms to draw all the milk and honey in the neighbourhood to her own cows and bees, or else to appropriate other people’s property for herself.[4] Even amongst the peasantry of the early Middle Ages, centuries before the full stereotype of the witch came into being, it was recognized that the motive for maleficium was often sheer malice. The Corrector refers to women who actually boasted that they could remove or kill chickens, young peacocks, whole litters of piglets, by a word or a glance.[5]

Other sources, older than the Corrector, refer to another, more dreaded form of rural maleficium. People claimed to be able to conjure up storms which would ruin the crops. This kind of maleficium too was commonly thought of as being directed against a particular individual: the eighth-century law of the Bavarians fixed the fine to be paid to anyone whose crops were damaged in this way.[6] But at times storm-making could become an organized racket. The sixth-century laws of the Visigoths deal with tempestarii who were touring the countryside, intimidating the peasants; people were paying them to spare their fields and blast the next man’s instead. It was decreed that a storm-maker should get 200 lashes, have his head shorn and be paraded through the villages of the locality in this shameful condition.[7] Around 820 Agobard, bishop of Lyons, noted that almost everybody ¬nobleman and commoner, town-dweller and peasant – believed in the supernatural powers of storm-makers; but naturally it was the peasants who paid them to save their fields from magical storms.[8] Anglo-Saxon penitentials of the eighth century treated the activities of the tempestarii as familiar sins that everybody knew about; and so does the Corrector.[9] And if in the later Middle Ages the laws took little cognizance of storm¬making, it continued to be widely believed in and occasionally practised. El~na Dalok, who was arraigned before the commissary of London in 1493, freely boasted that she could make it rain at will-just as she could kill people by cursing them.[10]

From later sources we know the technique that was used to produce storms: it consisted of beating, stirring or splashing water. A pond was ideal for the purpose, but if none was available it was enough to make a small hole in the ground, fill it with water or even with one’s own urine, and stir this with one’s finger. There is no doubt that these things really were done – but in addition, storm-makers were often credited with the ability to fly. Later evidence on this point is abundant – even in nineteenth-century Switzerland it was still customary for peasants to deal with a storm by laying a scythe on the ground, cutting edge uppermost; the object being to wound the storm-witch and deprive her of her power.[11] But there are hints of similar beliefs already in the early Middle Ages. Again according to Bishop Agobard, peasants believed that tempestarii magically removed the crops from the fields and carried them away on cloud-ships, to sell in a mysterious land called Mangonia.[12]

From all this a coherent picture emerges. It is clear that many of the forms of maleficium that figure in the witch-trials of the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had been familiar for many centuries before. Causing death or disease in human beings and animals; producing impotence in men; raising storms and destroying crops these things belonged to the traditional world of maleficium, a world that existed already in the early Middle Ages and that had never ceased to exist thereafter. In medieval Europe it was generally believed that these things could be done by those possessed of the necessary occult power; while some individuals believed that they themselves possessed that power and tried to do those things.

The beliefs existed – but how large did they bulk in people’s minds? If we were to judge solely by the number of recorded maleficium trials, we would have to conclude that they hardly bulked at all, for there is little positive evidence of maleficium trials before 1300. Nevertheless, it cannot be assumed that people gave little thought to these matters. We shall show later what formidable obstacles the law itself put in the way of anyone who might wish to bring a charge of maleficium – yet even so, one finds indications that the popular fear and anger that became so manifest at the time of the great witch-hunt were by no means absent in earlier centuries. As we have seen, in pre-Christian times it had been customary to kill suspected witches as a matter of private vengeance; but long after such practices were forbidden, witches continued to be killed. When telling how Lothair I drowned the nun Gerberga for sorcery in 834, the contemporary chronicler appends the significant comment: ‘as is the custom .with sorcerers’.[13] In 1080 Pope Gregory VII wrote to King Harold of Denmark, complaining that in Denmark storms and pestilence were being blamed on priests and women, and that the latter were being cruelly put to death; and he forbade such practices.[14] In 1128 the burghers of Ghent disembowelled a suspected witch and paraded her intestines through her village.[15]

Whether these were legal executions or lynchings, they are enough to show that maleficium was a matter of public concern. And in some cases popular fury can be seen unmistakably at work. In the ninth century Bishop Agobard tells how he saw four strangers – three men and a woman – seized by peasants who took them for tempestarii, fallen out of a cloud-ship; but for Agobard’s intervention, they would have been stoned to death.[16] In 1074 the burghers of Cologne rebelled against their lord, the archbishop, and tried to kill him. The archbishop escaped from the city; but during the ensuing riots the mob found a woman who was suspected of having driven men mad by means of maleficia, and hurled her to death from the town walls.[17] The chronicler specifically states that this was done without any regard for the due process of law; and the same is true of a killing which took place at Freising in Bavaria in 1090. Three indigent women were rumoured to be ‘poisoners’ and ‘destroyers of people and crops’. They were seized by the mob and subjected to the ordeal of immersion in water; next, though the ordeal gave negative results, they were repeatedly flogged to make them confess; finally, though they did not confess, they were burned alive on the banks of the river Isar. All this was done without the collaboration or approval of the authorities – indeed it was done in an area where authority had temporarily broken down: owing to a dispute between rival candidates, the see of Freising had no bishop. The clergy clearly disapproved. The monk who tells the story speaks of the injustice of the accusations, the ‘devilish fury’ of the mob, the ‘martyrdon’ of the victims. Indeed, after the mob had done its work a priest and two monks actually removed the charred bodies and buried them in consecrated ground.[18] In 1279 a similar incident took place at Ruffach in Alsace, save that this time the clergy intervened in time. A nun was suspected of using a wax puppet for purposes of maleficium, and would have been burned by the peasants; but the local monks saved her.[19]

Doubtless there were many more such incidents: since the chroniclers were not generally much interested in the activities of the common people, one can probably assume that the recorded cases represent only the tip of the iceberg. In any case it is clear that mediaeval peasants and burghers could at times feel very strongly about witches. Long before, and quite independently of, the great witch-hunt, there existed a fund of popular suspicion, a readiness to perceive witchcraft at work and to identify witches. On occasion those feelings expressed themselves, illegally, in torture and killing.

Why, then, were there hardly any maleficium trials? The answer lies in the nature of medieval law.

Almost throughout the Middle Ages – very generally until the thirteenth century, in some parts of Europe even to the fifteenth century – the accusatory form of criminal procedure obtained. That is to say, the legal battle was fought out not between society and the accused, but between the accused and a private person who accused him. In this respect there was no difference between a civil and a criminal case; in the latter as in the former the individual complainant was responsible for finding and producing proofs such as would convince the judge.

The accusatory procedure was derived from Roman law, and it retained all those features which had characterized it under the later Empire. By and large it favoured the accused rather than the accuser. The accuser was obliged to conduct the case himself, without the assistance of prosecuting counsel. Moreover, if he failed to convince the judge he was likely to suffer as heavy a penalty as would have been visited upon the accused if he had been convicted. This was known as the talion.[20]

The intention behind the talion was simply to discourage malicious or frivolous accusations, but the effect was far more sweeping. How was the law to distinguish between a mere mistake and deliberate calumny? In practice it seldom distinguished; everyone knew that an unsuccessful complainant would almost certainly be penalized, whatever his motives. In England, under Edward I, it was decreed that an accuser who failed to make out his case should be imprisoned for a year as well as pay compensation for the imprisoment and infamy he had brought upon the accused; and this provision was altogether in keeping with a tradition which went back to Anglo-Saxon times.[21]

Everything possible was done to impress the would-be accuser with the risks involved. When notifying the judge of the proposed action, the accuser had to give a written undertaking to provide proof and, if the proof were found inadequate, to submit to the penalty of the talion as a calumniator. This inscription was an indispensable preliminary; no criminal case could proceed without it. And that was not all: once the inscription had been accepted by the judge, the accuser could not withdraw without incurring the penalty of the talion. Indeed, even while the action was in progress the accuser might, in effect, be penalized: in those cases where the accused was imprisoned pending trial, the judge commonly ordered the accuser to be imprisoned likewise, to preserve equality between the two parties.[22]

In order to condemn the accused outright, the judge required either a spontaneous confession from him or else an array of proofs which should be ‘clearer than the noonday light’. Failing these, he would order the accused to submit to an ordeal. The ordeal, which originated not in Roman but in early Germanic law, could take various forms. The accused might be thrown into the water, bound in a certain way. If he or she floated it meant that the water, that symbol of purity, was rejecting a criminal; sinking was therefore taken as proof of innocence. Or the accused might be required to hold a red-hot iron, or plunge an arm into boiling water, for a given time. The injured limb was then bound up for a few days; if, when the bandage was removed, no scar was found, that too was proof of innocence. These ordeals were applied chiefly to members of the lower orders. Amongst the aristocracy the matter was more likely to be submitted to the test of single combat, either between the accuser and the accused or between champions representing them. All these various ordeals were regarded as appeals to God: where the human judge was uncertain, the decision was left to divine justice. But by the thirteenth century these ancient forms of ordeal were being replaced by another device, canonical purgation: the accused was required to swear before God that he was innocent, while a specified number of compurgators, or oath-helpers, swore that his oath was to be trusted.

An ordeal successfully endured, a canonical purgation successfully discharged, would bring acquittal; and in that case the accuser was required to prove that his accusation had been due to an honest mistake. If he was unable to carry out this almost impossible task, nothing could save him from the talion. The results of the system were what one would expect: nobody would become an accuser unless impelled by the most powerful motives. Only the most imperious considerations of self-interest or the most obsessive passion would induce anyone to face a long-drawn-out and highly uncertain action, which while it was in progress might involve his own imprisonment and which might end in his ruin. This was the case even when the offence in question was an ordinary felony: historians of medieval law tend to think that, so long as the accusatory procedure remained in force, only a tiny proportion of common criminals were ever brought to trial. But the inhibiting factors must have been vastly more powerful still when the offence was maleficium, whether real or imagined.

By its very nature maleficium was almost unprovable. Where puppets were produced, stuck full of pins, things might go well enough; but such cases were very exceptional. Other types of proof were far more hazardous. A misfortune – a death or an illness – was never simultaneous with the act of maleficium that was supposed to have caused it. Nor were there likely to be eye-witnesses to an act of maleficium – let alone eye-witnesses who would be prepared to testify on oath. The accused, on the other hand, had very good chances of establishing his or her innocence, whether by ordeal or by compurgation. In such circumstances, to charge anyone with maleficium was to take a very grave risk indeed. Sometimes the risk was taken, with disastrous results – for instance, at Strasbourg in 1451 a man who had accused a woman of maleficium and failed to make his case was arrested, tried for calumny and drowned in the River Ill. [23]

What was true of maleficium as a secular offence was even more true of maleficium as a religious offence. If the hazards were enough to deter a man from demanding justice even when he felt himself personally wronged, why ever should he concern himself with a matter which in no way involved his own interests? Maleficium as a religious offence was best left to the priest in the confessional. It was not for nothing that the clerical authors of the famous manual for witch-hunters, the Malleus Maleficarum, deplored the fact that even in the late fifteenth century the accusatory procedure was still in force at Coblenz. There were suspected witches in the neighbourhood, but it was simply impossible to try them under that procedure.[24]

It is not really surprising, then, that no tradition ever developed of bringing unsolicited accusations of maleficium; nor does the absence of such a tradition prove that during the Middle Ages the common people were not preoccupied with maleficium. The lynchings listed above are enough to show that maleficium was feared and that those who practised it, or were suspected of practising it, were hated. Indeed, they may show more than that: for lynchings are just what one would expect in a situation where fear and hatred were widespread but could find no expression through legal, institutionalized channels.


From the fifteenth century onwards, first in one region and then in another, it became possible for peasant fears of maleficium to find expression – in formal accusations. As the authorities became more concerned with new concepts of witchcraft, so they became more willing to lend an ear to popular complaints about maleficium. The problem is to disentangle what was in the minds of the peasants from what was in the minds of the authorities; for in most regions where witches were tried at all, they were tried by judges who were convinced in advance that any witch must belong to a Satanic conspiracy against Christendom.

Fortunately the impasse is not total. The Swiss Confederation in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, possessed legal systems which permitted the common people to bring charges of maleficium before the courts. Many of the depositions have been preserved in their original form, uncontaminated by any demonological interpretations which may have preoccupied the judges. There exists, for instance, – a collection of depositions made in the Canton of Lucerne between the mid-fifteenth and the mid-sixteenth century, consisting of accusations brought by some 130 villagers against thirty-two witches;[25] not one of these depositions so much as mentions the Devil, but every deposition without exception mentions maleficia. These documents do indeed convey something of the atmosphere in which, at village level, such suspicions and accusations flourished.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

The picture that emerges from [one particular] document is clear enough. A dozen witnesses voice accusations or suspicions against a family – in effect against a mother and her daughter, though with some suggestion that the father too may be implicated. All the accusations and suspicions are concerned with maleficia – eight of them with making storms by means of homeopathic or imitative magic (splashing the water in the river), two with causing the death of a human being, two with causing mysterious illness (a spell of unconsciousness, a permanent crippling) one with causing the death of an ox, one with destroying property by thunderbolt. The elder woman is a midwife; and where a motivation for the maleficia is mentioned, it is her jealousy of rivals in her profession.

Harmful storms, sickness in man and beast – these were the commonest accusations; but it was not unknown for a villager suffering from impotence to attribute it to maleficium. In 1531 one Sebastian, of the village of iiti in the Willisau, felt himself persecuted by a woman called Stiirmlin, because he had married the girl whom Stiirmlin had chosen for her own son.[29] His account of the woman, her actions and her power, is full of real dread. He was impotent with his wife, and had no doubt that this was Stiirmlin’s doing. He told how Stiirmlin would often come, unannounced, into his room, and depart without saying a word, leaving him and his wife terrified. Once in church Stiirmlin shot him such a glance that his hair stood on end; and later that day, when he set out to visit her, he developed such a pain in the neck that he could hardly speak. When he took a bath with his wife, in the hope that this might cure their trouble, Stiirmlin appeared and said that the bath might prove too strong for one or other of them; whereupon his wife was seized with violent cramps. Sometimes the man would forbid Stiirmlin the house, and then the results were disastrous; all the cattle died, while the horses over-ate till they were unfit for work. Yet at other times the couple would ask the woman to help them. Stiirmlin seems in fact to have been a ‘wise woman’, specializing in magical cures, and by no means an irreconcilable enemy of the young people. When Sebastian reproached her with his misfortunes, she merely asked him not to slander her, as it might make it harder for her to help him with her prayers. She gave the couple all kinds of magical devices – a notched stick to help with prayer, a special candle to light on Maundy Thursday. Nevertheless it is clear that Sebastian and his wife worked themselves into such a state of hysteria that the mere thought of Stiirmlin was enough to produce all kinds of disorders.

. . . . . . . . . . . . .

[This material] … shows just how suspicions and accusations of maleficium arose amongst the common people when they were left to themselves, without interference from the secular or ecclesiastical authorities or from professional witch-hunters. And the picture that emerges is confirmed by the researches of Dr Alan Macfarlane on some hundreds of witchcraft prosecutions in Essex at the same period.[33] Macfarlane found that the accusations arose not necessarily as a result of a direct quarrel between two persons, but when a number of village families fell out with the same person or the same family. For each ‘witch’ there were, on an average, four people who believed themselves to be the witch’s victims. But the number of those involved was far greater, for it included the families and friends of the ‘victims’. Often the whole population of a village would get caught up in the tension and gossip; the formal accusation would then express the consensus at which the village community had arrived after a lengthy exchange of complaints and rumours.

Accusations were made between people who knew each other intimately. Almost always, the ‘witch’ belonged to the same village as the ‘victims’; often he or she was a neighbour, someone with whom the ‘victims’ had been closely involved, socially or economically. Indeed Macfarlane argues that an accusation of witchcraft was often in effect (though not of course consciously) a device for severing a close relationship which had become a burden. The refusal to give food or money, or to lend some household implement, would then symbolise the breaking of the bond between two neighbours. The person who made such a refusal would feel uneasy and expect retaliation; and any misfortune which befell him would be interpreted in the light of his expectation. Moreover to be able to bring a charge of witchcraft against the person he had himself treated shabbily would relieve him of his sense of guilt: ‘. . . it was the victim who had made an open breach in neighbourly conduct, rather than the witch. It was the victim who had reason to feel guilty and anxious at having turned away a neighbour, while the suspect might become hated as the agent causing such a feeling.’[34] This is certainly a pattern one soon comes to recognize in studying these cases; but there are other patterns also. … There are many possible causes for friction between neighbours in a village; and anyone of them could give rise to accusations of maleficia in certain circumstances.

These circumstances can be defined. On the one hand, a certain kind of misfortune had to occur; on the other hand, there had to be somebody about who could plausibly be regarded as a witch. The misfortune could vary greatly in form. A strange, unfamiliar illness, or an unforeseeable accident, might strike a man, a woman, a child, a house, an ox, a litter of piglets, a brood of chicks. A cow might fail to yield as much milk, bees might fail to produce as much honey, a field might fail to bear as much crops as expected. A storm might bring devastation. But the decisive fact was always that particular individuals felt singled out for affliction. Collective disasters, such as famines and plagues, were another matter: it does not seem that peasants, left to themselves, attributed such things to witches – that happened only when and where the new, demonological conception of the witch had taken over. Even when peasants wondered about a storm, they thought of the harm done to particular fields or particular buildings. At village level, the starting point for maleficium accusations was normally the unexpected misfortunes of particular individuals.

But who was selected for the role of witch? The most striking fact is the preponderance of women. Admittedly, male witches did exist. The touring storm-raisers of the early Middle Ages, who so effectively terrorized the peasants, seem to have been mostly men. But in later centuries maleficium at village level was almost a female monopoly.

The Lucerne material, for example, lists thirty-one women accused, and only one man – and that one was a foreigner (presumably an Italian) who could make himself understood only through an interpreter; moreover, he claimed that his maleficia were really performed by a woman companion. As for the Essex cases examined by Dr Macfarlane, out of 291 witches tried at the assizes between 1560 and 1680, only twenty-three were men, and eleven of these were connected with a woman. …

Until the great European witch-hunt literally bedevilled everything and everybody, the witch was almost by definition a woman. In fact, on the basis of the vast mass of data available, one can be rather more precise. Witches, in the sense of practitioners of maleficia, were usually thought of as married women or widows (rather than spinsters) between the ages of fifty and seventy. At that time one was old at fifty and the older these women were, the greater their power was supposed to be. Some of those executed were over eighty.

Of course, not all elderly married women or widows were accused of performing maleficia; and the evidence points to certain types as particularly liable to attract suspicion. For instance, witchcraft – in the sense of the ability and will to work maleficia – was widely believed to run in families. In particular, the daughter of a woman who had been executed as a witch often found herself in a dangerous position.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

With other women, it was some personal peculiarity that singled them out for suspicion. Many of those accused of maleficia were solitary, eccentric, or bad-tempered; amongst the traits most often mentioned is a sharp tongue, quick to scold and threaten. Often they were frightening to look at – ugly, with red eyes or a squint, or pock-marked skin; or somehow deformed; or else simply bent and bowed with age. Such women were felt to be uncanny -like the strange apparition that was seen in the Canton of Schwyz in 1506. According to a contemporary chronicler, that too was in the form of an old woman, dressed in dirty old clothes and outlandish headgear – but in addition it had great long teeth and cloven feet. Many, we are told, died of terror at the very sight of it; and plague swept through the land.[36] The kind of imagination that could create such a being was also capable of transforming old women, weighed down by their infirmities, into embodiments of malevolent power.

Finally there were the midwives and the practitioners of folk medicine. Infant mortality was very high – and who had better opportunities than midwives for killing babies? No doubt they often did kill them, through ignorance or ineptitude. But that was not the explanation that came to people’s minds; and it is striking how often the village midwife figures as the accused in a witchcraft trial.

As for the practitioners of folk medicine, they were obvious suspects.[37] In an age when scientific medicine had hardly begun, and when professionally qualified doctors were in any case seldom available to the peasantry, the countryside produced its own medicine men or medicine women. These people were not necessarily charlatans; many of them used herbal remedies, and also techniques of suggestion, that had real therapeutic value. But some also used the techniques of magic, such as spells; moreover, their art often included divining whether a sickness was due to maleficium, and if so, applying counter-magic. Not surprisingly, such ‘white witches’, male and female alike, were apt to be perceived as simply witches. After all, if a person endowed with supernatural powers failed to cure a sickness or prevent a death, might that person not actually have caused the affliction? To disappointed patients and their relatives it must have seemed obvious enough. … Many ‘witches’, under torture, confessed to using herbs, roots, leaves and powders to harm man or beast; and although that proves nothing as to their guilt, it does suggest that they were at home in folk medicine.

Such were the women whom their neighbours most easily came to think of as witches – but how did the women think of themselves? Did they feel themselves to possess some supernatural power for evil? Or were they outraged at the accusation? The answer is that both situations could occur.

The Lucerne material includes, in addition to the depositions of the accusers, some statements by the accused. Thus in 1549 Barbara Knopf of Mur was accused by several neighbours of bewitching and killing cattle, and of crippling and blinding human beings. Arrested and taken to prison, she denied every accusation and added – in the words of the magistrate – that ‘she had done nothing, only she had a nasty tongue and was an odd person; she had threatened people a bit, but had done nothing wicked. She desired to be confronted with those who said such things about her and she would answer them. . .. [38] That is how a woman arrested on a charge of maleficium usually reacted, when no torture was used. These answers have the ring of truth. There is in fact no reason to suppose that most women accused as witches regarded themselves as such.

But some did. As we have seen, maleficia really were practised; some women really did try to harm or kill people or animals, or to destroy crops or property, by occult means. These things had been done since time immemorial and they were still being done during the great witch-hunt – indeed, in some remote and backward regions they are still being done today. And it is not difficult to think of one category of women who must always have been particularly tempted by such practices. ‘Wise women’ or ‘white witches’, who felt able to perform cures by supernatural means, must also have felt able to inflict harm by supernatural means; and some of them certainly did attempt the latter as well as the former. In the Lucerne material, the ‘wise woman’ Stiirmlin may or may not have intended to inflict impotence on the young man who had jilted her daughter and married another.[39] But less ambiguous cases have also been recorded. In a trial in Fortrose in Black Isle, north of Inverness, in 1699, a woman boasted of her power to harm as well as to heal; thereby accusing herself, it seems, quite voluntarily. The evidence reads as follows:

Margaret Bezok alias Kyle spouse of David Stewart in Balmaduthy declared she threatened John Sinclair using a phrase that she would quicklie overturn his cart and within a week thereafter his wife fell ill, and that she was brought to see the seek wife and touched and handled her and heard that thereafter she convalesced.

John Sinclair in Miuren declared that the said Margaret did threaten ut supra and that thereafter his wife distracted within less than a week and continued in that distemper till the said Margaret was brought to see her, and that she handled and felt his wife who thereafter grew better but continues something weak still and that it is eight weeks since the first threatening.[40]

This little tale completes nicely our picture of the traditional, age-old world of maleficium and maleficium beliefs as it existed amongst the peasantry of western Europe.



There existed, then, two completely different notions of what witches were.

For the peasantry, until its outlook was transformed by new doctrines percolating from above, witches were above all people who harmed their neighbours by occult means; and they were almost always women.

Why was this? The answer has sometimes been sought in the circumstances of village life in the early modern period. It has been argued that, as the traditional sense of communal responsibility declined, elderly women who were unable to provide for themselves came to be felt as a burden which the village was no longer willing to shoulder;[41] or else that spinsters and widows increased so greatly in number that they came to be felt as an alien element in a society where the patriarchal family still constituted the norm.[42] Such factors may well have provided an additional impetus for witch-hunting in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but they certainly do not fully account for the notion that the witch is, typically, a woman. At least in Europe, the image of the witch as a woman, and especially as an elderly woman, is age-old, indeed archetypal.

For centuries before the great witch-hunt the popular imagination, in many parts of Europe, had been familiar with women who could bring down misfortune by a glance or a curse. It was popular imagination that saw the witch as an old woman who was the enemy of new life, who killed the young, caused impotence in men and sterility in women, blasted the crops. And it was also popular imagination that granted the witch a chthonic quality. It was popularly believed that a witch who is to be taken into custody should first be lifted clear of the earth, to deprive her of her power.[43]

The other notion of the witch came not from the peasantry but from bishops and inquisitors and – to an ever-increasing degree – from secular magistrates and lawyers. Admittedly, rural magistrates were often themselves of peasant origin; but they were literate, which meant that a view of witchcraft which was enshrined above all in written texts was current amongst them, and in this view a witch was above all a member of a secret, conspiratorial body organized and headed by Satan. Such a witch could just as well be a man as a woman, and just as well young as old; and if, in the end, most of those condemned and executed as witches were still elderly women, that was the result of popular expectations and demands. As we have seen, the earliest witch-trials were quite free from such one-sidedness; and still at the height of the great witch-hunt, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, many men, young women and even children were executed.

The complaint against these people was not primarily or necessarily that they harmed their neighbours by occult means but that they attended the sabbat. Collective worship of the Devil in corporeal, usually animal form; sexual orgies which were not only totally promiscuous but involved mating with demons; communal feasting on the flesh of babies – these constituted the essence of witchcraft as it was imagined and formulated by educated specialists during the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Practices which in earlier centuries had been vaguely ascribed to certain heretical groups, notably the Waldensians, now constituted an independent offence which in time came to be called the crimen magiae. Admittedly, maleficium was not excluded – at the end of the sabbat the Devil commonly required his followers to report on the harm they had recently brought about, and instructed them on the harm they were expected to do during the coming weeks or months. Nevertheless, in this version of witchcraft, maleficium was of secondary importance. Here a witch was not simply a malicious, dangerous person but an embodiment of evil; above all, an embodiment of apostasy.

Left to themselves, peasants would never have created mass witch-hunts – these occurred only where and when the authorities had become convinced of the reality of the sabbat and of nocturnal flights to the sabbat. And this conviction depended on, and in turn was sustained by, the inquisitorial type of procedure, including the use of torture. When suspected witches could be compelled, by torture, to name those whom they had seen at the sabbat, all things became possible: the mayor and town councillors and their wives were just as likely to be accused as were peasant women.



The history and sociology of the great witch-hunt itself have been the subject of several important studies, and they lie outside the scope of this book. Nevertheless, a few brief comments seem called for.

The witch-hunt reached its height only in the late sixteenth century, and it was practically over by 1680 – with the trials at Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692 as a belated epilogue. It was an exclusively western phenomenon – eastern Europe, the world of Orthodox Christianity, was untouched by it. Within western Europe, no distinction can be drawn between Roman Catholic and Protestant countries - both were equally involved. On the other hand, not all areas of western Europe were equally involved. Spain, Italy, Poland, the Low Countries, Sweden experienced mass witch-hunts, but only in limited areas and for limited periods. England saw little of mass witch-hunts, though some hundreds of women were executed (by hanging, not burning) for doing harm by occult means. In Scotland, France, the German states, the Swiss Confederation, mass witch-hunts were carried out with great intensity and ferocity. Yet even there, the centres of activity constantly shifted: an area which had never burned a single witch would suddenly begin to bum witches by the dozen; another, which had been burning witches for years, would suddenly stop; in some areas little or no witch-hunting took place. Everything depended on the attitude of the authorities – the prince, or the town council, or the magistrates. The authorities in turn, could be influenced to take up witch-hunting by the writings of such codifiers as Bodin or Del Rio, or by the example of neighbouring states. They could also be influenced to abandon it by writings of such men as Weyer or Spee, or by some particular paradox arising from the trials – not least the risk that they themselves would be accused of attending the sabbat.

Many attempts have been made to estimate the total number of individuals burned as witches in Europe during the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but it is a fruitless enterprise: the records are too defective. Some of the best-known estimates, which put the figure at some hundreds of thousands, are fantastic exaggerations. On the other hand those who would argue, from the statistics for English witch-trials, that there never was a great European witch-hunt at all are also in error. For certain areas of the European mainland reasonably complete records do exist, and some of these have been studied in detail. They show beyond all possible doubt that the great witch-hunt is no myth.

Dr H. C. Erik Midelfort has made a detailed study of south-west Germany.[44] He calculates that in a period of a little more than a century, from 1561 to 1670, at least 3,229 persons were executed in that area.[45] The figures for particular places are even more startling. In the little town of Wiesensteig, sixty-three women were burned in a single year, 1562.[46] In the small, secluded territory of Obermarchtal, with a population of some 700 poor peasants, in the three years 1586-8 forty-three women and eleven men were burned, i.e. nearly 7 per cent of the population.[47] Such massive killings occurred only when supposed witches were forced by torture to denounce others whom they had seen at the sabbat. Midelfort gives an example: ‘When Ursula Bayer denounced eight other persons, we know that four of them were executed with her on 16 June 1586, and two later; only two escaped trial and torture.’[48] In June 1631 the small town of Oppenau, in Wurttemberg, with a population of 650, was drawn into the witch-hunt that had been proceeding in the neighbouring territories for a couple of years. In less than nine months fifty persons had been executed in eight mass burnings, and 170 further denunciations were awaiting consideration by the court- at which point the judges began to have doubts about the correctness of their proceedings. [49] It would be easy, but pointless, to multiply the examples; those given are enough to show how untypical the English case was. The decisive factors are not in doubt: really massive witch-hunts occurred only where the concept of witchcraft included the sabbat and where judicial procedure included torture – and in England, save in rare instances, neither circumstance applied.

The great witch-hunt was not, in the main, a cynical operation. Financial greed and conscious sadism, though by no means lacking in all cases, did not supply the main driving force: that was supplied by religious zeal. Even torture appeared, to most of those who employed it, not only legitimate but divinely required. The witch was regarded as being not only allied to the Devil but in the grip of a demon, and the purpose of torture was to break that grip. Each trial was a battle between the forces of God and the forces of the Devil – and the battle was fought, inter alia, for the witch’s own soul: a witch who confessed and perished in the flames had at least a chance of purging his or her guilt and achieving salvation. On the other hand, it was held that God would give an innocent person strength to withstand any amount of torture. And it is true that the few – about one in ten, at the height of the witch-hunt who could hold out were usually set free. In this sense torture became the successor to, and substitute for, trial by ordeal.[50]

The great witch-hunt can in fact be taken as a supreme example of a massive killing of innocent people by a bureaucracy acting in accordance with beliefs which, unknown or rejected in earlier centuries, had come to be taken for granted, as self-evident truths. It illustrates vividly both the power of the human imagination to build up a stereotype and its reluctance to question the validity of a stereotype once it is generally accepted. Until our own century, the operation and consequences of demonization have never been more horrifyingly displayed.



1. Text in H.J. Schmitz, Die Bussbiicher und die Bussdisziplin der Kirche, vol. 1, Mainz, 1883, pp. 409-52. On the sources and composition see P. Fournier, 'Etudes critiques sur le Decret de Burchard de Worms', in Nouvelle Revue historique de droit français et etranger, vol. 34 (1910). Chapter 5 of the Correctoris considered at pp. 217-21.

2 Schmitz, op. cit., p. 446 (para. 169).

3 Ibid., p. 425 (para. 68).

4 Ibid., pp. 423-4 (para. 63) and p. 446 (para. 168).

5 Schmitz, op. cit., p. 425 (para. 69).

6 Lex Baiuworum, lib. XIII, cap. viii (MGH Leges, sectio I, vol. V, pp. 410-11).

7 Lex Wisigothorum, lib. VI, tit. 2, 4 (MGH Leges, sectio I, vol. I, p. 259).

8 Agobard, Liber contra . .. vulgi opinionem de grandine et tonitruis, cap. i (Pat. lat., vol. 104, cols. 147 seq.).

9 For references to the Anglo-Saxon penitentials see G. L. Kittredge, Witchcraft in Old and New England, Cambridge , Mass. , 1929, p. 152. 10 Ibid., pp. 129, 155.

11 A. Liitolf, Sagen, Briiuche, Legenden aus denflinfOrten, Lucerne, 1862, p. 220. 12 Agobard, op. cit., col. 148.

13 See above, Note 13.

14 Monumenta Gregoriana, ed. P. Jaffe, in Bibliotheca rerum Germanicarum, vol. II, Berlin , 1865, p. 413.

15 Galbert of Bruges, Passio Karoli Comitis, cap. 112 (MGSS vol. XII, p. 614). 16 Agobard, op. cit., col. 148.

17 Lambert of Hersfeld, Annales, ad an. 1074 (23 April), in Opera, ed. O. Holder-Egger , Hanover and Leipzig, 1894, p. 190. For reasons for accepting Lambert's account see A. Eigenbrodt, Lampert von Herifeld und die neuere Quellenforschung, Cassel, pp. 71-2.

18 Annales S. Stephani Frisingensis, in MGSS vol. XIII, p. 52.

19 Annales Colmarienses Maiores ad an. 1279, in MGSS vol. XVII, p. 206.

20 On the accusatory procedure and the talion see P. Fournier, Les officialtes au moyen age, Paris, 1880, pp. 233 seq.; L. Tanon, Histoire des tribunaux de l'Inquisition en France, Paris, 1893, pp. 25~3; F. Pollock and F. W. Maitland, The history of the English law before the time of Edward I, 2nd edn., vol. II, Cambridge, 1952, p. 539.

21 Cf. Pollock and Maitland, loc. cit.

22 Cf. Fournier, op. cit., p. 244. That this provision could apply also in cases of maleficiumis evident from the Swedish Uplandslag, cap. xix; cf. Note II to section I above.

23 R. Reuss, Lajustice criminelle a Strasbourg, pp. 265-6, Strasbourg, 1885. 24 Malleus Maleficarum, Part I, question ii, cap. I. -2-

25 E. Hoffmann-Krayer, 'Luzerner Akten zum Hexen- und Zauberwesen', in Schweizerisches Archiv flir Volkskunde, vol. III, Zurich, 1899, pp. 22-40, 82­122, 189-224, 291-325.

26 Ibid., pp. 117-21.

27 Ibid., pp. 33-8.

28 Ibid., pp. 1017

29 Ibid., pp. 198-204. For similar cases, see ibid., pp. 95-7, 193-7, 21~11.

30 G. L. Kittredge, Witchmift in Old and New England, Cambridge, Mass., 1929, pp.6-20.

31 Ibid., p. 8. The original depositions are at Harvard.

32 Ibid., p. to.

33 A. Macfarlane, Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England, London, 1970. See also C. L'Estrange Ewen, Witch hunting and witch trials, London and New York, 1929, and Witchcraft and demonianism, London, 1933.

34 Macfarlane, op. cit., p. 174.

35 See above, p. 242.

36 Diebold Schilling, Luzerner Bilderchronik, ed. R. Durrer and P. Hilber, Geneva, 1932, p. 143, with picture at Tafel 280.

37 Cf. E. Delcambre, Le concept de la sorcellerie dans Ie duche de Lorraine au XVI' et XVII' siec/e, Nancy, 1948, Fascicule 3, pp. 205 seq.; J. Schacher, Das Hexenwesen im Kanton Luzern, Luzem, 1947, pp. 98 seq.

38 Hoffmann-Krayer, op. cit., p. 317.

39 See above, p. 243.

40 Quoted, from a manuscript in the Library of the University of Glasgow, by Dr Christina Lamer in her thesis Scottish demonology in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and its theological background, Appendix II, pp. 272-5. The thesis was submitted at the University of Edinburgh in 1961 under Dr Lamer's maiden name, Christina Ross.

41 A. Macfarlane, op. cit., pp. 161,205-6; K. V. Thomas, Religion and the decline of magic, London, 1971, pp. 5~7.

42 H.C.E. Midelfort, Witch hunting in Southwestern Germany, Stanford University Press, 1972, pp. 184-5. 42 H.C.E. Midelfort, Witch hunting in Southwestern Germany, Stanford University Press, 1972, pp. 184-5.

43 Malleus Maleficarum, part III, question viii.

44 Midelfort, op. cit. 45 Ibid. p. 32

46 Ibid., p. 89.

47 Ibid., pp. 96-8.

48 Ibid., p. 97.

49 Ibid., p. 137.

50 The point is well documented in E. Delcambre, 'Les proces de sorcellerie en Lorraine. Psychologie des juges', in Tijdschrift voor rechtsgeschiedenis, vol. XXI, Groningen, Brussels, The Hague, 1953, pp. 389-420; see also the same author's 'La psychologie des inculpes lorrains de sorcellerie', in Revue historique de droit français et etranger, series 4, vol. XXXII, Paris, 1954, pp. 383-404, 508-26.


© Estate of Norman Cohn, 1975, 1993