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Witches and Torture- A Brief History of the Burning Times

Author: Zan Fraser
Posted: August 30th. 2009
Times Viewed: 3,494

Torture being of course the repeated infliction of pain upon an individual, it is perhaps instructive to review a (prolonged) example of the consequences of the use of torture as an official policy- the dreadful period remembered by Witches as the Burning Times.

The Burning Times began with the conveniently round date of the year 1400, when the Swiss judge Peter of Bern wrote to the Dominican theologian Johannes Nider about trials he was conducting of a “new” sect of Witches. Nider included this correspondence in his book Formicarius, one of the first anti-Witch writings in Europe. This was the first incident of what we recognize as a “Witch-hunt” in Europe.

From this Swiss spot, the “new” idea of “Witches” as demon-loving cultists spread west and northward, into France and Germany, and thence outward to panic and terrorize Europe for three more centuries. The Burning Times will exist in two phases- a two hundred year period of increasing escalation, punctuated by a cataclysm of Witch-hunting fury that ignites around the conveniently round date of 1600 and which lasts until approximately 1660.

After that, there is a notable decrease in accusations and prosecutions, although outbreaks occur as late as 1692 in Salem and the early 1700s in Russia. Conservative estimates place the number of Witch-hunting victims in the vicinity of 200, 000. Historian Anne Llewellyn Barstow judges approximately 80% of these to have been women.

Witch-hunting grew out of the Heresy-hunting of the previous few centuries. As “Heretics” meant people who developed spiritual ideas that were independent of the medieval Catholic Church, the Church had developed a lurid and prejudicial stereotype of Heretics as perverse people who worshipped demons (in anti-Christian manner) and plotted wickedness to others.

This slanderous portrait (transferred from Heretics to Witches) formed the basis for the stereotype of the “demonic Witches’ Sabbat, ” the ghoulish meeting of Witches that intensified and justified the Burning Times. (It is not coincidental that the first amalgamation of the “demonic assembly, ” inherited from libelous Heretic-stereotyping, to Witches, takes place in the mountains of Switzerland, as so many Heretics had fled to the Alps that regional inhabitants routinely confused “Heretics” and “Witches” in their vernacular.)

From the beginning, the Church adopted an attitude of overwhelming and brutal aggression against Heretics. The dissident movement of Catharism (preoccupied with a purified existence of abstinence and vegetarianism) was so influential in southern France by the end of the twelfth century that huge chunks of the countryside were essentially Catharite.

In a show of military might, Pope Innocent III launched the Albigensian Crusade (after the French city of Albi) in 1209, the one Holy Crusade conducted against another European people. The walls of France were shattered by the Papal armies, Cathars were massacred, and Catharism effectively destroyed.

Assuming a proactive stance against Heresies, Pope Gregory IX installs Konrad of Marburg as Papal Inquisitor in Germany in 1233, and Robert le Bougre as his counter-part in France in 1235. The two proceed to conduct inquisitorial reigns of terror, extracting horrific confessions of Heresies through the liberal use of torture. (Things reach such a shocking pass that Konrad is subsequently murdered, and Robert eventually suspended.)

The inflammatory stereotype of the “Heretical” meeting of depraved demon-worshippers received nuclear-levels of publicity when the French king Philippe IV took down the Order of the Knights Templar in 1307. The Knights- hearty men and elite warriors all- were tortured so savagely that the majority of them agreed that they had performed grotesque acts of magic in the adoration of hellish monsters. Signed confessions in their hands, French authorities had the Knights Templar burned at the stake as Heretics.

Torture having become such a routine matter in the “examinations” of Heretics, and proven so easily simple a means of extracting confessions, it traveled along when the idea of “perverse demon-worshipper” shifted from “Heretic” to “Witch” in the early 1400s. Nider relays to us Peter of Bern’s accounts of the “torture and confessions” of Witches, resulting in his burning “many Witches of both sexes, ” driving “others out of the territory of Bern.”

The infamous Witch-hunters’ manual Malleus Maleficarum of 1486 is essentially a lengthy torturers’ handbook, with much justification given for the “appropriateness” of torturing Witches. (The alarming thing about the Malleus is its assumption of torture as a righteous activity.)

Torture was the engine that propelled the apparatus of Witch-hunting. As a confession of guilt was necessary for execution, and as no reasonable person would confess to a litany of abominable crimes that carried with them capital punishment, torture became the instrument of convenience that carried authorities over the hurdle. Persons accused of Witchcraft were tortured into acquiescent agreement; these confessions were then used to sentence the wretches to a fiery death.

By the 1620s, things had come to the point where voices of conscience were raised. A series of poor harvests had caused an explosion of anti-Witch frenzy in the German regions of Franconia and Westphalia; some 600 persons were to die as devilish Witches at Bamberg and 900 more in Wurzburg; and Friedrich von Spee was a first-hand witness to it all as the Confessor to the Wurzburg prisons.

He daily saw the inflicted miseries and the harsh unfairness of the Witch-hunting system, as but the slightest whisper against one as a Witch led with terrible inevitability to the stake. “She can never clear herself…once arrested and in chains, she has to be guilty, by fair means or foul.” Moreover Spee came to believe that not a single one of the persons whom he saw in the prisons were indeed guilty of the charges against them.

Realizing that brutal torture alone generated “proof” of demonic Witchcraft, Spee wrote his Cautio in 1631, one of the first books to oppose Witch-hunts on moral grounds. “The most robust who have thus suffered have affirmed to me that no crime can be imagined which they would not at once confess to, if it would bring ever so little relief, and they would welcome ten deaths to escape a repetition.”

Johann Matthaus Meyfarth was a Theology Professor who equally witnessed hundreds of German trials and burnings and produced his own account of outrage in 1635. He was willing at that point to sacrifice treasure if could flush from his brain the terrors to which he had been privy: “I have seen the limbs forced asunder, the eyes driven out of the head, the feet torn from the legs, the sinews twisted from the joints, the shoulder blades wrung from their place, the deep veins swollen, the superficial veins driven in, the victim hoisted aloft and now dropped, now revolved around, head undermost and feet uppermost. I have seen the executioner flog with the scourge, and smite with rods, and crush with screws and load down with weights, and stick with needles, and bind around with cords, and burn with brimstone, and baste with oil and singe with torches. In short, I can bear witness, I can describe, I can deplore how the human body is violated.”

Not only did people incriminate themselves to death in tortured confessions, they were frequently required to name accomplices in Witchcraft. So grim was the thought of a return to the torturers’ chambers, even the most virtuous of persons often did so. Meyfarth tells of a woman who was tortured for three days before she implicated another. She admitted to the man thereafter, “I have never seen you at the Sabbat, but to end the torture I had to accuse someone. You came into my mind because, as I was being led to prison, you met me and said you would never have believed it of me. I beg forgiveness, but if I were tortured again, I would accuse you again.”

“Many hundred thousand good nights, dearly beloved daughter Veronica. Innocent have I come into prison, innocent have I been tortured, innocent must I die.” One of the most moving documents of the Burning Times is the letter written in prison by Johannes Junius, caught up in the Bamberg Witch-panic in 1628. He describes poignantly his capitulation as he suffers the thumb-screws, leg-vises, and the dropping torture of strappado:

“For whoever comes into the Witch prison must become a Witch or be tortured until he invents something out of his head and- God pity him- bethinks him of something…for they never cease the torture till one confesses something; be he ever so pious, he must be a Witch.” “Good night, for your father Johannes Junius will never see you more.”

Spee pointed out that, under such conditions, should the Witch-trials “be steadily continued, nobody is safe, no matter of what sex, fortune, condition, or dignity, if any enemy or detractor wishes to bring a person under suspicion of Witchcraft.”

Aside from the moral issue of brutality as an instrument of policy, the three hundred years’ adventure of the Burning Times would appear to have settled torture as a tragically unreliable means of extracting information. That some 200, 000 people consigned themselves to miserable death rather than endure another session in the torturer’s office should demonstrate the vicious air and deranged irrationality that flows from might have been understood as “enhanced interrogation techniques” in the Middle Ages.

The English Witch-finder of Essex in 1645, Matthew Hopkins, devoted himself to what might be called “passive torture” techniques. His specialty being the extraction of confessions without the mangling of limbs, Hopkins utilized starvation, “stress-positions, ” sleep deprivation, and forced or prolonged standing, walking, and running. It would appear that being kept on one’s feet for three days in a row would break the human spirit as readily as a spell on the rack. As records are incomplete, it is difficult to judge how many victims Hopkins acquired, but a few hundred seems reasonable; in Suffolk alone, he was responsible for the jailing of 124 persons, with at least 68 hanged.

With the lesson of the Burning Times behind us, one might argue that- as spiritual (if not actual) descendents of the Burning Times- it might behoove modern Witches to press for the repudiation of torture by civilized societies: Witches United Against Torture (WUAT) or something like, perhaps.


Barstow, Anne Llewellyn. Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts. Pandora, 1994.
Cohn, Norman. Europe’s Inner Demons: The Demonization of Christians in Medieval Christendom. Heinemann, 1975.
Kors, Alan C., Edward Peters. Witchcraft in Europe: 1100-1700: A Documentary History, 2nd ed. (revised by Edward Peters) . University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.
Robbins, Rossell Hope. The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology. Bonanza Books, 1981 ed.
Russell, Jeffrey Burton. Witchcraft in the Middle Ages. Cornell University Press, 1972.


Zan Fraser

Location: New York City, New York


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