The Blog of a History of Witchcraft Student

January 20, 2017

Testing For A Witch

This post will be putting a focus on the different ways of testing for witches that were executed across Europe and in the English colonies. These different tests will then be compared with those that were executed specifically in Germany during its period of witch hunting in the 16th and 17th centuries. The hopes of looking at the different forms of testing for a witch both in a general sense and then at a specific country is so that it becomes apparent that, while there may be some similarities between the two, an individual countries history with witches does not always conjoin with the generalities.

Of the vast number of tests implemented by witch hunters, some were more widespread than others, and may have even been used in multiple countries. One of the more infamous of tests was the Drowning Stool. In this test, an accused witch would be tied down and submerged under water (whether by rocks or some lever-like device). If this poor person was to somehow float under such circumstances, they would then be tagged as a witch and put to death. If they did not float then they were not a witch, but the problem with this is that many people during this time were not practiced swimmers and would wind up drowning while submerged having been entirely innocent. In a numerous amount of cases, a person would not even be submerged on a stool, but instead simply tossed into the nearest body of water while tied and weighed down. Another rather harmful test was to have an accused witch pick up a hot iron, and if they were somehow not burnt then they were a witch. One test that does not make much sense to us now is known as “pricking” or “scratching.” An accused witch would be stabbed a multitude of times by tiny needles in the effort to find their “witch mark.” It was believed that a witch’s “witch mark” does not feel pain, and this was why an accused witch was pricked or scratched so that their mark would eventually be discovered. Many tests that were executed wound up bringing great harm to a large amount of the innocent.

A Drowning Stool

Not all tests were quite as harmful or life-threatening for an accused witch. One such test involved the accused witch reciting the Lord’s Prayer perfectly. Any foul-up and that was an instant proof of one’s involvement in black magic. Another test, the touch test, involves an accused witch physically touching a supposed victim while this victim was in a fit. If the victim made no reaction to this touch, then the accused was proven innocent, but if the victim were to come out of their fit when touched then it was proof the accused had placed the victim under a spell. One test that can be considered rather disturbing is a bit of counter magic known as the witch cake. Witch hunters would take samples of urine, blood or hair of a suspected victim of a witch, mix it with rye-meal and ashes, and then bake it into a cake. This would then be fed to a suspected witch’s familiar with the belief that the familiar would fall under the spell and reveal the name of the witch. While these tests were not near as harmful to the accused, they can all still be considered as ridiculous as those that were harmful.

In Germany, hunting for witches did not require the testing of the accused. Instead, it was legally acceptable for an accused witch to be arrested and brought into a witch questioning facility, like the Hexenhaus, where they would be tortured until they confessed. The torture law in Germany during the 16th and 17th century stated that an accused witch could be tortured a maximum of three times, and if they did not reveal any new information by the end of the third then they were to no longer be tortured. However, this rule was often broken by officials regularly, and even if an accused person were to release new (most likely false) information they would not be released from torture unless they gave up their accomplices. With the unfathomable amount of pain that these accused people went through, it is no wonder that so many innocent people wound up being accused in the German witch hunts.

There have been many recorded ways for testing for witches that have been noted in the years since witch hunts occurred. Some of these tests may be considered simply outlandish or so obviously flawed that it was no wonder so many innocent people of the times were wrongly accused and killed for being witches. But for the contemporary population, these tests made since as being acceptable ways for hunting for witches and were widely used across Europe and the British colonies. Why Germany alone was looked at for the way in witches were identified is because in Germany tests were not the popular way of identifying witches. Instead, torture was more commonly practiced than tests as torture laws in Germany made it legal to do so. One could argue that the Germans are a people that enjoy causing physical harm to those they perceive as different or heretical, but the explanation for their preferred use of torture can more likely relate to the fact that torture was a culturally accepted way of trying to obtain an accused persons confession.

January 27, 2017

The Spanish Inquistion

In class on Tuesday January 24, 2017, the topic of the Spanish Inquisition and its role with Spanish witchcraft was discussed. While some background was provided about the Spanish Inquisition, this post will provide an even more thorough explanation of the Inquisition, and will then examine how witch craft became associated with the Inquisition. The starting point of the Spanish Inquisition came with Pope Sixtus IV issuing a bull in 1478 authorizing the Catholic Monarchs to name inquisitors who would confront the problem of Jews who had converted to Christianity but had continued to practice Judaism (Marranos). For centuries prior to Sixtus’ issued bull, Spain had been a territory broken up into separate kingdoms full of not only Christians, but a large population of both Jews (at the time Spain had the largest Jewish population in Europe) and Muslims. As Christian Kings came to power in Northern Spain, and their kingdom’s powers increased and Christianity gained more strength in Spain, confrontations between the three groups increased as well. Soon Spanish Kings had been able to unite and began taking steps to remove or convert the non-Christians of Spain. It can be argued that when this move towards turning Spain into a strictly Christian kingdom occurred the Spanish Inquisition took its first breathe.

Jews faced forced conversion or death as early as 1390 during the reign of Henry III of Castille and Leon. This increased pressure upon the Jewish community saw a great many of them forced to convert to Christianity, and many killed for not making this conversion. Even those Spanish Jews who did convert (known in Spanish as conversos) faced increased prejudice and suspicion. The Marranos, or those who faked conversion to Christianity but continued their practice of Judaism, were perceived by the Spanish society to be a greater social threat, and this is what led to Sixtus’ bull in 1478. While Sixtus was the one who officially began the Inquisition, the first Inquisitors in Seville proved to be so severe that Sixtus attempted to intervene but had lost control of the Inquisition to the Spanish Crown and its officials. Thanks to the efforts of Tomas de Torquemada, the first Grand Inquisitor, who pushed King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to issue an edict giving Jews the choice of conversion or exile from Spain, more than 160,000 Jews were removed from Spain.

While Muslims faced persecution from the beginning of the Inquisition because they were considered heretics for practicing their religion, the pressure forced on them increased substantially after 1502. This is due to Cardinal Jimenez de Cisneros, who promoted the suppression and/or removal of Muslims with as much ferocity as Torquemada did with the Jews. Jimenez issued a proscription of Islam in Granada, which was the last Spanish kingdom under Muslim control during the Reconquista. When Jimenez was named Grand Inquisitor in 1507, the persecution of Muslims increased even further. Many Muslims faced forced conversion, and in 1526 the practice of Islam was banned in Spain. Much like with the Jews under Torquemada, a special focus was put on those Muslims who had converted, but continued to practice certain aspects of the religion. These people were known as Morriscos, and in 1566 Phillip II forbade the expressing of Morrisco culture, which led to open warfare between the Spanish Crown and the Spanish Morrisco population. By 1614, some 300,000 Muslims had been removed from Spain entirely.

During the Inquisition, Spanish officials were not focused strictly on Jews and Muslims, but on all that were considered heretical to the Christian faith. By this definition, those that practiced forms of witchcraft in Spain were also heretics who deserved to be tried by Inquisitors and potentially executed. While officials were focused mainly on the removal of Jews and Muslims, this did not keep countless innocent people from being accused of forms of witchcraft. Those commonly accused of witchcraft in Spain were men and women with the power to cure illnesses, men searching for enchanted treasure left behind by the Moors (Spanish Muslims), men who used “masculine magic,” and women who used “love magic.” Anyone suspected of committing acts of witchcraft would have been considered guilty until proven innocent, and, once accused, a person was to always face some form of punishment. While the Spanish interrogations were much less violent towards practitioners of witchcraft than in Germany, the two shared similar torturing techniques, like the rack and the pulley. Despite the Inquisition not being solely focused on those who committed acts of witchcraft, those accused faced conditions that were similar (if somewhat less severe) to those in Germany.

What is so unique about Spanish witch hunts when compared with other European nations is that they took place alongside the Inquisition of all heretics of the Christian faith in Spain. This means that accused practitioners of witchcraft were not the sole focus of the Inquisition, but were simply a specific group of people that fell into the broad definition of what the Inquisition was trying to remove from Spanish society. Even though those that practiced witch craft were predominantly Christian, and not a part of the Jewish or Muslim faiths, they still faced the same dangers. This can be directly connected to the fact that the Spanish Inquisition was not focused solely on the persecution of witches, but on all people considered heretical to the Christian faith.

The Auto da Fe was where those who were found guilty during the Spanish Inquisition were publicly executed

Information on the Spanish Inquisition was found on,

February 3, 2017

For many of the people of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries in Europe, the proper response for panics of witchcraft was to hunt down any who were believed to partake in magical activities, torture them until they confessed, and then have them killed. This technique was present in Germany and Spain, where large numbers of people are killed for supposedly practicing witchcraft. Because the art of witchcraft was heretical to the Christian Church, any who practiced it were heretics and by canon law deserved the death penalty. However, in Russia and Italy, cases of witchcraft received a rather different response from these two countries judicial systems. While the art of witchcraft was still considered illegal in these two countries, they handled witchcraft cases significantly different from their European neighbors.

Up until the early 13th century, the nomokanon law stated that the punishment for witchcraft in Russia was death. However, this law was changed by Laroslav the Wise, and the punishment was from then forth just a fine. The changing of this law did not mean that occasionally a person accused of witchcraft did not die from torture or being sentenced to death, but it did keep there from being such large numbers of accused people from being wrongly killed in Russia like in Germany or Spain. The punishment for charges of witchcraft implemented by Laroslav would not be changed for the centuries of witch hunts that would come in Russia, that is until the rise of Catherine II.

Laroslav the Wise, responsible for changing the penalty for breaking the nomokanon law in Russia from death to a fine.

When Catherine II came to the throne in the 18th century, there was once again came a change in the handling of witchcraft cases. Unlike many European leaders before her, Catherine’s plan for witchcraft cases was to take a more enlightened and official approach. She believed many accused of practicing witchcraft to be simply practicing fraud, and so she had all the courts of Russia to, from then on, handle any cases of witchcraft as cases of fraud. Then in 1775, Catherine formed the sovestnye sudy (or courts of conscience) to handle cases of popular superstition, juvenile offenders and the criminally insane. It was in this court that any future cases of witchcraft were to be handled. From its early response and up until its last period of cases of witchcraft, Russia handled witchcraft cases with less violence and more rational thinking than that of Germany or Spain.

Catherine II (the Great) of Russia

When it came to cases of witchcraft accusations in Italy, it’s judicial system took an even more careful and rational approach than that of Russia. For being the country where the heart of Christianity was, Italy had significantly lower numbers of accused practitioners of witchcraft being found guilty than that of Germany, Spain, any of the Scandinavian countries, or even Russia. There are several explanations as for why Italy had such lower numbers of guilty verdicts than other European nations. The first explanation is that Venetian (or Roman) Inquisitors were generally cautious and methodical when it came to cases of witchcraft. They had recognized the numbers of people being falsely accused of, and killed for, witchcraft and had decided to take a more diligent approach at home. Another explanation is that in very few cases were there instances of accused renouncing their faith being used as evidence, and because the Italians followed the Directorium inquisitorium by Nicolau Eymeric (which stated that the only way a person could be found guilty for maleficio was worshipping the devil) if one did not renounce their faith and worship the devil then they were not considered guilty of practicing witchcraft. A final explanation as for why Italy had lower numbers of guilty verdicts is that its local tribunals urged the use of caution in regards to evidence and cases in general. Tribunals would often bring in family members of accused and ask them if the accused had certain suspicious objects in the house (like seeds, or feathers, or knotted cords). These tribunals were told; however, to take caution and not come to quick judgement if some of these items were said to be found within an accused’s abode, and instead question the accused as to what such items were used for. What these examples show of the handling of witchcraft cases in Italy is that they were handled with such caution and carefulness unobservable in other European nations at the time.

The Directorium Inquisitorium by Nicolau Eymeric which was the official witchcraft manual for Italy.

It is this sense of caution that is more prevalent in both Russia or Italy than the likes of Germany, Spain, or even some of the Scandinavian countries during the 16th, 17th, or 18th centuries. The judicial systems of these two nations handled such cases not with the heartless killing of any simply accused of having dabbled in the arts of witchcraft, but with the proper process any such case should deserve. In these two countries, proper evidence was required for a guilty verdict to be found, and not just a confession or accusation that were obtained under torture. Judges handled cases not with the goal of eventually killing the accused, but with the goal of having them to proven legally of being innocent or guilty. In these two countries, there was not so much a witch craze, but more of a witch scare.

February 10th, 2017

The crazed reaction of witchcraft in Europe during the 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, while partly a result of the harshness inflicted by Christianity, was a result of the witchcraft manuals that were written during these time periods. One of the most famous and widely used was the Malleus Maleficarum, which condemned and punished witches or any acts of witchcraft. Another popular manual was the Directorium inquisitorium, which stated that the only way a person could be found guilty for maleficio (witchcraft) was by worshipping the devil and it called for a cautious approach to any accusations of witchcraft. The difference in how these two manuals explained how to deal with witchcraft caused for there to be significantly different responses to witchcraft across Europe. To better understand how such responses came about in these different countries more light needs to be shined on the teachings of these books.

The Malleus Maleficarum, published by Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger

The Malleus Maleficarum was published in 1486 by Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, both Dominican Inquisitors. Levack mentions on page 57 that this manual was written when these two inquisitors were “encountering resistance in their efforts to prosecute witches.” After securing the bull from Pope Innocent III in 1484, this manual was to be the basis for how inquisitors were to try those accused of witchcraft. The Malleus Maleficarum, because it was written by two Dominicans, constantly makes references to the Holy Scripture for how witchcraft should be handled. It even says that “the divine law in many places commands that witches are not only to be avoided, but also that they are to be put to death” because of the pact that they make with devil. Kramer and Sprenger build the defense for their manuals response to witchcraft from the fact that those who partake in such acts have renounced the one true God and instead made a pact with the devil instead. To commit such an act is seen by the Church as one of the biggest forms of heresy, and the churches proper response to all forms of heresy is to have the accused proven guilty and burned.

Heinrich Kramer, famous Dominican Inquisitor

To prove an accused’s guilt, torture was quite often an accepted form of ascertaining confessions. In fact, the Malleus Maleficarum even “offers recommendations for the successful prosecution of witches,” and Kramer approved just about any practice that would “succeed in the convicting of witches.” (Levack 123) Kramer expected witches to face torture to obtain confessions as he believed it to be the one true way of gaining truthful knowledge from the accused, knowledge that may even include the accusations of others as accomplices. He believed witches to be so helped by the devil that he had made them immune to pain, and so, by torturing them, once they show pain it was believed that the devil had left and they would then be ready to confess their crimes. The main goal of Kramer and Spranger’s Malleus Maleficarum was to obtain confessions, whether they were sincere or obtained through immense pain, and the contents of the manual provided a perfect explanation of how to do so.

The Directoruim Inquisitorium, published by Nicholas Eymeric

A manual that is of stark comparison to the Malleus Maleficarum is Nicholas Eymeric’s Directorium inquisitorium. The Directoruim was first published in the 14th century, but was republished in the 16th century as well. It was used primarily in Italy and the surrounding regions, and it is the combination of the use of this manual and the Italian belief in stregheria that caused the Roman/Venetian Inquisition to be a lot less violent than its German or Spanish counterparts. Stregheria is a belief in Italy of supernatural illnesses, which are different than those of natural illnesses, and are most often associated with witchcraft. However, a doctor was necessary to prove whether a case did involve stregheria or not, and, because if a case did then someone was likely to get executed and the doctor would end up losing potential clients, doctors often disproved any association of stregheria with the cases they were involved in. With the combinations of the belief in the use of stregheria and the teachings of the Directorium, Italy’s approach to witchcraft became rather unique.

Eymeric’s manual was one that did not label all those accused of witchcraft as witches. Eymeric believed that there were some forms of magic that were non-maleficient, and were therefore not heretical. He states that only when magicians summon demons and make sacrifices were they to be tagged as witches and to face the prosecution of the Inquisition. In his manual, he makes sure to make establish a concrete definition for both diviners and magicians, so that such people would not be associated with heretics. Only when these diviners and magicians began to, or were suspected of having begun to, take part in heretical actions where they to be then noted as heretics. By establishing such definitions for diviners and magicians, Eymeric is attempting to distinguish between practitioners of good and bad magic. Another such example of this is when he states that one of the key ways someone can be marked as a heretic is when they make a pact with the devil and renounce their pact with God, for this was seen as believing the devil to be higher than God, which is heresy. By establishing this, Eymeric is trying to point out that not all diviners and magicians renounce God and make a pact with the devil, and they should therefore not be labeled as heretics. Through his manual, the Directorium inquisitorium, Nicholas Eymeric was trying to establish a boundary between good and bad magic, and did so to keep periods of major witch crazes from occurring throughout Italy.

The Malleus Maleficarum and the Directorium inquisitorium, while both being manuals for how to handle witchcraft, took two different approaches to the problem of witchcraft. The Maleficarum saw all forms of witchcraft as heretical, and the only way to handle accusations of witchcraft was through the obtainment of confession, usually with the help of torture to make sure the confession was valid. The inquisitorium distinguished both good and bad magic, and saw only acts of magic performed by making pacts with the devil as heretical. It also did not advocate for torture to be used to gain a quick confession, but instead pushed for caution to be used so that the innocent were not wrongly convicted. The differences in the teachings of these manuals are quite precedent when one acknowledges the number of convicted and killed in the Germany or Spain (where the Maleficarum was primarily used) with those numbers in Italy (where the inquisitorium was primarily used).

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