Witchcraft An account of the learnings of Katelyn Trammell

January 20, 2017

Hoist Them Up

Torture and its influence in Witchcraft confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries

“Sir, I beg you, for God’s sake confess something, whether it be true or not. Invent something, for you cannot endure the torture you will be put to…” (Levack 201). These words, quoted from a letter written by Johannes Junius, were spoken by the executioner who entreated Junius to falsely confess to the accusation of witchcraft. Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, torture was a common method of acquiring confessions from prisoners accused of witchcraft. Although the amount of torture varied from country to country, the methods used were typically the same. Records of confessions throughout this time period make it clear that torture was an important factor in gaining confessions, acquiring names of other possible witches, and adding demonic details to charges of maleficia.

Four common types of torture for witches included thumb-screws, bone-screws, the use of pincers, and the use of the strappado. First, thumb-screws were used to slowly crush the victim’s thumbs or fingers, leaving them without the use of their hands. Junius complains in his letter that after experiencing the thumb-screws that “for four weeks I could not use my hands” (Levack, 201). Similarly, bone-screws could be placed around larger bones of the body, slowly crushing the bone as it was tightened.

Left: Thumb screw. Right: Bone screw.

Next, heated pincers were used to crush body parts while simultaneously burning the victim. In the case of Arkipko Fadeev, he was “burned with pincers and crushed in his secret places with pincers” until he confessed to using evil magic (Levack, 217). Lastly, the strappado included tying the prisoner’s hands behind their back and hoisting them up by the wrists, causing the shoulders and elbows to dislocate.

Left: two individuals being tortured with pincers. Right: A man hoisted by a strappado pulley system.
"Six had confessed against me at once...all false...They were forced to say it, just as I myself was."

Torture methods such as these forced prisoners to confess or greatly changed the details of their confessions. There are several examples of the accused claiming innocence up until torture was used. For instance, Francatte Camont, accused of harming several people through witchcraft, denied all charges during her initial trial. However, after being “racked severely” multiple times, she admitted to being seduced by the devil (Levack, 183). In other cases, confessions did not include details about the devil or gathering for the witches’ Sabbath until after torture had been administered. Collette Du Mont, convicted of witchcraft in Guernsey, admitted she was a witch, while also refusing “to specify the crimes which she had committed” (Levack, 186). However, after being taken to the torture chamber and questioned she added details to her confession of the devil visiting her in the form of a cat or dog, and using black ointment to carry her to “the place of the Sabbath” (Levack, 187). Several other cases followed this same pattern of mentioning the devil, black powders, and flying to the Sabbath after experiencing torture. A woman recorded only as N. N. made a similar confession. Once she was lifted by the strappado, she confessed to being a witch. When she was not let down, she continued to create a story of how she had intercourse with the devil, and he gave her “a green powder and a black ointment…which she used on man and beast” (Levack, 205).

It is not surprising that those put under torture would fabricate stories in the hope of stopping the pain. However, adding information did not always benefit the prisoner. In Germany, the accused were allowed to be tortured only three times as long as their confession was consistent. Unknowingly, many victims prolonged their torture when they added details they thought the jailors wanted to hear.

Torture not only gained confessions, it increased the list of names. Referring once again to Germany, torture was not allowed to end until the prisoner had named accomplices. Under torture or threat of torture, the accused were forced to name their neighbors and fellow townsfolk as witches. Junius, who was arrested in Bamberg, Germany, was forced to go street by street naming the names of numerous others or else be tortured again (Levack, 202). Likewise, those who had accused Junius “were forced to say it, just as I [Junius] myself was” (Levack, 202). Due to the practice of forcing the accused to name others, the number of convicted witches skyrocketed. The unnamed woman, N. N. alone named 45 other people while she was tortured (Levack, 208).

The Malefizhaus of Bamberg, Germany, where suspected witches were held and interrogated.

No other evidence was needed once a prisoner had confessed to crimes of witchcraft, and with very little proof outside circumstantial and spectral evidence, confessions became the focus of witch trials. Many times, torture was the key to not only gaining the confessions, but acquiring the demonic details the courts viewed as proof of heresy and conspiring with the devil. Hundreds of innocent men and women were executed under the application of torture, creating whatever stories required to end the torture, even going as far as to accuse the people they knew. Due to the use of torture, the number of condemned witches multiplied, increasing the frenzy of witch hunts and assuring the execution of anyone unfortunate enough to be accused.

January 27, 2017

The Devil is in the Details

How Witches Came to be Associated with Demonic Pacts

Many are familiar with the stereotypical witches of popular culture. They are ugly hags who fly on broomsticks wearing pointed black hats. They use spells to curse their enemies, conjure spirits, and inflict disease. Where do these witches get their powers? According to movies, books, and cartoons the witch must make a pact with Satan himself in order to gain her powers. Only after signing his black book can she begin her evil practices. However, the idea of signing a contract with Satan was not always associated with witches.

The Sanderson Sisters from Hocus Pocus mistake a man dressed in red long johns and a cape as their master, the devil.

Before witchcraft became a crime punishable by death, magic was a part of a country’s cultural knowledge. Although some magic may be used for harm, not all of it was seen as evil. In fact, the person later described as a witch for using spells and potions, was originally viewed as a healer using herbs and helpful talismans. Only after the introduction of organized Christianity did magic become a crime associated with the devil.

Cunning Folk and Magic

Early practitioners of what would later be called witchcraft were known as cunningfolk. These individuals were people within a community who had special knowledge of herbs and magic. They were seen as highly valued members of society with the ability to heal.

Drawing of a cunning woman named Gertrud Ahlgren of Gotland (1782-1874)

Cunningfolk and other early witches used several types of folk magic. Four examples of folk magic include healing, divination, destroying magic, and countermagic. First, healing magic could be used to relieve pain and sickness. Second, divination was the practice of seeing into the future or finding lost items. This could be done in several ways. For example, a witch may crack a raw egg into water, put a candle behind it, and use it as a crystal ball. Next, destroying magic could be used to inflict harm on others. This could be accomplished through the use of poppets, more familiar to many as voodoo dolls. Last, countermagic could be used to reverse a spell back onto the witch who cast it. In order to accomplish this, the hair, blood, or urine of the victim had to be burned.

Example of a human figure with needles through it, used to injure the person it represents

Folk magic differed depending on the country. For instance, Scandinavians believed in the existence of luck and love magic, shapeshifting, and flygjurs. Flygjurs were a form of guardian spirit which took the shape of an animal. Whichever animal shape it took was seen as a reflection of the owner. Although forms of folk magic varied across geographic region, and some forms of magic may be more harmful than others, it was not viewed in the same negative light as later descriptions of witchcraft. Instead, folk magic was a form of cultural knowledge which could serve as a benefit to others.

Christianity and Witchcraft

As organized Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant, began to influence different countries, the outlook on magic changed. At first, magic and religion coincided and were not seen as inconsistent with each other. Witchcraft was mainly viewed as a crime associated with pagans who the church wished to punish. In the 12th century, however, the official church stance shifted from witchcraft being associated with paganism to a demonic crime associated with heresy. Finally, starting around 1350, the church declared all magic as evil and derived from the devil, listing witchcraft as both a criminal and heretical offense.

As the church’s opinion transformed, so did the characteristics associated with witchcraft. Whereas early accusations may have only included making someone sick or harming crops, later trials added on charges of meeting with the devil, flying to his Sabbath, and having intercourse with him. For example, Niclas Fiedler’s confession in 1591 included details such as being approached by a “black man” who commanded him “that he should swear adherents to him (the devil) and help with murders as well as to renounce Christ crucified” (Levack, 176). Another accused witch, Isabel Bequet, confessed to flying to the devil’s Sabbath, making a “special compact to be faithful to him,” and that she “danced with him back to back” (Levack, 189). Claims of ritual pacts with the devil became more and more common as witch trials progressed. Several other confessions included further descriptions of dancing with Satan, signing his book, and kissing him on the buttocks.

Magic began to be punished by death only after the introduction of Christianity and the organized church. Originally, cunningfolk and witches were appreciated for their ability to heal and see into the future. Even when the magic went wrong, the witch would more likely be exiled rather than killed. Under the rule of the Christian church, witchcraft became a heinous offense, no matter whether it was being used for good or evil. Common cultural practices became associated with the devil, and soon the once-known healers were transformed into Satan’s accomplices, doomed to burn for their crimes.

Information taken from lectures by Wendy Lucas.

February 3, 2017

Kids Say the Darndest Things: The Importance of Children's Testimony in Cases of Witchcraft and Possession

Many of us are familiar with blockbuster films, such as The Exorcist and The Conjuring Two, that depict the demonic possession of children. These movies may seem farfetched despite their claims at being based on true stories. Despite our skepticism towards these horror flicks, accounts of possessed children are all too real. Several true accounts of the possession of children (although none can say if the demons or the magic used to summon them were real) often include accusations against suspected witches.

Scene from the movie The Exorcist, depicting a young girl named Regan who is possessed by a demon.

Throughout time and in multiple countries, children have played an important role in witchcraft accusations. Despite the young age of the accusers, their testimony was taken seriously and was often enough proof to convict a suspected witch. Many of these cases involved demonic possession. Several children, ranging widely in age, accused others of sending demons to inhabit their bodies and torture them. It was believed by many that witches had the ability to control demons and cause the possession of individuals, including the children who made the accusations. In order to understand how these allegations came about and why they were taken so seriously, we must examine several cases.

One famous case of children accusing others of witchcraft occurred during the famous Salem witch trials. In 1692 a group of young girls began to accuse local women of torturing them with their specters, pinching them or causing them to have fits. The girls continued to have fits during the trials, screaming in pain while the accused were being questioned, leaving little doubt that they were truly being tortured by witchcraft (Levack, 224). Many believed the children, and their claims directly resulted in the execution of several individuals.

Depiction of Tituba, a woman accused of witchcraft in Salem, performing magic in front of the young girls who would later accuse her.

Several cases involving children centered around demonic possession. These cases were blamed on witches who were accused of sending the demons to attack a child and take over their bodies. In order to understand these circumstances, we must address what constituted possession.

Possession was defined as a case where an individual’s body was inhabited by a demon that could cause the person to act in different ways or inflict pain to the host. Symptoms of possession are surprisingly close to what is depicted in the horror films we first described. Brian Levack (231) sums up the symptoms of possession as:

“Bodily contortions and convulsions, the ability to perform great feats of strength, temporary loss of memory, sight, and speech, lesions on the skin, the vomiting of nails or other foreign objects, insensitivity to pain, a transformation of the victim’s personality, knowledge of previously unknown foreign languages, speaking in strange voices, and hallucinations.”

One case of possession of a child occurred in 1598 when Loyse Maillat was supposedly possessed by five different demons. She accused a poor woman named Francoise Secretain of giving her “a crust of bread resembling dung,” and after consuming it, the eight-year-old child fell under the power of demons (Levack, 240). This account also made note of other cases of possession after an individual had eaten food given to them by a suspected witch (Levack, 242).

In a second case, taking place in 1603, fourteen-year-old Mary Glover accused Elizabeth Jackson of sending demons into Glover’s body. She showed signs of “convulsions, contractions, and distortions,” all common symptoms of possession (Levack, 251). However, as pointed about by Edward Jorden, a notable physician involved in the case, these symptoms also coincided with natural diseases such as “headaches, gouts, or epilepsies” (Leback, 251). Although Jorden was suspicious of Glover’s behavior, he refrained from accusing the girl of faking her symptoms. Whether or not she was truly possessed is still debatable today.

A third and final example is the possession of Christian Shaw in 1697. The eleven-year-old girl blamed a maid named Katherine Campbell for her possession. She claimed Campbell had sent demons upon her after having caught Campbell trying to steal milk (Levack, 267). Shaw’s symptoms included “violent pains,” losing the ability to talk or hear for periods of time, having her tongue “drawn out of her mouth,” and throwing up coal cinders, straw, and bones (Levack, 267-269). When ministers attempted to pray over her she would try to interrupt their prayers by screaming or singing (Levack, 270). In the end, Campbell blessed the girl and her symptoms lessened. In a final fit, Shaw screamed out that she would never renounce her baptism and prayed that “God almighty keep me from thy meetings,” meaning the witches’ Sabbath (Levack, 272).

A man is exorcised by a priest. The demon can be seen leaving his body through his mouth.

It is worthy of note that there have been some cases of children being taken to a witches’ Sabbath. However, in these cases the blame was placed on the parents of the child. One specific case occurred in Sweden from 1668 to 1676 when several children admitted to attending the Sabbath (Levack, 113). James Hutchinson, a minister from Scotland, preached that the children were not culpable for the crime of attending the Sabbath. Instead, the parents were to be held responsible. He argued that taking a child to make “a covenant with Satan” was the same as taking their child to be baptized (Leback, 114). The parent was culpable for the faith and protection of the child.

Although it is hard to prove or disprove whether or not these cases of possession were real, or that the children involved were just playing an elaborate prank, the involvement of children in witchcraft trials cannot be dismissed. Children were often victims and witnesses, providing evidence to convict their accused tormentors. As a result of the testimony of children and the importance placed on that testimony by judges, many were sent to their deaths for the crime of witchcraft.

As a final note: No matter how many times the movie is titled "The Last Exorcism," it will never truly be the last exorcism.

February 10, 2017

Witch Trials Under the Catholic Church v. the Church Of England

When one imagines the typical witchcraft trial they might picture unlimited torture as was done in Germany, elaborate executions like took place in Spain, or the general burning of hundreds of accused witches. These images focus on the violent cases and large panics that occurred in areas under the control of the Catholic Church. However, not all witchcraft cases followed this pattern. Trials looked very different in England. They were milder and resulted in fewer executions. These trials were different because the Church of England was in charge of prosecuting witches. The contrast between the two churches is well exemplified in the case of Scotland which, although separated from mainland Europe, followed the pattern of trials formed by the Catholic Church.

Witches burning at the stake

Witchcraft under the Catholic Church

In order to compare the two churches we must examine traditional Catholic witchcraft trials. Three factors contributed to the intensity of these trials. First, the Catholic Church focused on heresy associated with witchcraft. In the Malleus Maleficarum, the handbook used by several Catholic countries to hunt witches, witchcraft is described as “infidelity in a person who has been baptized” and that this is “technically called heresy, therefore such persons are plainly heretics” (Levack, 59). By associating witchcraft with heresy, the Catholic Church increased the severity of the crime. Second, the church believed that all witches “swear allegiance to the Devil” in order to gain their powers (Levack, 100). Again, this made witchcraft a serious crime against the church itself. Last, the church used papal inquisitors who were given large amounts of power to prosecute witches. For instance, Pope Innocent VIII ordered the removal of “all impediments by which in any way the said inquisitors are hindered in the exercise of their office,” giving the inquisitors unlimited power to convict the accused (Levack, 121).

The Malleus Malificarum was the witch hunting handbook written by Heinrich Kramer. It was used as a manual by countries under Catholic rule.

Trials in England

However, under the Church of England, trials were restrained and not nearly as extreme. This was for five reasons:

1. England had an incomplete concept of witchcraft. The church was late to arrive in England and folk magic was still prevalent in much of England. Unlike the Catholic Church, England did not use a witch hunting guide like the Malleus Malificarum which clearly defined witchcraft. Without a clear definition, judges were more cautious in what they deemed as magic.

2. There was an absence of papal inquisitors. Unlike the Catholic Church, England was not as concerned with the threat of heresy and did not associate acts of witchcraft as always being heretical.

3. England had a different idea about the witches Sabbath. The Catholic Church described the witch’s Sabbath as a gathering where the witches would “dance completely naked” and participate in a “demonic coupling” with the devil (Levack 105-106). The witches would fly to Sabbath whether by rubbing ointment on themselves or flying up through their chimneys (Levack, 84-85). However, England did not reference anything about flying and viewed the Sabbath as a night of simply dining with the devil.

4. England used torture sparingly. In England, torture could only be used if it was authorized by the Privy Council and only if it was a matter concerning the welfare of the state. Because torture was not used often, there were not the same amounts of confessions in England as there were in places like Germany and Spain.

5. There was a trial by jury. In England, in order to convict a witch, the jury must reach a unanimous decision. This drastically decreased the amount of convictions.

Under these conditions, few witches were executed in England. When executions did take place, the method used was not the same as the Catholic Church. Catholics believed in the burning of witches because this method did not leave blood on the hands of the church and it was believed to destroy all of the witch’s magic. However, due to religious beliefs, the Church of England did not share this view point. The English would hang the convicted and never used burning as a form of execution.

Witches were hung in England, not burned.

Trials in Scotland

Scotland is a special case concerning witchcraft trials. Although closely related to England and separated from mainland Europe, the trials were more intense than those in England due to outside influences, including the Catholic tradition of convicting and punishing witches.

Witchcraft trials began in 1563 when Mary Queen of Scots created a law claiming witchcraft as heresy and declared death by burning to be the punishment. Her ideas of witchcraft were formed from her Catholic background and experiences living in continental Europe while being married to the Dauphin of France.

Portrait of Mary Queen of Scots

These outside influences continued to affect the belief of magic in Scotland. During the first panic in the 1590s, King James VI authorized torture as a means of gaining confession. Like other cases under the Catholic Church, the victims confessed to dancing with the devil, committing the obscene kiss, and doing the devil’s bidding. The Catholic idea of what witchcraft was and its relationship to the devil influenced these confessions heavily. Do to this influence, three witches were executed in Scotland for every one executed in England. Like other European nations, certain individuals were given large amounts of power to convict witches in Scotland. For instance, magistrates were given commission to try witches without supervision from a higher court, and the clergy was much more involved in the trials than the clergy in England.

A depiction of a Scottish witch trial.

By examining the differences in trials conducted under the Catholic Church and the Church of England, it becomes clear that the church made the difference. The Catholic Church’s focus on the pact with the devil and heresy resulted in more convictions and executions whereas an absence of church influence, less focus on the devil, and more caution during trials under the Church of England meant fewer executions for the crime of witchcraft.

February 24, 2012

Men and Magic

“Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! I have given you my soul; leave me my name!”

These words, written by Arthur Miller in his play “The Crucible,” are spoken by the character John Proctor. Proctor was a real man, accused of witchcraft in Salem, but he is among the few male witches many are familiar with. Typically women were the ones accused of witchcraft. Although Proctor was accused in Salem, we will instead focus on men accused of witchcraft in Europe.

Daniel Day Lewis as John Proctor in the movie adaptation of "The Crucible"

Men were accused of separate types of magic than women. Although there were several countries where women were the ones accused most often, men were convicted more often in Scandinavia and Russia. Who was accused was affected by how magic was conceived in each country.

The profile of an accused man typically looked something like this:

1. Related to a female already suspected of being a witch.

2. Had been accused during a mass panic and when witchcraft was equal to heresy.

3. Typically accused of hurting crops or livestock.

4. Shepherds, blacksmiths, and ministers were more susceptible to accusations.

5. Men were more likely to flee and therefore were executed less often.

6. Male magic was seen as being used for good while female magic was seen as evil.

Although the profile above is typical of several countries, men’s magic differed across time and geographic location depending on the culture. One country that fit the given profile was Spain. In Spain, men were accused of masculine magic, a type of “high” magic that required formal knowledge of astrology, the Cabala, or esoteric books from Muslim mystics. Many of the men who were accused of witchcraft defended themselves by claiming their studies were a quest for scientific knowledge and were released. Women on the other hand, were accused of love magic and disrupting the free will of men by bewitching them to fall in love. These women did not get off as easily as the men.

In this picture, a man is also seen dancing with demons.

Magic was defined differently in Scandinavia. Trolldomr, the word for magic, could be used for luck, love, divination, shape shifting, or for summoning guardian spirits called flygjur. It was believed that trolldomr could be used equally by men and women. The key to this form of magic was the spoken word, because of this, men tended to be accused more often due to their greater speaking power in public. Although the typical profile of a man accused described men being accused mostly in mass panics in places like Germany and Spain, women in Scandinavia were more often those accused during large panics.

Wolves were a common flygjur, or spirit animal.

Men were also accused more often convicted and accused in Russia. Here, a witch was defined as a person of either sex that could mysteriously inure another person through porcha, the Russian version of maleficium. This could include taking life, maiming, causing illness, depriving of reason, impotence, or crop failure.

Tsar Aleksi of Russia

Often, it was a male star that began the witch hunts. These hunts began due to political disagreement and power moves to get rid of political opponents. For example, during the Time of Troubles (1598-1613), Boris Godunov accused the Romanov family of witchcraft and the whole family was exiled. Later, Michael Romanov initiated three separate investigations of his inner court, accusing individuals who threatened his power. Lastly, Tsar Aleksi, in response to the fear that his wife was being poisoned by witches, passed a law in 1653 that condemned dangerous items such as roots potions, diving dice, and written spells.

Boris Godunov, pictured above, was responsible for the banishment of the Romanov family.

Although many of the men accused were within the royal court, several other men were also convicted of witchcraft. This can be seen in records from a Russian witch-trial at Lukh in 1657. One man, named Terentei, was accused of casting a “shrieking curse” on a woman (Levack, 214). Several other men were accused of afflicting women with bewitchment, instead of the typical case in other countries where women were accused of bewitching men. One man even confessed to bewitching the townspeople in mass by bewitching salt and sweeping the salt through town (Levack, 217). The women accused at Lukh were the wives of the accused men, an inverse of the typical profile of men accused being related to a female witch (Levack, 215-216).

Although women were most often accused of witchcraft, there were some cases of men making up the majority of the convicted. Masculine magic was inherently different than female magic and was often seen as a higher form of magic used for good. However, in places like Scandinavia and Russia where the definition of magic was different, the typical profile of men accused was reversed.

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