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Christianity And The Witch Hunt Era (3/12)

The Witch Hunts: A Historical Aberration

Historical facts demonstrate that the witch hunts were uncharacteristic of Christianity as a whole, though a belief in witches and witchcraft was common. The infamous ‘witch burning era’ is in fact confined to just 250 years of Christian history, and whilst large scale panics took place in many countries, it was rare for local church authorities to organize and initiate actual hunts.

The overwhelming majority of witch hunts and accusations were initiated by the common people, many of whom retained pagan superstitions which local Christian teachers often did little or nothing to correct (and sometimes encouraged). But the Christian attitude and response to witchcraft was by no means uniform across Europe, and church authorities in different countries (sometimes even in different regions), treated the issue in a variety of ways.

Tests and punishments for witchcraft inherited from a previous non-Christian legal code were often left intact and used by the Christian administration (at worst), sometimes altered to be more humane or less humane, but sometimes abandoned completely (at best). Those accused of witchcraft in one country could be put to horrific tests and tortures before being executed in various unpleasant ways, whilst in another country they would be subjected to mild questioning before being fined, given a penance, or even dismissed entirely without penalty.

It would be untrue therefore to say that the Christian response to witches and witchcraft was identical to that of the non-Christian population. In some places it was the same, in other places it was worse, whilst in other places it was far better. Nor is it true to say that Christianity was always the deadly enemy of those accused of witchcraft, or even that Christians always believed in it.

The history of witchcraft and Christianity reveals the following interesting facts:

* The earliest Christian records indicate that witchcraft was treated as a superstitious delusion, and medieval Christians actually condemned the punishments inflicted on alleged witches by the pagans and their laws

* A record of Christian opposition to the superstition of witchcraft, and to the punishment of alleged witches, which is centuries long and precedes the rationalist ‘Enlightenment’ era by almost 1,000 years

This evidence will now be reviewed.

* 643: The Edictum Rothari, the law code for Lombardy in Italy, was compiled in written form for the first time. As a result of Christian influence, the previous pagan law of death for witchcraft was forbidden. The new law declared the belief in witches to be false and unChristian, saying it was not possible for someone to be a witch:

‘Let nobody presume to kill a foreign serving maid or female slave as a witch, for it is not possible, nor ought to be believed by Christian minds.’

* 672-754: Boniface of Mainz consistently denied the existence of witches, saying that to believe in them was unChristian. Boniface repeatedly disproved the existence of local pagan gods by cutting down their groves and destroying their shrines, converting many pagans in the process

* 775-790: The First Synod of Saint Patrick (attributed to Patrick in the 5th century, but actually written in the 7th century), declared that those who believed in witches are to be anathematized:

‘A Christian who believes that there is a vampire in the world, that is to say, a witch, is to be anathematized; whoever lays that reputation upon a living being shall not be received into the Church until he revokes with his own voice the crime that he has committed.’

* 785: Canon 6 of the Christian Council of Paderborn in Germany outlawed the belief in witches (which was considered to be a deception of the devil). Like the Edictum Rothari, it also outlawed putting to death those suspected of being witches (the method of execution and disposal described here was the method used by the pagans):

Whosoever, deceived by the devil, believes, as the pagans did, that any person is a witch and can devour men, and therefore burns that person, and gives her flesh to others to eat, shall be put to death.’

* 9th century: French abbot Agobard of Lyons denied that any person could obtain or wield the power to fly, change shape, or cause bad weather, and argued that such claims were imagination and myth. He made his argument from Scripture, declaring that such beliefs were pagan. His excellent work ‘On Hail and Thunder’ is worth quoting at length:

‘In these regions, nearly all men, noble and common, city and country dwellers, old and young, believe that hail and thunder can be produced by human will. […] It is necessary that we examine by the authority of Holy Scripture whether it is true as the masses believe.

‘But we have seen and heard of many people overcome with so much foolishness, made crazy by so much stupidity, that they believe and say that there is a certain region, which is called Magonia, from which ships come in the clouds. In these ships the crops that fell because of hail and were lost in storms are carried back into that region; evidently these aerial sailors make a payment to the storm-makers, and take the grain and other crops.

Among those so blinded with profound stupidity that they believe these things could happen we have seen many people in a kind of meeting, exhibiting four captives, three men and one woman, as if they had fallen from these very ships.’

But yet, because this error, which so generally possesses the minds of almost everyone in this region, should be judged by everyone gifted with reason, we offer proofs from Scripture by which it can be judged. …people who believe that men can do these things are completely ignorant of God.’

‘Indeed, we have repeatedly heard it said by many people that they know such things have certainly happened in places, but we have yet to hear someone swear that he has seen these things.’ ‘This stupidity is not the smallest part of their unbelief, and it has already ripened into such an evil that in many places there are wretched men who say that indeed they do not know how to send storms, but that they do, however, know how to guard against them.’

So much stupidity has already oppressed the wretched world that Christians now believe things so absurd that no one ever before could persuade the pagans to believe them, even though these pagans were ignorant of the Creator of all things. On this account, therefore, we have brought this last incident into the midst to our discourse, because it is similar to the topic on which we are speaking and can give an example of inane seduction and true impoverishment of sense.’

Agobard of Lyons, ‘Against the Absurd Opinion of the Vulgar Touching Hail and Thunder’, 9th century

* 906: In his work ‘A Warning To Bishops’, Abbot Regino of Prüm dismisses the popular beliefs in witches and witchcraft as complete fiction, giving the bishops the following command:

‘…instruct the people that these things are absolutely untrue and that such imaginings are planted in the minds of misbelieving folk, not by a Divine spirit, but by the spirit of evil.’

Regino wrote a collection of previously established church law (‘Libri duo de synodalibus causis et disciplines ecclesiasticis’), in which is found a similar commandment for bishops to correct those who believed in witches and witchcraft, demonstrating that this position was held and enforced by the highest church authorities.

* 936: Pope Leo VII wrote to Archbishop Gerhard of Lorch requiring him to instruct local authorities not to execute those accused of witchcraft. In his letter he made specific mention of the fact that the new law under Christianity commanded mercy, whereas the old pagan law had commanded death:

‘…although by the old law, such people were condemned to death, ecclesiastical law spared their lives so that they could repent.’

* 10th century: The Canon Episcopi (a 10th century collection of church law attributed inaccurately to the 4th century Council of Ancyra), declared that the alleged supernatural acts of those accused of witchcraft were mere illusions sent by the devil, and explicitly condemned the belief that such acts could take place. The Canon is dogmatic in ascribing all supernatural power to God alone, and identifying the attribution of such power to evil spirits or demons as pagan.

It is significant not only for the Scriptural argument it makes, but also for insisting that a belief in supernatural acts of evil was unChristian. By the standards of this decree, many Christians today would be considered pagans and liable to excommunication:

‘Have you believed or have you shared a superstition to which some wicked women claim to have given themselves, instruments of Satan, fooled by diabolical phantasms? During the night, with Diana, the pagan goddess, in the company of a crowd of other women, they ride the backs of animals, traversing great distances during the silence of the deep night, obeying Diana’s orders as their mistress and putting themselves at her service during certain specified nights. If only these sorceresses could die in their impiety without dragging many others into their loss.

Fooled into error, many people believe that these rides of Diana really exist. Thus they leave the true faith and fall into pagan error in believing that a god or godesss can exist besides the only God.

Wherefore the priests throughout their churches should preach with all insistence to the people that they may know this to be in every way false, and that such phantasms are sent by the devil who deludes them in dreams.

[…]

Who is there that is not led out of himself in dreams and nocturnal visions, and sees much sleeping that he had never seen waking? Who is so stupid and foolish as to think that all these things that are done in the spirit are done in the body, when the Prophet Ezekiel saw visions of God in spirit and not in body, and the Apostle John saw and heard the mysteries of the Apocalypse in spirit and not in body, as he himself says ‘I was rapt in Spirit’. And Paul does not dare to say that he was rapt in his body.

It is therefore to be publically proclaimed to all that whoever believes in such things, or similar things, loses the Faith, and he who has not the right faith of God is not of God, but of him in whom he believes, that is the devil.

For of our Lord it is written, “All things were made by Him.” Whoever therefore believes that anything can be made, or that any creature can be changed to better or worse, or transformed into another species or likeness, except by God Himself who made everything and through whom all things were made, is beyond a doubt an infidel.’

The Canon Espiscopi condemned the belief as utterly false, but required no penalties from those who believed in it, other than the withholding of communion.

* 1020: Burchard, Bishop of Worms argued that witches had no power to fly, change people’s dispositions, control the weather, or transform themselves or anyone else, and denied the existence of incubi and succubi. He ruled that a belief in such things was a sin, and required priests to impose a strict penance on those who confessed to believing them. In order to enforce this ruling, he included the Canon Episcopi in his ‘Decretum’, a collection of canon law which was binding on all citizens

* 1080: Gregory VII: Wrote to King Harold of Denmark advising that those accused of supernaturally causing bad weather or epidemics should not be sentenced to death

* 11th century: Colomon, the Christian king of Hungary, passed a law declaring ‘Concerning witches, no such things exist, therefore no more investigations are to be held’ (‘De strigis vero quae non sunt, nulla amplius quaestio fiat’)

* 1258: Pope Alexander IV explicitly refused to allow the Inquisition from investigating charges of witchcraft unless obvious heresy was involved:

‘The Inquisitors, deputed to investigate heresy, must not intrude into investigations of divination or sorcery without knowledge of manifest heresy involved.’

Such ‘manifest heresy’ was defined as ‘praying at the altars of idols, to offer sacrifices, to consult demons, to elicit responses from them’, or associating publicly with heretics. Unless there was clear evidence of heresy, allegations of witchcraft were not to be investigated.

* 1498: Although not denying the existence of witches, Ulrich Molitoris (an attorney in Constance), wrote ‘Dialogus de lamiis et pythonibus mulieribus’, in which he deplored the methods of persecution and punishment inflicted on those accused of witchcraft

* Late 15th century: Antonino, Archbishop of Florence condemned the popular belief in witches, insisting that the powers attributed to them were impossible, and such beliefs were foolish. His views were shared by others:

‘No theologian stood higher than St. Antonino, Archbishop of Florence, yet in his instructions to confessors, he requires them to ascertain from penitents whether they believe that women can be transformed into cats, can fly by night and suck the blood of children, all of which he says is impossible, and to believe it is folly.

Nor was he alone in this, for similar instructions are given by Angelo da Chivasso and Bartolommeo de Chaimis in their authoritative manuals.’

Charles Lea, ‘A History of the Inquisition In Spain’, volume 4, book 8, chapter 9, page 209, 1906-1907

* 1494: A decision of the Inquisition changed the Church approach to witches. Firstly, they were officially recognized as people involved with supernatural evil beings. However, even at this stage the witches themselves were considered powerless victims of demonic deception. The Canon Episcopi was quoted to argue that the apparent power of witches was a mere illusion.

Secondly, and more importantly, it was argued that since witches are involved with demons, they are guilty of heresy, and therefore subject to prosecution by the Inquisition:

‘In 1494, the Repertorium Inquisitorum recognizes the existence of witches, who were popularly known as Xorguinas; it quotes the essential portion of the can. Episcopi in answer to the question whether they are justiciable by the Inquisition, adding that such a belief is an illusion wrought by the demon but, although it is folly, it is infidelity worse than paganism, and can be prosecuted as heresy.’

Charles Lea, ‘A History of the Inquisition In Spain’, volume 4, book 8, chapter 9, page 210, 1906-1907

The Spanish Inquisition first actively prosecuted witchcraft at the end of the 15th century:

‘The earliest case, however, that I have met of prosecution by the Inquisition was in 1498, when Gracia la Valle was burnt in Saragossa. This was followed in 1499 by the burning of María, wife of García Biesa and, in January 1500, by that of three women, Nanavina, Estefabrita and Marieta, wife of Aznar Pérez. There was an interval then until 1512, when there were two victims, Martina Gen and María de Arbués.’

Charles Lea, ‘A History of the Inquisition In Spain’, volume 4, book 8, chapter 9, pages 210-211, 1906-1907

* 1514: Alciatus, a civil legal official, was asked by a local prelate to assess the case of a number of women brought to trial for witchcraft. Expressing his belief that they were more in need of medicine than punishment, Alciatus advised against punishment and suggested they be treated kindly. The intelligent counsel of Alciatus undoubtedly avoided a full scale panic:

‘A number of unfortunate wretches were brought for judgment, fitter, according to the civilian’s opinion, for a course of hellebore than for the stake. Some were accuse of having dishonoured the crucifix and denied their salvation others of having absconded to keep the Devil’s Sabbath, in spite of bolts and bars; others of having merely joined the choral dances around the witches’ tree of rendezvous. Several of their husbands and relatives swore that they we in bed and asleep during these pretended excursions Alciatus recommended gentle and temperate measures; and the minds of the country became at length composed.’

Sir Walter Scott, ‘Letters On Demonology And Witchcraft’, Letter 7, 1885

‘Two other prominent men of the juridical profession, Alciatus and Ponzinibius, expressed themselves in the same spirit; they declared bodily excursions of witches and similar things to be pure imagination.’

Paul Carus, ‘History of the Devil’, pages 370-371, 1900

* 1518-1520: As legal counsel to the city of Metz (Germany), French born Cornelius Agrippa sucessfully defended a local peasant woman from accusations of witchcraft:

‘He intervened successfully in the defense of an elderly peasant woman from a prosecution for witchcraft that he maintained was motivated by the desire to seize her small property, a conspiracy in which (he claimed) the Dominican inquisitor and other court officials had colluded.’

Charles Nauert, article ‘Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim’, Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, 2007

* 1521: Arnaldo Albertino, Inquisitor, stated that the ‘witches Sabbat’ was a delusion:

‘Arnaldo Albertino tells that, in 1521, at Saragossa, by command of Cardinal Adrian, he was called in consultation by the Suprema, over two cases, when he pronounced the Sabbat to be a delusion.’

Charles Lea, ‘A History of the Inquisition In Spain’, volume 4, book 8, chapter 9, page 211, 1906-1907

* 1526: The supreme council of the Spanish Inquisition, skeptical of the many reports of witches, convened a committee to investigate a range of issues relating to witchcraft. One of the issues debated was whether witchcraft was real or a delusion. Out of ten committee members, six said witchcraft was real, but four said it was only a delusion:

‘The mere submission to rational discussion of such a series of questions shows a desire to reach a just method of treatment, wholly at variance with practice elsewhere, when legislators and judges were solely occupied with devising schemes to fight the devil with his own weapons and to convict, per fas et nefas, the unfortunates who chanced to incur suspicion.’

‘The ten members of the congregation were all men of consideration and included the Licentiate Valdés, in whom we may recognize the future inquisitor-general. On the first question, as to reality or delusion, the vote stood six to four in favor of reality, Valdés being one of the minority and explaining that he regarded the proofs of the accusations as insufficient, and desired inquisitors to be instructed to make greater efforts at verification.’

Charles Lea, ‘A History of the Inquisition In Spain’, volume 4, book 8, chapter 9, page 212, 1906-1907

The committee also voted that those who repented of witchcraft when accused, were not to be given to the secular courts for judgment, but were to be considered reconciled. Very importantly, the basis for this judgment was the committee’s view that there was no evidence for their crimes other than their confessions, and the murders of which they were accused could well be imaginary:

‘…the majority decided that, when culprits were admitted to reconciliation, they were not to be remitted to the secular judges, to be punished for homicides, for such homicides might be illusory, and there was no proof beyond their confessions; after they had completed the penance assigned to them, if the secular judges chose to try them for homicide, the Inquisition could not interfere. This decision was adopted in practice and, some years later, was cited in justification of protecting convicted witches from the secular courts.’

Charles Lea, ‘A History of the Inquisition In Spain’, volume 4, book 8, chapter 9, page 213, 1906-1907

* 1530: The Spanish Inquisition urged all local legal tribunals to be especially careful when handling cases of witchcraft, and that those who claimed that sicknesses were the result of witchcraft were to be questioned about their claims:

‘A carta acordada, addressed to all the tribunals, enjoined special caution in all witchcraft cases, as it was a very delicate matter to handle, and this was followed by another manifesting a healthy scepticism and desire to repress popular superstition, for it stated that the ensalmadores, who cured diseases by charms, asserted that all sickness was caused by witches, wherefore they were to be asked what they meant and why they said so.’

Charles Lea, ‘A History of the Inquisition In Spain’, volume 4, book 8, chapter 9, page 216, 1906-1907

The result was friction between the Inquisition and the secular courts, which complained about the lenience of the Inquisition towards witches:

‘The practical position assumed by this time may be gathered from a letter of December 11, 1530, from the Suprema to the Royal Council of Navarre, when a fresh outbreak of the witch-craze had, as usual, brought dissension between the tribunal and the secular courts, for the latter refused to acknowledge the exclusive jurisdiction of the Inquisition, and complained of its delays and the leniency of its sentences, in comparison with the speedy and unsparing action demanded by popular clamor…’

Charles Lea, ‘A History of the Inquisition In Spain’, volume 4, book 8, chapter 9, page 216, 1906-1907

In response, the Inquisition issued a reply to the secular courts, objecting to the executions which they had carried out, declaring the evidence in the cases to be frequently ambiguous and unreliable, and again urging the secular courts to act with great care and moderation:

There was much doubt felt as to the verification of the crimes alleged, and the Suprema deplored the executions by the secular courts, for the cases were not so clear as had been supposed. In view of all this, inquisitors were enjoined to use caution and moderation, for there is so much ambiguity in these cases that it seems impossible for human reason to reach the truth. When the same questions had arisen elsewhere, the Suprema had ordered the inquisitors to act with the greatest circumspection, or these matters were most delicate and perilous, and some inexperienced judges had been deceived in treating them.’

Charles Lea, ‘A History of the Inquisition In Spain’, volume 4, book 8, chapter 9, pages 216-217, 1906-1907

* 1537: The Spanish Inquisition again reproved the secular courts, and repeats its cautions. In particular, the courts were commanded to verify all testimony, and not to convict if the testimony as insufficient. Accusations of children being killed or crops destroyed were to be investigated in detail:

‘In 1537, it returned, July 11th, a number of sentences, with its decisions as to each, and instructions as to the future. The tribunal was chafing under the unaccustomed restriction, and the fiscal was scandalized at the solicitude displayed for the friendless wretches who, everywhere but in Spain, were deprived of the most ordinary safeguards against injustice, but the imperturbable Suprema maintained its temperate wisdom. The utmost care, it said, was to be exercised to verify all testimony and to avoid conviction when this was insufficient. Arrests had been made on the mere reputation of being witches, for which the inquisitors were reproved and told that they must arrest no one on such grounds, nor on the testimony of accomplices, nor must those who denied their guilt be condemned as negativos. When any one confessed to being present at the killing of children or damage to harvests, verification must be sought as to the death of the children at that time, and of what disease, and whether the crops had been injured. When such verification was made, arrests could follow and, if the character of the case and of the accused required it, torture could be employed.’

Charles Lea, ‘A History of the Inquisition In Spain’, volume 4, book 8, chapter 9, pages 218-219, 1906-1907

* 1538: The Suprema sent Inquisitor Valdeolitas to Navarre (plagued by accusations of witchcraft), to instruct the local tribunals of the great necessity of caution in prosecuting cases of witchcraft, as they could easily be deceived by false appearances. Tribunals were commanded to ignore the local demands that witches were to be burned, and the people were to be instructed explicitly that the destruction of their crops was not caused by witches, but either by the natural weather or God Himself. Tribunals were also told not to trust in the infamous ‘Malleus Maleficarum’, since it could not be relied on for complete accuracy:

‘Meanwhile the chronic witchcraft troubles in Navarre had called forth, in 1538, a series of enlightened instructions to Inquisitor Valdeolitas, who was sent with a special commission. He was told to pay no attention to the popular demand that all witches should be burnt, but to exercise the utmost discretion, for it was a most delicate matter, in which deception was easy. He was not to confiscate but could impose fines to pay salaries. He was to explain to the more intelligent of the people that the destruction of harvests was due to the weather or to a visitation of God, for it happened where there were no witches, while the accusations of homicide required the most careful verification. The Malleus Maleficarum –that Bible of the witch-finder–was not to be believed in everything, for the writer was liable to be deceived like every one else. The demands of the corregidores for the surrender of penitents, to be subsequently punished for their crimes, were not to be granted, under the decision of the congregation of 1526.’

Charles Lea, ‘A History of the Inquisition In Spain’, volume 4, book 8, chapter 9, page 219, 1906-1907

* 1539: The Suprema issued further instructions to Valdeolitas, containing the warning that the ‘confessions’ of witches regarding dreams of their midnight ‘Sabbats’ were not to be trusted, since such experiences were deceitful and not indicative of reality:

‘Then, a year later, October 27, 1539, the Calahorra tribunal was notified that the Royal Council of Navarre had agreed to surrender thirty-four prisoners; one of the inquisitors was to go to Pampeluna to examine the cases; those pertaining to the Inquisition were to be tried in strict conformity with the instructions and the rest were to be left with the civil authorities.’

In the instructions to Valdeolitas there is a phrase of peculiar interest, prescribing special caution with regard to the dreams of the witches when they sally forth to the Sabbat, as these are very deceitful. This, so far as I have observed, is the earliest official admission of the view taken in the can. Episcopi that the midnight flights were illusions.’

Charles Lea, ‘A History of the Inquisition In Spain’, volume 4, book 8, chapter 9, page 219, 1906-1907

Part four.

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2 comments

  1. Very well written.Most individuals involved with witchcraft today i.e.wicca,neo pagan etc our so misinformed either by deliberate distortion or out of ignorance.Nice to have a balanced account .


    • Thanks, I’m glad you liked it.



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