Christianity And The Witch Hunt Era (4/12)

* 1540: Antonio Venegas de Figueroa, Bishop of Pamplona, sent a circular to the priests in his diocese, explaining that witchcraft was a false belief. He recommended medical treatment for those accused of witchcraft, and blamed the ignorance of the people for their confusion of witchcraft with medical conditions.

In 1610, he sent a letter to the Inquisition saying that until the witch persecutions had been introduced to his region, the local people ‘had known nothing about witch sects or aquelarres [witches gatherings, or ‘sabbats’] or evil arts’. This extremely perceptive observation would be noted also by the brilliant Inquisitor Salazar, who likewise realised that the witch hunts were a manufactured evil caused by suggestion.

* 1550: The Suprema investigated the secular courts. Inquisitor Francisco Vaca condemned their systematic malpractice, and specific officials were reprimanded for abuses of authority, and for failing to obey the procedures commanded by the Inquisition:

‘The result of the visitation of Francisco Vaca was a long series of rebukes, in 1550, largely concerning the procedure in witch cases and eventually leading to the dismissal of Inquisitor Sarmiento, although his offences were simply what was regarded, everywhere but in Spain, as the plain duty of those engaged in a direct contest with Satan, represented by his instrument the witch. Sarmiento is told that he made arrests without sufficient proofs and accepted the evidence taken by secular officials without verifying it, as required by the practice of the Inquisition, and, whereas the Suprema ordered certain precautions taken before concluding cases, he concluded them without doing so, and subjected parties to reconciliation and scourging that were not included in the sentence. Although the Suprema had ordered all sentences of relaxation to be submitted to it, he had relaxed seven persons as witches, in disregard of this, and when repeatedly commanded to present himself, he had never done so. Then the fiscal was taken to task because he had been present at the examination of witches, conducting the interrogation himself, putting leading questions, telling them what to confess and assuring them that this was not like a secular court, where those who confessed were executed.’

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

* 1551: A witch hunt in Galacia was halted by the Inquisition. Trials were stopped, and the local secular courts were ordered to turn over all evidence to the Inquisition, which would judge the cases itself. The local courts were told that no cases were to be continued until this was done:

‘Meanwhile the Suprema continued the good work of protecting so-called witches from the cruelty of the secular courts and of restraining the intemperate zeal of its own tribunals. The craze, in 1551, had extended to Galicia, where at the time there was no Inquisition. Many arrests had been made and trials were in progress by the magistrates, when a cédula of August 27th, evidently drawn up by the Suprema for the signature of Prince Philip, addressed to all officials, informed them that the matter of witchcraft was a very delicate one in which many judges had been deceived, wherefore, by the advice of the inquisitor-general, he ordered that all the testimony should be sent to the Suprema for its action, pending which the accused were to be kept under guard without proceeding further with their cases or with others of the same nature.’

Charles Lea, ‘A History of the Inquisition In Spain’, volume 4, book 8, chapter 9, page 221, 1906-1907

* 1555
: The Inquisition, having investigated a number of cases in Guipúzcoa, deplored the number of arrests, declared that there was little evidence to support the charges, and expressed the fear that innocent people may have suffered. It commanded the secular courts to examine all evidence with great care, and to release prisoners if the evidence was inadequate. Very importantly, witnesses against the accused were to be punished if their accusations could not be proved (an excellent method of dissuading charges of witchcraft):

‘Then, in September, 1555, the Suprema forwarded to the Logroño tribunal two memorials from some towns in Guipúzcoa with an expression of its sorrow that so many persons should have been so suddenly arrested, for, from the testimony at hand and former experience, it thought that there was little basis for such action, and that wrong might be inflicted on many innocent persons. The evidence must be rigidly examined and, if it proved false, the prisoners must be discharged and the witnesses punished; if there was ground for prosecution, the trials might proceed, but the sentences must be submitted for confirmation and no more arrests be made without forwarding the testimony and awaiting orders.’

Charles Lea, ‘A History of the Inquisition In Spain’, volume 4, book 8, chapter 9, pages 212-222, 1906-1907

After a lengthy investigation, the Inquisition dismissed the cases as unproved:

‘Six months later, in March, 1556, the Suprema concluded that the cases had not been substantiated; more careful preliminary investigations were essential for, in so doubtful a matter, greater caution was needed than in other cases.’

Charles Lea, ‘A History of the Inquisition In Spain’, volume 4, book 8, chapter 9, pages 222, 1906-1907

* 1563-77: Dutch physician Johannes Weyer wrote three separate works condemning the witch hunts. Though he believed in the devil and demons, he suggested that many women supposed of practicing witchcraft were simply mentally ill, and insisted that those accused of witchcraft should not be prosecuted. He also made the point that natural phenomena were sometimes wrongly considered to have supernatural causes:

‘Natural things and things accomplished by special skills are sometimes thought to be caused by demons.’

Johannes Weyer, ‘De Praestigiis Daemonum’, chapter XVIII, page 56, 1563

He wrote a vigorous and detailed legal defence of those accused of being witches, arguing ingeniously that accusations of witchcraft could not be fairly tried by courts (since the devil, the primary antagonist and participant, could not be brought to trial), and that since those who fell into witchcraft were under the devil’s supernatural influence, they could not be held responsible for their actions.

* 1576: The Inquisitorial tribunal of Logroño commanded the secular high court of Navarre to hand over a number of women accused of being witches. The officials of the secular court (the alcaldes), refused, appealing to the Inquisitor-General. The matter was eventually raised with the king himself, but the Suprema had the final word, commanding all prisoners to be handed over to the Inquisition, and all legal proceedings by the secular court to be suspended while the Suprema investigated the matter:

‘A letter of the Suprema to the tribunal, in 1576, informs it that the alcaldes had been ordered to surrender all the prisoners and the papers in the cases. (34) While this matter was in progress, a similar controversy arose about numerous witches in Santander, for a letter of January 10, 1576, instructs the Logroño tribunal that it can proceed against them for anything savoring of heresy, requiring the secular judges meanwhile to suspend proceedings; the facts are to be carefully verified and everything is to be submitted to the Suprema.’

Charles Lea, ‘A History of the Inquisition In Spain’, volume 4, book 8, chapter 9, pages 222-223, 1906-1907

* 1580: Frenchman Michel Eyquem de Montaigne objected to the persecution of witches, and expressed his scepticism that reports of witchcraft were ever true:

‘My ears are battered by a thousand stories like this:‘ Three people saw him on such-and-such a day in the east; three saw him the next day in the west, at such and such a time,dressed thus’. Truly, I would not believe my own self about this. How much more natural and likely it seems to me that two men are lying than that one man should pass with the winds in twelve hours from the east to the west!

How much more natural that our understanding should be carried away from its base by the volatility of our untracked mind than that one of us, in flesh and bone, should be wafted up a chimney on a broomstick by a strange spirit!’

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, as quoted by E M Curley, article ‘Skepticism and Toleration: The Case of Montaigne’, 2006

* 1583: Protestant Johann Matthaus Meyfart condemns the inhuman treatment of those accused or convicted of witchcraft:

‘Twenty years after Weier another heroic man, a Protestant, named Meyfart, rector of the Latin school of Coburg, raised his voice of warning. His booklet was a sermon of “Admonitions to the powerful princes and the conscientious preachers,” by which words he meant the Dominican fathers who were the official witch-prosecutors. He reminded them of the day of judgment, when they would be held to account for every torture and tear of their victims.’

Paul Carus, ‘History of the Devil’, page 373, 1900

* 1583: An archbishop in Spain was asked by the local people to investigate a large witch hunt which resulted in over 100 people accused of witchcraft. Instead of ordering them all to be killed, the archbishop did his utmost to reason them to repentance, so that they would avoid punishment:

‘After a preliminary investigation he came with a group of learned theologians and so worked on the consciences of the culprits that he won nearly all to repentance–more than a hundred and fifty are said to have confessed and abjured at one time.’

Charles Lea, ‘A History of the Inquisition In Spain’, volume 4, book 8, chapter 9, page 242, 1906-1907

* 1584: Anastasia Soriana, the wife of a peasant, voluntarily denounced herself to a local tribunal in Murcia (Spain), claiming that she has had unnatural relations with a demon. The tribunal did not believe her, and dismissed the case. Twelve years later she denounced herself to a tribunal in Toledo with the same claims, but her ‘confession’ was again dismissed:

‘In 1584 Anastasia Soriana, aged 28, wife of a peasant, denounced herself to the Murcia tribunal for having long maintained carnal relations with a demon. The tribunal wisely regarded the matter as an illusion and dismissed the case without action. Twelve years later, in 1596, she presented herself to the tribunal of Toledo, with the same self-accusation and again, after due deliberation, she was discharged, although in any other land it would have gone hard with her.’

Charles Lea, ‘A History of the Inquisition In Spain’, volume 4, book 8, chapter 9, pages 220-221, 1906-1907

* 1584: Reginald Scot, an Englishman, wrote a lengthy attack on the beliefs in witches and witchcraft, which he dismissed as unChristian superstition. In his landmark work he also exposed many of the tricks and techniques used by magicians and conjurers to pretend to magical powers, as part of his efforts to fight superstition:

‘And till you have perused my booke, ponder this in your mind, to wit, that Sagæ, Thessalæ, Striges, Lamiæ (which words and none other being in use do properlie signifie our witches) are not once found written in the old or new testament; and that Christ himselfe in his gospell never mentioned the name of a witch.

And that neither he, nor Moses ever spake anie one word of the witches bargaine with the divell, their hagging, their riding in the aire, their transferring of corne or grasse from one field to another, their hurting of children or cattell with words or charmes, their bewitching of butter, cheese, ale, &c: nor yet their transubstantiation; insomuch as the writers hereupon are not ashamed to say, G1 that it is not absurd to affirme that there were no witches in Jobs time. The reason is, that if there had beene such witches then in beeing, Job would have said he had beene bewitched.

G1 Mal. malef. par.2. que. 2.’

Reginald Scot, ‘The Discoverie of Witchcraft’, page 20, 1584

Scot’s exhaustively researched work is still considered to be a standard primary reference source for studies of performing magic and stage illusion.

* 1588: An alleged case of demonic possession was treated with great skepticism by a French Bishop and a Cardinal, who proved the case was a fraud:

‘This became particularly patent in the famous case of Martha Brossier, a French peasant girl, who, in 1588, claimed to be possessed of a devil. The excitement was great, and the pulpits resounded with alarming denunciations apt to renew all the terrors of former witch prosecutions. But Bishop Miron of Angers, and Cardinal De Gondi, Archbishop of Paris, retained their tranquillity, and had the case investigated not only according to a truly rational method, but even in a spirit of humor.

When the never-failing tests with exorcisms through sacred books and holy water were administered, Bishop Miron so arranged matters that the possessed girl was induced to draw wrong conclusions, and lo! simple spring-water and the reading of a line from Virgil regularly brought on epileptic fits, while neither the old reliable exorcisms nor the holy water produced any effect when the girl did not apprehend the sacred texts.’

‘The case was brought before the Archbishop De Gondi, but he, too, proved sceptical and declared after some judicious experiments that the demeanor of the possessed girl was a mixed result of insanity and simulation.’

Paul Carus, ‘History of the Devil’, pages 362-363, 1900

* 1588-1589: The Inquisition, involved in disputes with the secular courts as to which of them had the authority to prosecute cases of witchcraft, refused to share its power with the secular courts. It argued that since witchcraft involved apostasy it was a religious matter which did not come under the jurisdiction of the secular courts:

‘The Inquisition, in fact, was willing to share its jurisdiction with the bishops, but not with the secular courts, with which, in 1588 and 1589 we find it in controversy. It contended that, as witchcraft infers apostasy, its cognizance is ecclesiastical, residing either in the bishop or the Inquisition, and further that, when a civil court has commenced a prosecution, the inquisitor has the right to inspect the proceedings and decide as to whether or not the case belongs to him.‘

Charles Lea, ‘A History of the Inquisition In Spain’, volume 4, book 8, chapter 9, page 242, 1906-1907

Furthermore, since the Inquisition did not take into account accusations of harm or murder by witchcraft, those found guilty by the Inquisition were not subjected to the penalties of the secular courts, but were given far milder sentences, such as penance or scourging:

‘Various decisions and instructions from this time until 1603 indicate the line of action. The jurisdiction is only spiritual, for the heresy and apostasy, and takes no count of alleged murders or other crimes; the penalty is therefore merely penance, usually scourging, and inquisitors are told not to exile witches to places where they were not known, but to settle them where they could be kept under watch.’

Charles Lea, ‘A History of the Inquisition In Spain’, volume 4, book 8, chapter 9, pages 242-243, 1906-1907

* 1589: Fourteen people were condemned to death for witchcraft by a local court in France. An appeal was made to the Parliament, which sent a committee of the king’s medical staff to investigate the situation, and examine the accused for signs of the ‘devil’s marks’.

The king’s surgeon, Pierre Pigray, reported the findings of the committee:

‘”We found them,” continues Pierre Pigray, “to be very poor, stupid people, and some of them insane; many of them were quite indifferent about life, and one or two of them desired death as a relief for their sufferings. Our opinion was, that they stood more in need of medicine than of punishment, and so we reported to the Parliament. Their case was, thereupon, taken into further consideration, and the Parliament, after mature counsel amongst all the members, ordered the poor creatures to be sent to their homes, without inflicting any punishment upon them.”’

Charles Mackay, ‘Memoirs of Popular Delusions’, volume 2, section III, 1841

* 1592: Dutch Jesuit Cornelius Loos attacked in print both the persecution of those suspected of witchcraft, and the superstitious belief in witchcraft itself. Sadly his manuscript was seized, and he was imprisoned. Under pressure he was forced to sign a recantation of his beliefs:

‘It was during this persecution at Trier that Comelius Loos, a scholar of Dutch birth who held a professorship in the university of that city, dared to protest against both the persecution itself and the superstitions out of which it grew. Failing in his appeals to the authorities, he wrote a book to set forth his views; but the manuscript was seized in the hands of the printer, and Loos himself thrown into prison. Thence he was brought out, in the spring of 1593, and, before the assembled church dignitaries of the place, pronounced a solemn recantation.’

George L Burr (editor), ‘Translations And Reprints From The Original Sources Of European History’, volume III, number 4, page 15, 1896

The recantation written by Loos helpfully describes the beliefs he had placed in print:

* ‘the things which are written about the bodily transportation or translation of witches, male and female, are altogether fanciful and must be reckoned the empty superstition

* ‘the flight of witches is false and imaginary; asserting, moreover, that the wretched creatures are compelled by the severity of the torture to confess things which they have never done, and that by cruel butchery innocent blood is shed and by a new alchemy gold and silver coined from human blood’

* ‘there are no witches who renounce God, pay worship to the Devil, bring storms by the Devils aid, and do other like things, but that all these things are dreams

* ‘no compact does or can exist between the Devil and a human being’

* ‘devils do not assume bodies’

* ‘there is no sexual intercourse between the Devil and human beings’

* ‘neither devils nor witches can raise tempests, rainstorms, hail-storms, and the like, and that the things said about these are mere dreams

* ‘it is rash to assert that whatever devils can do, witches also can do through their aid’

* ‘that a superior demon can cast out an inferior is erroneous and derogatory to Christ

George L Burr (editor), ‘Translations And Reprints From The Original Sources Of European History’, volume III, number 4, pages 15-16, 1896

Though unfortunately compelled to recant, Loos still stands in the historical record as an intelligent Christian who attempted to stem the tide of superstition and barbarism.

* 1593: The Suprema issued an injunction commanding that the testimony of those who claim to have seen others at the witches ‘Sabbat’ was to be rejected, as the ‘Sabbat’ was mostly an illusion and courts could not be expected to rule on evidence derived from an illusion. This intelligent ruling helped to prevent the deadly outbreak of unprovable accusations which usually accompanied a witch hunt panic.

* 1597: An Inquisitorial tribunal in Barcelona investigated a number of charges of witchcraft and sorcery against local people. A report was made to the Suprema, but all cases were suspended without prosecution, preventing a witch hunt panic in the area:

‘In a report to the Suprema of a visitation made by Inquisitor Diego Fernández de Heredia, there occur the entries of Ana Ferrera, widow and Gilaberta, widow, both of Villafranca, accused by many witnesses of being reputed as witches and of killing many animals and infants, in revenge for little annoyances. Also, Francisco Cicar, of Bellney, near Villafranca, numerously accused as a wizard using incantations, telling where lost animals could be found, enchanting them so that wolves could not harm them, and killing the cattle of those who offended him. Here was the nucleus of a whole aquelarre for Villafranca, but all these cases are marked on the margin of the report as suspended, and nothing came of them.’

Charles Lea, ‘A History of the Inquisition In Spain’, volume 4, book 8, chapter 9, page 224, 1906-1907

* 1597: Anton Praetorius, a German pastor, protested so vigorously against the torture of those accused of witchcraft, that the practice was stopped. A record of a local witch trial reads:

‘As the pastor has violently protested against the torture of the women, it has therefore been stopped this time.’

The following year he published the book ‘Thorough Report about Witchcraft and Witches’, in which he expressed his objections to the torture and prosecution of those accused of witchcraft. It was republished in 1602, 1613, and 1629.

* 1598: A famous series of alleged exorcisms by Catholic priests was thoroughly discredited as fraudulent by a French investigation:

‘A serious and concerted attack on beliefs in witchcraft and demonic possession had been launched at the end of the 16th century in connection with a series of spectacular exorcisms that were quite literally staged before thousands of witnesses in France between 1566 and 1599.’

‘As a consequence, in 1598, Henry IV ordered the physician Michael Marescot and a group of medical colleagues to investigate the popular claims to demonic possession of one Marthe Brosier in the expectation that they could establish that her “possession” was either a mis-diagnosis of a natural disease such as epilepsy or hysteria, or that they could prove it to be a deliberate fraud.’

‘The overall verdict of Marescot’s investigation was stated in a memorable line: “Nothing from the devil, much counterfeit, a little from disease” (Walker, 1981, p. 35).

Without totally denying the possibility of demonic possession, Marescot and his colleagues were able to establish to their own satisfaction, that of the king, and that of many readers, that in one of the most celebrated cases of “possession,” an initially deluded and psychologically unbalanced woman had been exploited by her family and by a group of Catholic clergy, for both financial gain and for the seditious purpose of stirring up anti-Huguenot sentiment.’

Richard Olson, ‘Spirits, Witches & Science: Why the rise of science encouraged belief in the supernatural in 17th-century England’, Skeptic volume 1, number 4, pages 34-43, Winter 1992

* 1599: English Archbishop Samuel Harsnett condemned not only those who practiced fraudulent exorcisms, but also the very belief in witches and demons. He ridiculed the popular depiction of witches, and dismissed the common beliefs in supernatural evil as fit only for ‘children, fools, women, cowards, sick or black melancholic discomposed wits’:

‘This writer was among the first to bring the power of bold satire and open denunciation to bear against the superstitions of demonology. He thus describes the motives and the methods of such impostors:—

“Out of these,” saith he, “is shaped us the true idea of a witch,—an old, weather-beaten crone, having her chin and her knees meeting for age, walking like a bow, leaning on a staff; hollow-eyed, untoothed, furrowed on her face, having her limbs trembling with the palsy, going mumbling in the streets; one that hath forgotten her Pater-noster, and yet hath a shrewd tongue to call a drab a drab.


They that have their brains baited and their fancies distempered with the imaginations and apprehensions of witches, conjurers, and fairies, and all that lymphatic chimera, I find to be marshalled in one of these five ranks: children, fools, women, cowards, sick or black melancholic discomposed wits.’

Charles W Upham, ‘Salem Witchcraft: With an Account of Salem Village and A History of Opinions on Witchcraft and Kindred Subjects’, volume 1, pages 369-370, 1867

* 1601: A tribunal of the Inquisition in Logroño (Spain), was faced with a woman who had denounced herself voluntarily for witchcraft to the local secular court. The Inquisitorial tribunal was completely skeptical, and dismissed her case as entirely untrue. The local secular court insisted on another trial, but the Inquisitorial tribunal refused to allow the case to be re-opened:

‘The Logroño tribunal also showed its good sense, in 1602, when a young woman of 25, named Francisca Buytran, of Alegria, accused herself in much detail, before Don Juan Ramírez, of witchcraft, including attendance at the aquelarre. She was brought before the tribunal, which dropped the whole matter as being destitute of truth; again the magistrates sent it back, asking that it be revived and prosecuted and, when this was refused, they scourged her in Alegria as an impostor who defamed her neighbors.’

Charles Lea, ‘A History of the Inquisition In Spain’, volume 4, book 8, chapter 9, pages 224-225, 1906-1907

* 1603: English physician Edward Jordan published a medical work attributing to naturally occurring illness many symptoms traditionally thought to be caused by demonic possession and witchcraft:

‘Just a few years later, the English physician Edward Jordan, who was consulted in two cases of supposed demonic possession, published a treatise whose title discloses its major conclusions: _A briefe Discourse of a Disease called the Suffocation of the Mother. Written upon occasions which hath been of late taken therby, to suspect possession of an evil spirit, or some such like supernatural power. Wherein it is declared that diverse strange actions and passions of the body of man, which in the common opinion are imputed to the Divell, have their true natural causes, and do accompany this disease_ (1603).

In this work Jordan identified almost all of those symptoms that had been traditionally identified with demonic possession and witchcraft–especially insensibility, convulsions, and fits brought on by the presence of particular persons or artifacts with symptoms of hysteria.’

Richard Olson, ‘Spirits, Witches & Science: Why the rise of science encouraged belief in the supernatural in 17th-century England’, Skeptic volume 1, number 4, pages 34-43, Winter 1992

* 1598-1603: Two self-described exorcists in England were investigated and denounced as fraudulent:

‘…both an English Jesuit priest, William Weston, and a Puritan preacher, John Darrell, claimed to have cast demons out of a number of possessed children between 1585 and 1598, (Walker, pp. 43-73). Weston’s activities were commenced in 1585, but it was not until 1602 that a formal inquiry was held regarding his exorcisms. Darrell’s castings out of devils began in 1596; but in 1598, he was tried in London, condemned for fraudulent practices and both deposed from the ministry and sent to prison for at least a brief stay (Walker, p.64).’

Richard Olson, ‘Spirits, Witches & Science: Why the rise of science encouraged belief in the supernatural in 17th-century England’, Skeptic volume 1, number 4, pages 34-43, Winter 1992

* 1610: After consideration of the Logroño case, Inquisitor Pedro de Valencia decides that the aquelarre, or witches ‘sabbat’, is not at all supernatural. He concludes that such gatherings do take place, but that they are nothing more than immoral gatherings embellished by lies:

‘Now that he had thoroughly examined the confessions of the culprits he proceeds to give in much detail the monstrosities which they relate and concludes with a brief expression of the convictions resulting therefrom.

This is that the aquelarre has nothing supernatural about it, such as flying through the air and the presidency of the demon in the shape of a goat. It is merely a nocturnal assemblage on foot of men and women to gratify disorderly appetites, inflamed perhaps by the instigation of the devil, and that their confessions are fictions invented to cover their wickedness.’

Charles Lea, ‘A History of the Inquisition In Spain’, volume 4, book 8, chapter 9, page 247, 1906-1907

Part five.


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