Far after the coming of Christianity, and with the introduction of the bull against witches by Pope Innocent VIII in 1484, the hysteria regarding witches and other pagans began to rise. The smear campaigns carried over from early Europe right into the Middle Ages. Then, in the 15th and 16th centuries, actions against the so-called ‘witches’ became truly violent.
Heinrich Insititoris Kramer and Jakob Sprenger
In 1486, two German monks who would later become infamous, produced an incredibly anti-witch book. Heinrich Kramer and Jakob Sprenger wrote the Malleus Maleficarum (The Witches’ Hammer), which was a concoction full of ideas regarding the proper persecution of witches. This book, which was composed of three parts, covered such things as:
- Various ways in which witches may kill children conceived in the womb;
- Whether witches can sway the minds of men;
- How witches prevent procreation; and
- The proper way to persecute and punish witches.
This book was submitted to the appointed censor of the time, the University of Cologne. However, the majority of the professors refused to have anything to do with such a dubious work. They refused approbation for the Malleus Maleficarum. Undaunted, Kramer and Sprenger simply forged the approval of the entire faculty. Unfortunately, this forgery was not discovered until 1898. By then, the damage had been done.
The Impact of the Malleus Maleficarum
The publication of The Witches’ Hammer ignited hysteria across most of Europe. For nearly three hundred years, suspected pagans and witches were actively targeted; it didn’t seem to matter if anyone was actually guilty or not. Entire villages, suspected of being under the influence of witchcraft, were put to death.
As an example, in 1586, the archbishop of Treves concluded that witches were responsible for the severe winter in his region. After using torture to obtain ‘confessions’ from 120 men and women, he executed these alleged witches. They were all burned to death, as the law dictated. At the time, the laws in Scotland and Continental Europe enforced burning at the stake, while England and New England hung witches instead.
There are many estimates regarding the number of people actually killed during the Witch Trials. Numbers as high as 9 million have been suggested. Most likely, the number is approximately 500,000. Obviously, these could not all have been pagans or witches. In truth, there were probably only a very few pagans and witches actually killed during this time. Most people executed for witchcraft would have been God-fearing people.
Very often, the charge of witchcraft was used to get rid of someone who could not otherwise be targeted. There was virtually no defense against witchcraft. Once you were accused, you were almost certain to be found guilty. However, being accused of witchcraft wasn’t an automatic death sentence. Only 48%-50% of trials ended in execution. Others were given what were seen as ‘appropriate’ punishments, such as:
- Public humiliation; or
- Loss of all status and material wealth.
The timeline of the Witch Trials is somewhat difficult to pin down, as not everything was properly recorded. However, it is certain that as Europe was caught in the fires of persecution, many innocent people were killed.
In 1604 King James I passed the Witchcraft Act, which promised harsh sentences for anyone convicted of witchcraft. However, in 1736 this was repealed and replaced with an act that declared witchcraft did not exist, and to pretend to have occult powers was to face being charged with fraud. By this point, belief in witchcraft had faded into the background, but it never really disappeared.
For many years, it was thought that the beliefs of old Europe had been left in the past. However, belief doesn’t die that easily. The beliefs were dormant, passed on by a dedicated few, only to be revived and adapted in the 20th century. One of these adaptations was a ‘New Age’ religion known as Wicca.