What does a witches' discovery mean

Witch hunt

An ancient belief

In the early modern era, real hunts for alleged witches began. Thousands of people - mostly women - died at the stake.

The belief in beings that we call witches today and who can cause damage with their magic extends across the world through all cultures and times.

Even in the ancient civilizations of Egypt, Babylonia and Assyria, people are convinced of the existence of so-called intermediate beings (demons). Alleged magicians are already punished with death at this time, but there is no targeted persecution.

In the Roman Empire, too, the majority of the population believed in sorcery, but only its abuse is punishable. So-called harmful wizards have been burned alive since the 3rd century AD, while charitable sorcery goes unpunished.

Only with the strengthening of the Christian religion in the 4th century AD was the death penalty imposed on any kind of sorcery. What is astonishing is that the early Christians do not believe in the effectiveness of sorcery, but regard the mere attempt as diabolical.

Pact with the devil

The great church scholar Augustine (354-430) was the first to deal extensively with magic and sorcery in his writings. In his opinion, magical acts are in principle ineffective, but require a tacit pact with the devil. He does not give instructions on how to punish magicians.

The teachings of Augustine significantly influenced the way people dealt with supposed wizards and witches throughout the early and high Middle Ages (around 500-1250). Although there are isolated trials for sorcery, which in the worst case can also result in a death penalty, one cannot speak of targeted persecution.

The Church even expressly opposes lynching and pogroms, which are sometimes perpetrated by parts of the population.

Although people believe in magic, by and large they live in peaceful coexistence with the supposed magicians. Convictions are very rare. The injured parties are usually only eager to have the spell lifted. The Church also has no particular interest in the persecution and punishment of sorcerers during this period.

In the "Canon episcopi", a canonical regulation from the year 906, women are described who make a pact with the devil during their nocturnal, ecstatic flights.

From the point of view of the Church, however, the flights are just delusions of women. They are thought to be people who have an erroneous belief and are therefore subject to penance. In the worst case, this means exclusion from the community for women, which amounts to social ostracism.

Growing threat

From the 13th century onwards, the church adopted a much sharper tone towards alleged witches. Thomas Aquinas (around 1225-1274), one of the most important church theorists of the Middle Ages, assumes in his writings that witchcraft can actually be carried out with the help of the devil.

He also describes in detail the magical practices of witches, for example the pact with the devil, witch aviation, the transformation of animals or making the weather. In his eyes witches are harmful women. As a renowned thinker, he lays the theoretical foundation for the later massive witch burnings.

In his wake, numerous church scholars publish tracts that describe alleged witch sects and classify their crimes. Gradually the image of witches is changing: incited by preachers and authors, the population perceives the presence of witches as increasingly threatening.

Today's Switzerland is one of the core areas. At the beginning of the 15th century, inquisitors identified supposedly new sects that were strongly influenced by the Jewish and witch beliefs.

In a trial against such a sect member in 1419 in the Swiss city of Lucerne, the German word "hexerye" appeared for the first time to identify the practices.

Legal basis

The Catholic Church is forced to act. Since more and more people seem to be falling into magic, it redefines belief in witches at the council in Basel (1431-1449). Treatises are being written that no longer come from individuals but from a large witch sect. The inquisitors should keep their eyes open and take action against these sects.

Shortly after the publication of the treatises, the population began to believe in the witch sects. Around 1450, more and more paintings depicting flights of witches were created in the churches. There are first targeted persecutions by agitated farmers, mainly in the valleys of the Swiss Alps.

Inquisitors appointed by the Roman Curia wander around the dioceses to specifically organize witch hunts. The most notorious of them is Heinrich Kramer (around 1430-1505): appointed inquisitor for all of Upper Germany in 1478, he had numerous alleged witches sentenced to death within a few years.

Since there are still many opponents of the persecution both in the church and in secular politics, he wrote a paper in 1484, which he had the incumbent Pope Innocent VIII (1432-1492) sign. With the so-called "witch bull" of the Pope, the Catholic Church legalized the persecution of witches by the inquisitors for the first time.

Despite the "witch bull", Kramer did not succeed in 1485 in a witch trial he initiated in Innsbruck. The local bishop is not convinced of the legality, lets the process break and Kramer thrown out of Tyrol.

This failure leads him to write his famous book "Hexenhammer", in which he describes in detail the crimes of witches and lays down rules for trials against them. Soon after its publication in 1487, the book was well received across Europe.

Start of the chase

The "Hexenhammer" meets fertile ground. At the end of the 15th century, the living conditions of the population deteriorated dramatically. Long and hard winters are responsible for drastic crop losses, epidemics spread and wipe out large parts of the population. Witches in particular are blamed for the evils.

It is estimated that several thousand people across Europe will die at the stake in the first 30 years after the "Witch's Hammer" was published.

The first wave of persecution subsided around 1520. Some secular rulers, the Reformed areas in Germany and the Spanish Inquisition reject the burning of witches and even criminalize them.

But the closed season for alleged witches does not last long. In the middle of the 16th century, living conditions deteriorated again. A new wave of cold is breaking through Europe. Food is becoming so expensive that large parts of the population go hungry.

Incited by sermons from opponents of witches, the witch hunts begin again across all denominations. In many European countries, the trials reached their climax between 1570 and 1590.

Central Europe special case

While the supply situation in western and southern Europe gradually stabilized around 1600 and the persecutions decreased, a clear increase was recorded in central Europe, which culminated in the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648).

Between 1626 and 1630 there was a concentration of unfavorable conditions: Due to the turmoil of the war, many fields were fallow, other fields could not produce any yield due to bad weather conditions.

In 1626 the frost was so severe that even ponds freeze over until the end of May. Again witches are held responsible for the weather damage. Thousands of people are killed in an unprecedented hunt in a rushed manner. In the Electorate of Cologne alone, more than 2000 executions took place between 1626 and 1635.

This time, however, it not only affects older, poor women, but also clergy and members of the nobility who want to oppose the burns. All of Central Europe is afflicted by a kind of apocalyptic mood. At the insistence of the peasants, rulers who are skeptical of the hunts also have stakes erected on a massive scale.

Moral and Legal Concerns

Only at the end of the 17th century did the economic, climatic and political conditions stabilize. The persecutions are increasingly becoming a disruptive factor for the ruling elite. In the Age of Enlightenment, more importance is attached to scientific knowledge than magic and superstition.

Witch trials are a rarity throughout the 18th century. Only in remote areas of the country are there isolated executions. With their writings against the persecution of witches, the enlighteners are slowly gaining the upper hand over the conservative clergy.

When the last witch was executed in Switzerland in 1782, it sparked an outraged public debate about the legally dubious foundations of the trial.

The jurisprudence is reformed almost everywhere, around 1800 all magical offenses have disappeared from the legal texts. A dark chapter in European history is coming to an end. An estimated 50,000 people fell victim to the witch hunts of the early modern period, around 80 percent of them women.