This blog post comes after a Twitter conversation with the awesome writer and publisher Theo Paijmans. One of the biggest motivations behind the history title I’m writing at the moment is to look at the people and legal developments behind the witch trials. To us, as citizens of the 21st century, the barbarism of the witchcraft accusation – flimsy evidence, torture, intimidation, false promises of leniency and finally burning at the stake – is palpable.
But nothing is ever so simple. Even the way we imagine the witch trials – a single monolithic persecution spanning hundreds of years – is far from what the evidence shows to be the case. Even the term ‘witch hunter’ is a misuse. Those who brought the witches to their deaths came from a variety of backgrounds, and most were never full time persecutors of witches.
Persecutors could be anything from neighbours, to local worthies, or scholar-clerics with the whole gamut of motivations: the frightened, the desperate, the grief stricken, the corrupt and the cruel… even the well-meaning, but simply wrong. In this blog post, we’ll take a look at them.
The Medieval and Early Modern world was a frightening place. Disease rampaged around Europe, seemingly self-aware in the way that it could miss one town, infect the settlements around it, and then return for the kill. The early 14th century also saw the start of ‘The Little Ice Age’, resulting in extreme weather that few could have understood. Cattle disease, or ‘murrain’, affected herds, causing seemingly healthy animals to sicken and die with no warning.
With the rising myth that the Antichrist was free and the end of days had begun, the raw malevolence of this environment can hardly be under emphasised. For a population with no understanding of meteorology or germ theory, the identification of some supernatural mastermind can be readily understood.
We see this in the phantasmagorical images arising from the persecution of Jews during the Black Death. In 1460, the court of Lyonnais tried a number of witches on 30 counts of sorcery. One of the accusations against them was that they spread disease by, “powders made up by demons through wicked artifice, which they secretly sprinkled into food or drink and caused diverse and grace infirmities, which indeed inflicted deadly and long lasting illnesses.”
Extreme weather could kill a community. Weather based famine was a factor in Europe until the large-scale cultivation of the potato. While modern crops have been modified to give a yield of 24 grains for every grain planted, the usual Medieval yield was 1-4. With meagre yields leading to tiny grain stores, a farmer whose crop was destroyed or damaged could be faced with the Hobson’s choice: eating next year’s seed grain, or laying the grain away and starving immediately.
We see this fear of the weather at Metz in 1456. The city chronicler describes a storm so sudden that it’s easy to understand how local people could have believed it was caused by an antagonistic magical force: “On April 22 in the said year 1456, the vines round Metz looked extremely fine with an abundance of grapes, just as they had the past 40 years. At about four o’clock in the morning there arose a great mist and cold, and for this reason most of the vines were destroyed and frozen. People began to say that this sprang from the diabolic practise of male and female witches…. There was a young boy living at Pont-a-Mousson who said he had been with these female witches… they arrested one man in the town of Vic who said he was one of the ‘masters’… declaring publicly that his mist happened because the said male and female witches throw into a fountain near Deseme a mixture made by the Devil’s art, and out of it comes a mist which lays waste the vines. He said this was why a priest from Pont-a-Mousson had lost half his. He also said he had killed small child and caused several mishaps and great losses…”
While it might sound like the loss of a luxury product to us, the loss of so much wine could mean severe hardship for farmers in a wine region.
While some were frightened, there were others who were simply desperate. One such family were the Throckmortons of Warboys in 1589. On the 10th of November, Jane Throckmorton started suffering from a strange and alarming condition: “…she would sneeze very loudly and thickly for the space of half an hour… and… as one in a great trance and swoon lay quietly as long. Soon after, she would begin to swell and heave up her belly so that none was able to bend her… sometimes she would shake one leg… as if the palsy had been in it.”
The girl’s delirium starts to become something more supernatural when a neighbour, Alice Samuel, comes to the house and the little girl accuses her, “Grandmother, look where the old witch sits.”
Surprisingly, the reaction of her family is far from one of witch hunting fervour: the grandmother is mortified and forces the girl to apologise. Jane is taken to a doctor Barrow, who tests her for both epilepsy and worms, before referring her onto another medical practitioner named Butler, who decides it is the same.
Gradually, however, not only does Jane get worse but her four sisters are infected, as are a number of the servants. Each girl begins suffering terrible fits, all the while screaming accusations of witchcraft against Mother Samuel. It is only a month after Dr. Barrow has given up on medicine and suggested the girls are bewitched that the Throckmortons accept it: when all their children are infected, crying, “Take here away. Look where she stands before us in a black fringed cap” against Mother Samuel.
The possession was to drag on for three and a half years, with the Throckmorton family driven into a state of abject frenzy over the children’s condition. Eventually, even the unfortunate Mother Samuel herself is driven to confess, convinced by the girls’ suffering that she has somehow caused their illness.
The Grief Stricken
In Edmonton, in the Springtime of 1621, Agnes Radcliffe fell sick. From being a robust and healthy farmer’s wife, she became a shell – thrashing in fever, foaming at the mouth and ‘in a most strange manner in her sickness was tormented’. As she lay dying, she tolds her husband that if she died, it would be the fault of their strange, pale, deformed, one-eyed neighbour.
Her husband could be excused for thinking her words are the product of delirium. However, a few days earlier one of the Radcliffe sows had licked a wash board covered in their neighbour, Elizabeth Sawyer’s, home made soap. Sawyer had responded by kicking the sow, falling into an argument with Radcliffe, whereby Sawyer had spoken of how she ‘would regret’ her hot words.
You can imagine the grief her husband would feel for the death of his wife, let alone the fate that was to befall his family: over the days after Agnes’ death, the Radcliffe livestock and children also sickened, leaving him alone and destitute. The community itself seems to have united in anger, fear and grief, accusing Sawyer by burning some of her thatch, and then seizing her as she was supposedly drawn by the magic of the folk-ritual. Even the presiding judge, a resident of Tottenham, accepted that rumours of Sawyer’s being a witch had been on his radar for some while.
Eventually, Sawyer was stripped and searched for witches’ marks, revealing a ‘teat’ whose description sounds very much like a sebaceous cyst. With her guilt proven by ‘incontrovertible’ evidence Sawyer cracked, narrating a tale of how she had been a servant of the Devil since it had caught her swearing, although she denied killing the children.
The Corrupt and the Cruel
In 1519, the former sorcerer Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa was a legal advisor the magistrate of Metz when a woman was arrested at the village of Woippy, a few miles away. After being arraigned to Metz for trial, as was appropriate, the Dominican inquisitor Nicolas Savin advised her sent back to Woippy, where she was interrogated, tortured, jailed and deprived of both food and water. Hearing of the situation, the Judge (Jean Leonard) ordered her brought back to Metz, but quickly fell ill and died, begging on his deathbed for the woman to be released.
Inquisitor Savin would have none of it. He seized the case as his own and demanded that torture be resumed. Agrippa rose to the occasion, writing to the vicar of Metz and protesting at being deprived of the chance to defend the accused. He accused the Inquisitor of corruption due to his close acquaintance with the victims in the case, and pointed out that at no time had the Inquisitor proved valid legal grounds for his involvement in the case. Agrippa held that the witnesses had animosity towards the woman, had mostly accepted bribes to be on the stand in the first place, and that many of them were known criminals.
Agrippa argued that not only was Inqiusitor’s argument based on faulty theology – the woman was accused because her mother was a witch, but baptism washed away all sign of the Devil and the sins of the mother – but also the Inquisitor himself was acting out of self-interest. Once tried as a witch, the woman’s property would become property of the church, including her house and land. The Inquisitor – whom Agrippa referred to as ‘Executioner’, ‘pervert’, ‘blasphemer’ and ‘crude’ – was acting for personal gain, and had bribed witnesses as an investment.
In the end, the imperial counsellor in Luxembourg upheld Agrippa’s procedural and theological arguments, ending the trial and setting the unfortunate woman free. Savin, however, wasn’t done prosecuting witches. When Agrippa moved on a year later, Savin renewed his witch hunt with glee – arresting several woman and forcing an unknown number to flee the town in fear.
Some witch hunters were simply… wrong. Inquisitor Johannes Nider seems to have done his absolute best to report things correctly. Nider was a moderate. He had negotiated with the Hussite heretics in 1534. In his great work, Formicarius he spends the fifth book of five writing about witches.
He begins by citing his sources: “I’ll give you anecdotes and some religious teachings which I know partly from teachers in our faculty and partly from the experience of a secular judge who is a respectable man and worthy of being believed. He learned many things of this kind from interrogations, confessions and public and personal experiences… Maître Pierre, a citizen of Berne in the diocese of Lausanne, who burned many workers of harmful magic… Dom Benedict, a Benedictine monk. Although he is a very devout man from a reformed monastery… 10 years ago he was… a necromancer, a great entertainer and a trickster… likewise, I have been told certain things I shall discuss later, by an Inquisitor from Autun, a member of our Order… who had interrogated many accused in the diocese of Autun about acts of harmful magic.”
Neider has used upstanding members of the community, and covers the matter in line with what his own investigations have revealed: “… there are (or recently have been), as the inquisitor and Maître Pierre have told me and as common gossip has it, a number of workers of harmful magic, of both sexes, in the neighbourhood of Berne.”
He even attempts to cram in as much detail as he possibly can, preserving everything to show the veracity of his account: “In the town of Boltingen in the diocese of Lausanne, for example, an illustrious worker of harmful magic called Schedelli was arrested by the foresaid Pierre, the local judge, and confessed that in a nearby house where a man and his wife were living together, by his acts of harmful magic he had killed about seven infants, one after another, while they were still in the foresaid wife’s womb…” going on to write, “…I found out from the foresaid inquisitor (who mentioned it to me this year), that in the duchy of Lausanne some workers of harmful magic had cooked and eaten their own newly born children”.
Unfortunately, as a Dominican in the early 16th century, methodology and technique were against him. Nider’s time and religious order favoured the Thomist ‘Scholastic’ method of reasoning – deciding matters in relation to a series of set texts rather than investigation of reality. Even the more modern camp using ‘Logic’ were mired in deductive reasoning rather than inductive: reasoning from dogma rather than evidence or investigation.
At a time where the very words, “I saw” could equally describe a dream, a vision, an event physically witnessed or even an act of imagination, Nider didn’t have a chance.