The Inquisition took a break for the Black Death (1347-1350). Millions died in the plague — somewhere between one-quarter and three-quarters of Europeans. For the next hundred years, those who survived enjoyed a number of benefits from the downsizing. Labor shortages led to higher wages and cheaper rents. Unused cropland returned to forest and pasture. Meat and milk became more common in the peasants’ diet, and better nutrition led to better health. Cities were cleaner and less crowded. Wildlife populations surged and, unfortunately, so did the human population. By 1500,
Europe was once again overpopulated, undernourished, filthy, diseased, and miserable.
In the aftermath of the plague, the prestige of the Church was weakened. People noticed that the priests, who had spent a lot of time visiting the sick, died in great numbers. In other words, God could not be bothered to protect His own officers. Because of this, many ceased to perceive of God as benevolent, wise, or powerful. Many lost their faith.
After the plague, as overpopulation returned, the Church directed its attention to witches. The peak of the Inquisition madness lasted 300 years, from 1450 to 1750. The Inquisition ranged as far east as
, where Hindus and Muslims were fed to the holy fires. It also went far west, to India New England, where more than 35 were killed, including a five year old girl and a demonic dog. Overall, estimates of the dead range from 60,000 to ten million, while most scholars say between 100,000 and two million.
Both the Catholics and Protestants engaged in the brutal savagery, believing that confessed witches should be burned — even if the confessions were the result of brutal bloody torture, which they considered to be an appropriate investigative tool.
A turning point came in 1487, when the Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches) was published. It was written by two Dominican priests, Henry Kramer and James Sprenger, not long after the new printing press technology arrived in
Europe. It was translated into several languages, and outsold all other books except for the Bible. This book was essentially Witch Burning for Dummies, and it reveals the incredibly deranged mentality of the era. Prior to this book, the Church murdered men and women in roughly equal numbers. Once the book was printed, the focus shifted to primarily murdering women.
According to the Christians, witches committed a number of serious crimes. They conjured hailstorms, sea tempests, floods, droughts, and lightening. They caused impotence, sickness, still births, miscarriages, and death. They were the reason why cows quit giving milk, why trees were fruitless, why wells dried up or soured, and why fields were damaged by winds, disease, or pests. People were burned as witches for reasons including the following:
· Smoking tobacco, the devil’s weed.
· Being a werewolf (a surprising number burnt for this).
· Reciting the Lord’s Prayer to an inquisitor, and leaving a word out, or even mispronouncing a word.
· Being an unpopular person when sheep died, cattle were barren, crops were damaged by storms, ships sunk, or any other misfortune occurred.
· Talking to yourself (i.e., talking to the devil).
· Being a skilled healer — especially a female healer. Indeed, two prime targets for inquisitors were healing witches and blessing witches.
· Living in a manner that was “different from the faithful.” This included people who lived alone, people who didn’t attend mass regularly, retarded or mentally ill people, and people who talked to animals, plants, or themselves. Especially suspect were those who “cherish some inordinate love or excessive hatred.”
· Meeting together with others, by day or night, in sheds, barns, remote fields, or woods. Especially suspect were those who sang, recited verse, or danced.
· Being a friend, relative, servant, or guest of a suspected witch — or giving gifts to, visiting, or providing shelter to a suspect.
· Weeping for a beloved friend or relative who was screaming at the top of her lungs while being burned alive.
· Being a woman and having a “privie marke” (birthmark, scar, mole, etc.) on your lips, buttocks, genitals, or under your arms or hair. The inquisitor Reginald Scot noted that the discovery of these marks was “a presumption sufficient for the judge to proceed and give sentence of death upon her.”
Witch finding became a profitable profession. Skilled men wandered from town to town exposing suspected heretics. Some of these witch finders were called common prickers. They drove long needles into suspected witches and watched for blood to emerge. If there was no blood, this was proof of heresy, and the suspect was burned.
Other witch-finders exposed heretics by swimming them. Suspects were tied up, wrapped in a large sheet, and put into deep water. If they sank, their friends and relatives had the poor consolation that the drowned woman was innocent. If they were carefully laid on the water, they usually floated (the wrappings contained enough buoyant air). Floating was certain and indisputable evidence of heresy, and floaters were burned.
Once women came under the suspicion of being witches, their lives became hell. One story tells of two old grandmother types who were thus suspected. They went to a herring market and ordered fish. When the shopkeeper refused to serve them, one of the ladies gave him a piece of her mind. Shortly after, the daughter of the herring dealer died — proof of a witch’s curse — and two old ladies burned.
In another case a little girl had repeated neurotic experiences and blamed these on an old neighbor lady. Her father grabbed the old lady, stuck her with pins to see if she bled, and pulled out a chunk of her hair to use as a charm. For some reason, the old lady cursed him. Fifteen months later the girl died — proof of witchcraft. The old lady was burned, along with her husband and daughter.
The more witches that were burned, the more they found to burn. In the rural
township of Piedmont, , every family had lost at least one member to the witch finders. The Inquisition became a major industry, with the victim’s assets being seized and split up between the judges, priests, scribes, guards, physicians, and torturers. Innkeepers became wealthy providing lodging to the surging crowds of execution spectators. Workaholic executioners wore the finest clothing and glittered with gold and silver ornaments. France
Old women were the primary targets. During one period, zero woman over 40 remained alive in some regions of
Germany’s Rhineland. People of both sexes, all professions, and all social classes were burned. The poor, the unwell, the simple, and the mentally ill had the most to fear. In some places the fear got so big that poorer women prayed that they would not live to grow old.
With time people became wary of talking to one another. Even boys from wealthy and noble families were burned. Nobody was immune from the holy savagery. Nobody was safe to talk to. If someone was arrested, tortured, and commanded to identify their demonic accomplices, they would likely name their friends — the first names to come to mind.
The Holy Process
If you were named by a friend who was out of her mind with excruciating pain, because she was being burned with a red-hot iron by her parish priest in the church basement, you were promptly arrested, and brought in for questioning.
Questions included: When did you become a witch? Why did you become a witch? If you refused to answer these loaded questions you were displaying the well-known demonic trait of taciturnity. If you displayed taciturnity you were promptly taken to the torture chamber, to loosen up your wicked tongue.
Torture took a number of forms, and all were brutal, violent, and painful. It was common to die while being tortured. The torture continued until you confessed or died. There were no limits to how cruelly or how frequently the priests could torture you — they were free to do whatever they wanted. It was OK to viciously torture you 20 times — cut you, burn you, break your bones, rip out your fingernails — as befitted the mood of the day.
So, let’s say that you were named by a friend, brought in for questioning, survived the torture, and confessed. You would then be taken back to the interrogation room and asked to confess once again, without torture, so that this confession would be “freely” given, without coercion. If you refused to make a free confession then you were taken back to the torture chamber for another round of unbearable pain.
Once having made a “free” confession you were handed over to the courts. In some cases, the authorities would not even inform you of the charges against you. Generally you were charged with impossible acts like flying on a broom to a witch’s gathering and having sex with demons. You were presumed to be guilty and the burden was on you to prove your innocence. The names of your accusers were often kept secret. Trials were not open to the public.
Unlike ordinary civil law, the prosecutors of the Inquisition accepted testimony from anyone — even children, felons, mortal enemies, and notorious liars. Bizarre hearsay and outrageous rumors were gladly accepted as valid evidence. You could not bring in witnesses to offer testimony about your good character. In fact anyone who spoke in your defense was assumed to be an accomplice in evil.
Judges were interested in two things only — your confession of guilt and the names of your accomplices. Nobody was ever found to be not guilty. At best, and rarely, the court would find that the charges were “not proven” — which left the door open for another round of the game later. Essentially, everyone accused was found guilty. The lucky ones were mercifully strangled before being burned. The less lucky ones were burned alive. The least lucky were sent to miserable, filthy, verminous dungeons for a slower version of death.
For centuries the skies of
Europe were darkened by the smoke of burning witches. The Inquisition was run by the most educated, most Christian, most respectable people of the era. They apparently believed that decent society was in immanent threat of overthrow by subversive forces — who were mostly harmless old ladies, mental cases, and eccentric folks. Or was it simply mass hysteria? The reign of terror was enthusiastically promoted by both church and state.
After years and years of exposure to the murderous madness, children were brainwashed into believing that the Inquisition’s portrait of diabolical witchcraft was real. Adults were terrified to utter a single peep of protest. With the passage of generations the belief that little old ladies flew off on brooms to have sex with demons became an accepted and unquestionable “truth.”
The Inquisition was a war on heresy, to reinforce the power of an entrenched plutocracy. Having an official enemy to fear and hate diverted attention away from the lavish lifestyles of the elite, and the misery of daily life in medieval times. Was this a cleverly-planned strategy of domination, or was it simply an unconscious outburst of collective bad craziness?
Today, the highly-educated leaders of prosperous industrial nations are united in a loud chant: “More growth! More growth! More growth!” — as the human juggernaut races past countless flashing warning signs towards the edge of the cliff. Bad craziness often seems to be civilization’s shadow.
Kramer, Henry and Sprenger, James, Malleus Maleficarum (1487).
Lea, Henry Charles, The Inquisition of the Middle Ages (1887), abridged by Margaret Nicholson, The Macmillan Company, New York, 1961.
Mackay, Charles, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, Vol. II (1841), Farrar, Straus and
, 1932. Giroux, New York
Robbins, Rossel Hope, The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology, Crown Publishers, NY, 1959.