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Precisely speaking, a witchhunt is a search for suspected witches.

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Early Church

Probably the attitude of the early Church was not a little influenced by the criminal legislation of the Roman Empire as well as by Jewish feeling. The law of the Twelve Tables already assumes the reality of magical powers, and the terms of the frequent references in Horace to Canidia[?] allow us to see the odium in which such sorceresses were held. Under the Empire, in the third century, the punishment of burning alive was enacted by the State against witches who compassed another person's death through their enchantments[?]. The ecclesiastical legislation followed a similar but milder course.

The Council of Elvira[?] (306), Canon 6, refused the holy Viaticum to those who had killed a man per maleficium (by a spell) and adds the reason that such a crime could not be effected "without idolatry"; which probably means without the aid of the Devil, devil-worship and idolatry being then convertible terms. Similarly canon 24 of the Council of Ancyra (314) imposes five years of penance upon those who consult magicians, and here again the offence is treated as being a practical participation in paganism. This legislation represented the mind of the Church for many centuries. Similar penalties were enacted at the Eastern council in Trullo[?] (692), while certain early Irish canons in the far West treated sorcery as a crime to be visited with excommunication until adequate penance had been performed.

None the less the general desire of the clergy to check fanaticism is well illustrated by such a council as that of Paderborn (785). Although it enacts that sorcerers are to be reduced to serfdom and made over to the service of the Church, a decree was also passed in the following terms: "Whosoever, blinded by the devil and infected with pagan errors, holds another person for a witch that eats human flesh, and therefore burns her, eats her flesh, or gives it to others to eat, shall be punished with death". Altogether it may be said that in the first thirteen hundred years of the Christian era we find no trace of that fierce denunciation and persecution of supposed sorceresses which characterized the cruel witch hunts of a later age. In these earlier centuries a few individual prosecutions for witchcraft took place, and in some of these torture (permitted by the Roman civil law) apparently took place. Pope Nicholas I, indeed (A.D. 866), prohibited the use of torture, and a similar decree may be found in the Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals. In spite of this it was not everywhere given up. Also we must notice that a good many suspected witches were subjected to the ordeal of cold water, but as the sinking of the victim was regarded as a proof of her innocence[?], we may reasonably believe that the verdicts[?] so arrived at were generally verdicts of acquittal[?]. On many different occasions ecclesiastics who spoke with authority did their best to disabuse the people of their belief in witchcraft. This for instance is the general purport of the book, "Contra insulsam vulgi opinionem de grandine et tonitruis" (Against the foolish belief of the common sort concerning hail and thunder), written by Saint Agobard[?] (d. 841), Archbishop of Lyons (P.L., CIV, 147). Still more to the point is the section of the work, "De ecclesiasticis disciplinis" ascribed to Regino of Prüm (A.D. 906). In section 364 we read: This also is not to be passed over that "certain abandoned women, turning aside to follow Satan, being seduced by the illusions and phantasms of demons, believe and openly profess that in the dead of night they ride upon certain beasts along with the pagan goddess Diana and a countless horde of women and that in these silent hours they fly over vast tracts of country and obey her as their mistress, while on other nights they are summoned to pay her homage." And then he goes on to remark that if it were only the women themselves were deluded it would be a matter of little consequence, but unfortunately an innumera multitudo (immense number of people) believe these things to be true and believing them depart from the true Faith, so that practically speaking they fall into Paganism. And in this account he says "it is the duty of priests earnestly to instruct the people that these things are absolutely untrue and that such imaginings are planted in the minds of misbelieving folk, not by a Divine spirit, but by the spirit of evil". It would be far too sweeping a conclusion to infer that the Carlovingian[?] Church by this utterance proclaimed its disbelief in witchcraft, but the passage at least proves that in regard to such matters a saner and more critical spirit had begun to prevail among the clergy.

Middle Ages

The "Decretum" of Burchard[?], Bishop of Worms (about 1020), and especially its 19th book, often known separately as the "Corrector", is another work of great importance. Burchard, or the teachers from whom he has compiled his treatise, still believes in some forms of witchcraft - in magical potions, for instance, which may produce impotence or abortion. But he altogether rejects the possibility of many of the marvellous powers with which witches were popularly credited. Such, for example, were the nocturnal riding through the air, the changing of a person's disposition from love to hate[?], the control of thunder, rain, and sunshine, the transformation of a man into an animal, the intercourse of incubi and succubi with human beings. Not only the attempt to practise such things but the very belief in their possibility is treated by him as a sin for which the confessor must require his penitent to do a serious assigned penance. Gregory VII[?] in 1080 wrote to King Harold[?] of Denmark forbidding witches to be put to death upon presumption of their having caused storms or failure of crops or pestilence. Neither were these the only examples of an effort to stem the tide of unjust suspicion to which these poor creatures were exposed.

On the other hand, after the middle of the 13th century, the then recently-constituted Papal Inquisition[?] began to concern itself with charges of witchcraft. Alexander IV, indeed, ruled (1258) that the inquisitors should limit their intervention to those cases in which there was some manifeste haeresim saparent (clear presumption of heretical belief), but heretical tendencies were very readily inferred from almost any sort of magical practices. Neither is this altogether surprising when we remember how freely the Cathari[?] parodied Catholic ritual in their consolamentum and other rites, and how easily the Manichaean dualism[?] of their system might be interpreted as a homage to the powers of darkness. It was at any rate at Toulouse, the hot-bed of Catharan infection, that we meet in 1275 the earliest example of a witch burned to death after judicial sentence of an inquisitor, who was in this case a certain Hugues de Baniol. The woman, probably half crazy, "confessed" to having brought forth a monster after intercourse with an evil spirit and to having nourished it with babies' flesh which she procured in her nocturnal expeditions. The possibility of such sexual intercourse between human beings and demons was unfortunately accepted by some of the great schoolmen, even, for example, by St. Thomas Aquinas[?] and St. Bonaventure[?].

Nevertheless within the Church itself there was always a strong common-sense reaction against this theorizing, a reaction which more especially manifested itself in the confession manuals of the close of the 15th century. These were largely compiled by men who were in actual contact with the people, and who realized the harm effected by the extravagance of these superstitious beliefs. Stephen Lanzkranna, for instance, treated the belief in women who rode about at night, hobgoblins, were-wolves, and "other such heathen nonsensical impostures", as one of the greatest of sins. Moreover this common-sense influence was a powerful one. Speaking of the synods held in Bavaria, so unfriendly a witness as Riezler (Hexenprozesse in Bayern, p. 32) declares that "among the official representatives of the Church this healthier tendency remained the prevalent one down to the threshold of the witch-trial epidemic, that is until far on in the 16th century". Even as late as the Salzburg Provincial Synod of 1569, we find indication of a strong tendency to prevent as far as possible the imposition of the death penalty in cases of reputed witchcraft, by insisting that these things were diabolical illusions. Still there can be no doubt that during the 14th century certain papal constitutions of John XXII[?] and Benedict XII[?] did very much to stimulate the prosecution by the inquisitors of witches and others engaged in magical practices, especially in the south of France. In a witch trial on a large scale carried on at Toulouse in 1334, out of sixty-three persons accused of offences of this kind, eight were handed over to the secular arm to be burned and the rest were imprisoned either for life or for a long term of years. Two of the condemned, both elderly women, after repeated application of torture, confessed that they had assisted at witches' sabbaths, had there worshipped the Devil, had been guilty of indecencies with him and with the other persons present, and had eaten the flesh of infants whom they had carried off by night from their nurses. In 1324 Petronilla de Midia was burnt at Kilkenny in Ireland at the instance of Richard, Bishop of Ossory[?]; but analogous cases in the British Isles seem to have been very rare. During this period the secular courts proceeded against witchcraft with equal or even greater severity than the ecclesiastical tribunals, and here also torture was employed and burning at the stake. Fire was the punishment juridically appointed for this offence in the secular codes known as the "Sachsenspiegel" (1225) and the "Schwabenspiegel" (1275). Indeed during the 13th and 14th centuries no prosecutions for witchcraft are known to have been undertaken in Germany by the papal inquisitors. About the year 1400 we find wholesale witch-prosecutions being carried out at Bern in Switzerland by Peter de Gruyères[?], who was unquestionably a secular judge, and other campaigns - for example in the Valais (1428-1434) when 200 witches were put to death, or at Briancon[?] in 1437 when over 150 suffered, some of them by drowning - were carried on by the secular courts. The victims of the inquisitors, e.g. at Heidelberg in 1447; or in Savoy in 1462, do not seem to have been quite so numerous. In France at this period the crime of witchcraft was frequently designated as "Vauderie" through some confusion seemingly with the followers of the heretic, Peter Waldes[?]. But this confusion between sorcery and a particular form of heresy was unfortunately bound to bring a still larger number of persons under the jealous scrutiny of the inquisitors.

It will be readily understood from the foregoing that the importance attached by many older writers to the Bull, Summis desiderantes affectibus, of Pope Innocent VIII (1484), as though this papal document were responsible for the witch mania of the two succeeding centuries, is altogether illusory. Not only had an active campaign against most forms of sorcery already been going on for a long period, but in the matter of procedure, of punishments, of judges, etc., Innocent's Bull enacted nothing new. Its direct purport was simply to ratify the powers already conferred upon Henry Institoris and James Sprenger, inquisitors, to deal with persons of every class and with every form of crime (for example, with witchcraft as well as heresy), and it called upon the Bishop of Strasburg to lend the inquisitors all possible support.

Indirectly, however, by specifying the evil practices charged against the witches - for example their intercourse with incubi and succubi, their interference with the parturition of women and animals, the damage they did to cattle and the fruits of the earth, their power and malice in the infliction of pain and disease, the hindrance caused to men in their conjugal relations, and the witches' repudiation of the faith of their baptism - the pope must no doubt be considered to affirm the reality of these alleged phenomena. But "it is perfectly obvious that the Bull pronounces no dogmatic decision"; neither does the form suggest that the pope wishes to bind anyone to believe more about the reality of witchcraft than is involved in the utterances of Holy Scripture. Probably the most disastrous episode was the publication a year or two later, by the same inquisitors, of the book "Malleus Maleficarum" (the hammer of witches). This work is divided into three parts, the first two of which deal with the reality of witchcraft as established by the Bible, etc., as well as its nature and horrors and the manner of dealing with it, while the third lays down practical rules for procedure whether the trial be conducted in an ecclesiastical or a secular court. There can be no doubt that the book, owing to its reproduction by the printing press, exercised great influence. It contained, indeed, nothing that was new.

The "Formicaris" of John Nider, which had been written nearly fifty years earlier, exhibits just as intimate a knowledge of the supposed phenomena of sorcery. But the "Malleus" professed (in part fraudulently) to have been approved by the University of Cologne, and it was sensational in the stigma it attached to witchcraft as a worse crime than heresy and in its notable animus against the female sex. The subject at once began to attract attention even in the world of letters. Ulrich Molitoris a year or two later published a work, "De Lamiis", which, though disagreeing with the more extravagant of the representations made in the "Malleus", did not question the existence of witches. Other divines and popular preachers joined in the discussion, and, though many voices were raised on the side of common sense, the publicity thus given to these matters inflamed the popular imagination. Certainly the immediate effects of Innocent VIII's Bull have been greatly exaggerated. Institoris started a witch campaign at Innsbruck in 1485, but here his procedure was severely criticised and resisted by the Bishop of Brixen[?]. So far as the papal inquisitors were concerned, the Bull, especially in Germany, heralded the close rather than the commencement of their activity. The witch-trials of the 16th and 17th centuries were for the most part in secular hands.

The Reformation

One fact which is absolutely certain is that, so far as Luther, Calvin, and their followers were concerned, the popular belief in the power of the Devil as exercised through witchcraft and other magic practices was developed beyond all measure. Naturally Luther did not appeal to the papal Bull. He looked only to the Bible, and it was in virtue of the Biblical command that he advocated the extermination of witches. But no portion of Janssen's History is more unanswerable than the fourth and fifth chapters of the last volume (vol. XVI of the English edition) in which he attributes a large, if not the greater, share of the responsibility for the witch mania to the Reformers.

The penal code known as the Carolina (1532) decreed that sorcery throughout the German empire should be treated as a criminal offence, and if it purported to inflict injury upon any person the witch was to be burnt at the stake. In 1572 Augustus of Saxony imposed the penalty of burning for witchcraft of every kind, including simple fortunetelling. On the whole, greater activity in hunting down witches was shown in the Protestant districts of Germany than in the Catholic provinces. In Osnabrück, in 1583, 121 persons were burned in three months. At Wolfenbüttel[?] in 1593 as many as ten witches were often burned in one day. It was not until 1563 that any effective resistance to the persecution began to be offered. This came first from a Protestant of Cleues[?], John Weyer, and other protests were shortly afterwards published in the same sense by Ewich and Witekind. On the other hand, Jean Bodin, a French Protestant lawyer, replied to Weyer in 1580 with much asperity, and in 1589 the Catholic Bishop Binsfeld and Father Delrio, a Jesuit, wrote on the same side, though Delrio wished to mitigate the severity of the witch trials and denounced the excessive use of torture. Bodin's book was answered amongst others by the Englishman Reginald Scott in his Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), but this answer was ordered to be burned by James I, who replied to it in his Daemonologie.

Perhaps the most effective protest on the side of humanity and enlightenment was offered by the Jesuit Friedrich von Spee, who in 1631 published his Cautio criminalis and who fought against the craze by every means in his power. This cruel persecution seems to have extended to all parts of the world. In the 16th century there were cases in which witches were condemned by lay tribunals and burned in the immediate neighbourhood of Rome. Pope Gregory XV, however, in his Constitution, "omnipotentis" (1623), recommended a milder procedure, and in 1657 an Instruction of the Inquisition brought effective remonstrances to bear upon the cruelty shown in these prosecutions.

England and Scotland, of course, were by no means exempt from the same epidemic of cruelty, though witches were not usually burned. As to the number of executions in Great Britain it seems impossible to form any safe estimate. One statement declares that 30,000, another that 3000, were hanged in England during the rule of the Parliament. Stearne the witchfinder boasted that he personally knew of 200 executions. Howell, writing in 1648, says that within the compass of two years near upon 300 witches were arraigned, and the major part executed, in Essex and Suffolk only. In Scotland there is the same lack of statistics. A careful article by Legge in the "Scottish Review" (Oct., 1891) estimates that during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries "3400 persons perished". For a small population such as that of Scotland, this number is enormous, but many authorities, though confessedly only guessing, have given a much higher estimate. Even America was not exempt from this plague. The well-known Cotton Mather, in his "Wonders of the Invisible World" (1693), gives an account of 19 executions of witches in New England, where one poor creature was pressed to death. New England was the site of the Salem witch trials in 1692.

In modern times, considerable attention has been given to the subject by Hexham and others. At the end of the 17th century the persecution almost everywhere began to slacken, and early in the 18th it practically ceased. Torture was abolished in Prussia in 1754, in Bavaria in 1807, in Hanover in 1822. The last trial for witchcraft in Germany was in 1749 at Würzburg[?], but in Switzerland a girl was executed for this offence in the Protestant Canton of Glarus[?] in 1783. There seems to be no evidence to support the allegation sometimes made that women suspected of witchcraft were formally tried and put to death in Mexico late in the 19th century.

The question of the reality of witchcraft is one upon which it is not easy to pass a confident judgment. In the face of Holy Scripture[?] and the teaching of the Fathers and theologians the abstract possibility of a pact with the Devil and of a diabolical interference in human affairs can hardly be denied, but no one can read the literature of the subject without realizing the awful cruelties to which this belief and without being convinced that in 99 cases out of 100 the allegations rest upon nothing better than pure delusion. The most bewildering circumstance is the fact that in a large number of witch prosecutions the confessions of the victims, often involving all kinds of satanistic horrors, have been made spontaneously and apparently without threat or fear of torture. Also the full admission of guilt seems constantly to have been confirmed on the scaffold when the poor suffered had nothing to gain or lose by the confession. One can only record the fact as a psychological problem, and point out that the same tendency seems to manifest itself in other similar cases. The most remarkable instance, perhaps, is one mentioned by St. Agobard[?] in the 9th century. A certain Grimaldus, Duke of Beneventum, was accused, in the panic engendered by a plague that was destroying all the cattle, of sending men out with poisoned dust to spread infection among the flocks and herds. These men, when arrested and questioned, persisted, says Agobard, in affirming their guilt, though the absurdity was patent.

From the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia

Early Modern Europe

During an period of several centuries much of Europe and America believed that Satan was acting in concert with human servants, and there were extensive efforts to root out these supposed witches. These efforts included torture of the most horrific nature including hot pincers, the thumbscrew, the iron maiden[?], and a hundred methods equally frightful. Every region had its own methods, and individuals their specialties depending on its traditions of judicial questioning - of which torture was a usual component.

England at one point had a self-proclaimed "Witchfinder General", one Matthew Hopkins, who led searches, and who claimed to be able to identify a witch using techniques such as witches' marks[?]. Much of the public believed the victims were really witches, but today it is not believed that most of them were.

Research into the laws and records of the time show that the witchfinders often used peine forte et dure and other torture to extract confessions and condemnations of friends, relatives and neighbors. Virtually everyone today looks on this period of history as a very dark time.

The measured employed against alleged witches were some of the worst ever practiced in the Western world. In A History of Torture, George Ryley Scott says:

The peculiar beliefs and superstitions attached to or associated with witchcraft caused those who were suspected of practising the craft to be extremely likely to be subjected to tortures of greater degree than any ordinary heretic or criminal. More, certain specific torments were invented for use against them.

The witchhunts were part of a larger culture which was very religiously and socially intolerant.

See also the Inquisition.

Sociological Explanation for Witchhunts

Sociology has attributed the occurrence of witchhunts to the human necessity to blame problems on someone. For example, Europe during the periods in which witchhunts prevail relied upon agriculture; if this failed one year, the consequences would very likely be disastrous. Crop failures often correlated with the occurrence of witchhunts, leading sociologists to state that communities often took out their anger of a lack of food on supposed 'witches'. This can be paralleled in more recent examples such as the Nazi use of anti-semitism to apportion blame for economic problems.

Witch Hunters in African Societies

In many African societies the fear of witches drives periodic witchhunts during which specialist witch finders identify suspects. Audrey I Richards, in the journal Africa relates an instance when a new wave of witchfinders - the Bamucapi appeared in the villages of the Bemba[?] people. They dressed in European clothing, and would summon the headman to prepare a ritual meal for the village. When the villagers arrived they would view them all in a mirror, and claimed they could identify witches with this method. These witches would then have to "yield up his horns", i.e. give over the horn-containers for curses and evil potions to the witch-finders. The bamucapi then made all drink a potion called kucapa which would cause a witch to die and swell up if he ever tried such things again. The villagers related that the witchfinders were always right because the witches they found were always the people whom the village had feared all along. The bamucapi utilised a mixture of Christian and native religious traditions to account for their powers and said that God (not specifying which God) helped them prepare their medicine. In addition, all witches who did not attend the meal to be identified would be called to account later on by their master, who had risen from the dead, and who would force the witches by means of drums to go to the graveyard, where they would die. Richards noted that the bamucapi created the sense of danger in the villages by rounding up all the horns in the village, whether they were used for anti-witchcraft charms, potions, snuff or were indeed receptacles of black magic. The Bemba people believed misfortunes such as hauntings and famines to be just actions sanctioned by the High-God Lesa. The only agency which caused unjust harm was a witch, who had enormous powers and was hard to detect. After white rule of Africa beliefs in sorcery and witchcraft grew, possibly because of the social strain caused by new ideas, customs and laws, and also because the courts no longer allowed witches to be tried.

Reference: A Modern Movement of Witch Finders Audrey I Richards (Africa: Journal of the International Institute of African Languages and Cultures, Ed. Diedrich Westermann.) Vol VIII, 1935, published by Oxford University Press, London.

Metaphorical Uses of the Term in the Modern West

A witchhunt in modern terminology refers to the act of seeking and persecuting any perceived enemy, particularly when the search is conducted using extreme measures and with little regard to actual guilt or innocence.

The term originated with Arthur Miller's play, The Crucible which was ostensibly about the Salem witch trials but were intended to criticize the hearings of United States Senator Joseph McCarthy as well as the general atmosphere of paranoia and persecution that accompanied them. Other anti-communist hearings in the 1950s were under the aegis of the House Un-American Activities Committee, or HUAC. Although revelations of the Soviet archives in the 1990s showed that some of those who were pursued were indeed communists (HUAC uncovered some genuine Communist infiltrators), the practice of McCarthyism left many innocent victims in its wake. Thus the "witch hunts" of the time were compromised by wild accusations and disregard for civil liberties and civil discourse.

Some have described the practice of involuntary commitment, or involuntary commitment as practiced and the standards for involuntary commitment, the search for people to involuntarily commit, the judicial procedures that may result in their commitment, as a witchhunt.

See also: Christian views on witchcraft

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