Initially, the Church had not considered witchcraft to be heresy, but this changed in 1320, when Pope John XXII authorized the Inquisition, an organization designed to root out heresy, to persecute witchcraft as well.
This marked the beginning of a period of witch-hunts which lasted about 200 years, and in some countries, particularly in North-Western Europe, thousands of people were accused of witchcraft and sentenced to death.
The Papal court was then at Avignon and the Papacy was almost as corrupt as ever. Petrarch, who lived not far away at the time, called the “sacred palace” at Avignon “the sink of all vices”; and there were certainly not many vices that were not richly represented by the cardinals.
In every part of Europe the tribunals of the Inquisition now became busy with witches. Between 1320 and 1350 the tribunal at Carcassonne tried more than four hundred cases of magic, and of these one-half were executed. At Toulouse six hundred were charged, and two-thirds of them were handed over to “the secular arm” for execution; There was a terrible massacre at Berne, and large numbers were burned in Italy.
In 1390 the Paris Parliament had checked the persecution by transferring trials to the civil tribunals, but some decades later the clerics regain their power.
About the year 1400 we find wholesale witch-prosecutions being carried out at Berne in Switzerland by Peter de Gruyères, who, despite the assertions of Riezler, was unquestionably a secular judge (see Hansen, “Quellen, etc.”, 91 n.), and other campaigns — for example in the Valais (1428-1434) when 200 witches were put to death, or at Briançon 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.
And it was again the Popes who were responsible for the new epidemic. Engenius IV had in 1437 urged the Inquisitors to look out for witches. They found plenty in France, Italy, and Switzerland, but in Germany their zeal was checked by comparatively humane rulers and bishops.
The spirit that begot the Reformation was growing. But the German Inquisitors, Institor and Sprengel, reported to Rome that Germany was full of witches of both sexes, and that they formed a well organized sect. A book had been published in German in which witchcraft was condemned as an alliance with the Devil himself.
The Pope, Innocent VIII, thereupon issued his famous Bull, Summis desiderantes affectibus, authorizing two inquisitors, Kramer and Sprenger, to systemize the persecution of witches. Later, when Kramer and Stenger wrote the Malleus Maleficarum in 1486, they used this endorsement as the preface to create the illusion the Pope approved of what was written in the book. Although this book was banned by the Church in 1490, it was nevertheless reprinted in 14 editions by 1520 and became one of the most influential books used by secular witch-hunting courts.
The Church had gone from a somewhat tolerant disbelief in witches to a fanatical doctrine toward the existence of witches and their alleged alliance with Satan. The persecutions and the terror would eventually spread from the Catholic Church to the Protestant religions and from Europe to the New World in America. Accused witches were burned to death, hanged, drowned or crushed to death under heavy stones. Many would die under torture during the inquisitor’s attempt to extract a confession of witchcraft.
The Inquisition alone is said to have put thirty thousand to death. One judge, Remy, boasted that he sentenced nine hundred in fifteen years in Lorraine. In the diocese of Como a thousand were executed in a year. In three months in 1515 there were six hundred witches burned in the bishopric of Bamberg and nine hundred in the bishopric of Wiirzburg. In five years one hundred and twenty of the six hundred inhabitants of the small town of Lindheim were burned as witches. Some historians estimate that Henri III of France alone accounted for thirty thousand.
It was the Protestant emphasis on the devil and on the Bible that caused greater massacres in Reformed countries than in Roman Catholic lands. Far more witches were burned in Britain after the Reformation than before it. James I was one of the fiercest opponent, he even believed that witches had caused the terrible storms that kept his bride in Denmark.
The loathsome activity of Hopkins and other witch-finders is in one sense as bad as the activity of the Inquisition. In Denmark, the burning of witches increased following the reformation of 1536. Christian IV of Denmark, in particular, encouraged this practice, and hundreds of people were convicted of witchcraft and burnt. In the North Berwick witch trials in Scotland, over 70 people were accused of witchcraft on account of bad weather when James VI of Scotland, who shared the Danish king’s interest in witch trials, sailed to Denmark in 1590 to meet his betrothed Anne of Denmark.
A letter written at the time, the year 1629, in the city of Würzburg (Germany, and by no less a person than the bishop’s chancellor :
There are still four hundred in the city, high and low, of every rank and sex — nay, even clerics — so strongly accused that they may be arrested any hour. Some out of all offices and faculties must be executed; clerics, counselors, doctors, city officials and court assessors.
There are law students to be arrested. The prince-bishop has over forty students here who are to be pastors; thirteen or fourteen of these are said to be witches. A few days ago a dean was arrested; two others who were summoned have fled. The notary of our church consistory, a very learned man, was yesterday arrested and put to torture. In a word, a third part of the city is involved.
A week ago a maiden of nineteen was put to death, of whom it is everywhere said that she was the fairest in the whole city and was held by everybody a girl of singular modesty and purity. She will be followed by seven or eight others of the fairest. There are three hundred children of three or four years of age who are said to have had intercourse with the devil. I have seen put to death children of ten, promising students of ten, twelve, fourteen, fifteen, etc.
By the 1700s witch trials were becoming a thing of the past. Louis XIV of France, for example, enacted an edict in 1682 that reduced the presence of witch trials. Deists and Rationalists, who could strike at the very root of the principle of religious persecution, criticized and killed the superstitions that were behind the witchcraze. Colbert, Montaigne, Bayle, Beccaria, Voltaire, and other such men brought the world gradually back to sanity and humanity.
Helena Curtens and Agnes Olmanns were the last women to be executed as witches in Germany, in 1738. In Austria, Maria Theresa outlawed witch-burning and torture in the late 18th century; the last capital trial took place in Salzburg in 1750. In Poland, the Doruchów witch trial occurred in 1783 and the execution of additionally two women for sorcery in 1793, trialed by a legal court but with dubious legitimacy. Meanwhile the last known official execution for witchcraft that is known to have occurred in Europe was in 1782, and occurred in Switzerland. Like Anna Göldi, Barbara Zdunk was executed in 1811 in Prussia not technically for witchcraft but for arson.
Despite the official ending of the trials for Satanic witchcraft, there would still be occasional unofficial killings of those accused in parts of Europe, such as was seen in the cases of Anna Klemens in Denmark (1800), Krystyna Ceynowa in Poland (1836), and Dummy, the Witch of Sible Hedingham in England (1863). In France, there was sporadic violence and even murder in the 1830s, with one woman reportedly burnt in a village square in Nord.
Occasional prosecutions under the Witchcraft Act (an act designed to eradicate belief in Witches which prohibits claiming to be a witch, not actually being one) continued in 19th and 20th century Britain. A well-publicised recent case was that of the medium Helen Duncan in 1944. After revealing during a séance the sinking of a ship (HMS Barham} which the Royal Navy had not made public, she was arrested under the Vagrancy Act 1824 and the accusations in court centered round defrauding the public. She spent nine months in prison. The last conviction under the Act was that of Jane Rebecca Yorke. The Act was repealed in 1951 and replaced with the Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951. This act prohibited a person from claiming to be a psychic, medium, or other spiritualist while attempting to deceive and to make money from the deception (other than solely for the purpose of entertainment).
Meanwhile, the persecution of those believed to perform malevolent sorcery against their neighbours continued right into the 20th century, for instance, in 1997 two Russian farmers killed a woman and injured five other members of her family after believing that they had used folk magic against them.