Friday, October 17, 2014

Burn Witch-Medieval Witch Trials

To be tried as a witch was a horrific process that many people found themselves in.  The process was laid out in the  Malleus Maleficarum, or Hammer of the Witch. I reference this book in my novel, Legend of the Mystic Knights

The hammer of the witch was written in 1487 at the height of the European witch-hunts. The book consisted of 3 parts; we will concentrate on part iii, the trial and handling of witches. The book laid out specific rules that a judge or inquisitor had to follow to prove the accused was a witch.

To be tried as a witch, you had to be accused of witchcraft. There had to be at least 3 people to make this accusation. Having 2 people make an accusation in a secular trial was good enough for guilt, but the Malleus Maleficarum indicated this was not proper for a witch trial, because of the extreme sentence a judge had to give to a witch.

If you were accused of witchcraft, you had to be tested to be a witch. There were specific physical characteristics that a witch displayed. This included a spot or spots on the body which identified them as a witch.

Another convincing sign of guilt of being a witch was that if a woman was brought before a judge, and she did not weep. It was considered fact in the medieval period that women were emotionally weak, so if they did not seem upset to the point of tears, then they were under the influence of the devil.

A prayer test was sometimes administered to witches. Since the witch was in league with the devil, they could not say biblical versus and prayers. If there was any stammer or mistakes during said of such prayer, then obviously the accused was a witch. Sometimes the bible was handed to the accused and ordered to read a verse, since most people during that time could not read or write, you can figure out the outcome.

I know I was not going to mention the witch trials in America, but during the Salem Witch Trials, George Burroughs said the Lord’s Prayer flawlessly, but he was still executed. The reasoning for the execution was that somehow Burroughs did not say the prayer, but the devil tricked people into thinking they heard the Lord’s Prayer.

The swimming test, or trial by water, was used in many places around Europe. The accused would be tied up, and thrown in a river or lake. Since water is a purifier, it would reject the witch and they would bob on top of the water. If the person sank, then they would be innocent and be dragged ashore. Many times, to make sure the test was conducted properly, the inquisitor took a long time to perform the test, resulting in the person drowning.

The accused witch had to confess to their crimes to be executed. This was imperative to the regulations described in the Malleus Maleficarum. To do this, the book also gave the inquisitor or judge legal rights to, and instructions on how to torture a confession out of the witch. Now according to medieval law, they were not being tortured, they were being given the right of judicium Dei, or Trial by Ordeal. Trial by ordeal meant if you were innocent, then God will help you with a miracle, this would be similar to Daniel in the lion’s den.

The word torture comes from the French word based on the Latin word tortura, which means to twist. You can imagine how the word torture got its name.

The torture of a witch was brutal and painful. There were numerous ways to get the information the inquisitor wanted, this included, but certainly not limited to:

Chains and ropes were used to pull the person or twist them beyond normal human movement. This type of torture included the rack.

Another method of getting a confession was piling of rocks. An accused was flat on the ground, as heavy rocks were piled on top of their body. Eventually, the extreme weight of the rocks would cause the person to confess to the crime of witchcraft.

The brazen bull: From ancient Greece, basically a person was placed inside a bull shaped oven and cooked. This device was invented by Perillos. He presented this to the king of Alkraga who liked the idea, and had his men try it, first on Perillos. As predicted Perillos was cooked alive inside the bull, his screams sounding like a mad bull, finally as his skin scorched off and his blood boiled, steam came through the nostrils of the brass bull like a tea kettle.

Breaking or the Catherine Wheel. This was a person who was tied to a large cart-wheel. A hammer was smashed into their limbs to break their bones.

There was as many torture devises as you could possibly imagine, each was to punish and also to get a confession from the person.

There was a theory about how quickly a person would confess. If a person resisted the torture, it meant they had obtained much power with the devil. Of course, this meant you could break the devil’s influence on this person by implementing more torture.

A person would be told that if they confessed to being a witch, and also gave names of others witches, they would not be executed. To avoid the hanging tree, or be burned alive, many people provided names of anyone they could think of. The people would not be informed that they would be imprisoned for life as being a witch. Imprisonment in the middle ages was something that was worse than death.

As I mentioned above, if you were condemned to be a witch you were usually found guilty and executed. This meant burning at the stake; Joan of Arc was actually convicted as being a witch. Many members of the famous, or infamous, Knights of Templar were also burned at the stake for being witches.

Burning at the stake was not just reserved for witches. Many people who were considered heretics also met this fate. During the Spanish Inquisition, many people were burned at the stake for the argument that they were threats to the Catholic Church.

Many people of the Jewish community were also killed in this manner. For generations, it was perceived in Europe that the Jews kidnapped Christian children. The children were kidnapped because of the “Blood Libel”. The Blood Libel was where the Jews allegedly used the blood of Christians during their religious rituals, including making matzos for Passover. These types of bigotry and lies carried throughout the medieval period. In some instances entire communities of Jews were burned at the stake. The holocaust did not begin with the Nazis in Germany.

If you were not burned you were hung. After hanging many peoples bodies were then burned to make sure all the evil that was inside them was destroyed. Either way of execution was not pleasant, both burning and hanging sometimes took hours for the accused to die.

The guillotine was in fact created as a humane form of execution and in many countries it replaced hanging. . It was rumored, and popularized by Alexandre Dumas, that King Louis XVI suggested the change of the blade to its now sloping shape. The irony of this is that Louis XVI was the most famous person to be executed by the guillotine which occurred less than a year after he made the suggestion to the blade change.

I hope you see a pattern in the descriptions I give for the witch-hunts. Each aspect of the trials, and tortures were geared to benefit the accuser and eliminated any defense made by the accused.

It would be too convenient for us, advance modern thinkers, to blame the witch-hunt on ignorance of the medieval society. If you are familiar with the political Red Scare of the 50’s, the accused in those trials would also be granted leniency if they provided names of other “communists.” Examine the “water boarding” techniques we have used recently in the name of security. So before we judge the medieval people for being barbaric, we should look at good look at ourselves first.

We should all examine where we are heading to, before we jump on a band wagon.

After all the witch trials and executions, next time I am keeping it light hearted as I present my pics for some good old Halloween movies.


  1. My this is so gruesome. And no the first I have wondered at how many barbaric acts have been committed in the name of God. Truly, a shameful chapter in our world history...and that includes America. But, still so interesting to read.

  2. William, it is unbelievable what people have done to each other, in the name of religion. This article creeped me out but I still had to read to the end. I will definitely be looking forward to some more lighthearted reading.

  3. This is a horrific account of how we are as human beings. You said to look for the patterns. Ironically, we see this pattern today of the accuser versus the accused. There are many instances today where someone is wrongfully accused of rape or child abuse or the like and it is the WRONGFULLY accused, as it may have been with the witches, who suffer although not as bloodily gruesome but often with their lives today.

    I'd like to say thanks Bill, although I'm not sure what I mean. But it is eye opening that you shared this with us.

  4. So many of the religious fanatics of 17th and 18th century Massachusetts were no more enlightened than their medieval counterparts. Seems as though once the accusation was made you were pretty much screwed.

  5. It is amazing how cruel and unfair humans can be to each other and what incredible myths we construct out of fear. It is easy for us to look back at medieval times and blame the ignorance of people at the time, but I wonder how people centuries later will look back at our times.

  6. You all have seen the different points I was trying to make. If you were accused of being a witch, you were screwed. Torture is never called torture. The rights of the accused go out the window. These are all done in the name of the safety to protect the citizens of the community. Today, we do the exact same thing. I am often reminded of the quote from Benjamin Franklin, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

  7. What an informative post. I would love to think things like this could never happen again, in an enlightened society, but I know better than that. You make some really good points here.

  8. Now that gave me the creeps. Even today we are suppose to be innocent until proven guilty but it doesn't always work that way. Look how the media convicts people.

  9. The novel I'm currently copy editing has a witchcraft accusation sub-plot, so this post is particularly timely for me. Bandwagon behavior is the worst and with elections around the corner...

  10. I hated studying the Salem Witch Trials in high school. The accused never had a chance and they'd give names of other innocent people under torture and those innocent people didn't stand a chance either. Yet another painful part of the history of humanity.

  11. That was interesting and gruesome and I am doing my best not to jump on the band-wagon to condemn them. But you have to wonder what they thinking. So many of the punishments had little logic attached. Drowning to prove innocence seems a bit of a bad bet. A great read none-the-less. Thanks, William.

  12. With most things that turn bad, it did not start out that way.
    As I had mentioned before, it was a terrible time in Europe. There were wars, plague and famine. Finding and condemning a witch was the only way the people could find some reasoning for these tragedies. Of course, after a while it turned into a hunt for those who resist your views, either political or religious.
    We must remember this, and keep vigilant. Almost all things that are to keep us SAFE, can be turned to control you. Remember this poem from Martin Niemöller: “First they came…”
    The point of this poem is we do not care, as long as they do not come for us, but eventually they will.

  13. This was interesting to read about history but I felt sad as well for all the atrocities that were carried out in the name of God. It is sad to know about many different ways that they were using to make accused accept the crime. A human can be that cruel to other , but I am thinking still we are doing the same .. killing people on the name of religion , nationality , ethnicity , belief .. but the way has changed.... Not sure who is more cruel ( we or ancestors)... Burning someone alive in this way OMG! Wondering, how many witches with witch crafts were caught.