History of Thought: Witchcraft and Witchhunts

A witch-hunt is a search for witches or evidence of witchcraft, often involving moral panic, mass hysteria and lynching, but in historical instances also legally sanctioned and involving official witchcraft trials. The classical period of witchhunts in Europe and North America falls into the Early Modern period or about 1480 to 1750, [..], resulting in an estimated 40,000 to 100,000 executions. The total number of witch trials in Europe which are known to have ended in executions is around 12,000.

The last executions of people convicted as witches in Europe took place in the 18th century. In the Kingdom of Great Britain, witchcraft ceased to be an act punishable by law with the Witchcraft Act of 1735. In Germany, sorcery remained punishable by law into the late 18th century. Contemporary witch-hunts are reported from Sub-Saharan Africa, India and Papua New Guinea. Official legislation against witchcraft is still found in Saudi Arabia and Cameroon.


Johannes Wier, (1515 – 1588) was a Dutch physician, occultist and demonologist, [..]. He was among the first to publish against the persecution of witches. His most influential work is (in Latin): On the Illusions of the Demons and on Spells and Poisons, 1563).

Wier criticised the (in Latin) ‘Hammer of the Witches’, a treatise on witches, written in 1486 by an Inquisitor of the Catholic Church, and Wier criticized the witch hunting by the Christian and Civil authorities; he is said to have been the first person that used the term “mentally ill” or melancholy to designate those women accused of practicing witchcraft. In a time when witch trials and executions were just beginning to be common, he sought to derogate the law concerning witchcraft prosecution. He claimed that not only were examples of magic largely incredible but that the crime of witchcraft was literally impossible, so that anyone who confessed to the crime was likely to be suffering some mental disturbance.

while he defended the idea that the Devil’s power was not as strong as claimed by the orthodox Christian churches, he defended also the idea that demons did have power and could appear before people who called upon them, creating illusions; but he commonly referred to magicians and not to witches when speaking about people who could create illusions, saying they were heretics who were using the Devil’s power to do it, and when speaking on witches, he used the term mentally ill.


Reginald Scot (or Scott) (c. 1538 – 9 October 1599) was an English country gentleman and Member of Parliament, now remembered as the author of The Discoverie of Witchcraft, which was published in 1584. It was written against the belief in witches, to show that witchcraft did not exist. Part of its content exposes how (apparently miraculous) feats of magic were done, and the book is often deemed the first textbook on conjuring.

Scot enumerates 212 authors whose works in Latin he had consulted, and twenty-three authors who wrote in English. He studied the superstitions surrounding witchcraft in courts of law in country districts, where the prosecution of witches was constant, and in village life, where the belief in witchcraft flourished. He set himself to prove that the belief in witchcraft and magic was rejected alike by reason and religion, and that spiritualistic manifestations were either wilful impostures or illusions due to mental disturbance in the observers.


Cornelius Loos (1546 – February 3, 1595), [..], was a Roman Catholic priest, theologian, and was the first Catholic official to write publicly against the witch trials then raging throughout Europe. For this, he was imprisoned and forced under torture to recant; his work was confiscated and suppressed by Church officials, and the manuscript was lost for almost 300 years.

In 1585, he moved to Trier, where he observed the witch trials taking place there. Loos first wrote letters to the city authorities, and, failing in that effort, he sought in 1592 to publish a book protesting against the hunts and questioning some of the beliefs of the witch hunters. The attempted publication of (in Latin) True and False Magic offended Petrus Binsfeld, the Bishop of Trier, and who served as the deputy to Johann VI von Schonenberg, one of the highest ranking officials in the Holy Roman Empire.

Before the book could be printed, the manuscript copy was seized and Loos imprisoned. He was forced to make a public recantation of his errors on his knees before an assembly of church officials, including the Papal Nuncio. The manuscript was believed to be destroyed by the Inquisition and was lost for 300 years.

In the manuscript, Loos argues against the existence of witchcraft and especially against the validity of confessions obtained under torture. (Binsfeld had in 1589 published his own book on witchcraft, in which he supported confessions and denunciations obtained through torture.) In his work, Loos is believed to have been influenced by the arguments of Johannus Wier. After recanting, Loos was under constant watch by religious officials, and was briefly imprisoned several more times, under the accusation that he had relapsed into theological error. This continued persecution was conducted by his nemesis, a priest in the Jesuit order named Martin Del Rio. Loos died February 3, 1595, in Brussels, succumbing to the Plague; Del Rio lamented that Loos had died before Del Rio could have him executed.

Even though his work was lost for 300 years, his opponent Martin Del Rio ensured his continuing fame by publishing a book denouncing him, and by summarizing each of his arguments in the recantation he forced Loos to sign.


Anton Praetorius (1560 – 6 December 1613) was a German Calvinist pastor who spoke out against the persecution of witches and against torture.

In 1597 Praetorius was appointed as pastor to the Count of Büdingen/ Ysenburg in Birstein and had to witness the torture of 4 women accused of witchcraft.

According to the court records, Reverend Praetorius was so upset about the torture of the accused woman that he pressed for a stop in the trial against the last surviving woman. The record stated: “As the pastor has violently protested against the torture of the women, it has therefore been stopped this time.” As a consequence Anton Praetorius was dismissed by the count.

In his new parochy in Laudenbach near Heidelberg he wrote the book (in German) Thorough Report about Witchcraft and Witches to protest against torture and the prosecution of witches. At first he published the book in 1598 under the name of his son. In 1602 he dared to publish the book under his own name. The book was published again in 1613 and posthumously in 1629.

Praetorius was one of the first to describe the terrible situation of the prisoners and to protest against torture, and with his “Report” Praetorius publicly objected to the prevailing attitude in the church (a view held by Roman Catholics as well as Protestants such as Martin Luther and John Calvin) on the torture and burning of witches.


Alonso de Salazar Frías (c. 1564-1636) was born in Burgos (Spain), [..] and belonged to an influential family of civil servants and prosperous merchants. [..] Having gained a reputation as a successful lawyer, Salazar was elected Attorney General of the Castilian Church in 1600. [..] Salazar was selected as an inquisitor for a vacant post at Logroño (La Rioja) in 1609. [..] He became a member of its Supreme Council in 1631.

The Inquisition, [..] was the “fight against heretics” by several institutions within the justice-system of the Roman Catholic Church. It started in the 12th century, with the introduction of torture in the persecution of heresy. ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inquisition )

Salazar consistently applied the inductive method and insisted on empiricism. He advanced rational explanations for the witch panic in Navarre, including rumours of persecutions in France, preachers’ sermons, the spectacular auto de fe at Logroño, witnessed by 30,000 people, and a dream epidemic.

The Instructions of 1614 were not entirely original, since in many respects they restated guidelines formulated by inquisitors who met in Granada in 1526 in order to determine how to react to witchcraft discovered in Navarre that year. The restated guidelines included forbidding arrest or conviction of a witch solely on the basis of another witch’s confession. But the 1614 Instructions also added new directions regarding the taking and recording of confessions.

Salazar was able to mitigate the effects of large-scale witch persecutions elsewhere in Spain, and worked to ensure that, where possible, witch trials came under the jurisdiction of the Inquisition. In 1616, secular authorities, entirely independent of the Inquisition, proceeded against witches in North Vizcaya, but thanks to the intervention of Salazar, there were no mass burnings. The accused were absolved and their trials were transferred to the Inquisition, which suspended the cases. In Catalonia, secular authorities hanged more than 300 supposed witches in 1616-19 but the persecutions were halted by the Inquisition. In 1621, when eight supposed witches were burned in the province of Burgos, Salazar compiled a report subsequently, and the jurisdiction of the Inquisition in witch cases was reaffirmed. In a hunt in the 1620s at Cangas, the Inquisition intervened and ensured that the accused escaped with light sentences.

The Instructions of 1614 expressed a scepticism not shared by all inquisitors. Until well into the seventeenth century, many inquisitors considered that witches should be put to death. Largely owing to the centralized method of government of the Inquisition and the authority of its Supreme Council, it was possible to implement a minority decision and suspend witch burning several decades before most of the rest of Europe changed policy. But the new instructions did not abolish witch trials, they only suspended killings. In fact, witch trials in Spain increased in number during the seventeenth century, even if the punishments were light compared to those administered in central and northern Europe. There were witch trials in Spanish courts long after many other European courts. As late as 1791, the Inquisition in Barcelona conducted a case against a woman who confessed to a pact with the devil.

Salazar’s influence extended even beyond Spain. The Roman Inquisition also developed a strong tradition of leniency in sentencing supposed witches and insisted on adherence to strict procedural rules in the conduct of witch trials. Its own guidelines on witch trials were drafted in early the 1620s, influenced by Salazar’s Instructions, and were circulated widely in manuscript until 1655 when they were published. They established strict rules for examining accused witches, called for restraint in the administration of torture and recommended care in the evaluation of witches’ confessions. Both the Spanish and Italian Inquisitions were among the earliest to reject the reality of the myth of the witches’ gathering.


Friedrich Spee (Friedrich Spee von Langenfeld) (Kaiserswerth, February 25, 1591 - Trier, August 7, 1635) was a German Jesuit and poet, most noted as an opponent of trials for witchcraft. Spee was the first person in his time who spoke strongly and with arguments against torture in general. He may be considered the first who ever gave good arguments why torture is not a way of obtaining truth from someone undergoing painful questioning.

His principal work, which won him a wide reputation, is (in Latin) Precautions for Prosecutors. It is an arraignment of trial for witchcraft, based on his own experiences in Westphalia. The traditional assumption is that he acted for a long time as “witch confessor” in Würzburg since he seems to have knowledge of what could be considered the private thoughts of the condemned. The work was printed in 1631 at Rinteln without Spee’s name or permission. He does not advocate the immediate abolition of trials for witchcraft, but describes with sarcasm the abuses in the prevailing legal proceedings, particularly the use of the rack. He demands measures of reform, such as a new German imperial law on the subject, liability to damages on the part of the judges, etc.

Cautio Criminalis contains 52 questions which Spee attempts to answer. Amongst his more notable conclusions are:

(17) That alleged witches should be allowed a lawyer and a legal defense: the enormity of the crime making this right even more important than normal.

(20) That there is real danger innocents will confess under torture simply to stop the pain.

(25) That condemning alleged witches for not confessing under torture is absurd. Spee opposed the notion that such silence was itself evidence of sorcery, as this made everyone guilty.

(27) That torture does not produce truth, since those who wish to stop their own suffering can stop it with either the truth or with lies.

(44) That denunciations of accomplices by tortured “witches” were of little value: either the tortured person was innocent, in which case she had no accomplices, or she was really in league with the Devil, in which case her denunciations cannot be trusted either.

Spee was particularly concerned about cases where a person was tortured and forced to denounce accomplices, who were then tortured and forced to denounce more accomplices, until everyone was under suspicion:

He wrote:

"Many people who incite the Inquisition so vehemently against sorcerers in their towns and villages are not at all aware and do not notice or foresee that once they have begun to clamor for torture, every person tortured must denounce several more. The trials will continue, so eventually the denunciations will inevitably reach them and their families, since, as I warned above, no end will be found until everyone has been burned."(question 15)

Spee was not, however, a skeptic regarding the existence of witches, and opened his work with a declaration that witches are real. However, he was concerned with the fact that innocent people were being killed alongside real witches, as he thought. He argued (question 13) that the Parable of the Weeds in Matthew 13:24-30 meant that some of the guilty must be allowed freedom, so that the innocent are not condemned either.


Balthasar Bekker (20 March 1634 – 11 June 1698) was a Dutch minister and author of philosophical and theological works. Opposing superstition, he was a key figure in the end of the witchcraft persecutions in early modern Europe.

His best known work was (in Dutch and later in English) The World Bewitched, in which he examined critically the phenomena generally ascribed to spiritual agency. He attacked the belief in sorcery and “possession” by the devil. Indeed he questioned the devil’s very existence.

The book had a sensational effect and was one of the key works of the Early Enlightenment in Europe. It was almost certainly the most controversial. Bekker became a heroic figure defying an army of obscurantists.

The publication [..] led to Bekker’s deposition from the ministry. The orthodox among Dutch theologians saw his views as placing him among notorious atheists: Thomas Hobbes, Adriaan Koerbagh, Lodewijk Meyer and Baruch Spinoza. Eric Walten came to his defence, attacking his opponents in extreme terms.

Bekker was tried for blasphemy, maligning the public Church, and spreading atheistic ideas about Scripture. Some towns banned the book, but Amsterdam and the States of Holland never did, continuing his salary, without formally stripping him of his post.


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