Witches and How to Find Them

Since October is the month of Halloween, I thought it was appropriate to write about a classic Halloween character: the witch.

Between the 14th and 17th centuries, around 60,000 people were executed in Europe and the American colonies for being “witches.”[1] Witchcraft has always been frowned upon, but there was never a witch hunt on such a large scale, over that many centuries before. The causes for that are complex (for a more detailed explanation, see the notes and the Further reading section). Long story short, the Catholic Church founded the Inquisition in the 12th century to fight heresy. Gradually, the notion of heresy came to include witchcraft, the witches being seen as the instrument of the devil.

Contrary to popular belief, the inquisitors did try to be as objective as possible in their methods and trials. Of course, that didn’t mean much in those days, but there was a (very slim) chance that the persons accused of witchcraft were found not guilty, as opposed to the civil trials (conducted by local authorities), where the people acted basically as a lynch mob. Moreover, the Inquisition could not condemn a person to death. The people found guilty were turned over to the local government (nobles and city leaders), who decided on a punishment.

There were different methods of investigation for men and women, though the questioning by torture (interlocutoria tormentorum) was pretty much indiscriminate for both genders. The men were considered to be more educated, thus harder to discover their true “diabolical” nature. However, the usual suspects, so to speak, were women (mostly old, poor, from a rural environment) who had some sort of history as healers (using herbs to make potions), or were believed to possess some sort of “power” (people usually went to them if they needed a good-luck charm, or to break a curse, etc.).

The inquisitors had several “manuals” to guide them in their investigations – containing chapters regarding the nature of the witches, how to conduct an investigation, or a torture session, that kind of stuff. The best known (and the bestseller of that time) was the Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches), published in 1487. However, there was another treatise of this kind written before that, around 1323-1324 – the Practica inquisitionis heretice pravitatis (Conduct of the Inquisition into Heretical Wickedness) by Bernard Gui.

Bernard Gui (1261/1262 – 1331) was a French inquisitor of the Dominican Order, Bishop of Lodève, and one of the most prolific and erudite writers of the Middle Ages. In his time as an inquisitor, he led to the conviction of 900 people accused of heresy. Thinking that future generations might benefit from his experience, he wrote the aforementioned book near the end of his life. (As a side note, Gui became famous much later for being the main antagonist in the novel – and film – The Name of the Rose.)  Let’s have a look at a fragment from his manual.

A page from the Practica inquisitionis heretice pravitatis (Source) (Note: I’m not sure whether this is the actual original page where the cited fragment comes from, but it looks nice)

“Accused sorcerers, diviners, and summoners of demons will be asked about the nature and number of the spells, divinations, and incantations they know, and who taught them.

Also, they will be asked about the details, paying attention to the quality and condition of each person, for the interrogation must not be the same for everyone but one for men and one for women. The accused will be asked: what do you know, what have you heard, what have you done in relation to bewitching children or to free them from bewitchment.

Also, about lost or condemned souls.

Also, about harmony or disagreement between spouses.

Also, the fertilization of the sterile.

Also, about feeding people hairs and nails.

Also, about the souls of the dead.

Also, about the divination of future events.

Also, about the fairies that bring good fortune and are said to come out at night.

Also, you will especially ask about what they know of the superstitions that involve disrespect or insult to the sacraments of the Church, and above all, to the sacrament of the body of Christ.

Also, you will ask about the practice of stealing the Holy Ghost and holy oils from a church.

Also, you will ask about the practice of baptizing wax images, and their purposes and uses.”[2]

Gui presents here several instructions of how to identify the real witches among the people who were accused of these transgressions. In this particular fragment, he talks about all kinds of magic – natural, demonic, popular, and learned magic.

Demonic magic, as the name suggests, involved the summoning or the help of demons. Natural magic involved the natural elements (air, fire, earth, water), either for divination, or for actually controlling/using them with malevolent purposes. Popular magic referred to magic that was not learned, in the sense that the witches had an intuitive understanding of evil things and did not learn it from books. This kind of magic was said to be practiced mostly by women, because men were, in most cases, the only ones with access to literacy.

Learned magic, on the other hand, was supposedly practiced by sorcerers who had studied how to contact and summon, as Gui puts it, “lost or condemned souls” or “the souls of the dead.” They were mostly men, clerics, with a high understanding of Latin (the summoning spells were in Latin) and a relatively good education.

It would be easy to say nowadays that those were twisted times, when belief was stronger than reason, or when belief was thought to be reason. When people were willing and ready to condemn and kill other people because they were not a part of their “tribe,” tossing aside basic humanity and empathy. But the truth is that humanity has never learned and will never learn anything from its history and mistakes. One would only have to look at the World War 2 Holocaust to see that. And currently, the mindset hasn’t changed that much. Especially in some parts of the world.

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Further reading:

  1. 10 Terrifying Reads for Halloween! (concerning witches)
  2. Ben-Yehuda, Nachman – “The European Witch Craze of the 14th to 17th Centuries: A Sociologist’s Perspective,” in American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 86, No. 1 (Jul., 1980), pp. 1-31, The University of Chicago Press, https://www.jstor.org/stable/2778849
  3. Byers, Thomas – Witchcraft and Witch Hunts
  4. Guilford, Gwynn – Germany was once the witch-burning capital of the world. Here’s why
  5. MedievalChronicles.com – Medieval Witchcraft

[1] Robert Muchembled & Julie Klotz, “Chasse aux sorcières”, in Le Monde des Religions: Sorcières, no. 90, July-August 2018, p. 40 ; also L. Climenhaga, 2012, “Imagining the Witch: A Comparison Between Fifteenth-Century Witches Within Medieval Christian Thought and the Persecution of Jews and Heretics in the Middle Ages,” in Constellations 3 (2). https://journals.library.ualberta.ca/constellations/index.php/constellations/article/view/17200

[2] Bernard Gui, Practica inquisitionis heretice pravitatis, edited by G. Mollat (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1964), English translation: Delfi I. Nieto-Isabel.