In the late Middle Ages, more and more people were convinced that witches were responsible for all sorts of tragic events and ills. By torture, water and iron test one tried to force confessions. In the 15.-17. In the 16th century, between 50,000 and 80,000 people were executed, often burned at the stake. About three quarters of them were women.
Early conceptions of witches
The belief in witches in the form of female beings was widespread in various religions and among peoples in ancient times. They existed in ancient myths, among the Germanic tribes as well as in the Orient. They also appear in fairy tales and legends. These witches were mostly women with magical and usually damaging abilities. They behaved differently than the "normal" members of the respective society, yes, they wanted to harm these communities.
The word witch probably comes from hagazussa = the fence rider.
In the Volksbrockhaus it says under the keyword witch:
"lt. Folk belief magical woman who is supposed to have occult powers, participates in the witches’ sabbath at the Blocksberg, often old and ugly."
Abilities and characteristics of witches
Due to a pact with the devil, witches had, according to the general ideas of the time, all sorts of supernatural abilities. They could harm other people, even kill them. Supposedly they often met in certain places (witches’ dance floor), and it was believed that they could also ride a broom through the air.
Witches were blamed for storms and bad harvests, they could predict the future and transform themselves into animals, as could other people. Often they committed fornication (sexual intercourse) with the devil himself (" Teufelsbuhlschaft " ). According to ancient beliefs, witches had the following characteristics:
- red hair or a headscarf,
- deep-set eyes,
- a crooked nose,
- Freckles or
- Often they were hunchbacked And walking on a stick represented.
Church, heretics and witches
Since its elevation to state religion by the Roman emperor THEODOSIUS in 380, the Christian church took action against people who deviated from individual points of the official doctrine. They were called heretics or heretics . Serious cases of heresy resp. of heresy were punished by death.
From the early Middle Ages until about the year 1230, the Belief in a supernatural witchcraft only gradually through. In the two centuries that followed, sorcery and witchcraft were studied scientifically . It was believed that especially women by nature be depraved and libidinous, and therefore prone to witchcraft. Since witches, like heretics, had made a covenant with the devil, they too were punished by death. In most cases it was the Fire death at the stake. An early and well-known example of this is JEANNE D’ARC , who was revered as a national heroine by the French declared a witch in 1431 and at the stake executed was. On the whole, ecclesiastical courts were not involved in the witch trials to the extent that was sometimes assumed.
Systematic witch hunt
Pope JOHN XXII. had decreed in 1326 that just like heresy, witchcraft should now also be judicially punished. The systematic persecution of witches began in the following century with a document of Pope INNOZENZ VIII., of the so-called. Bull of Witches (1484). Here were listed all the misdeeds and crimes that were believed to be committed by witches. Two Dominicans, HEINRICH INSTITORIS (actually HEINRICH KRAMER) and JAKOB SPRENGER, were supposed to write a kind of manual and code of law for the witch courts.
Three years later (1487) the infamous book "Malleus maleficarum" , the so called Hexenhammer appeared . The alleged inferiority of the woman was explained in it with the reference to the creation history of the Old Testament (‘Genesis’, 1.Book of Moses) explains: According to it Eve was created from a rib of the man Adam, in the paradise she seduced the Adam by means of an apple.
The "Hexenhammer" also listed the various forms of witchcraft. It was explained how the court should proceed and what should be considered as evidence of the existence of witchcraft. New was the denunciation , a Indictment for base motives, z.B.
- ill will,
Even the mere suspicion was enough to hold a trial. Individual preachers contributed to the spread of superstition, as did pamphlets depicting witches.
Methods of finding the truth
Various methods were recommended to establish the truth. An important instrument here was, as in other court proceedings of the Middle Ages usual,
- the cruel use of torture, in order to extort the desired confession. Besides there were several other methods. In the
- Water sample, the so-called. Witch bath, the suspected person was thrown into the water. If she sank, she was innocent, but she drowned. If the body swam on the surface of the water, she was guilty and was executed.
- In the case of needle trial was pricked with a needle into a wart or a birthmark. If no blood flowed, this was considered as proof of witchcraft.
- In the Iron trial red-hot iron was put into the hands of the accused person or persons. In the case of burns, which was not otherwise expected, the respectively applied. the suspect as guilty.
The witch mania – motives and death figures
In addition to the views on female nature already mentioned, there were other reasons why 70-80% of those executed Women were.
- In the centuries between 1400 and 1700, a climatic deterioration took place, the so-called "Little Ice Age". It came frequently to crop failures and famines.
- In addition to the general insecurity and the fear of an approaching end of the world, negative personal attitudes were added, such as Envy and greed. An incentive for denunciation was the custom that the property of the victims was distributed to the sovereign or to judges and executioners.
- Breaking due to poor hygiene Diseases and epidemics plague and cholera decimated the population considerably.
- As proof of their independence and autonomy Smaller territories were more eager to hunt witches than large territorial states (Bavaria, Saxony).
The perpetrators of the ills were often seen in witches, and as such were considered mainly women. In the search for the culprits, women were also chosen because they were responsible for so-called endangered areas. These include
- Food preparation,
- domestic cleanliness,
- Child education and
How fast could it happen with these activities Diseases and death come.
The total number of deaths is usually estimated at 50,000 to 80,000. There are also isolated scientists who consider more than 100,000 deaths as probable. For the Holy Roman Empire one assumes 15 000 to 20 000 victims.
Temporal and geographical extension
The period of great persecutions and mass trials fell in the decades of between 1560 and 1650. Three quarters of all trials took place in Central Europe, especially
- in the German Empire, but also
- in France,
- Switzerland and
In the states and territories bordering these countries, the number of executions was much lower. Catholic and evangelical Territories were equally involved.
With the spread of Protestantism and Calvinism, the belief in witches and the practice of the procedures also came to Denmark and Scotland. Puritans who emigrated from England organized a mass trial in Salem, now a suburb of Boston (USA), as late as 1792, which ended with the execution of 19 people.
The end of the processes
After isolated cautious criticism in the 15. In the 16th century. and 17. In the sixteenth century, a series of writings described witchcraft as a mental illness and characterized the trials as inhumane and against the law. With the end of the Thirty Years’ War the witch hunt died down. The last witch trial, which resulted in an execution, took place in 1782 took place in the Swiss canton of Glarus.
In dramas, novels and stories authors took up the theme again and again. The following can be mentioned:
- WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, "Macbeth",
- JOHANN WOLFGANG GOETHE, "Faust",
- WILHELM MEINHOLD, "Maria Schweidler, the amber witch",
- GERHART HAUPTMANN, "Magnus Garbe",
- ARTHUR MILLER, "The Crucible" (engl. "witch hunt").
MILLER depicted in the drama the above mentioned events of the year 1792 in Salem (USA).