This essay was written in 1999 by Heather Phillips. I present it here for your edification, believing it to be informative and historically correct.
A crowd gathers. The convicted witch is at the gallows. A fire is lit and the burning begins. The mood of the crowd is cheerful; some are cheering while others are laughing. Convicted witches are burned at the stake; sometimes they are burned alive. A question arises in the present day mind. Was the burning of witches as simple as commonly known history leads us to believe? The only answer is no. An appalling truth to the trials and persecutions of witches is still often untold. The causes, though varied, lie in the beliefs and social tensions of the time. The tortures and punishments were extremely degrading and gruesome; specific cases illustrate the grossness well. The witch trials affected the whole of Europe.
A combination of beliefs, events, and social tensions caused and fueled the witch hysteria and trials in Europe. Inquisitors wished to wipe out remaining non-Christians. The easiest way to do this was to accuse these people of heresy or witchcraft. After the convictions, the heretic or witch was sentenced to torture and death, often in painful or unusual ways. Adding to the fuel of the witch hysteria was the publication of Malleus maleficarum. The title translates to hammer against witches (Russell 662). This book, according to Horwitz, explained how to identify, examine and sentence witches (Horwitz 61). According to Malleus maleficarum, there were four factors of witchcraft. They were repudiation of the Catholic faith, devoted service to the Devil, sacrificing unbaptized children to the Devil, and sexual contact with the Devil (Russell 662-663). According to Russell, the people most likely to be accused of witchcraft were those highly visible to the public eye; those in the higher classes and lower classes. These people included thieves, sex offenders, fighters, magistrates, merchants and teachers (Russell 664). Also regularly accused were midwives. Many people took the inevitable death and deformity that often occurred at or during birth as proof of midwives’ guilt as witches (Russell 664). In most places, accusations were not related to social status. However, in England, the poorer people were accused of witchcraft more often (Russell 663-664). Both women and men were convicted, but women made up the greater majority. According to Russell, the belief that women were weaker, stupider and more lustful caused this (Russell 665).
The tortures used on witches were numerous and varied. Tortures were used to cause a witch to confess ‘voluntarily’. This means that the accused were tortured and then allowed a respite during which they could confess to the crimes they had been accused of as well as others. Common forms of torture for the purpose of causing a confession included the witch’s collar, the strappado, and pressing. The witch’s collar was an iron collar that had a protrusion for the mouth with spikes. The strappado was the use of rope and a beam. The hands of the accused were tied behind the back. The rope was then tossed over the beam so that the accused could be repeatedly dropped from height. This caused the dislocation of the shoulders and arms (Powell). Pressing was merely the lying of a board over the body of the accused and adding weight until that person confessed to the crime or died of asphyxiation or wounds caused by being pressed. In most cases, the accused admitted to much more than the original charges.
The methods of punishment were gruesome and usually meant to cause a great deal of pain. Often, more than one method was used. Common methods of punishment for witches included burning, hanging, and the wheel. Burning was commonly employed because, according to Powell, the commonly held belief at the time was that burning the blood of a witch purified the witch. For those who were uncooperative, the fire was sometimes built out of green wood, causing the fire and witch to burn slowly. However, in some places, the victim was strangled before burning because burning alive could cause sympathy in onlookers. Burning was usually a very public punishment. Hanging was popular everywhere in Europe, but especially popular in England. The wheel was most popular in France and Germany. The convicted witch was allowed no clothing but ‘brief linen pants’. The witch was stretched across the spokes and hub then tied to a wheel placed on a platform. All four limbs were systematically broken in several places by an iron bar. When this punishment was first administered, the wounds inflicted by the beating were thought to be enough to kill the witch. Later, however, one or two blows to the chest were in order to speed the death of the witch (Powell).
In addition to these were the truly gruesome punishments that were used less frequently. Among these punishments are the saw, mastectomy, spider, and impalement. The saw required that the convicted be hung upside down and sawed in half, starting between the legs. According to Powell, those under this punishment did not lose consciousness until the saw reached the navel. Mastectomy was a brutal punishment for women. Pincers were heated until red-hot and used to tear the flesh of the breasts. The breasts were then cut off. Similarly, the spider was heated until red-hot and used to tear the flesh of the convicted. Impalement was, perhaps, the most brutal of punishments. It was rarely performed because it often caused sympathy in onlookers. According to Powell, impalement entitled a sharply pointed stake being inserted through the posterior and leaving the body at the head or throat. The victim could remain living for days after impalement. The punishments of witches were incredibly brutal and inhumane.
Some cases of accused witches are well known while others are obscure. One well-known case is that of Joan of Arc. Joan of Arc, according to Olsen, had three charges brought against her. Joan was charged with being linked to the Devil because she heard voices she claimed were saints. The church said these voices were not saints, but the Devil misleading Joan. She was also charged for ‘speaking out for her faith’ because she dressed and acted as if she were a man. Lastly, she was charged with no obedience to the Church Militant or men; she was solely obedient to God. Joan of Arc was convicted of these charges and sentenced to death at the stake. As she was burning in May 1431, Joan kept repeating the name of Jesus to affirm her faith (Olsen).
A case less well known is that of the Pappenheimer family. According to Powell, Paulus, Anna, Gumpprecht, Jacob, and Hansel Pappenheimer were extremely unfortunate. At the bottom of the social class and accused of murder, they were perfect victims for the show trail desired by Duke Maximillian I of Bavaria. Alexander von Haslang zu Haslangreut, Grosshaussen und Reid made the case into one of extreme justice. He accused them of witchcraft. After being tortured to confess, they were sent to Falcon Tower. There, upon being tortured, all but Hansel, the youngest son of the family, confessed to having sex with the Devil, aid from the Devil in return for worldly possessions, giving hair from various body parts on the left side, and signing a pact with the devil in blood. After more torture, the family admitted to most of the crimes that had been committed in the last decade. The confessions led to the punishments for the Pappenheimers. Paulus, Gumpprecht, and Jacob were subjected to the spider. Anna was given a mastectomy. Her amputated breasts were then forced into her mouth and then rubbed around the mouths of her elder sons. This was a horrible derision of breast-feeding. The Pappenheimers were then transported to the place of their execution. There, all but Anna and Hansel suffered torture upon the wheel. Following this, Paulus was impaled. The punishments concluded with all but Hansel being burned to death. At a later date, Hansel was burned alive for comments he made while watching the punishments of his family (Powell). The case of the Pappenheimers may be relatively unknown, but it is definitely among the most gruesome of the witch trials.
The witch trials left their mark upon Europe. Christianity became increasingly dominant. Where it had been shaky, it became a permanent fixture. Where Christianity had been dominant before, it was now authority. Non-Christians lived in mortal fear, forced to keep their religious practices secret. The trials also caused a great deal of uncertainty and mistrust among Christians. Accusations could easily result from grudges, especially among those who had been wronged in highly suspicious ways. Unfortunately, the psychological effects of the witch trials upon society became so deeply ingrained as to remain, at least in part, to present day. Stereotypes of the witch cling, based upon the paranoid and superstitious beliefs of the Middle Ages. Non-Christians are still persecuted where European influence was the greatest. Perhaps, in time, and with insight, the mindset still driving the psychological effects will fade, leaving tolerance for everyone.
Heather Phillips, 1999
Horwitz, Elinor Lander. Madness, Magic, and Medicine The Treatment and Mistreatment of the Mentally Ill. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippencott, 1977.
Olsen, Erica E. “Joan of Arc is burned as a relapsed heretic 1431.” http://campus.northpark.edu/history/WebChron/WestEurope/JoanArc.html (14 Oct. 1999).
Powell, Shantell. “The Pappenheimer Trial.” The Witching Hours: Medieval Through Enlightenment Period European Witch History. 1998.
http://www.goth.net/ ~shanmonster/witch/witches/papheim.html (14 Oct. 1999).
Powell, Shantell. “Punishment, Torture, and Ordeal.” The Witching Hours: Medieval Through Enlightenment Period European Witch History. 1998. http://www.goth.net/~shanmonster/witch/torture/index.html (12 Oct. 1999).
Russell, Jeffrey Burton. “Witchcraft, European.” Dictionary of the Middle Ages. 1989 ed.