Thoughts, Ideas, Observations

Witches, their Persecutors, and those who Study Them

Any people, given over to the power of contagious passion, may be swept by desolation, and plunged into ruin.

--Charles Upham on the witch panic, 1867


I am a benandante because I go with the others to fight four times a year, that is during the ember days, at night; I go invisibly in spirit and the body remains behind; we go forth in the service of Christ, and the witches of the devil; we fight each other we with bundles of fennel and they with sorghum stalks....  In the fighting that we do, one time we fight over the wheat and all the other grains, another time over the livestock, and at other times over the vineyards.  And so, on four occasions we fight over all the fruits of the earth and for those things won by the benandanti that year there is abundance.

--Battista Moduca of the Friuli to the Inquisition, June 27, 1580; an example of some of the folk beliefs that underlay the first accusations of witchcraft as devil worship


These go from house to house and from door to door for a pot of milk, yeast, drink, pottage, or some such relief, without which they could hardly live....  It falleth out many times that neither their necesities nor their expectation is answered or served in those places where they beg or borrow, but rather their lewdness (i.e. rudeness) is by their neighbors reproved. And further, in tract of time the witch waxeth odious and tedious to her neighbors, and they again are despised of her, so as sometimes she curseth one, and sometimes another, and that from the master of the house, his wife, children, cattle, etc., to the little pig that lieth in the stye. Thus in process of time they have all displeased her, and she hath wished evil luck unto them all, perhaps with curses and imprecations made in form. Doubtless at length some of her neighbors die or fall sick, or some of their children are visited with diseases that vex them strangley, as apoplexies, epilepsies, convulsions, hot fevers, worms, etc., which by ignorant parents are supposed to be the vengeance of witches.... The witch on the other side expecting her neighbors' mischances, and seeing things sometimes come to pass according to her wishes, curses, and incantations--for Bodin himself (a notorious advocate of witch burning) confesseth that not above two in a hundred of their witchings or wishings take effect--being called before a Justice, by due examination of the circumstances is driven to see her imprecations and desires, and her neighbours harms and losses to concur, and as it were, to take effect; and so confesseth that she, as a goddess, hath brought such things to pass.

Reginald Scott, 1584, an account of the most normal sort of witch


As to the affair of the witches, which Your Grace thinks brought to an end before this, it has started up afresh, and no words can do justice to it.  Ah, the woe and the misery of it--there are still four hundred in the city, high and low, of every rank and sex, nay, even clerics, so strongly accused that they may be arrested at any hour.  It is true that, of the people of my Gracious Prince here, some out of all the office and faculties must be executed:  clerics, electoral councilors and doctors, city officials, court assessors, several of whom Your Grace knows.  There are law students to be arrested.  The Prince-Bishop has over forty students who are soon to be pastors; among them thirteen or fourteen are said to be witches.  A few days ago a Dean was arrested; two others who were summoned have fled.  The notary of our Church consistory, a  very learned man, was yesterday arrested and put to the torture.  In a word, a third part of the city is surely involved.  The richest, most attractive, most prominent, of the clergy are already executed.  A week ago a maiden of nineteen was executed, of whom it is everywhere said that she was the fairest in the whole city, and was held by everybody a girl of singular modesty and purity.  She will be followed by seven or eight others of the best and most attractive persons....  And thus many are put to death for renouncing God and being at the witch dances, against whom nobody has ever else spoken a word.

To conclude this wretched matter, there are children of three and four years, to the number of three hundred, who are said to have had intercourse with the Devil.  I have seen put to death children of seven, promising students of ten, twelve, fourteen, and fifteen.  But I cannot and must not write more of this misery.

Description of the persecution at Würzburg, 1629, from a letter to a friend by the Prince-Bishop's Chancellor; once the courts came to take witchcraft seriously, and to torture the accused until they named all their accomplices, events might spiral out of control at any time.


Many hundred thousand good-nights beloved daughter Veronica.  Innocent have I come into prison, innocent have I been tortured, innocent must I die.  For whoever comes into the witch prison must become a witch or be tortured until he invents something out of his head and--God pity him--bethinks him of something.  I will tell you how it has gone with me.  When I was the first time put to the torture, Dr. Braun, Dr. Kötzendorffer, and two strange doctors were there.  Then Dr. Braun asks me, "Kinsman, how come you here?"  I answer, "Through falsehood, through misfortune."  "Hear you," he says, "you are a witch; will you confess it voluntarily?  If not, we'll bring witnesses and the executioner for you."  I said, "I am not witch, I have a pure conscience in the matter; if there are a thousand witnesses, I am not anxious, but I'll gladly hear the witnesses."  Now the chancellor's son was set before me... and afterward Hoppfens Elsse.  She had seen me dance on Haupts-moor....  I answered:  "I have never renounced God, and will never do it--God graciously keep me from it.  I'll rather bear whatever I must."  And then came also--God in highest Heaven have mercy--the executioner, and put the thumb-screws on me, both hands bound together, so that the blood ran out at the nails and everywhere, so that for four weeks I could not use my hands, as you can see from the writing....  Thereafter they first stripped me, bound my hands behind me, and drew me up in the strappado.  Then I thought heaven and earth were at an end; eight times did they draw me up and let me fall again, so that I suffered terrible agony....

And this happened on Friday, June 30, and with God's help I bore the torture.  When at last the executioner led me back into the prison, he said to me:  "Sir, I beg you, for God's sake confess something, whether it be true or not.  Invent something, for you cannot endure the torture to which you will be put; and, even if you bear it all, yet you will not escape, not even if you were a great nobleman, but one torture will follow after another until you say you are a witch.  Not before that," he said, "will they let you go, as you may see by all their trials, for one is just like another...."

And so I begged, since I was in a wretched plight, to be given one day for thought and a priest.  The priest was refused me, but the time for thought was given.  Now, my dear child, see in what hazard I stood and still stand.  I must say that I am a witch, though I am not; must not renounce God, though I have never done it before. Day and night I was deeply troubled, but at last there came to me a new idea.  I would not be anxious, but, since I had been given no priest with whom I could take counsel, I would myself think of something and say it.  It were surely better that I just say it with mouth and words, even though I had not really done it; and afterwards I would confess it to the priest, and let those answer for it who compel me to do it.... And so I made my confession, in order to escape the great pain and bitter torture, which it was impossible for me longer to bear; but it was all a lie....

Then I had to tell what people I had seen [at the witch sabbath].  I said that I had not recognized them.  "You old rascal, I must set the executioner at you.  Say--was not the Chancellor there?"  So I said yes.  "Who besides?"  I had not recognized anybody.  So he said:  "Take one street after another; begin at the market, go out on one street and back on the next."  I had to name several persons there.  Then came the long street.  I knew nobody....  And thus continuously they asked me on all the streets, though I could not and would not say more.  So they gave me to the executioner, told him to strip me, shave me all over, and put me to the torture.  "The rascal knows one on the market place, is with him daily, and yet won't name him."  By that they meant Dietmayer; so I had to name him too....

Now, dear child, here you have all my confession, for which I must die.  And they are sheer lies and made up things, so help me God.  For all this I was forced to say through fear of the torture which was threatened beyond what I had already endured.  For they never leave off with the torture till one confessed something; be he never so good, he must be a witch.  Nobody escapes though he were an earl....

Dear child, keep this letter secret so that people do not find it, else I shall be tortured most piteously and the jailers will be beheaded.  So strictly is it forbidden to have any contact with those outside the witch prison.  Dear child, pay this man a dollar....  I have taken several days to write this:  my hands are both lame, my plight is sad....

Good night, for you father Johannes Junius will never see you more.

July 24, 1628

Letter found in the case file of Johannes Junius, mayor of Bamberg, burned as a witch in 1628.  Since this letter was found in the court documents, it was presumably intercepted and never delivered.


I have not found a single proof nor even the slightest indication from which to infer than one act of witchcraft has actually taken place.  Rather I have found what I had already begun to suspect in these cases before my experiences during the visitation; that the testimony of accomplices alone -- even if they had not been submitted to violence and compulsion -- without further support from external facts substantiated by persons who are not witches is insufficient to warrant even an arrest....

Let us suppose that one was willing to give credence to all this, and to believe that the Devil is able to make persons present when they are not, and make others invisible when they pass before people who would certainly recognize them, with the result that nobody can be sure that he or she who is present is any more real than he or she who is with the witches, the surely one could conceive another explanation fare more readily:  the Devil only deludes those "invisible" ones, or those who think that they have been absent, without this ever happening, in order that the deceived person should speak in good faith and find acceptance for these and similar lies, and consequently also be believed when he says that he has seen other people at his aquelarre whom he subsequently denounces.  Thus immediately and without any effort the Devil leaves the village in an uproar and those unjustly accused exposed to condemnation....

Damage to crops is sometimes the way God punishes us for our sins, and sometimes is a natural consequence of bad weather.  These things occur everywhere whether there are witches present or not, and it is therefore most undesirable for people to believe that the witches are always to blame....

My colleagues are wasting their time in maintaining that the more theoretical and complex aspects of this can be properly understood only by the witches, since in the event witchcraft has to be dealt with by judges who are not members of the sect.  It is not very helpful to keep asserting that the Devil is capable of doing this or that, simply repeating over and over again the theory of his angelic nature; nor is it useful to keep saying that the learned doctors state the existence of witchcraft is certain.  This is only needless annoyance, since nobody doubts this.  The real question is:  are we to believe that witchcraft occurred in a give situation simply because of what the witches claim.  It is clear that the witches are not to be believed, and that the judges should not pass sentence on anyone, unless the case can be proven by external and objective evidence sufficient to convince everyone who hears it.  However, who can accept the following:  that a person can frequently fly through the air and travel a hundred leagues in an hour; that a woman can get out through a space not big enough for a fly; that a person can make himself invisible; that he can be in bed and at the aqeularre at the same time... and that a witch can turn herself into any shape she fancies, be it housefly or raven?  Indeed, these claims go beyond all human reason and may even pass the limits permitted the devil.

Alonzo Salazar Y Frias, Spanish Inquisitor, from a report to his superiors on a witch panic in the Basque country, 1611


We, whose names are under written, being in the year 1692 called to serve as jurors in court at Salem on trial of many, who were by some suspected guilty of doing acts of witchcraft upon the bodies of sundry persons:

We confess that we ourselves were not capable to understand, nor able to withstand, the mysterious delusions of the powers of darkness, and prince of the air; but were, for want of knowledge in ourselves, and better information from others, prevailed with to take up with such evidence against the accused, as, on further consideration and better information, we justly fear was insufficient for the touching the lives of any whereby we fear we have been instrumental, with others, though ignorantly and unwittingly, to bring upon ourselves and this people of the Lord the guilt of innocent blood; which sin the Lord saith, in scripture, he would not pardon, that is, we suppose in regard of his temporal judgements.  We do therefore hereby signify to all in general (and to the surviving sufferers in special) our deep sense of, and sorrow for, our errors, in acting on such evidence to the condemning of any person; and do hereby declare, that we justly fear that we were sadly deluded and mistaken; for which we are much disquieted and distressed in our minds; and do therefore humbly beg forgiveness, first of God for Christ's sake, for this our error; and pray that God would not impute guilt of to ourselves, nor others; and we also pray that we may be considered candidly, and aright, by the living sufferers, as being then under the power of a strong and general delusion, utterly unacquainted with, and not experienced in, matters of that nature.

We do heartily ask forgiveness of you all, whom we have justly offended; and do declare, according to our present minds, we would none of us do such things again on such grounds for the whole world; praying you to accept of this in way of satisfaction for our offense, and that you would bless the inheritance of the Lord, that he may be entreated for the land.

Thomas Fisk, Foreman
William Fisk
Thomas Fisk, jun.
John Dane
Joseph Evelith
Thomas Pearly, sen.
John Peabody
Thomas Perkins
Samuel Sayer
Andrew Eliot
Henry Herrick, sen.


As for the objections and arguments that worthy men have brought up against me, both on this subject [witchcraft] and often on others, I have not felt any that are binding and that do not admit of a solution more likely than their conclusions....  After all, it is putting a very high price on one's conjectures to have a man roasted alive because of them.


February 13, 2001

From the 
Commonplace Book

"The past is a foreign
country; they do things
differently there."

--L.P. Hartley


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