Medieval Witch Hunts

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This travesty gets its own entry for several reasons. The so-called “witches” were rounded up and slaughtered for centuries throughout Europe. Casualty numbers vary drastically because records were not well kept, but the average total is anywhere from 40,000 to 100,000 dead, just in the period of c. 1480 to c. 1750.

It was established doctrine that witches were not witches by their own volition, but by Satan’s, and so burning them at the stake would purify them by pain so they could enter Heaven. The Church actually believed, and led the populace to believe, that it was doing witches a favor by torturing them and burning them to death. The methods by which to prove a witch were ludicrous, to state the obvious: a mole or birthmark was deemed proof of trafficking with the Devil; uttering blasphemy (and back then it was nearly impossible to open your mouth without offending the Church)

The hunts had been perpetrated for centuries before, and they were carried out for one or both of two reasons: fear and personal animosity. If a particular person irritated someone, the latter could accuse the former of witchcraft, and the Catholic Church showed up like a bloodhound. Or a nation or local government could suddenly become afraid of the influence of the Antichrist and take care of the matter with the Church’s blessing.

It was established doctrine that witches were not witches by their own volition, but by Satan’s, and so burning them at the stake would purify them by pain so they could enter Heaven. The Church actually believed, and led the populace to believe, that it was doing witches a favor by torturing them and burning them to death. The methods by which to prove a witch were ludicrous, to state the obvious: a mole or birthmark was deemed proof of trafficking with the Devil; uttering blasphemy (and back then it was nearly impossible to open your mouth without offending the Church); denouncement by another witch (and since denouncing another passed the blame, the accused could save himself this way); to be afraid during interrogation; and the most infamous of all, anyone who could swim was most assuredly a witch, since only the Devil could teach someone to conquer water.

Tortures were not always overseen by the Church itself, and thus, the rule of not shedding blood was ignored in these instances. So the tortures became much, much worse: flogging, skinning alive, castration by red-hot pincers, disemboweling, drawing and quartering, head crushing, tooth extraction, de-nailing. Death, if not by torture, was always via burning at the stake.

Another very serious mistake the Church made in pursuing and slaughtering people because of the slightest hint of heresy is that in so doing, it also ordered that all witches’ “familiars” be hunted down, killed and burned. These familiars were pets that witches were believed to keep, whether frogs, or owls, or rats or especially cats. From the 1100s until the late 1300s, cats were slaughtered wholesale all over Europe. When the fleas bearing bubonic plague rode on the backs of rats from the Black Sea area and Western Asia into Italy and Western Europe, there were no cats to check the rats’ spread. The Black Death of c. 1340 to c. 1355 spread so well, in large part, because the rats multiplied out of control. The Plague finally dwindled away because the people were too busy dying to kill cats, and the cats repopulated Europe and brought the rats back down.

It should be noted that witch hunts were not unique to the Catholic Church, as all of the protestant nations in Europe also partook of this cruel abuse. Alas, no one was immune from guilt.

 

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