The Secular Dimension to Medieval Witch Hunts

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The rise of the persecution of innocent people wrongly convicted based on unsubstantiated allegations in the Middle Ages parallels to a great extent what often has taken place in American in the 21st century. Calling someone a witch in public was as big a deal in the 1500’s as calling someone a terrorist is today. And it was done just as cavalierly back then as it is today. We all know that the Catholic Church led the way when it came to persecuting innocents by describing them as witches, but Martin Luther and his gang that couldn’t shoot much straighter were right there alongside the Pope in the stoning and burning of witches up and down Europe. What is lesser know is that there was a strong secular dimension to the witch hunts of the Dark Ages.

The concept of having dark powers had been around for millennia; what changed during the Middle Ages was the general acceptance of the idea that in order to gain access to these powers of evil one had to make a deal with the devil, usually by signing one’s name in Satan’s book. The ascendance to tradition of this conventional wisdom is what really spread the wildfire of witch hunting, culminating in a decision in 1484 by Pope Innocent VIII to all inquisitors to use every means necessary of rooting out this evil. Consider it the medieval equivalent of a President signing an executive order which then became standard operating procedure. The detection, prosecution, and execution of witches became a cottage industry in which, hey guess what, torture was the primary means of getting a conviction rather than relying upon something far less reliable like actual evidence.

Although the Catholic and Protestants were both quite hearty in their pursuit of witches, in the countries where witch hunting really flourished there was also a strong secular government backbone. The lesson to be gained from this correlation of a strong religious and secular movement to accept the idea that witchcraft really existed despite not one iota of evidence is that when religious leaders and government leaders become too intimately intertwined, well, seriously scary scat happens! Even the most basic and lenient of theocracies stand out as the worst type of governing authority and during the witch hunting mania of the late 1500’s to 1600’s the theocratic governance was not exactly weak. From the 1580’s to the 1660’s, the heyday of the witch hunt, estimates of the number of those who were convicted of witchcraft range from the low to high tens of thousands. There is no way of knowing exactly how many people were convicted or even executed of practicing witchcraft, but what is known is that at least 75% of them were women. That’s what state sponsoring of religious insanity always results in: the subjugation of women and the blame for all that has gone wrong in society. As to the number of witches burned at the stake, it has been estimated that in several German towns upwards of 100 people were burned every year during this period.

The most striking thing about the witch hunts, and one that will ring eerily familiar, is that in many cases the actual process of prosecution was carried out not in Church courts, but secular courts with the government claim in their role as prosecutors to be acting as agents protecting the citizenry against the evils that threatened their security and stability. Sound familiar? In almost every case by the time the witch hunt mania began to die down in the mid-1600’s what prosecution that began as a church-sponsored suspicion was transferred to civil courts.

These civil courts were acting, needless to say, under the directive of the Church which remained the primary entity of authority in Europe, despite the first large cracks appearing in that façade. In Protestant countries, it must be revealed, the secular dimension was the primary agency behind persecution. With the exception of England, which was the only Protestant country that still had church courts, all the witch hunting prosecution took place entirely within a secular construct. It was the government, in other words, and not the church that oversaw the entire process of detection, prosecution and execution of suspected witches.