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Witch burnings through the ages

Brief by Martha Quillen

Tolerance – February 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine

Witch Burnings Through the Ages

After the days of knights and ladies fair, there came the reign of devils and of demons. The good folk were constantly at the mercy of those who venerated the Prince of Darkness — but the biggest problem came in telling who was who.

For several hundred years, when a man or woman was stricken with bellyaches or with seizures, when their crops failed, or their livestock died, Europeans looked around for who had cursed them, and then insisted, often successfully, upon that person’s execution.

Salem in 1692 was no match for Europe from the mid-fifteenth century until the early seventeenth century. In medieval Europe, witch burnings were pretty common fare, and the numbers were staggering.

After Dominican friars Heinrich Kraemer and Johann Sprenger talked Pope Innocent into letting them extinguish witchcraft in Germany, they co-authored the Malleus Maleficarum, an encyclopedia of demonology that explained how to identify earthly representatives of the devil. Then Sprenger went on to burn more than 500 victims a year.

An old text indicates that more than a thousand people in Como were executed for witchcraft in 1524. One inquisitor in Italy burned forty-one women in one province alone, and another medieval inquisitor boasted that he had burned nine hundred witches in his fifteen-year career. In Scotland, they executed an average of two hundred witches a year for about thirty-nine years running, and then the people got frightened that they weren’t doing the right thing — so they doubled that number.

The favored suspects of witchcraft were old women, the poor, the demented, the eccentric, and their entire families. For if one member of a family was damned, wouldn’t it follow that the rest were tainted?

But even so, eventually people began to wonder if all of these executions were necessary. By the early 1600s the practice began to die out, which is one of the reasons that the debut of the custom in New England horrified people.

By the 1680s throughout Europe, the governments turned away from witch trials. New England, however, was not to be the last official transgressor. In 1749, a young woman was burned alive in Wurzburg, Germany.