In the German town of Nördlingen in 1593, an innkeeper named Maria Höll found herself accused of witchcraft. She was arrested for questioning, and denied the charges. She continued to insist she wasn’t a witch through 62 rounds of torture before her accusers finally released her.
Rebekka Lemp, accused a few years earlier in the same town, faced a worse fate. She wrote to her husband from jail worrying that she would confess under torture, even though she was innocent. After giving a false confession, she was burned at the stake in front of her family.
Höll and Lemp were both victims of the witch hunts that occurred in Europe and the American colonies from the late 15th century until the early 18th century. These witch hunts were not a unified initiative by a single authority, but rather a phenomenon that occurred sporadically and followed a similar pattern each time.
The term “witch” has taken on many meanings, but in these hunts, a witch was someone who allegedly gained magical powers by obeying Satan rather than God. This definition of witchcraft spread through churches in Western Europe starting at the end of the 15th century.
It really gained traction after the pope gave a friar and professor of theology named Heinrich Kraemer permission to conduct inquisitions in search of witches in 1485. His first, in the town of Innsbruck, didn’t gain much traction with the local authorities, who disapproved of his harsh questioning of respectable citizens and shut down his trials.
Undeterred, he wrote a book called the “Malleus Maleficarum,” or “Hammer of Witches.” The text argued for the existence of witches and suggested ruthless tactics for hunting and prosecuting them. He singled out women as easier targets for the devil’s influence, though men could also be witches. Kraemer’s book spurred others to write their own books and give sermons on the dangers of witchcraft.
According to these texts, witches practiced rituals including kissing the Devil’s anus and poisoning or bewitching targets the devil singled out for harm. Though there was no evidence to support any of these claims, belief in witches became widespread. A witch hunt often began with a misfortune: a failed harvest, a sick cow, or a stillborn child.
Community members blamed witchcraft, and accused each other of being witches. Many of the accused were people on the fringes of society: the elderly, the poor, or social outcasts, but any member of the community could be targeted, even occasionally children. While religious authorities encouraged witch hunts, local secular governments usually carried out the detainment and punishment of accused witches.
Those suspected of witchcraft were questioned and often tortured— and under torture, thousands of innocent people confessed to witchcraft and implicated others in turn. Because these witch hunts occurred sporadically over centuries and continents the specifics varied considerably. Punishments for convicted witches ranged from small fines to burning at the stake.
The hunt in which Höll and Lemp were accused dragged on for nine years, while others lasted just months. They could have anywhere from a few to a few hundred victims. The motivations of the witch hunters probably varied as well, but it seems likely that many weren’t consciously looking for scapegoats— instead, they sincerely believed in witchcraft, and thought they were doing good by rooting it out in their communities.
Institutions of power enabled real harm to be done on the basis of these beliefs. But there were dissenters all along– jurists, scholars, and physicians countered books like Kraemer’s “Hammer of Witches” with texts objecting to the cruelty of the hunts, the use of forced confessions, and the lack of evidence of witchcraft. From the late 17th through the mid-18th century, their arguments gained force with the rise of stronger central governments and legal norms like due process.
Witch hunting slowly declined until it disappeared altogether. Both the onset and demise of these atrocities came gradually, out of seemingly ordinary circumstances. The potential for similar situations, in which authorities use their powers to mobilize society against a false threat, still exists today— but so does the capacity of reasoned dissent to combat those false beliefs.
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Credit: Brian A. Pavlac