Toggle menu
Show all posts Show blog posts by
David Partington


A matter of F.A.C.T. – Witch Hunts Old and New?

By David Partington

Unusually, last weekend I attended two events which involved a degree of socialising. One was a professional related spring party where I drank tap water and behaved with almost (but not quite) complete propriety. The other was the F.A.C.T. spring conference facilitated by Dr. Ros Burnett at the Centre for Criminology at Oxford University, where I did not.

F.A.C.T. stands for Falsely Witch Accused Carers and Teachers and other professionals, and is an umbrella group for those facing allegations of physical and sexual assault in the course of working with young and vulnerable people.

My invitation to this event came about by circuitous means. Whilst I do not practice directly in the field of criminal or disciplinary law, in another incarnation I have a passing interest in and occasionally write upon the topic of witches. Or to be a bit more precise, the history of the phenomenon and the psychology of witch hunts, crusades and what are sometimes called “moral panics”.

The phrase “witch hunt” is so widely used that is to my mind something of an irony that the actual origin of the phrase is somewhat forgotten, or where any thought is given to it is in the context of the well known and very funny parody in the Monty Python’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

However, the phenomenon was real, and quite appalling. While early trials fall still within the Late Medieval period, the peak of the witch hunt was during the period of the European wars of religion, peaking between about 1580 and 1630. The witch hunts declined in the early 18th century. In Great Britain, their end was marked by the Witchcraft Act of 1735. But sporadic witch-trials continued to be held during the second half of the 18th century, the last known dating to 1782, though a prosecution was commenced in Tennessee as recently as 1833.

Over the entire duration of the phenomenon of some three centuries, an estimated total of between 40,000 to 100,000 people were executed in Europe, many more tortured, and probably about 75 per cent of these were women. Victims were typically strangled or hanged, but not uncommonly burned alive, usually after torture.

It had not been unusual for allegations of witchcraft to be made in early Medieval Europe, and no doubt various forms of shamanic ritual were carried out and had been since time immemorial, but despite the chastisements of the Catholic Church, there seems to have been a certain resigned tolerance. Even if the matter was taken up, punishments varied, and might amount to no more than a day in the stocks.

One of the key factors in both the increased ferocity of witch hunts and the focus on women as the accused was a book entitled in Latin “Malleus Malificarum”, meaning “The Hammer of the Witches.” It was known in German by catchy title “Der Hexenhammer”. It followed in the footsteps of such charming best sellers as “The Hammer of the Heretics” and “The Hammer of the Jews”.

Published in 1487, it was largely written by a Dominican friar from southern Germany called Heinrich Kramer, possibly with the assistance of another Dominican and Official Inquisitor called Sprenger, although this is debated. Kramer himself wanted to become an Inquisitor, and appears to have been obsessed with the topic of witches, but his early attempts to stir up trouble failed, and he was thrown out of Innsbruck by the local bishop for being “a senile old man”.

Despite the fact that the official arm of the Catholic Church in this area (the Inquisition) disapproved of this work, it went on to become a medieval best seller, with many editions published. It was a sensation.

Kramer’s book is written in 3 sections. Section I examines the concept of witchcraft theoretically, from the point of view of natural philosophy and theology. Specifically it addresses the question of whether witchcraft is a real phenomenon or imaginary. It concludes that witchcraft must be real because the Devil is real. Witches entered into a pact with Satan to allow them the power to perform harmful magical acts, thus establishing an essential link between witches and the Devil.

Section II deals with matters of practice and actual cases are discussed, and the powers of witches and their recruitment strategies. It states that it is mostly witches, as opposed to the Devil, who do the recruiting, by making something go wrong in the life of a respectable matron that makes her consult the knowledge of a witch, or by introducing young maidens to tempting young devils. It details how witches cast spells, and remedies that can be taken to prevent witchcraft, or help those who have been affected by it.

The book describes signs of a witch:

• The diabolical mark. Usually, this was a mole or a birthmark. If no such mark was visible, the examiner would claim to have found an invisible mark
• Diabolical pact. This was an alleged pact with Satan to perform evil acts in return for rewards
• Denouncement by another witch. This was common, since the accused could often avoid execution by naming accomplices
• Relationship with other convicted witch/witches
• Blasphemy
• Participation in the witches’ Sabbath or “Sabbat”
• To cause harm that could only be done by means of sorcery
• Possession of elements necessary for the practice of black magic
• To have one or more witches in the family
• To be afraid during the interrogation (!)
• Not to cry under torture (supposedly by means of the Devil’s aid)
• To have had sexual relationships with a demon (fornicating with the devil)

Section III is the legal part of the Malleus Malificarum that describes how to prosecute a witch. The section offers a step-by-step guide to the conduct of a witch trial, from the method of initiating the process and assembling accusations, to the interrogation (including torture) of witnesses, and the formal charging of the accused.

Kramer’s take was uniquely and extremely misogynistic. He used, for example, the feminine Latin word “Malificarum” with an “a” to denote “witch”, rather than the usual gender-masculine “Malificorum” with an “o”, and listed many reasons why women were more likely to be witches than men. For example, he explained that women were less clever, vainer and more sexually insatiable (this was a widely held medieval view). Kramer wrote in section I that: “all witchcraft comes from carnal lust which is in women insatiable”.

Kramer was keen on conspiracies, because witches were described as using their magical and sexual powers to obtain the favour and protection of the rich and powerful.

There is clearly a psycho-sexual sub text to what he had to say. He seemed unduly concerned about spells which caused male impotence, for example, although this was a common issue in witchcraft allegations. Indeed, it is a quite common modern theory to explain the frenzy of witch hunts in which women were the primary target as a psychological response to underlying feelings of fear and disapproval of and anxiety over female sexuality with various Freudian and psycho analytical ways. I think that is partly true, but there are other causes, including raw superstition and the need for scapegoats in the face of appalling weather (a little Ice Age) and with it famine, and also plague became rampant in Europe at the time. There was also indeed the inability to explain difficult psychological neuroses and conditions. There are other explanations including the possibility of societies to require figures to “demonise” certain types of individual in order to reinforce cultural norms. Society sometimes need “bogey men” and in this case, bogey women. There was naked opportunism and the chance to make money and settle old scores. Amazingly, people sometimes made false complaints in attempts to make a quick buck. Who would have thought it?

However there is also a chilling presage in Kramer’s work to later theories in what I will call the psychological double bind of denial. In Kramer’s work, he argued that (a) the practice of witchcraft is undeniable, and (b) therefore anyone who even denied that witches existed was a heretic.

Let me then give an example to give substance to the abstract. Rebekka Kemp was the respectable law abiding woman married to a well regarded and prosperous tax official called Peter Kemp, and they lived in the town of Nördlingen in what is now Bavaria. They had 6 children by the time she was 41 in 1589. In that year, the mayor and the town council launched a witch hunt. A woman who was later burned at the stake denounced Rebekka for witchcraft, doubtless under torture. The council waited for her husband to go away on business before they arrested her.

We know a little bit more about Rebekka than usual, because the plaintive letters she wrote from her prison cell to her husband still survive. Here is an extract in which she describes her first encounter with torture:

“Oh you, my most chosen treasure, should I be torn from you so innocent? May such ever and always be held against God. They force one, that one must confess. They have martyred me. I am as innocent as God in heaven. If I only knew the best bit of such matters, then I would deserve that God refuse me entrance into Heaven. Oh you, my beloved treasure, what is happening to my heart? Alas, alas my poor orphans. Father, send me something so that I may die. I must otherwise despair as a martyr.”

Inside the letter was wrapped a ring and a rosary; Rebecca added a note:

“Carry the small ring in my memory. Divide the rosary into 6 parts and let each child carry a part around their wrist all their life long. O treasure, your innocent, they take me from you with force. How can God suffer it? If I am a monster, then may God not be gracious toward me. Then such injustice upon injustice should deservedly happen to me. Why will God not hear me? Send me something, otherwise I will perjure myself. Otherwise, I would first burden my soul.”

To gain evidence the council used torture as many times as necessary. One woman refuse to confess despite 56 sessions of torture including the use of thumbscrews, legscrews, and being subject to “the strappado” – essentially being hung by the arms in a form of crucifixion. She was ultimately released. Rebekka and others were understandably less strong and eventually broke and confessed to having sex with the Devil, flying to Sabbats and dancing with him, murdering and eating babies and digging up bodies to eat from the graveyard and having the banquets in the town hall. The fact that no one had noticed any of this going on did not seem to matter.

The court intercepted her letters, using the one above to add an accusation of attempted suicide. She repeated her confessions in open court on August 13 and 19. The town government had her burned with four other convicted witches on September 9, 1590 in the presence of her family. The poor woman screamed as the flames reached her. Thirty four women and one man died in this witch hunt.

Such then, was but one example of the brutal, unjust and monstrous nature of the witch hunt proper.

Now, whilst I do not propose to analyse the various theories as to why Kramer’s work and the concept of witch hunts as such took such a grip on the medieval mind, let me suggest that there are some essential core features of the approach set out in “The Hammer of the Witches,” namely the following:

• A “moral outrage” as part of or underlying that theory, and a fear that the ill which is being addressed in that theory is immoral, and poses a wider threat to society than had been previously understood;
• A link with feared deviant sexual behaviour; or the added accusations in respect of that sexual behaviour;
• A theory of pseudo science, dressed up as established fact;
• Blind faith in the rectitude of that theory;
• Moral zealotry in support of that theory – crusading zeal, if you like;
• A “target” of the least empowered or a vulnerable group;
• A “closed” system of thinking and philosophy which means anyone not in on the game is and supporting the adopted theory is, by definition, in denial and part of the problem;
• Conspiracies with friends in high places to protect the perpetrators of the crime in question;
• Assumption of guilt on the part of the accused;
• Inquisitorial methods in which alleged perpetrators and witnesses are not only subject to undue pressure, but actively encouraged to bring allegations against others, creating a “viral infection” of accusations;
• A willingness to discount all objective evidence which suggests innocence from the chosen charge.
• Repeating procedures until the “desired” end – conviction – is reached.

The leading historian of witch hunts, Professor Norman Cohn, has suggested that witch hunts belong essentially to pre-rational thought systems based on superstition, and thus as society evolves and becomes more “civilised” and rational they will naturally fade away. With great respect to Professor Cohn the history of the 20th Century suggests otherwise (see the Nazis as just one example), and the idea that we now live in a rational and civilised society in the 21st Century is one with which I might treat with a certain skepticism.

In another blog I will analyse and deconstruct some modern day witch hunts, and try to demonstrate how Kramer’s mindset still thrives, albeit in different guises, and gives rise to the threat and actuality of unjust convictions. I will look at the abuse “scandals” in Cleveland, alleged satanic abuse in Rochdale and the Orkneys, and examine the work of Professor Roy Meadow, and the ultimate suicide of one innocent woman, wrongly convicted of murder, Sally Clark.