Why were witches burned at the stake

How did the witch trials come about?


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How did the witch trials come about?

It was said that they danced from April 30th to May 1st on Walpurgis Night around Blocksberg and brought epidemics and misfortune across the country: Thousands of alleged witches died at the stake in the 15th to 18th centuries. But why did all this superstition come about? And how did you find out who a witch was?

Why were witches persecuted at all?

Image: depictions of the flight of witches.

From the 15th to the 18th centuries, many thousands of supposed witches and sorcerers were burned at the stake. The reasons for this witch craze are manifold. Mostly they looked for scapegoats for grievances, famines and epidemics. Belief in magic was still very widespread at that time, so it was not surprising that supposed witches were blamed for it.

But the church also played a role: At first it was against the belief in witches and even tried to fight it. But when they came under distress, they gave up this principle. It was not until 1409 that the idea emerged that witches had entered into a covenant with the devil and that their magical power would harm the people and the church. The Church now began to systematically persecute witches and wizards. Once suspected, hardly anyone escaped conviction.

Who Was Persecuted?

Image: Burning of the witches at the gates of the city.

Anyone could be accused: women and men, old and young, beautiful and ugly. Appearance was not an important criterion. Although red hair, green eyes, freckles and pale skin were considered questionable, curses, threats and the like made one much more suspicious.

Often at risk were women whose knowledge and skills exceeded the norm: Many of the women who were burned as witches could read and write and often also had knowledge of medicinal plants.

A far more personal possibility was also not uncommon: For example, the unpleasant neighbor was simply reported as a witcher in order to get rid of him. Exactly like this or similar it often happened: One accused an unpleasant person wrongly in order to get rid of them.

Anyone who has always been considered an outsider anyway, and was still on the field shortly before a storm and maybe made a few strange movements, could be almost certain of being reported as a witch or sorcerer.

What are the witch trials?

If a suspected witch was caught, an attempt was made to check whether she was really guilty. For this purpose, however, one did not use a dish, as is common nowadays, but the so-called witch trials.

One of them is the water test: a heavy weight was hung on the suspect's feet and they were allowed to slide into the deep water. If she swam on the surface, this was seen as evidence that she was a witch. Because, it was assumed, she was saved by the devil. However, if she went into hiding, she was considered innocent. Most of the time, however, the suspects drowned during the trial.

In another test, the witch was placed on a scale. It was assumed that a witch was much easier than a normal person to be able to fly on her broom. So if she was a witch, her weight could not be more than five kilograms above a specified value. If it was within this range, it was assumed that she was a witch. But even if the value meant that she was innocent, she could be charged. After all, she could have charmed the scales.

Prosecution interrogation execution

Image: Witch Burning

If you had caught a suspected witch, you first had to have her confession. Incidentally, even a witch trial could not change that. A witch, on the other hand, did not have the right to a normal trial that every suspect gets today. Usually she did not confess until she was tortured. This was followed by a public and painful death, mostly at the stake.

What is the witch hammer?

The Hexenhammer is a book (see title picture on the right) that presented the existing views and prejudices against witches and wanted to provide a kind of guide to their persecution and thus probably increased the extent of the witch craze a lot.

The sad success of the book cannot be overlooked: The book reached 29 editions and became the basic set of rules of the witch judges. Incidentally, the authors of the witch's hammer are the two inquisitors of the Dominican order Jakob Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer.

What is an inquisitor?

Inquisitors persecuted heretics, people who either did not believe in the word of God at all or did not believe in the way that was recognized by the church. The so-called Inquisition began in 1232. Before that, Pope Gregory had published a bull and ordered this manhunt with it. The heretics also included witches, who, according to the Church, worshiped the devil.

The witch craze is over.

But terrible ages are also coming to an end: The last trial in Europe took place in Switzerland in 1782 and resulted in a public debate. They complained that the legal situation was not clear enough.

Thanks to increasing awareness, people no longer began to see the devil behind every thunderstorm. In response to these events, the laws were revised, not only in Switzerland but throughout Europe.

Around 1800 there was finally no longer any text about the persecution of witches. A horrific era came to an end. Many thousands of people were executed, around 80 percent of them women, but there were also men and even children among them.

What is the Walpurgis Night?

According to popular legends, the Walpurgis Night (see picture) was the night when the witches flew around Blocksberg. It took place on the first full moon night after the spring equinox. An equinox is the day of the year on which day and night are equally long. There is one in spring and one in autumn.

It was named after Saint Walpurga. It is actually called Valborg, but there are numerous variations of its name: From Waltpurde and Walburg to Walpurgis and Walpurga to the French Vaubourg.

Right picture: Even today, May fires are lit in many places on the night of May 1st.

In contrast to its namesake, the legend of the Walpurgis Night is largely just a myth. Nevertheless, it is still celebrated today. However, traditionally on the night of April 30th to May 1st. People laugh, dance and sometimes even dress up as a witch, like on Halloween, to finally drive away the ghosts of winter.

What does witch actually mean?

The word witch comes from the West Germanic language area and means something like dark being. The exact meaning has not yet been clarified.

But there are a few more terms that have been assigned to the witch: The church called her, for example, Lamia (night monster), Herberia (herb fairy, collector), Venefica (poisoner) and Strix (screaming owl).

English authors used to call witches both hags (today: old vettles) and fairies (today fairies). These words used to mean the same thing. By the way: The English witch comes from wicce, which means something like knowledge.
Do you want to know more about witches, wizards and magic? Then read on in WAS IST WAS Volume 97 Wizards, Witches and Magic!

Text: Sabrina Hofmann, old pictures: all pd; May fire:Henryk Kotowski: GFDL.

Note: All images and links have been removed from the archive