There have been many periods of so-called “witch hunts” in human history. However, the most infamous occurred during the 16th and 17th centuries in early modern Europe, centralized in the German-speaking territories of the Holy Roman empire. Most “witches” were aggressive or combative wives or widows of agricultural workers with low socioeconomic standing, though men were more often accused in Russia and Iceland.
Supposedly, they were malevolent servants of Satan who organized against Christendom at Witches’ Sabbaths and otherwise practiced sorcery. Witch hunts became common due to a variety of factors, including a 1468 papal decree that witchcraft was “crimen exceptum” or exempt from legal limits on torture.
As a result, the methods became more gruesome. With a grounding in historical legislation against sorcery, the accused were actively and horribly tortured in order to get a confession – including the following common methods.
1. Sleep Deprivation
The various methods for determining a potential witch’s guilt go back to human civilization’s early days. The oldest references can be found in the 18th century BC Code of Hammurabi, which details various punishments for sorcery. Later, the Empire of Nicaea and Despotate of Epirus’s 13th century expanded potential trials by ordeal, while the 15th century Malleus Maleficarum or The Hammer of Witches provided a guidebook for demonologists and witch hunters.
Among the various methods outlined in such documents and practices is the use of sleep deprivation. The accused would be traditionally starved of sleep for around 40 hours. Throughout, they would be interrogated and pressured to admit their identity as a servant of Satan. Sleep deprivation was a common method in Italy and England, though authorities in the latter context tended to limit the amount of time more strictly. Still, this method was generally seen as unreliable because people fast became delirious enough to confess to anything.
2. Water Torture
One of the oldest tests by ordeal is by dunking in a body of cold water. In ancient times, suspected sorcerers and other criminals were submerged in flowing water and acquitted if they survived. The idea was that God would help the innocent, while the guilty would simply die. Although this form of capital punishment was banned in many areas and generally fell out of favor in Europe, trial by water became popular again in the Late Middle Ages. In particular, it was seen as the least brutal form of execution and so reserved for women.
As a method for testing witches, the outcome was reversed, with demonologists asserting that witches would float due to their supernatural lightness and rejection of baptism. King James VI of Scotland, a demonologist himself, asserted that water was so pure that it would simply repel the guilty. Although a rope was usually tied around the waist to pull the accused out, drowning was common. However, a dunking chair could be used to gradually immerse the accused and so increase the chances of a successful confession.
3. Pricking and Scratching
Another common sign of guilt was a devil’s or witch’s mark. Witch hunters believed that sorcerers would receive such a mark upon completing their pact with Satan. Although it could change color, shape, and potentially even location, the mark itself would be insensitive to pain. Some demonologists confused this mark with the witch’s teat, which was an extra nipple on the accused’s body that was supposedly used to suckle demonic assistants or imps.
This unsightly blemish was a new concept, so torturers crafted or purchased needles specially designed for seeking them out. These tools were used to search the accused’s flesh inch by inch for a mark of their demonic compact. During the witch craze, England and Scotland even supported professional witch prickers, though such men likely used dulled needles to falsify their results.
Scratching tests developed separately as a means to determine guilt; this simpler method involved the supposed victim scratching the accused until they drew blood. If their symptoms abated afterwards, then it was assumed that witchcraft was involved. Such tests relate to anthropological concepts of contagious magic, where bodily fluids are viewed as containing power by association with a person. In this case, the association was viewed as evidence of Satanic practices.
The method of pressing has a long and very specific history unrelated to witchcraft. However, one of the most famous cases in Salem relied upon just such a method. In particular, 80-year-old Giles Corey was famously accused of being a warlock alongside his wife Martha. After refusing to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty, Corey was subjected to this form of torture. Over two days, increasingly heavier stones were placed upon his body in hopes of forcing a confession. According to most accounts, Corey repeatedly hollered “More weight!” before his death.
Although this was the only example of pressing in American history, the practice was long used in Europe. It specifically goes back to certain common law traditions, including the French notion of peine forte et dure or forceful and hard punishment. According to such systems, pressing was only to be used when a defendant refused to enter a plea. This form of torture was thus only used to force the accused to enter a court’s jurisdiction, which is how and why it was applied to Corey. Though he may not have been guilty of witchcraft in life, Giles Corey’s spirit is rumored to walk the city streets before disaster strikes.
5. Burning at the Stake
When most people today hear of witches being punished, they will immediately picture one being burned at the stake. However, this punishment has a much longer history and has been used to deal with treason, rebellion, and heresy, as well. In particular, burning at the stake is associated with auto-da-fe and practices like pouring molten metal onto – or into – a criminal. Practically, being burnt at the stake would either mean suffocation with a larger fire or a slow death by heatstroke, damage to vital organs, or loss of bodily fluids with a smaller one.
In terms of witchcraft, trial by fire can be traced back to Hammurabi’s Code, with this method reserved for looters and priestesses who abandoned their posts. Later, the Medieval Inquisition regularly burned heretics, and the Constitutio Criminalis Carolina of 1532 decreed that sorcery be treated as a criminal offense. As such, the official punishment was burning at the stake. This was likely due to an association between fire and purification. In particular, it was commonly believed that a witch would be fast consumed by the fires of hell, while an innocent would survive. Yet again, humans were supposedly leaving an individual’s fate to the divine, even as they wantonly destroyed their community members lives.
If you could endure the torture, you would usually be released. However, the witch craze was able to reach social panic was because accused individuals would accuse a wider group of friends and neighbors in turn. As a result, entire regions could be fast consumed by moral panic and tortuous tests. In the end, the witch hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries led to around 40 to 60,000 people being tortured and executed as witches. However, that number only includes official accounts, and there were likely many more that were simply not recorded.
The legacy of those dark days remains as a reminder of what we humans can rationalize – and of the importance of keeping our spiritual and legal institutions separate.
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