I have often been amazed at the ignorance of man sometimes. His need to explain everything in accordance with himself despite the fact that there are times when such explanations may cause harm and at times even death to another.
One of the best examples of this in my opinion is the example of the witch hunts which took place between the 14th and 18th century. The actual witch trials originated in France in 1324 and later made their way through central Europe and eventually to America. It was thought that there were those who were a threat to the Christian religion. Of course if you were considered to not be a Christian of course then you had to be a worshiper of Satan. This comparison quickly labeled one as a witch.
Although the actual witch trials themselves did not begin until the 14th century what many would consider the cause for them would begin much earlier between 700 and 1500. At this time witchcraft and sorcery were quite common and used freely by many. One was not considered to be odd if a chant or herb was used as a method of healing or affirmation of an act. Magic and miracles were commonplace. Fairies were believed to dance in the light of the full moon and no one thought twice about such a thing.
The Roman Catholic Church however thought differently. They divided magic into two areas. Natural magic which was acceptable as it was viewed as merely recognizing the powers which God had given to nature. And demonic magic, which was considered bad and coupled with demonology, divination, and necromancy. There were also a group of women during this time who largely frowned upon by the church. They were the women who worshiped the goddess Diana. Such women were said to meet together during the evening hours at which time they would claim to ride upon beasts led by Diana herself.
For some time although it was frowned upon such differences were tolerated until the time of the 14th century when the church began to feel as if there were factions which could be of some threat to their existence as well as their influence. The church began to seek out and persecute three major groups; The Jews, the heretics, and the lepers. Occasionally small groups who were considered "deviant" such as homosexuals were also tossed into this mix. It soon became a belief that such groups were attempting to destroy the church from the inside and something had to be done to stop such an action. It was even believed that the Black Death, which killed a large percentage of Europe's population was caused by the church's so called enemies.
It was at the time of Pope John XXII when the tables turned completely. John XXII authorised the Inquisition which sole purpose was to seek out heresy and punish those who practiced such acts. This also included the act of witchcraft. Hence the witch trials had begun.
The first official witch trial occurred in southern Ireland . A French bishop, Richard Ledrede, feel out of grace with a local family of importance. Although he had been stationed in this parish since 1317, it was not until 1324, that he eventually accused the family's senior member, Alice Kyteter, of performing witchcraft. He received his evidence by whipping one of her servants to the point that he claimed that she had met with a group of eight women and four men during the night. During this time they denounced the Christian faith and cut up living animals then scattered them at specific crossroads as offerings. Alice fled to England to escape sentencing and the bishop was later excommunicated from the church. Ireland would not see another trial for several centuries. Shows you what centuries of strong Celtic lore and beliefs will keep from you.
The peak of the Witch trials occurred during 1580 to 1630 and were mostly held in Europe. Some of the more known are the Trier Witch Trials (1581-1593), Fulda Witch Trials (1603-1606) and Bamberg Witch Trials (1626-1631).
One would ask themselves why would one admit to being a witch? To answer this you would have to know the manner in which was used to extract information from those who were accused. The thumbscrew or pilliwinks was one of the methods in which a confession could easily be achieved. It was a simple device into which ones fingers would be inserted. A small turn of the screw and slowly ones fingers would be crushed. There were also versions which could be used on ones toes, elbows and knees.
Besides torture there were other methods of verifying if one was guilty of the crimes they were accused of. Certain proofs could be used as valid evidence against one. Some examples are as follows:
A diabolical mark - Usually a mole or birthmark
Relationships with others who had been accused and found guilty of witchcraft
Participation in the Sabbaths (this one would get many of us)
Not to cry under torture
To be afraid during the questioning (which really seems to contradict the previous one)
To cause said harm to someone which could only have done via sorcery
And so on... you get the picture... almost anything they wanted to claim.
Most of those who were accused of witchcraft were women. 75 to 80% of those accused across Europe and North America were females. While non of those who condemned witchcraft at this time also stood up and condemned being a women, there were others who did. An example: In the Mallenus Malifcarum, Sprenger and Kramer stated
All wickedness is but little to a wickedness of a woman...
What else is woman but a foe to friendship, an inescapable punishment,
a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic danger,
a delectable detriment, an evil of nature, painted with fair colors.
How sad that man at this time choose to blame woman for all his weakness. Saying that it was her and all she was that led him to do the things he knew were wrong. Such an easy escape. Such ignorance.
The most common form of punishment was death. That is if the accused had not already passed during their inquisitions and trials. The most common method of death was that of burning one at the stake. Hanging was also a method which was widely used yet in many cases if one was hanged they were later burned also. Drowning was used on some occasions yet not as often. There were several accused who would pass via drowning yet it was not because they had been found guilty. Dunking over and over into a pool of deep water was also a method thought to verify whether or not one was truly a witch or not.
As for the number of those whose lives were taken during this time of ignorance and folly this varies greatly. The number is as low as 35,000 to as high as 9 million. Historians have bantered back and forth about this for centuries. However in my opinion, considering that this adventure went on for over 400 years, it is hard for me to believe that the number would be a low one. There were some deaths which were recorded yet there were many which were not. We will never know that number exact of all whose lives were taken without reason. All the lore and family tradition which was lost because someone did not believe as they did. There were many who were accused and found guilty. From simple folk to those of stature, to even those in the church itself. Such sadness for such ignorance.
Ignorence is a quality that is inherit to man and I am sure that there will be more examples of him at his finest. I wish for the day when we finally can be happy with ourselves and not so bent on persecuting those who are different from us. Will that day ever come? I hope so, I truly hope so