Confession and Condemnation

The Church considered it unjust to condemn someone for witchcraft without a confession. But, to extract a confession, the most fiendish, and terrible tortures were sanctioned and applied in the name of God. Limbs were wrenched from their sockets, and then tightly bound in contorted positions; fingers, arms, and legs were crushed slowly or smashed to pulp; tongues were wrenched out and red-hot iron poured into the mouth; or hair set on fire. Often, these were only considered the preliminaries before the real torture started. Unspeakable atrocities were carried out on mostly innocent victims, until finally, they admitted any accusation levelled at them to end their ordeal. The victim was then told to name accomplices, or the torture would continue. This resulted in more innocents being arrested and, hence, the consequent notion amongst those in authority and the public, of an apparent growth in the numbers of witches! Witch-hunters never seemed to grasp that they were creating witches, as their victims said whatever was expected of them to make the pain stop.

The avowed purpose of the Inquisition was not only to condemn the guilty, but also to save the poor creature’s soul. Those confessing under torture were allowed to be given the sacraments and then often allowed an ‘easy’ death by hanging or beheading before being burned. Although most victims fervently recanted their confessions on the way to their executions, this was considered invalid. 

The number of victims condemned under these circumstances must have been enormous, although exact figures are unknown. However, estimates given by modern scholars run into tens of thousands. Most of Europe was engulfed in the terrors of witch trials. In the German states, the situation became acute during the Reformation, when both Catholics and Protestants zealously pursued witchcraft with a pious severity only partially dampened by the terrible ravages of the Thirty Years War (1618–1648). In England, Inquisitional courts were never established, as the English judiciary strongly disapproved of torture, thus hanging witches instead of burning them.

In 1631, the Netherlands was one of the first countries to end the persecutions. It was eventually recognised that too many convictions had targeted the innocent out of malice and envy and that magistrates’ leading questions tended to govern the content of so-called confessions, not to mention the guaranteed methods of extracting confessions under fiendish tortures. During the second half of the seventeenth century, the Inquisitio Sancta Romana in Italy urged judges to apply torture only under suspicions of genuine guilt and to cease prosecuting those suspected of attending witches’ sabbaths. 

Finally, witch trials started declining in most parts of Europe after 1680. Slowly, prosecutions diminished, and in England, the death penalty for witchcraft was abolished in 1736. The last legal execution of a witch occurred in Switzerland in 1782. Eastern Europe largely escaped the terrors of witch-hunts, simply because the Orthodox Church did not expound on the theory of diabolism with as much fervour as its Western counterpart.

As witchcraft was universally believed responsible for all kinds of misfortunes and natural disasters, countless charms and amulets were devised to protect humans, livestock, and homes against its evil workings. Central to European witchcraft was the worship of the devil or Evil One. 


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