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Unleashing the Witch Terror


Social disorganisation, hysteria and inter-denominational tensions in the Christian world were only a part of the collective issues that laid the foundations of the witch terror during the Middle Ages. The outbreak of the devastating plague known as the Black Death, which killed about a third of Europe’s population during the fourteenth century, also had an unimaginable impact. Spreading along the trade routes from China, the plague reached Egypt by 1348 and from there, quickly spread to Europe where it lasted for four years. An estimated 25 million people died on the European continent alone, and the population of England was reduced by almost half. The resulting terror caused uncontrolled mass hysteria on an unprecedented scale. Scapegoats for this catastrophe had to be found and minority groups, such as gypsies, various unorthodox religious groups, Jewish groups and so-called witches were held to blame for the epidemic. 

A close parallel to the resulting persecutions during the witch craze in Europe can also be found in the Eket district of Calabar in Nigeria. Between 1918 and 1919, an influenza outbreak decimated a large section of the population in Eket through the death of many hundreds of people. A spate of witchcraft accusations immediately followed this epidemic, with eighteen persons being hanged for witchcraft in one small village alone. Analogous circumstances occurred in Alaska in 1957, when civil authorities were hard put to prevent an Eskimo community from killing the ‘witches’ held responsible for the outbreak of a viral epidemic. Many decades later, in 2014, the widespread ebola outbreak in West African countries was blamed on witchcraft and sorcery by a large number of the population. On 2 August 2014, BBC news reported that some people in West Africa were not seeking medical treatment because they blamed sorcerers for the recent deaths due to ebola, and not the disease itself. Similarly, several news reports still attest to accusations of witchcraft in modern day Pakistan and India, as well as the burning of alleged witches in Papua New Guinea in 2009. With such superstitions still extant in modern times, it is no wonder that witchcraft was blamed for the unprecedented loss of life many centuries earlier during the Black Death outbreak of the fourteenth century.

Social and economic change was already well underway when the great plague reached epidemic proportions in Europe during the fourteenth century. Aside from the Black Death that was prevalent throughout Europe, and in addition to inter-denominational tensions, deep anxieties amongst the faithful strengthened the conviction that Satan’s powers were ascending. The church father, Thomas of Aquinas (1225–1274), had already concluded in his writings two hundred years earlier that witches could cause epidemics, storms, and other abnormal weather conditions and that they could fly through the air, carried by Satan on broomsticks, and transform themselves into animals. Once this belief became generally accepted amongst the people, the inevitable conclusion was for an institution such as the infamous Inquisition to be called to seek out those dabbling in witchcraft as servants of Satan. 

Pope Gregory IX formally created the Holy Office of Inquisition in 1231 to expurgate heresy. Two years later, Gregory transferred the control of proceedings against heretics from the bishops’ courts to special commissioners chosen from Franciscan and Dominican friars. Pope Innocent IV (1243–54) added torture to be administered by the secular authority. When torture to elicit confessions proved problematic to some, inquisitors and their assistants were given permission to absolve one another for such acts, to ‘promote the work of faith more truly’.75 

Even religious groups such as the Albigenses, Waldenses, Templars, and several minor orders were considered heretics during the thirteenth century. For two hundred years, the Inquisition concentrated its efforts towards their elimination. Confiscating properties of those accused of heresy and witchcraft was a profitable business for the Church, and often, accusers might have been motivated solely by the acquisition of wealth. Therefore, the very rich, especially those with powerful political enemies, feared the inquisitors even more than the poor did. Inquisitors were given added incentive to tackle their duties with zeal by receiving part of the proceeds of confiscated property. There were various methods of dividing the spoils of the condemned, and once the scribe and executioner had been paid, the remainder went into the Pope’s treasury.

In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII issued a papal bull defining witchcraft in all its aspects as heresy. The witch-hunt mania then took hold irrevocably and obsessed Europe with unquenchable fury from the fifteenth century to the end of the seventeenth century. Charges viewed as heretical by the Church included sorcery, sacrilege, blasphemy, sodomy, and non-payment of taxes to the Pope and the clergy. Spurred on by the bull issued by Pope Innocent VIII, the first important and most damning book on the subject of witchcraft, the Malleus Maleficarum, a handbook of European witch-finders, appeared in Germany in 1486. This book’s wide circulation was made possible by the printing press, which Johannes Gutenberg had invented in 1440. Many hundreds of the faithful who could read were now given formal authority to all the fables and phenomenal assertions allegedly collected about witches and their craft – all contained in the Malleus Maleficarum.

Although there had always been the occasional ‘witch’ in a village or hamlet, the pontiff began receiving many reports that witches had begun multiplying alarmingly. Christendom was suddenly thought to be threatened by the infestation of thousands of malevolent witches, present in almost every town, village, and hamlet. Even though hundreds, and eventually thousands, were tortured and burned, their numbers were believed to be ever increasing, resulting in a frenzy never before witnessed on the European continent. 

However, it would be wrong to construe the witch-hunts solely as a means by which the Church sought to control society. Even though the execution of witches was officially sanctioned and brought about by the manoeuvrings of the Inquisition, it was often instigated and carried out at a local level and frequently depended on the settling of personal grudges and superstitious fears. 

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