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Witch-Finders 


The general procedure for finding witches during the Inquisition varied only slightly among different European countries. First came the accusation of witchcraft by someone allowed to remain anonymous and only made known to the accused by permission of the accuser. Witnesses were well paid for their testimonies, resulting in the rise of gangs of so-called witch-finders who, for handsome payment, then handed hapless victims over to the Inquisitors. 

Witch-finders tended to single out especially older women, who, living alone, were tolerated in former times for their strange yet harmless ways or spells and respected for their herbal remedies. Now, the village healer and wise woman, skilled in using herbs as medicine, the aged eccentric spinster, the haggard old crone known for her love potions, or those generally mistrusted by the community as being odd, were erroneously called witches. Often, they were accused of the black arts because of jealousy, hatred, spite, or suspicion. Many accused old women were physically weak and haggard looking, with hairy growths on their faces or missing teeth. Sometimes these old hags kept pets for companionship – a psychological need we well understand today, especially for the lonely – which caused the traditional image of the witch-figure accompanied by her cat, typically found in today’s fairy tales, with the pointed hat, tripod, and broomstick added later. Witch-finders targeted these unfortunate old women and then proceeded to search their homes for potions, herbal mixtures, or poppets, which were small effigies of human figures used for evil intent. 

Those accused had no advocates. Children were encouraged to bear attestation against their parents, whereas spouses, relatives, and neighbours informed the Church authorities of their suspicions of one another, especially in times of conflict. Not only were old people targeted, but thousands of young women, men, and children – some as young as eight  – were accused of making a pact with the devil. 

After having their homes searched, the accused were also tested for evidence of complicity with the devil. All witches were believed to have a mark somewhere on their bodies made by the devil as proof of belonging to him. Any physical abnormalities, such as an unusual skin blemish, a hairy growth, a mole, a wart, a birthmark, a spot insensitive to pain, or one that did not readily bleed, were suspect – all regarded with great suspicion and proof of alliance with the Evil One. 

Today it is general knowledge that skin covering old scars becomes thicker and does not bleed easily and that old people often have moles and marks on their bodies, insensitive to pain – a fact not considered during these terrible persecutions. Any raised protuberances on the body of the accused were believed to be nipples through which familiars suckled the witch’s blood. Witch-finders employed pins, knives, and sharp probes to prod and poke their victims, thus determining any areas on the body insensitive to pain. Sometimes, knives with retractable blades and hollow handles were used on suspects – a most fiendish, devilish ploy, as it convinced the poor victim and all witnesses that she must be guilty as charged because she did not feel the probe! 

The accused, head shaved, totally naked, and subjected to scrutiny, was often examined in public before a gathering of leering men, women, and children. The shame, embarrassment, and psychological stress for the victim must have been dreadful. Not only spots on the victim’s skin became proof of witchcraft, but also the inability to weep, an aversion to salt, or failure in the water test. 

It was firmly held that witches were unable to weep or to shed more than three tears and anyone complaining that the food was too salty was immediately suspected. The water test was carried out by throwing the unfortunate, who had been ‘cross bound’ – that is, the right thumb tied to the left big toe and left thumb to right big toe – into a body of water to test her innocence. The theory was that a witch would float, as the water would reject a servant of the devil, who inevitably renounced baptismal water. Whether the victim stayed afloat or sank, death was a certainty. If the accused sank and somehow managed to survive, the test was simply not considered adequate proof that the victim was innocent, but proof rather of Satan’s great powers to protect his own kind. 

In many instances, old women accused of witchcraft were demented and confessed freely to enjoying aerial rides with Satan, prowling the countryside as cats, or giving birth to terrifying monsters after coupling with the devil. 

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