Medieval Witch-Hunts

Perhaps the most famous ‘witch’ to be tried and then burnt at the stake was Joan of Arc. This ‘Maid of Orleans’, daughter of a well-to-do peasant in the fifteenth-century France, appeared to be an extraordinary clairvoyant and clairaudient. She had premonitions and, from the age of 13, claimed to hear voices under a ‘fairy tree’ near her home. She identified the voices with a number of saints, who encouraged her to remain pure in body and in thought. When news reached Lorraine that Orleans was under siege by the English, these same voices ordered Joan of Arc to save the city!

Despite her success in relieving Orleans, the young heroine was handed over to the English on May 23, 1430 by the Burgundian commander. She became the subject of a show trial designed to discredit Charles VII of France. For political reasons, the trial’s conclusion was preordained. Joan of Arc was executed as a witch a week later.

Central to the ensuing witch-hunt that obsessed medieval Europe were two Dominican friars who conducted the inquisition of suspected witches with a fanatical fervour. Their paranoid beliefs included the view that many bishops and cardinals practised the ‘black arts’. With twisted logic, they concluded that anyone who opposed the execution of ‘witches’ must also themselves be a follower of Satan. Even children did not remain immune from this terror. Many were tortured and executed, while others were granted immunity from prosecution on the provision that they implicated their elders.

Although this paranoia gripped much of medieval Europe, by far the worst atrocities were committed in Germany. In a period of 13 years, 300 alleged sorcerers were executed in the state of Bamburg alone. Nothing matched the cruelty exhibited by their German prosecutors. This savagery became a massive industry, lining the pockets and fattening the bellies of judges, clerks, witchfinders, jailers, torturers, executioners, and the merchants who provided the scaffolding and wood for the fires to burn the so-called ‘witches’.

Torture was prohibited in England except by special Act of Parliament. Although burnings did take place in Scotland, by and large the punishment for convicted witches was hanging. Yet, although torture was not officially allowed, pressure was applied in more subtle ways. Suspects were often ‘swum’, a process that involved shackling their arms and legs together, and then tossing them into a river. If they sank, they were judged to be innocent. However, if they floated, invisible demons were thought to have supported them, and they were summarily executed as disciples of the devil. 


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