Prior to the 9th century CE: There was a widespread popular belief
that evil Witches existed. They were seen as evil persons, primarily women, who devoted their lives
to harming and killing others through black magic and evil sorcery. The
Catholic church at the time officially taught that such Witches did not exist. It was a heresy to say that they were real.
"For example, the 5th century Synod of St. Patrick ruled that 'A
Christian who believes that there is a vampire in the world, that is to say, a
witch, is to be anathematized; whoever lays that reputation upon a living being
shall not be received into the Church until he revokes with his own voice the
crime that he has committed.' A capitulary from Saxony (775-790 CE) blamed these
stereotypes on pagan belief systems: 'If anyone, deceived by the Devil, believes
after the manner of the Pagans that any man or woman is a witch and eats men,
and if on this account he burns [the alleged witch]... he shall be punished by
capital sentence." 1
906 CE: Regino of Prum, the Abbot of Treves, wote the Canon Episcopi.
It reinforced the church's teaching that Witches did not exist. It
admitted that some confused and deluded women thought that they flew
through the air with the Pagan Goddess Diana. But this did not happen
in reality; it was explained away as some form of hallucination.
Circa 975 CE: Penalties for Witchcraft and the use of healing
magic were relatively mild. The English Confessional of Egbert said,
in part: "If a woman works witchcraft and enchantment and
[uses] magical philters, she shall fast for twelve months...If
she kills anyone by her philters, she shall fast for seven years."
Fasting, in this case, involved consuming only bread and water.
circa 1140: Gratian, an Italian monk, incorporated the Canon Episcopi
into canon law.
circa 1203: The Cathar movement, a Gnostic
Christian group, had become popular in the Orleans area of France and
in Italy. They were declared heretics. Pope Innocent III approved a
war of genocide against the Cathars. The last known Cathar was burned
at the stake in 1321 CE. The faith has seen a rebirth in recent
1227: Pope Gregory IX established the Inquisitional Courts to
arrest, try, convict and execute heretics.
1252: Pope Innocent IV wrote a papal bull titled "Ad exstirpanda" which authorized the use of torture during
inquisitional trials. This greatly increased the conviction rate.
1258: Pope Alexander IV instructed the Inquisition to confine
their investigations to cases of heresy. They were to not investigate
charges of divination or sorcery unless heresy was also involved.
1265: Pope Clement IV reaffirms the use of torture.
1326: The Church authorized the Inquisition to investigate
Witchcraft and to develop "demonology." This is the
theory of the diabolic origin of Witchcraft. 1
1330: The popular concept of Witches as evil sorcerers is
expanded to include belief that they swore allegiance to Satan, had
sexual relations with the Devil, kidnapped and ate children, etc. Some religious conservatives still believe this today.
1347 to 1349: The Black Death epidemic killed a sizeable part
of the European population. Conspiracy theories spread. Lepers, Jews,
Muslims and Witches were accused of poisoning wells and spreading
theologians started to write articles and books which "proved"
the existence of Witches. 2
1436-7: Johannes (John) Niderwrote a book called Formicarius, which describe the prosecution of a man for Witchcraft. Copies of this book were often added to the Malleus Maleficarum in later years. Some sources say that the author Thomas of Brabant; this is
apparently an error.
1450: The first major witch hunts began in many western
European countries. The Roman Catholic Church created an imaginary evil religion, using stereotypes that had
circulated since pre-Christian times. They said that Pagans who worshiped Diana
and other Gods and Goddesses were evil Witches who kidnapped babies, killed and ate
their victims, sold their soul to Satan, were in league with demons, flew
through the air, met in the middle of the night, caused male impotence and
infertility, caused male genitals to disappear, etc. Historians have speculated
that this religiously inspired genocide was motivated by a desire by the Church to attain a
complete religious monopoly, or was "a tool of repression, a form of
reining-in deviant behavior, a backlash against women, or a tool of the common
people to name scapegoats for spoiled crops, dead livestock or the death of
babies and children." Walter Stephens, a professor of Italian studies
at Johns Hopkins University, proposes a new theory: "I think
Witches were a scapegoat for God." 3Religious leaders felt that they had to retain the concepts of both an
omnipotent and an all-loving deity. Thus, they had to invent Witches and demons
in order to explain the existence of evil in the world. This debate, about how
an all-good and all-powerful God can coexist in the world with evil is
now called Theodicy. Debate continues to the
1450: Johann Gutenberg invented moveable type which made
mass printing possible. This enabled the wide distribution of Papal
bulls and books on Witch persecution; the witch hunt was greatly
1484: Pope Innocent VIII issued a papal bull "Summis
desiderantes" on DEC-5 which promoted the tracking down, torturing and
executing of Satan worshipers.
1486-1487: Institoris (Heinrich Kraemer) and Jacob Sprenger published the
(The Witches' Hammer). It is a fascinating study of the authors' misogyny and
sexual frustration. It describes the activities of Witches, the
methods of extracting confessions. It was later abandoned by the Church, but
became the "bible" of those secular courts which tried
1500: During the 14th century, there had been
known 38 trials
against Witches and sorcerers in England, 95 in France and 80 in
Germany. 4 The witch hunts accelerated. "By
choosing to give their souls over to the devil witches had committed
crimes against man and against God. The gravity of this double crime
classified witchcraft as crimen exceptum, and allowed for the
suspension of normal rules of evidence in order to punish the guilty."
7 Children's testimony was accepted. Essentially unlimited torture was
applied to obtain confessions. The flimsiest circumstantial evidence
was accepted as proof of guilt.
1517: Martin Luther is commonly believed to have nailed his 95 theses on the cathedral
door at Wittenburg, Germany. Apparently it
never happened; he published his arguments in a less dramatic way. This triggered the Protestant Reformation.
Roman Catholic countries, the courts continue to burn witches. In Protestant
lands, they were mainly hung. Some Protestant countries did not allow
torture. In England, this lack of torture led to a low conviction rate
of only 19%. 4
Circa 1550 to 1650 CE: Trials and executions reached a peak
during these ten decades, which are often referred to as the "burning
times." They were mostly concentrated in eastern France, Germany
and Switzerland. Witch persecutions often occurred in areas where
Catholics and Protestants were fighting. Contrary to public opinion, suspected witches
-- particularly those involved in evil sorcery -- were mainly
tried by secular courts. A minority were charged by church
authorities; these were often cases involving the use of healing magic
or midwifery. 1
1563: Johann Weyer (b. 1515) published a book which was
critical of the Witch trials. Called "De Praestigiis Daemonum"
(Shipwreck of souls), it argued that Witches
did not really exist, but that Satan promoted the belief that they
did. He rejected confessions obtained through torture as worthless.
He recommended medical treatment instead of torture and execution. By
publishing the book anonymously, he escaped the stake. 8
1580: Jean Bodin wrote "De la Demonomanie des
Sorciers" (Of the punishments deserved by Witches). He stated
that the punishment of Witches was required, both for the security of the
state and to appease the wrath of God. No accused Witch should be set
free if there is even a scrap of evidence that she might be guilty. If
prosecutors waited for solid evidence, he felt that not one Witch in a
million would be punished.
1584: Reginald Scot published a book that was ahead of its
time. In Discoverie of Witchcraft, he claimed that supernatural
powers did not exist. Thus, there were no Witches.
1608: Francesco Maria Guazzo published the "Compendium
Maleficarum." It discusses Witches' pacts with Satan, the
magic that Witches use to harm others, etc.
circa 1609: A witch panic hit the Basque areas of Spain. La
Suprema, the governing body of the Inquisition, recognized it as a
hoax and issued an Edict of Silence which prohibited discussion
of witchcraft. The panic quickly died down.
1610: Execution of Witches in the Netherlands ceased,
probably because of Weyer's 1563 book.
1616: A second witch craze broke out in Vizcaya. Again
an Edict of Silence was issued by the Inquisition. But the king
overturned the Edict and 300 accused witches were burned alive.
1631: Friedrich Spee von Langenfield, a Jesuit priest, wrote
"Cautio criminalis" (Circumspection in Criminal
Cases). He condemned the witch hunts and persecution in Wurzburg, Germany. He wrote that the accused confessed only because they were
the victims of sadistic tortures.
1684: The last accused Witch was executed in England.
1690's: Nearly 25 people died
during the witch craze in Salem, MA: one was pressed to death with
weights because he wouldn't enter a plea; some died in prison, the rest were
hanged. 5 There were other trials and executions throughout
1745: France stopped the execution of Witches.
1775: Germany stopped the execution of Witches.
1782: Switzerland stopped the execution of Witches.
1792: Poland executed the last person in Europe who had been
tried and convicted of Witchcraft. A few isolated extra-legal lynchings
of Witches continued in Europe and North America into the 20th century.
1830's: The church ceased the execution of Witches in South
1980: Dr. Lawrence Pazder (1936 - 2004) and Michelle Smith wrote "Michelle
Remembers." The concept of humans in league with Satan, which
had been largely dormant for decades, was revived. Although the book
has been shown to be a work of fiction, it is presented as factual,
based on Michelle's recovered memories.
This book was largely responsible for triggering a new
Witch/Satanist/Satanic Ritual Abuse (SRA) panic in the U.S. and Canada.
1980 to 1995: Two types of trials were held in North America,
which repeated many of the same features of earlier Witch trials:
Staff at some pre-schools, day care facilities and Sunday schools
were accused of ritual abuse of children.
Evidence was based on faulty medical diagnoses and memories of
non-existent abuse implanted in the minds of very young children.
Tens of thousands of adults, victimized by Recovered
Memory Therapy, developed false memories of having been abused
during childhood. In about 17% of the cases, these memories escalated to
recollections of Satanic Ritual Abuse. Hundreds of parents were
charged with criminal acts. Almost all of them were innocent. Most
of the charges involved acts that never actually happened.
Sanity has since prevailed. Most of the accused have been released
from jail. Those held in the state of Massachusetts were among the last to be released.
1990's: Some conservative Christian pastors continue to link
two unrelated belief systems:
The imaginary religion of Satan-worshiping Witches promoted by
the Church during the Renaissance, and
Wicca and other Neopagan religions which are nature-based faiths
and which do not recognize the existence of the Christian devil.
1994 to 1996: Several hundred people were accused of
the Northern Province of South Africa, and were lynched by frightened mobs. 8
1999: Conservative Christian pastors occasionally call for a renewal of
the burning times, to exterminate Wiccans and other Neopagans. One
example shows the intensity of misinformation and hatred that fear of
Witches can continue to generate in modern times. In 1999-AUG,Rev. Jack Harvey,
pastor of Tabernacle
Independent Baptist Church in Killeen, TX allegedly arranged for
at least one member of his church to carry a handgun during religious
services, "in case a warlock tries to
grab one of our kids...I've heard they drink blood,
eat babies. They have fires, they probably cook them..." During
speeches which preceded his church's demonstration against Wiccans, Rev. Harvey allegedly stated
that the U.S. Army should napalm Witches. One of the Christian's
signs read "Witchcraft is an abomination" on one side and
"Burn the witches off Ft. Hood" on the other. 9 (Ft.
Hood is a large army base near Killeen TX. A Wiccan faith group is
21st Century: Due to a number of factors, including: