In the medieval and renaissance eras the world was full of danger and no one had a very good explanation for why some people fell ill with strange diseases. Many turned to superstition to explain these awful ailments, their answer was that this was the work of witches and they intended to stop them.
Ideas on what to do about witchcraft was always a controversy for the church. Many clerics felt that teaching that witchcraft was real was in itself heresy and the church should simply deny any accusations of it. Many rulers actually made killing suspected witches a crime and Pope Gregory vii made it catholic law that the church was only to investigate witchcraft as it applied to heresy. But while many tried to stop witch fever a lot of people were still convinced witches existed and were doing the devils work.
In 1487 a book was published in Germany that would throw witching hunting into the fad of its day. The Malleus Maleficraum which translates as “ The hammer for witches” was written by Hienrich Kramer and Joseph Sprenger, both members of the catholic university of Cologne. It claimed that witches were the result of a person making a pact with the devil and detailed the powers that witches could have. It also provided a sort of manual for how to hunt witches and know if you caught one. While the church never endorsed the work the Malleus Maleficraum was one of the early books to be printed and it spread like wild fire.
The Maleficraum and texts based on it blamed witches for all kind of ailments and came up with all sorts of ways to get a witch to confess mostly by use of torture. One was trial by water where a witch was tied up with weights and thrown into the local pond. If they sank they were pulled back up by a rope but if they floated it was sure sign the water had rejected them and they were a witch. Another method used was to look at the body of supposed sorcerer for a “mark” if the person had a scar in the wrong place then they must be marked by the devil.
Probably the weirdest way of revealing someone to be a witch was to make ashes and the urine of the witch’s accuser into a cake and then to feed it to any animal the accused had usually a dog. Even stranger it was assumed the animal would eat the cake and then bark out aloud the witch’s name. If you’re like me you have to think it was kind of odd using what amounts to a magic spell to stop witchcraft.
In the 1600’s people would sell themselves as witch hunters and travel around a country offering to rid a town of all witches for a small fee. The east of England was one place where witch fever was extremely strong. In 1603 parliament passed the witchcraft act and jails soon filled up with the accused. The town of Ipswich actually had so many supposed witches jailed they had to create tax just to fund the jail. It’s estimated that at least 35,000 people were executed for witchcraft from 1450 to 1750 amounting to an average 2 executions a week.
It was around the 1700’s that the spread of rational thinking and science started to change people’s beliefs on the existence of witches. A 1735 act repealed the earlier witchcraft act and ended executions of witches there and in her colonies. It’s tempting to cast judgement on people so superstitious that they allowed their imaginations to lead them into killing their neighbors but this was a world where people didn’t understand what caused illnesses let alone mental illness and it’s easy to just do something anything to try to make things better. Still today in regions with little education witch-hunts still take place as an answer to epidemics or natural disasters. These awful events are a warning that we need always be on the lookout for what unfounded beliefs we might have and to make sure our laws are based on evidence and not fear.