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Plague-Spreaders in Geneva :: History 229: The Age of the Witch Hunts

Plague-Spreaders in Geneva

IMG_5462 The city of Geneva, Switzerland generally had remarkably mild witch trials and a very low execution rate at only 21%. The panics in Geneva involving plague-spreaders, or engraisseurs, however, saw both many people accused and many executed.

In 1530, an engraisseur panic began when the master of the plague hospital in Geneva, his wife, the hospital barber and his family, and even a priest who served at the hospital’s almoner confessed to having dedicated themselves to the Devil and learned from him a recipe for creating the plague that they used to murder people in order to steal their belongings. Other plague-spreader panics occurred in Geneva in 1545 and in 1613.

The greatest plague-spreader panic in Geneva occurred in 1571. Over its duration, nearly a hundred people were either killed or banished. The majority of those accused were elderly and poor women; forty-five were widows, fourteen were spinsters, and thirty-two were married women. A significant number of those accused were foreigners, as well, which is unsurprising one considers that the “plague-spreading panic was inevitably directed against the marginally-employed immigrants and vagabonds who took on the most dangerous public jobs during plague epidemics.” Many of the immigrants in Geneva hailed from the Savoy region and thus Savoyards were particularly vulnerable to accusations of being involved in plague-spreading conspiracies during panics.

William Monter, Witchcraft in France and Switzerland: The Borderlands During the Reformation. (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1976), 44-49, 113-128.

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