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History 229: The Age of the Witch Hunts https://witchhunts.academic.wlu.edu Sun, 14 Dec 2014 00:58:19 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Val Camonica Witch-Trials https://witchhunts.academic.wlu.edu/2014/12/13/val-camonica-witch-trials/ Sat, 13 Dec 2014 18:55:00 +0000 http://witchhunts.academic.wlu.edu/?p=368 Two large-scale witch-hunts also occurred in Val Camonica, a small, remote and mountainous area then under the republic of Venice.  While part of the Venice, Val Camonica was entirely different than and isolated from Venetian society. An educated local observer in 1518 wrote an account on the witch-trials that occurred in this area and described the inhabitants, who practiced pagan beliefs, as “largely ignorant, goitrous, and almost entirely deformed and lacking all the finer point of civil society.” Because of the lack of Christianity in the area, it became a target for Inquisitors who sought to purify the republic of Venice of heretics and enemies of Catholicism. Foreign inquisitors carried out witch-hunts in these areas from 1505 until 1510 and from 1518 until 1521.

These trials, like those of the Inquisition of Como, gained confessions through leading question and the use of torture, and an estimated hundred individuals were burned alive. People in the area were unaware of the cumulative concept of witchcraft, however the Inquisitors leading the trials fed them information. During the case of Benvegnuda ‘ditta Pincinella’ of Terra di Navi, she originally only made a confession of superstition, however over the course of days, her confession is transformed into a demonic pact. Furthermore, in a flat contradiction of the Canon Episcopi, which attributed the idea of the sabbat to dreams and delusions of the Devil, she claimed, “I truly know that I go bodily and not in my dreams.” The use of leading questions and torture is explicit in this instance.

When news of these trials reached Venice, the Council of Ten, which was one of the main ruling bodies of the republic, were baffled and doubted the existence of witchcraft in the area. Piero Tron, the Venetian podesta of Brescia, wrote, “these all seem grave and strange matters, rather beyond me, which I do not believe.” The Council quickly removed the leading inquisitor from the area and discredited the validity of the accusations and confessions of the trials. When expressing their grief and complete opposition of the trials, they wrote, “These poor creatures of the Val Camonica are simple people with the coarsest understanding” and died as martyrs.  Like the Inquisition of Como, the trials in Val Camonica occurred in isolated areas, removed from central governing bodies of the Renaissance Italian city-states and separated from their culture.

Illustration of Joan of Arc Being Burned at the Stake

Bowd, Stephen. Honeyed Flied and Sugard Rats: Witchcraft, Heresy, and Superstition in the Bresciano, Past and Present, (2008) 134-156.

Duni, Matteo, Under the Devil’s Spell: Witches, Sorcerers, and the Inquisition inRenaissance Italy, Syracuse University Press, 2008, 5.


Giovanni Pico and Humanists’ Skeptical Approach to Witchcraft https://witchhunts.academic.wlu.edu/2014/12/13/giovanni-pico-and-humanists-skeptical-approach-to-witchcraft/ Sat, 13 Dec 2014 18:52:46 +0000 http://witchhunts.academic.wlu.edu/?p=365 Mirandola was the birthplace of Giovanni Pico. He was an Italian Renaissance thinker who spent most of his life traveling to Florence and Rome. He published many works, including “Oration on the Dignity of Man” (1486) in which he justified the importance of the human quest for knowledge within a Neoplatonic framework. He espoused the qualities of humanism, which are crucial in understanding the Italian response to witchcraft and the lack of mass-trials that occurred in Italy.

Humanism was the defining intellectual movement of the Renaissance. Based on the glorification of the individual as the center of the universe, Renaissance thinkers, such as Giovanni Pico, described humans as perfectly rational and capable of investigating and defining the laws of nature and of the physical world. Humanists believed individuals should question the ways of the universe and look inward for truths, rather than turning towards the Church.

Because of these intellectual innovations, thinkers like Giovanni Pico approached witchcraft in a highly skeptical way. Pico greatly expanded upon the Cannon Episcopi, an ancient source from the tenth century that denied the existence of witches. Pico elaborates on the argument that because of the delusory power of the Devil, those who confess to witchcraft are merely having dreams or visions caused by the Devil. Witchcraft, he argued, was not a real phenomenon, but instead imaginations of those with weak minds.

His work of the fifteenth century was extremely important and relied upon during the Roman Inquisition. Because Italian humanists approached witchcraft in such a skeptical way, the cumulative concept of witchcraft never completely took hold in Italy. During the Counter-Reformation, the Holy Office accepted the ideas of such skeptics, shown by through the cautious measures put into place during the prosecution of witches.


Duni, Matteo, Under the Devil’s Spell: Witches, Sorcerers, and the Inquisition in Renaissance Italy, Syracuse University Press, 2008.




The Inquisition of Como https://witchhunts.academic.wlu.edu/2014/12/13/the-inquisition-of-como/ Sat, 13 Dec 2014 18:49:00 +0000 http://witchhunts.academic.wlu.edu/?p=361 The case of Inquisition of Como (Lombardy) is one of the first and large-scale witch-hunt that occurred in Italy. While the trial documents were likely destroyed, but these trials are admirably mentioned in the Malleus Maleficarum multiple times. Heinrich Kramer describes how, “The Inquisitor of Como in the space of one year, which was the year of grace 1485, caused forty-one witches to be burned; who all publicly affirmed, as it is said, that they had practiced these abominations with devils.” Furthermore, the accused witches underwent extreme public humiliation, including the shaving of their entire bodies. The fact that Kramer used these trials as an example to include in Malleus, which rapidly spread across the continent and became a uniform witch-hunters manual, the Inquisition of Como followed the narrative of stereotypical witch-trials. These trials were by no means cautious and consisted of accusations based on ideas and fears involving the demonic pact and the sabbat, the use of leading question and torture to gain specific confessions, followed execution based on these confessions.

This tribunal was very likely one of the most active in the Italian peninsula throughout the first decades of the sixteenth century. While it is an example of an extreme mass witch-hunt, it serves as an exception to the normal Italian witch-trial, due largely to the fact that it was removed from the influence of the Renaissance. The Lombardy region was bordered by Switzerland and Austria, and the trials of the Inquisition of Como occurred in the isolated, Alpine area of the region, likely due to the influence of the witch-hunts in these bordering nations. This instance proves the theory that witch-trials often broke out in isolated, rural areas that lacked centralizing authority.

malleus.cover Malleus_Maleficarum1

Institoris, Heinrich, and Jakob Sprenger. The Malleus Maleficarum of Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger. New York: Dover, 1971.

Duni, Matteo, Under the Devil’s Spell: Witches, Sorcerers, and the Inquisition in Renaissance Italy, Syracuse University Press, 2008.

Florentine Trials of Love magic https://witchhunts.academic.wlu.edu/2014/12/13/florentine-trials-of-love-magic/ Sat, 13 Dec 2014 18:44:01 +0000 http://witchhunts.academic.wlu.edu/?p=358 As the birthplace of the Renaissance, Florence embodied the virtues of the cultural movement. Throughout the Renaissance, the city remained at the center and became one of the largest and most economically successful cities in Europe. While few witch-trials occurred in Florence, there were multiple cases of love-magic during the late 14th century. Trial records of these cases reveal the prevalence and acceptance of magic during the Renaissance.

Most Western European areas during this time put massive amounts of effort into strictly defining all types of magic as heretical, fearing that an individual’s ability to bring about supernatural powers would undermine the power of God. However, Italian Renaissance philosophers believed in both bad and good types of magic, shown by Pico della Mirandola, statement that, “Magic has two forms, one of which depends entirely on the work and authority of demons, a thing to be abhorred. The other is nothing else than the utter perfection of natural philosophy.” (Bruke 190) Magic was even central to the lives of many Italian Church leaders and many Catholic priests depended on magic. Because the prevalence of magic extended from Church to one’s home, it was hard for Italians to associate magical acts with the Devil, and magic was pervasive and part of everyday life.

A large amount of cases of magic in Florence involved love magic, which included sexual themes and was used to gain the affection of reluctant lovers.  In 1394, Nicolosa Vanzi was convicted of using magical arts to win the love of her neighbor by a charm that consisted of “a concoction of bread, charcoal, salt, and a coin bearing the representation of a cross, which was placed at the bed of the unsuspecting Andrea.” Similar charges were also brought against Jacopo di Franceso who used sorcery for his sexual interests, and he “anointed his genital organs with a special unguent before intercourse” to ensure that his mistress would not be attracted to other men. In both of these cases, the defendants receive relatively mild punishments. (Brucker 10)

However, in the case of Niccolo Consigli, who was tried in a court of the inquisitor, a different theme is seen. Unlike the other cases that are treated like innocent cases of magic, because Consigli’s acts are evil in nature and describe demonic intervention, the inquisitors are unforgiving and he is executed. The cases of Florence clearly illustrate that magic could be both good and bad, and was widely practiced in Renaissance society.


Brucker, Gene. “Sorcery in Early Renaissance Florence.” Studies in the Renaissance, 10 (1963): 7-24.

Bruke, Peter. The Italian Renaissance: Cultural and Society in Italy. Polity Press,            Cambridge, 1986.

Plague-Spreaders in Geneva https://witchhunts.academic.wlu.edu/2014/12/13/plague-spreaders-in-geneva/ Sat, 13 Dec 2014 09:35:22 +0000 http://witchhunts.academic.wlu.edu/?p=346 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.

Werewolves in French Switzerland https://witchhunts.academic.wlu.edu/2014/12/13/werewolves-in-french-switzerland/ Sat, 13 Dec 2014 08:16:18 +0000 http://witchhunts.academic.wlu.edu/?p=330 Picture1To peasants whose livelihoods depended upon livestock, wolves were one of the most feared and loathed animals, making the idea of transformations into werewolves an ominous one; however, folk belief about werewolves and demonological beliefs about them differed significantly. While the educated demonologists viewed the belief that humans could transform into werewolves as superstitious, they did not deny the possibility that the Devil could disguise himself as a wolf or that witches associated with wolves. The idea that the Devil could physically manipulate a person’s body and soul into that of a werewolf was widely rejected by demonologists, especially Protestants who preferred to categorize all of the Devil’s wonders as “mira rather than miracula,” or illusions rather than miracles.

Similarly, one Catholic Jura demonologist, Henri Boguet, provided two possible explanations for supposed cases of lycanthropy: either the Devil becomes a wolf and then tricks the witch into thinking the witch had committed the crimes all along, or the Devil would make the witch think he was a wolf when in reality the witch was committing every crime in his ordinary human body.

However, the opinions of demonologists did not stop the provincial parliament from organizing wolf-hunts in several parts of the Franche-Comté in the 1630s. Notably, a large number of the werewolf cases in Europe occurred in the Jura region of France and Switzerland.

William Monter, Witchcraft in France and Switzerland: The Borderlands During the Reformation. (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1976), 144-151.

Johannes Nider’s Formicarius, 1435 https://witchhunts.academic.wlu.edu/2014/12/13/johannes-niders-formicarius-1435/ Sat, 13 Dec 2014 07:30:06 +0000 http://witchhunts.academic.wlu.edu/?p=326 7769642_1_l (1)Johannes Nider’s Formicarius was a demonological treatise written during the Council of Basel in Switzerland. Nider’s treatise detailed the features that were commonly thought to be a part of the witches’ sabbat, including cannibalistic infanticide as an initiation ritual:

“When Peter had questioned one of the captured witches how they ate babies, she said: ‘This is how. With unbaptized babies… we kill them in our ceremonies, either in their cradles or by the sides of their parents, who afterwards are thought to have suffocated or to have died in some other way. We then quietly steal them from their graves and cook them in a cauldron until their bones can be separated from the boiled meat and broth… From the more liquid fluid, we fill up a flask or a bottle made out of skins, and he who drinks from this, with the addition of a few ceremonies, immediately becomes an accomplice and a master of our sect.”

Nider’s treatise also details the renunciation of Christianity as an initiation ritual:

“First, on the Lord’s day, before the holy water is consecrated, the future disciple must go with his masters into the church, and there in their presence must renounce Christ and his faith, baptism, and the Church universal.”

Johannes Nider, “An Early Description of the Witches’ Sabbath, 1435” in The Witchcraft Sourcebook, ed. Brian P. Levack (New York: Routledge, 2004), 52-55.

Witchcraft Panic in the Bishopric of Basel, 1670 https://witchhunts.academic.wlu.edu/2014/12/13/1670-witchcraft-panic-in-the-bishopric-of-basel/ Sat, 13 Dec 2014 06:09:08 +0000 http://witchhunts.academic.wlu.edu/?p=322 IMG_5468

During the spring of 1670 in the Franches-Montagnes district of the Bishopric of Basel, three old women assaulted a man who disturbed them. The women claimed to have mistaken him for the Devil, and he thought he had interrupted a witch’s sabbat. The old women were already suspected of causing possessing in some children and drying up the milk in their neighbors’ cows.

One of the women, Marie Grisard of Bemont, immediately left on a long pilgrimage and returned after the panic subsided.
Another of the women, a sixty year old named Madelein Guenat confessed under torture to attending the witches’ sabbat and performing maleficia, and accused one other woman of witchcraft. She was executed later that month.

Seventy-two-year-old Jeanette Maillard was arrested due to Madelein’s accusation. She was checked for the Devil’s Mark and engaged in a hunger strike to avoid torture. Although her home was searched for witch-like powders and liquids, none were found. Then, still without being subjected to torture, she confessed to adultery, infanticide, and to having become a witch eight years earlier. She denied, however, that she’d ever attended a witches’ sabbat or had relations with the Devil, and claimed that she had since been absolved of her witchcraft. Nonetheless, she was burned at the stake ten days after her arrest.

No other witches were subsequently arrested.

William Monter, Witchcraft in France and Switzerland: The Borderlands During the Reformation. (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1976), 99-100.

1634 Witchcraft Panic in Fribourg https://witchhunts.academic.wlu.edu/2014/12/13/1634-witchcraft-panic-in-fribourg/ Sat, 13 Dec 2014 05:26:03 +0000 http://witchhunts.academic.wlu.edu/?p=313 Strappado In 1634 in Fribourg, a woman named Mya Varmey was arrested and tortured using a strappado- in which one’s hands are tied behind one’s back and then suspended from the ceiling by them. She confessed to witchcraft and accused several other people, four of which were then arrested.

Two of those four, Catherine des Arbines and Francoise Duchet, confessed and were sentenced to be burned alive, while the third, Francoise Blanc, and fourth, Pierre de Vaux, refused despite being subjected to torture. Francoise was released and Pierre was banished.

Of the next four people accused, one fled before he could be arrested, and the other three, Rosa Perret, Jacques Neyrat, and his wife, Francoise Neyrat, refused to confess. All three were ultimately liberated.

A new round of arrests began three months later on August 10th due to accusations made by a man named Raoul du Plan in a nearby city. There, Raoul confessed to multiple murders, sodomy, and incest, and claimed that he was naming his accomplices. He accused the freshly-released Neyrats, a minor official named Pierre Modoux, and a man named Pierre Sonney, all of whom were then imprisoned. All were subjected to torture. Pierre Sonney was released two days later, Jacques was released eleven days later, Francoise was banished, and Pierre Modoux was stripped of his office, but released.

The panic ultimately resulted in ten arrests, but only three executions and two banishments.


William Monter, Witchcraft in France and Switzerland: The Borderlands During the Reformation. (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1976), 96-99.

Case of Maksimko Ivanov https://witchhunts.academic.wlu.edu/2014/12/13/case-of-maksimko-ivanov/ Sat, 13 Dec 2014 02:00:58 +0000 http://witchhunts.academic.wlu.edu/?p=288 Valeria Kivelson describes one of the most sensational cases of spirit invocation involving a suspect of non-Russian ethnicity, which was one of the largest groups of people accused of witch craft in Russia.

“Maksimko Ivanov, for instance, a self-proclaimed healer, was charged with calling demons to tell him ‘what is going on 100 versts away, and what illnesses people suffer from and whom to bewitch. And he recognizes people without seeing them and knows what kind of hair and identifying marks they have and their height. And he can look in a trough of water and say who will die and who will live and who has bewitched them.’ A witness also testified that Maksimko had sent an ‘unclean force’ to a neighbor’s cottage, and ‘the unclean force hit that neighbor with logs and chucked him out of his house.’ This dramatic case contains much wonderful detail, but pertains to a non-Russian magical tradition: Maksimko and his neighbors were Mordvins, Finnic pagans. The same trial record reports that they participated in a ritual of ancestor veneration that involved sacrificing horses. The forest rite degenerated into an all-out battle when the pagans began attacking passing Russians, and landed the whole group in court.”

Late 16th century Russia was a country of ethnic heterogeneity with many non-Russians and non-Christians. Finnish and Turkish immigrants were known to have been pagan and so were doubly vulnerable to accusations  made by Orthodox Russians. Interestingly, the magic of Finnish and Turkish practitioners had different connotations than that of Russians origin. Finnish and Turkish magicians were given the label “volkhvy,” which was an ancient term applied to pagan sorcerers and seers, while Russian practitioners were associated with terms like “vedovstvo” and “koldovstvo,” that were general Russian words for witchcraft.


Kivelson, Valerie A. “Male Witches and Gendered Categories in Seventeenth-Century Russia.” Comparative Studies in Society and Histry 45, no. 3 (2003): 606-31.