The Witch-Hunt in Freiburg

The witch has been destroyed by fairytales. Over the years she has been reduced to a caricature of pointy hats and broomsticks. Her popularity at Halloween and in costume shops merely underlines how her character has been overshadowed by the burlesque of an imaginary world. There is a haunting disconnect between this parody and the
fear, suspicion and anguish that shroud a forgotten history. Difficult as it may seem to believe, there was once a time when the hold of witchcraft fantasy never expired, when a supernatural threat seemed all too potent and when tens of thousands of women were burnt at the stake for their imaginary crimes.


The witches of 16th century Freiburg were tragic victims of a community under siege. Against the backdrop of social, religious and economic turmoil, they were held responsible for the woes and strife of an entire city. When a Freiburger could not explain a misfortune that had befallen him, he simply blamed a witch: everything from bad weather to bad beer was ascribed to sorcery.   Of all the individuals put to death during this period, the fate of three women executed at the end of 1599 are synonymous with the witch-hunt in Freiburg. Their trials not only added a new dimension to the persecutions, but also threatened to tear the city’s social fibre asunder.


While maleficium, or black magic, was not necessarily a new phenomenon in the 16th century, the belief that these powers derived from a relationship with the Devil, was.  In time, most educated Europeans would come to believe that witches abandoned their faith through an explicit, face-to-face pact with Satan. Furthermore, it was understood that they regularly met at mass gatherings - generally referred to as witch sabbaths - to perform a series of blasphemous and obscene acts.
Despite the fact that most of the population, i.e. the peasantry, were far more concerned with the physical threat of witchcraft than any spiritual crimes, the gravity assigned to sins of apostasy by theologians, clerics and magistrates would set Europe on a horrific rollercoaster of state sanctioned murder. Around 100,000 people, the overwhelming majority of them women, would be tried for the crime of witchcraft during the 16th and 17th centuries.  Over half would lose their lives.

The connection between magic, diabolism and heresy is a complex one that found its birth in the writings of 4th century monks. While its evolution over time is discussed at length elsewhere, it is important to note that the Catholic Church was obsessed with ridding the world of heresy by any means necessary. Many elements of this zeal were encapsulated in the approach taken to identify heretics in 13th century France. According to popular legend, the dilemma was solved by the papal representative Arnaud, who told crusaders: “Kill everyone – God will recognise his own”. The Church initially sought to suppress the spread of heresies by branding them dangerous anti-human sects. Ironically, they drew on the same images of cannibalistic infanticide used by Romans to discredit early Christians to achieve this. They also began depicting the Devil as a hybrid of various pagan gods. The goatee beard, the cloven feet, the horns, the nakedness and the semi-animal form all bear direct relation to heathen deity.  This campaign reached its climax with the establishment of the Inquisition in 1233. The formal investigation of non-secular crimes on such a scale served as the perfect prelude for the witch-hunt; the fact that the Inquisition permitted the use of torture came as an added bonus. It is one of the bitter ironies of history that the Church, which had abolished torture as a legal device, was the primary institution to revive it. In fact, under the supervision of the Dominicans, or the ‘Hounds of God’ as they came to be known, torture was transformed into an art and science.

In 1488 the Church identified witchcraft as a threat in its own right and Pope Innocent VIII issued a papal bull ordering Inquisitors to stamp it out at all costs. Fatefully, the inquisitor chosen to lead this campaign in Germany, Jacob Sprenger, was also co-author of one of the most influential volumes on the witch-hunt: Malleus Maleficarum. (He was ably assisted in composing the text by a former student of Freiburg University and fellow inquisitor: Heinrich Institoris.) The infamous tome contained three essential points that distinguished it from earlier literature: firstly, the danger of witchcraft lay not primarily in the threat to the Christian faith, but in the physical damage to devotees; secondly, it followed that as the crime was of worldly nature and not spiritual, it should fall to the worldly courts to take up the struggle against witches; finally, women as a whole, indeed since Eve, were naive, lustful, seducible and therefore more susceptible to the call of the Devil than men. Aside from refuting arguments claiming that witchcraft did not exist, the main purpose of the Malleus was to educate magistrates on the procedures used to seek out and convict witches. The secularisation of the Inquisition had
begun. Owing to the fact that most of the accused were women, the fanatically misogynistic Sprenger embraced his role with gusto.  The Inquisitor-General of Germany considered the opposite sex:

‘…a foe to friendship, a domestic danger, a delectable deterrent and
an evil of nature painted in fair colours. I would rather have a lion
or a dragon loose in my house than a woman. Either a man must sin by
divorcing his wife or must endure her constant quarrelling. When a
woman thinks, which fortunately is not very often, she thinks evil.
They are unable to conceal from other women all they know which causes
most of the trouble in the world. Feeble in mind and body, it’s not
surprising that they so often become witches.’


The earliest known prosecution for witchcraft occurred in Kilkenny, Ireland, in 1324, when an aristocratic lady, Alice Kyteler, was accused of practising harmful magic and participating in diabolical rites.  (The fact that she had survived four husbands also aroused a certain degree of suspicion…) While the ability to perform maleficium on person or property made up the bulk of the accusations levelled by ordinary people against suspected witches, university-trained lawyers and churchmen would become obsessed with the satanic nature of the witch’s magic. Over the next two centuries, witchcraft was transformed into a spiritual crime as the practise of maleficum, the genuine fear of the peasant masses, was increasingly sidelined. It was on this spiritual bedrock that many of the major European witch trials took place.

William Priestley