During the height of the witch-hunts, a period between the mid-14th and mid-17th centuries, the cruelest, most savage torture was used against accused witches in order to make them confess and name accomplices. The Malleus Maleficarum (1486) observes, “common justice demands that a witch should not be condemned to death unless she is convicted by her own confession.” To that end—confession and execution—torture was considered an acceptable means.
By the time the Inquisition added witchcraft to its list of heresies in 1320, torture was an ancient institution. It was legal under roman law and over the centuries had been regularly applied to criminals and innocents of all sorts. Numerous devices and procedures had been invented to inflict the most pain and torment without killing the victim. many of these were turned upon accused witches.
Between about 1435 and 1484, the hunting down of witches spread like a plague throughout Europe. At least 28 treatises on the evil of witchcraft were written by clerics and Demonologists. With Pope InnoCent VIII’s issuance of his papal bull against witches in 1484, the persecution of people as witches increased. The worst tortures and wholesale exterminations occurred on the Continent, particularly in Germany, as well as in France, Italy and Switzerland, at the hands of both Catholic and Protestant inquisitors. Scotland, during the reign of king James VI (see James I), was also witness to brutal tortures. Torture was far less prevalent and extreme in England, Ireland, and Scandinavia and was eventually outlawed in England. Torture was not extensively employed in the American colonies; the accused in the Salem trials in 1692 were tortured, but mildly compared to what was done on the Continent.
An inestimable number of victims were tortured and executed during the 16th and early 17th centuries. The inquisitors generally followed procedures and guidelines set forth in books such as the Malleus Maleficarum, written by Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, the Dominican inquisitors to Pope Innocent VIII. At first, the accused was urged to confess. She was stripped naked, shaved, pricked for insensitive spots and examined for blemishes that could be construed as Devils’ mArks. The Malleus cautions that most witches, at this point, would not confess. Then they had to be put to the “engines of torture.”
Before torture began, the torturer usually took the victim aside and explained the torture and the effect it would have. He urged the victim to confess. Sometimes, the threat of torture was enough to induce a confession, which was considered voluntary and added weight to the Inquisition’s case against the prevalence of witches. Sometimes the victim broke down after light torture, which was also considered a “voluntary” confession.
The Malleus notes that a witch who refused to talk, even under torture, was being aided by the Devil, who had the power to render her “so insensitive to the pains of torture that she will sooner be torn limb from limb that confess any of the truth. But torture is not to be neglected for this reason, for they are not all equally endowed with this power.”
While the victim was tortured, the inquisitor repeated questions, while a clerk recorded what was said. The potential for error was great, especially if an uneducated victim spoke and understood only dialect. In many cases, clerks resorted to etc. instead of recording all details. Sometimes the victim’s exact response was not recorded at all, but questions, usually accusatory, were noted merely as affirmed.
The torture went on until the victim confessed. The torturer had to take great care not to kill the victim but to relent when she was spent and beyond comprehension. She was taken back to her cell, where she was allowed to rest the regain sufficient strength to endure another round of torture in a few hours or the next day. Each subsequent round of torture was more brutal than the last. For this the torturer and other court officials were paid, usually out of seized funds belonging to the victim. If the victim had no money, her relatives were forced to pay the costs, which included not only the actual torture but the torturer’s meals, travel expenses, “entertainment” and hay for his horse. If he had assistants, those were paid as well.
While the victims screamed, the torturers and other court officials carried on like children frightened of the dark. They sprayed their instruments of torture with holy water and inscribed them with the words Soli Deo Gloria (“Glory be only to God”), which supposedly would protect them from being bewitched. They wore Amulets of blessed wax and herbs and constantly crossed themselves, lest the witch harm them with evil Magic. They forced the victims to drink witch broth, a concoction made of the ashes of burnt witches, which was supposed to prevent the victims from harming their torturers.
If a victim endured an exceptional amount of torture without confessing, court officials looked for the Devil’s intervention. The Malleus cites an example of a witch in the town of Hagenau, Germany, who allegedly was able to maintain silence with the help of a powder she had made by killing a newborn, first-born male child who had not been baptized, roasting it in the oven with certain other ingredients and grinding it all to powder and ash. Any witch or criminal who carried such a powder was unable to confess crimes. The exact methods of torture varied according to locale. The rack, for example, was not used in Scotland or England but was applied on the Continent, especially in France. In 1652 in rieux, France, Suzanne Gaudry was stretched horribly on the rack while she “screamed ceaselessly” that she was not a witch, according to records. She finally confessed and was hanged and burned. Her torturer was paid four livres, 16 sous.
Victims were routinely horsewhipped. The spider, a sharp iron fork, was used to mangle breasts. red-hot pincers were used to tear flesh, even breasts, off the body. red-hot irons burned flesh and were inserted up vaginas and rectums. In extreme cases, the Malleus recommended the red-hot-iron test, in which a witch was forced to grab the hot iron; if she could hold it, she was guilty. Often by the time this test was administered, the victim was insensitive even to excruciating pain.
A device called the turcas was used to tear out fingernails. In 1590–91 John Fian was subjected to this and other tortures in Scotland. After his nails were ripped out, needles were driven into the quicks.
The boots, also called bootikens (cashielaws in Scotland), was a savage device of wedges that fitted the legs from ankles to knees. The torturer used a large, heavy hammer to pound the wedges, driving them closer together. At each strike, the inquisitor repeated the question.
The wedges lacerated flesh and crushed bone, sometimes so thoroughly that marrow gushed out and the legs were rendered useless.
Similarly, the thumbscrews, or pinniewinks, did the same damage to thumbs and toes, crushing them at the roots of the nails so that blood spurted out. In 1629 a woman in Prossneck, Germany, was left to suffer in the thumbscrews from 10 A.m. to 1 p.m., while the torturer and other court officials went out to lunch.
Other tortures included thrawing, in which the head was bound with ropes and jerked from side to side; the application to armpits and groins of burning feathers dipped in sulphur; immersion of fingers and hands in pots of boiling oil and water (it was believed that witches, protected by the Devil, would be unharmed by this, but if they were harmed it was due to deception by the Devil); and the gouging out of eyes with irons. Alcohol was poured on the head and set afire. Bodies were broken on the wheel. One common procedure was to blood the victim by cutting the flesh above the nostrils. bloodIng was believed to nullify a witch’s power.
The water torture involved forcing great quantities of water, sometimes boiling, down the throat of the victim, along with a long knotted cloth. The cloth was then violently jerked out, which tore up the bowels. In another form of water torture, victims were fed only salted foods and briny water.
One of the most vicious torture methods, usually reserved for last, was the strappado, in which the victim’s hands were bound behind her back and attached to a pulley. She was drawn to the ceiling and then dropped, and the jerk of the rope dislocated the shoulders, hands and elbows. This method was made more severe with the addition of weights to the victim’s feet, increasing the pain and dislocating the hips, feet and knees as well. In France, stones weighing 40 to more than 200 pounds were used; one case involved 660-pound weights.
In many instances, there was no limit to the savagery of the torture used against accused witches. Anything was allowed as long as it got the desired results, and some inquisitors were openly sadistic. many victims confessed in order to avoid great suffering.
After confession, however, came more torture as part of the sentence. Victims were usually condemned to death; in rare instances, they were released or banished. En route to the gallows or stakes, the condemned were flogged, burned, branded, squeezed with red-hot tongs and subjected to the hacking off of fingers and hands and the cutting out of tongues. The severed body parts were nailed to gallows, a grisly chore that netted the executioner an extra fee.
One insidious means of torture was to torture the victim’s family while the victim watched helplessly. In 1594 Alison Balfour of Orkney was forced to watch her aged husband, son and seven-year-old daughter be tortured; she quickly confessed.
In England, painful physical torture was more isolated than widespread; instead, induced torture was employed. One of the most common methods was watching or waking, in which the victim was deprived of sleep until a hallucinatory state set in and the victim confessed. Walking also was common and was a favourite technique of England’s most famous witch-hunter, Matthew Hopkins. The victim was walked to and fro to the point of utter exhaustion. When witch-hunters could get away with it, they subjected victims to swImmIng, in which they were bound hand and foot and thrown in water to see if they floated or sank. Floating meant guilty. If the innocent victim sank and drowned, it was simply too bad. Swimming was also employed on the Continent; a few cases were recorded in the American colonies.
In the mid-17th century, the torture and execution of witches began to collapse. Horrified at the excesses, dukes, princes and government officials moved to stop or at least limit torture and commute death sentences to life in prison or banishment. In Germany, the duke of Brunswick and the archbishop and elector of menz were so shocked at the cruelty of the torturers, and the fact that judges accepted confessions made under torture, that they abolished torture in their dominions and influenced other rulers to do the same.
To Demonstrate the barbarism and absurdity of such procedures, the duke of Brunswick invited two Jesuit priests to hear the confession of an accused witch who was incarcerated in a dungeon. Both priests were strong opponents of witchcraft; one was FrIedrICh Von spee. Unknown to the priests, the duke had instructed the torturers to induce a certain confession from the woman. When the priests and the duke arrived, the torturers began applying pain and questions. In anguish, the woman at last broke down and confessed to attending many Sabbats on the Brocken, a notorious mountain rendezvous of witches. Furthermore, she claimed she had seen two Jesuit priests there, who had shocked even the witches with their abominations. The priests had assumed the shapes of goats, wolves and other animals and had copulated with the witches, who bore up to seven children at a time, all with heads like toads and legs like spiders. Asked to name the Jesuits, she said they were the two men in the torture room, watching.
Spee and the other priest were profoundly upset. The duke of Brunswick then explained how he had arranged the confession to Demonstrate how torture would induce a person to admit to anything suggested by questions. Spee was so affected that he became a strident critic of the witch trials, exposing their horrors in Cautio Criminalis (“Precautions for Prosecutors”), published anonymously in 1631.
Other critics and skeptics spoke out against the witch mania, including Reginald Scot and Thomas Hobbes in England, michel de montaigne in France and Alfonso Salazar de Frias, the grand inquisitor of Spain. Laws against torture were passed in 1649 in Scotland; 1654 in Brandenburg; 1652 and 1662 in England; and 1682 in France. From the second half of the 17th century on, witch panics died down to sporadic bursts.
- Barstow, Anne Llewellyn. Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts. San Francisco: Pandora/Harper Collins, 1994.
- Deacon, Richard. Matthew Hopkins: Witch Finder General. London: Frederick muller, 1976.
- Henningsen, Gustav. The Witches’ Advocate: Basque Witchcraft & the Spanish Inquisition. reno: University of Nevada Press, 1980.
- Larner, Christina. Enemies of God. London: Chatto & Windus, 1981.
- Thomas, keith. Religion and the Decline of Magic. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971.
- Trevor-Roper, H. r. The European Witch-Craze. New York: Harper & row, 1957.