Why were witches punished in the 17th century

Witch hunt in the Middle Ages

One of the darkest chapters in European history began in the Middle Ages: the time of the witch hunt. No one was sure, anyone could be suspected of being in league with the devil and flying on brooms at night. Tens of thousands came to court for sorcery and were sentenced to death. Like the Swiss Anna Göldin, Europe's last "witch"

Witch hunt: witches as "virus of evil"

The profile in the "Neue Zürcher Zeitung" sounded unflattering: Looking for Anna Göldin, it said on February 9, 1782. She is about 40 years old, black-haired,
rather fat, with unhealthy, reddish eyes. 100 Kronentaler reward should be given to anyone who reveals where the maid is. Because Anna Göldin had committed a tremendous deed.

She is said to have "secretly" and "almost incomprehensibly" inflicted needles on an eight-year-old child. The article did not reveal more. But the readers understood what was between the lines: Anna Göldin was wanted as a witch!

A witch? The judges in the Swiss canton of Glarus were uncomfortable with that. The “virus of evil” was known all over Europe. It was said that witches would fly through the air at night, worshiping the devil, having lavish parties in the forest, eating small children and cursing anyone who got in their way. And now they had a lawsuit from Göldin's former employer: she claimed that her daughter had recently started spitting pins.

And it was Göldin's fault. The maid had to be rendered harmless! In the same way as around 70,000 women, but also men from all over Europe, had been persecuted and executed as witches and wizards before her. Drowned, burned at the stake, beheaded.

Flight of the Witches and the Devil's Pact

Even in the early Middle Ages, people were convinced that all of this was real. For her there was no question that there were men and women who can do magic and who often use their powers to harm others. If a farmer's cow died, he believed that someone had cursed him. If the harvest was lost, a "damage wizard" was blamed.

How should people know better? Very few could read or write. The natural sciences were still in their infancy. Nobody suspected, for example, that diseases are caused by viruses or bacteria.

Many scholars and also churchmen strengthened the people in their erroneous beliefs. On Sundays the priests preached from their pulpits that the faithful must protect themselves from witches! Whoever makes a suspicious observation should report it. The Pope even issued an edict that devil followers should be burned!

The fear of witches reached its climax at the end of the 16th century

Heinrich Kramer (1430–1505) was one of the people who contributed to this with his tireless efforts. The monk from Alsace sowed suspicion wherever he appeared. Witches cannot be recognized, he urged. No matter whether blond or brown-haired, young or old - every neighbor, every friend could belong to the devil's followers. Any suspicion must therefore be reported.

One day when Kramer tried to incite the inhabitants of Innsbruck to hunt witches, the local bishop threw him out of the city. Deeply offended, Kramer took up pen and wrote a book in 1486 that cost thousands of people their lives. Its title: "Malleus Maleficarum" - the "witch's hammer".

The witch hammer

Kramer showed no mercy in this. Above all, he was targeting women. They are particularly easy to be seduced by the devil. The author described exactly how witches are "exposed": with torture! The witch hunters then shaved the suspects all over their bodies, cut their nails down to the flesh and tortured them in the worst possible way. If the victims fainted from pain, the torturers interpreted this as evidence of the "witch's sleep".

Through him, they claimed, the devil protected his followers from agony. It is true that there were also critics who declared such paranoia to be nonsensical. Kramer's “Hexenhammer” became a bestseller nonetheless - and stoked up resentment. Thousands of suspects now had to answer in court.

Often there was no real fear of witches behind trials

It is not uncommon for villagers or townspeople to report their neighbors out of envy, anger or hatred - simply to wipe out the other. It could hit rich, poor, young and old. In Bürresheim, in what is now Rhineland-Palatinate, the residents carried their mutual suspicions so far that in the end 51 women and men were erected
were. That was about a quarter of all the adults in the village!

But women who worked as midwives, had a child unmarried or knew about medicinal plants also aroused suspicion. No wonder! Many of the ointments used by the "herb women" contained strong drugs and so confused the patients that they dreamed of having flown through the air. Anyone who talked about it in the village jug ended up in the torture chamber. Mostly without a chance of returning! Because judges and executioners were already mentally dividing the suspect's belongings.

"The judges are often shameless, vile people. Much evidence is unreliable and the proceedings are not infrequently against law and reason," complained in 1631 the priest and Professor Friedrich Spee, an opponent of the witch craze.

But this realization and the fight against superstition only slowly gained acceptance. Too slow for Anna Göldin. She had fallen out with her employer's wife and lost her job. When their little daughter fell ill shortly afterwards, the woman claimed that Anna Göldin was a witch. She was caught, tortured and executed by sword on June 18, 1782. Anna Göldin died as the last "witch" in Europe.