The cruelty of Europe's witch trials
An estimated three million witch trials took place between 1450 to 1750. Around 60,000 people met gruesome deaths.
Thousands of deaths at the stake
A leaflet in 1555 reports "a shocking scene" and shows the burning of alleged witches in Derenburg. It occurred during the peak of Europe's witch-hunting madness, which took place from 1450 to 1750. Interestingly, it was not way back in the Middle Ages, but rather in modern times that witch hunting reached its peak. In Germany, tens of thousands of "witches" were burned alive.
Archaic trial methods: the 'swimming test'
Witch trials were seen as formal "legal" processes. One of the cruelest tests to determine whether or not one was a witch was the so-called "swimming test." The accused were tied up and thrown into the water. Those who sank and drowned were deemed innocent, while those who managed to break free and swim to the top were proven to be witches who had been helped by the devil.
The 'embarrassing interrogation'
As far back as the early modern times, every conviction required a confession, and this also applied to witch trials. So-called "embarrassing questioning" referred to no less than interrogation under torture. The various methods used are hinted at in the 16th-century woodcut pictured here.
The bible of witch hunters
In 1486 the Dominican monk Heinrich Kramer published the book "Malleus maleficarum," — the "Hammer of Witches." In it, he not only provided what he considered to be the theoretical legitimation of witch hunting, but also an instruction manual for carrying out interrogations using torture. The "Hammer of Witches" remained in circulation until the 17th century and was popular with inquisitors.
A supposed annual gathering
In 1668, the writer Johannes Praetorius published a book in which he detailed the legend that the Brocken mountain in the Harz Mountain range in Germany was the scene of annual witches' dances. In it, the author writes that "fiends from all over Germany" end up on the mountain peak each year on April 30, the night of St. Walpurgis.
The case of Agnes Bernauer
It was one of the most famous criminal cases in early modern history and links the act of fornication to witchcraft, a common connection in many witch hunts. Agnes Bernauer, a peasant, was the lover of the heir to the throne of Albrecht III of Bavaria. Most likely at the behest of his father, she was condemned as a witch and drowned in the Danube in 1435.
The case of Katharina Henot
Katharina Henot (pictured here, a statue of her at Cologne's City Hall) came from a family of politicians in Cologne and would be considered a successful business woman today. Accused of witchcraft, she maintained her innocence even while she was tortured multiple times. Sentenced to death in 1627, she was granted a "privilege": the executioner strangled her before burning her body.
Death at the stake in Guernsey
Around 1550, several witch trials took place on this island in the English Channel amidst a conflict between Protestants and Catholics. In 1556, three Protestant women were burned alive on Guernsey. According to legend, one of them gave birth to a child in the fire, which was first rescued but then thrown back into the fire. The women were later venerated as the "Guernsey Martyrs."
New England witch hunt
In 1692, witch hunts made their way to the New World. It all began in Salem in what is now the US state of Massachusetts. The puritanical colonialists who came from England rigorously cracked down on suspected witchcraft in their attempt to establish a theocracy in New England. Fourteen women and five men were executed and dozens were tortured.