Protests Against Witch Trials (Early Modern Period)
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Protests Against Witch Trials Early Modern Period

Throughout the era of the European witch trials in the Early Modern period, from the 15th to the 18th century, there were protests against both the belief in witches and the trials.[1] Even those protestors who believed in witchcraft were typically sceptical about its actual occurrence.

Forms of protest


Varius objections to the witch hunts were raised on the basis of their abuses of the law.[2]Andrea Alciato (1515) and Johann Weyer (1563) both objected that torture could lead to false confessions.[3]Johann Georg Gödelmann (1591) objected to legal abuses and improper methods of trial,[4][5] while Friedrich Spee (1631) argued that there was no empirical evidence for allegations of witchcraft, even self-confessed.[6] In 1635 Roman Inquisition acknowledged that "the Inquisition has found scarcely one trial conducted legally".[7] In the middle of the 17th century, the difficulty in proving witchcraft according to legal process contributed to the councilors of Rothenburg ob der Tauber (German), following advice to treat witchcraft cases with caution.[8][9] In 1652 jurist Georg Christoph Walther advised the Rothenburg council in the case of two women accused of witchcraft, insisting that unless the women could be found guilty by proper due legal procedure they should be released without punishment.[10]


Anton Praetorius (1598) and Johann Matthäus Meyfart (1635) objected to the witch hunts on the basis of the cruelty with which they were carried out.[11][12]


Martin LeFranc (1440) objected that witchcraft could not take place in reality due to the sovereignty of God, and that even witches who confessed to witchcraft were being deceived by illusions of the devil.[13] LeFranc blamed the clergy for permitting such beliefs to flourish.[14] Antonino, Archbishop of Florence (1384-1459), insisted that common beliefs concerning witches were mere foolishness, and required those who held such beliefs to make confession and repent of them.[15] Ulrich Müller, writing as "Molitoris" (1489), believed in witchcraft but opposed common beliefs on the subject on the basis of the theological arguments of the Canon Espicopi.[16] Gianfrancesco Ponzinibio (1520) extended this argument to deny the reality of all diabolical witchcraft.[17] Reginald Scot (1584) believed in witchcraft but opposed the common understanding of witches as delusion and theological error.[18][19][20]Cornelius Loos (1592) claimed that belief in witchcraft was mere superstition.[21]


Skeptical protests took a number of forms; scientific, medical, or attribution of alleged sorcery to fraud.

Some medical practitioners insisted that the apparent evidence for witchcraft had medical causes, rather than supernatural. The physician Symphorien Champier (c.1500) believed that many reports of alleged witchcraft could be explained by means of medical conditions.[22] Bishop Antonio Venegas de Figueroa (1540) cautioned against confusing witchcraft with mental illness.[23] When French surgeon Pierre Pigray (1589) was asked by the Parliament to examine several people accused of being witches,[24] he dismissed the allegations on the basis that the accused were deluded and in need of medical care.[25] Physician Johannes Weyer (1563) argued that women accused of being witches were suffering from an imbalance of the humors, resulting from the devil's interference, and viewed their beliefs as imaginary.[26] Weyer's approach has been considered a precursor to modern psychiatric methods.[27]

Accusations of witchcraft, especially by traveling witchfinders, were sometimes opposed by locals whose skepticism of profiteering witchfinders was stronger than their belief in witches. In 1460 a Frenchman named Asseline (also known as Jehan de la Case) was assaulted by "Master Jehan" with a spear. Asseline had angered Jehan (a witchfinder) by opposing his claims that two of Asseline's relatives were witches. In a later fight Asseline struck Jehan fatally with a halberd.[28] Local people, skeptical of Jehan's claims, successfully petitioned the king to have Asseline pardoned, insisting that Jehan had been a fraud.[29]

Skeptical objections were raised in a range of ways. Samuel de Cassini (c. 1505) objected to witchcraft on logical grounds.[30] Andrea Alciato was skeptical of allegations of witchcraft, which he said was more easily believed by theologians than jurors.[31] Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa (1519) believed that witchcraft was merely superstitious delusion.[32]Montaigne (1580) objected to witchcraft on the basis of skepticism concerning the trustworthiness of the senses.[33] The skeptic Samuel Harsnett (1599) rejected all belief in witches.[34]


  1. ^ "Thomas Murner (1499) accused some theologians of explaining misfortunes by natural causes rather than by witchcraft; and one Oranus (quoted in Del Rio) lamented that so many learned men in France were skeptics", Robbins, "The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology", p. 144 (1997); "Murner was shocked that some theologians explained disasters by natural causes rather than by witchcraft.", ibid., p. 9.
  2. ^ "A second group of writers concentrated their attack not on the theory of witchcraft but on the legal abuses associated with the witch trial.", Midelfort, "Witch hunting in southwestern Germany, 1562-1684: the social and intellectual foundations", p. 25 (1973).
  3. ^ . Already in 1515, Alciato recognized the danger of torturing witches until the named those they had seen at the sabbath. Weyer raised the same point in 1563 when he protested that prisoners were "constantly dragged out to suffer awful torture until they would gladly exchange this most bitter existence for death," and that they quickly confessed "whatever crimes were suggested to them rather than be thrust back into their hideous dungeons amid ever recurring torture.", Midelfort, "Witch hunting in southwestern Germany, 1562-1684: the social and intellectual foundations", pp. 27-28 (1972).
  4. ^ "Other thinkers, like Johann Georg Godelmann, the Rostock jurist originally from Swabia, tried to reduce the legal abuses of witch hunting and attacked many of the superstitions concerning witchcraft. Godelmann also denied that witches could raise storms, but he nonetheless conceded that true witches must be severely punished.", Midelfort, "Witch hunting in southwestern Germany, 1562-1684: the social and intellectual foundations", p. 27 (1972).
  5. ^ "The Rostock jurist Godelmann agreed in 1584 that improper trial methods accounted for many miscarriages of justice.", Midelfort, "Witch hunting in southwestern Germany, 1562-1684: the social and intellectual foundations", p. 27 (1972).
  6. ^ "The legal or pragmatic mode of attack on witch hunting found its most eloquent expression in the Jesuit Friederich von Spee. With years of experience as confessor to witches about to be executed, Spee asserted that he had never seen one who really had done the things she confessed. His Cautio Criminalis of 1631 is a stinging indictment of German criminal procedures", Midelfort, "Witch hunting in southwestern Germany, 1562-1684: the social and intellectual foundations", p. 28 (1972).
  7. ^ "even the Roman Inquisition recognized that abuses were common; in 1635 it admitted that "the Inquisition has found scarcely one trial conducted legally."", Midelfort, "Witch hunting in southwestern Germany, 1562-1684: the social and intellectual foundations", p. 28 (1972).
  8. ^ "Doubts about their ability to prove witches unequivocally guilty according to due legal procedure, fears that they would invoke God's wrath against themselves and their subjects if they overstepped its bounds, and a certain humility in thinking that witchcraft was a matter best left up to God, all played a part in encouraging the Rothenburg councillors and their advisers to handle witchcraft cases with caution.", Rowlands, 'Witchcraft narratives in Germany: Rothenburg 1561-1652', p. 59 (2003).
  9. ^ "Compelling legal reasons almost always also existed in specific cases to discourage the councillors and their advisers from taking action against sabbat-attenders.", Rowlands, 'Witchcraft narratives in Germany: Rothenburg 1561-1652', p. 57 (2003).
  10. ^ "Stick to legal procedure, he advised the council, and, if Horn and Leimbach cannot be proven guilty according to it, they should be released without punishment and their eternal fate left to the all-seeing wisdom of God. The risk of executing the innocent along with the genuinely guilty was otherwise far too great.", Rowlands, 'Witchcraft narratives in Germany: Rothenburg 1561-1652', p. 58 (2003).
  11. ^ "Author of the Christliche Erinnerung an gewaltige Regenten (A Christian Reminder to Powerful Princes, 1635), Meyfart opposed witch hunting by underscoring the cruelties of witchcraft", Golden, "Encyclopedia of witchcraft: the Western tradition", volume 2, p. 757 (2006).
  12. ^ "The Westphalian jurist Anton Praetorius, who wrote against the craze in 1598-1602, had been driven to protest by the executions he had witnessed there.", Trevor-Roper, "Religion, the Reformation and social change, and other essays", p. 143 (1984).
  13. ^ "There"s no old woman so stupid who"s done even the least of these things. But in order to have her hanged or burned, the enemy of humankind, who knows well how to set traps to make the mind deceive itself, has made her mind fool itself. (I. 17553) There are no broomsticks or rods by which anyone could fly.", LeFranc, quoted in Kors & Peters, "Witchcraft in Europe, 400-1700: A documentary history", p. 169 (2001).
  14. ^ "The discussion slowly shifts from the activities of witches to the nature of demonic power and finally to the Defender"s criticism of the clergy for allowing such beliefs to circulate.", LeFranc, quoted in Kors & Peters, "Witchcraft in Europe, 400-1700: A documentary history", p. 169 (2001).
  15. ^ "in his instructions to confessors, he requires them to ascertain from penitents whether they believe that women can be transformed into cats, can fly by night and suck the blood of children, all of which he says is impossible, and to believe it is folly. Nor was he alone in this, for similar instructions are given by Angelo da Chivasso and Bartolommeo de Chaimis in their authoritative manuals.", Lea, "A History of the Inquisition In Spain", volume 4, p. 209, (1906-1907).
  16. ^ "Ulrich Muller or Molitoris published a treatise on witchcraft theory in 1489, hoping to prove that witches were guilty of real crimes. But, after twice quoting the Canon Episcopi verbatim, Muller had to conclude that witches do not travel at night, and do not gather at the Sabbat in reality. These experiences happen "only in their dreams, or, as we have said, because of an excess of imagination."", Stephens, "Demon Lovers: Witchcraft, Sex, and the Crisis of Belief", p. 139 (2003).
  17. ^ "The Italian lawyer Gianfrancesco Ponzinibio wrote one of the earliest systematic attacks on the idea of diabolical witchcraft as it had emerged in the fifteenth century", Burns, "Witch Hunts in Europe and America: An encyclopedia", p. 236 (2003); "Ponzinibio denied the existence of diabolical witchcraft. Instead, he appealed to the Canon Espiscopi to assert that witch flight, sabbat, and other aspects of the emerging witch stereotype were merely delusions.", Clark, "Thinking With Demons: The idea of witchcraft in early modern Europe", p. 237 (1997).
  18. ^ "Reginald Scot believed in the reality of witchcraft, but saw as illusory many of the fears and beliefs associated with it, seeking to discredit, among other things, the concept of a witches" sabbath", Kors & Peters, "Witchcraft in Europe, 400-1700: A documentary history", p. 393 (2001).
  19. ^ "Argument by argument, Reginald Scot, in The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), works his way through the writings of Bodin, and of Kramer and Sprenger. He, too, knows how to engage in philosophical and theological discussions on the nature of the spirit world. He, too, can cite authorities and quote Scripture.", Otten, "A Lycanthropy Reader: Werewolves in Western culture", p. 102 (1996).
  20. ^ "Scott's basic premise is that God is the creator and sustainer of His creation, and that to give power to the demons (as do Bodin and Kramer and Sprenger) is to relegate God to the role of "the Devil's drudge."", Otten, "A Lycanthropy Reader: Werewolves in Western culture", p. 102 (1996).
  21. ^ "It was during this persecution at Trier that Comelius Loos, a scholar of Dutch birth who held a professorship in the university of that city, dared to protest against both the persecution itself and the superstitions out of which it grew.", Burr (ed.), "Translations And Reprints From The Original Sources Of European History", volume 3, p. 15 (1896).
  22. ^ "Champier was a physician, who took the point of view that many of the reports of witchcraft could be explained medically.", Hoyt, "Witchcraft", p. 67 (1989).
  23. ^ "He argues that one should not confuse witchcraft with mental illness and superstition. Each case must be tried with care and the evidence must be examined rationally and without prejudice. The veracity of accounts of supernatural happenings must be subjected to the test of common sense and firm evidence.", Magnier, "Pedro de Valencia and the Catholic Apologists of the Expulsion of the Moriscos", p. 200 (2010).
  24. ^ "The Parliament named four commissioners, Pierre Pigray, the King"s surgeon, and Messiuers Leroi, Renrad, and Falasieau, the King"s physicians, to visit and examine these witches", Mackay, "Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions", volume 2, p. 294 (1841).
  25. ^ ""We found them," continues Pierre Pigray, "to be very poor, stupid people, and some of them insane; many of them were quite indifferent about life, and one or two of them desired death as a relief for their sufferings. Our opinion was, that they stood more in need of medicine than of punishment, and so we reported to the Parliament."", Mackay, "Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions", volume 2, p. 295 (1841).
  26. ^ "Weyer argued that some women, already predisposed because of their sex to credulity, recknlessness, and melancholy, can easily become prey of the devil, who disturbs their humours and distorts their senses to the point that they imagine themselves involved in the various rituals described in the demonological literature. For Weyer, a competent physician should be consulted in every case of accusation of witchcraft.", Wallace & Gach, "History of Psychiatry and Medical psychology: With an epilogue on psychiatry", p. 243 (2008).
  27. ^ "By including a brief history, a report of his findings, and his rational regarding treatment, he "anticipated" the modern psychiatric examination.", Wallace & Gach, "History of Psychiatry and Medical psychology: With an epilogue on psychiatry", p. 243 (2008).
  28. ^ Kors & Peters, "Witchcraft in Europe, 400-1700: A documentary history", ppAd. 173-175 (2001).
  29. ^ "the said Master Jehan had been nothing but an abuser who traveled around the territory like a vagabond, using divinations and sortileges, committing many evils and making exactions from people", "Remission for Jehan de la Case otherwise known as Asseline", in Kors & Peters, "Witchcraft in Europe, 400-1700: A documentary history", p. 173 (2001).
  30. ^ "Samuel de Cassini, a Franciscan, attacked witchcraft beliefs on logical grounds: "The gist of his argument," Lea says, "is that the flight of witches would be a miracle" (1:366). He also puts his trust in the Canon Episcopi, going so far as to accuse the inquisitors themselves of heavy sin, even heresy.", Hoyt, "Witchcraft", p. 67 (1989).
  31. ^ "In 1514 Andrea Alciato who had then just become a Dr. Juris at Bologna, said in a consilium to an inquisitor that he himself was quite sceptical about demonology and that theologians believed more easily in witchcraft and devilish practices than jurists.", Dupont-Bouchat, "La sorcellerie dans les Pays-bas sous l"ancien régime: aspects juridiques, institutionnels et sociaux", p. 53 (1987).
  32. ^ "Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa defended a peasant woman accused of witchcraft near Metz in 1519, and wrote a now lost work Adversus lamiarum inquisitores. This is known from the attacks made on it by the Dominican inquisitor Sisto Da Siena (the inquisitor in the 1519 case, Nicolaus Savini, was also a Dominican), who reported that Agrippa had mocked witchcraft "as a tale born of the imagination and the dreams of old delirious women, Clark, "Thinking With Demons: The idea of witchcraft in early modern Europe", p. 237 (1997).
  33. ^ "Montaigne, whose systematic skepticism was widely influential, demonstrated how easily men might deceive themselves when dealing with the unusual, and asked whether, in the face of the doubts he had raised, men dare consider themselves certain enough to kill a fellow man in the name of such tenuous beliefs", Kors & Peters, "Witchcraft in Europe, 400-1700: A documentary history", p. 393 (2001).
  34. ^ "Bancroft and Harsnett had no belief in witches. The most famous passage of Harsnett's Declaration, the description of a witch in Chapter 21, is proof of that.", Brownlow, "Shakespeare, Harsnett, and the devils of Denham", p. 65 (1993).

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