Holy Horrors: Witch-Hunts

Accused “witches” first were stripped and searched for “devil’s marks” — then the torture began. The process usually ended in execution. (Image: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Excerpt from Holy Horrors: An Illustrated History of Religious Murder and Madness, by James A. Haught (Prometheus Books, 2002). Reprinted with permission from the author.

Chapter 10: Witch-Hunts

During the 1400s, the Holy Inquisition shifted its focus toward witchcraft, and the next three centuries witnessed a bizarre orgy of religious delusion. Agents of the church tortured untold thousands of women, and some men, into confessing that they flew through the sky on demonic missions, engaged in sex with Satan, turned themselves into animals, made themselves invisible, and performed other supernatural evils. Virtually all the accused were put to death. The number of victims is estimated widely from 100,000 to 2 million.

Pope Gregory IX originally authorized the killing of witches in the 1200s, and random witch trials were held, but the craze didn’t catch fire until the 15th century. In 1484 Pope Innocent VIII issued a bull declaring the absolute reality of witches—thus it became heresy to doubt their existence. Prosecutions soared. The inquisitor Cumanus burned forty-one women the following year, and a colleague in the Piedmont of Italy executed 100.

Soon afterward, two Dominican inquisitors, Jakob Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer, published their infamous Malleus Maleficarum (Witches’ Hammer) outlining a lurid litany of magical acts performed by witches and their imps, familiars, phantoms, demons, succubi, and incubi. It described how the evil women blighted crops, devoured children, caused disease, and wrought spells. The book was filled with witches’ sexual acts and portrayed women as treacherous and contemptible. “All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable,” they wrote. Modern psychology easily perceives the sexual neurosis of these priests—yet for centuries their book was the official manual used by inquisitors sending women to horrible deaths.

Witch-hunts flared in France, Germany, Hungary, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Sweden, and nearly every corner of Europe—finally reaching England, Scotland, and the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Most of the victims were old women whose eccentricities roused suspicions of neighbors. Others were young, pretty women. Some were men. Many in continental Europe were simply citizens whose names were shrieked out by torture victims when commanded to identify fellow witches. (Torture wasn’t used in England, so fewer perished there.)

The standard Inquisition procedure of isolating and grilling suspects was followed plus an added step: the victims were stripped naked, shaved of all body hair, and “pricked.” The Malleus Maleficarum specified that every witch bore a numb “devil’s mark,” which could be detected by jabbing with a sharp object. Inquisitors also looked for “witches’ tits,” blemishes that might be secret nipples whereby the women suckled their demons.

If the body search failed, the torture began. Fingernails were pulled out. Red-hot tongs were applied to breasts. “The women’s sex organs provided special attraction for the male torturer,” researcher Nancy van Vuuren wrote. Bodies were stretched on racks and wheels. “Arms came out of sockets and trysts with the Devil came out of the unlikeliest mouths,” novelist Erica Jong wrote. Virtually every mangled and broken victim confessed—and was executed on the basis of the confession.

In the Basque region of Spain, church records dutifully report that Maria of Ituren admitted under torture that she and sister witches turned themselves into horses and galloped through the sky. In a district of France, 600 women confessed to copulating with demons.

The complete death toll is impossible to learn. Some historical records exist; others are gone. Various accounts say 5,000 witches were killed in the province of Alsace, 900 in the city of Bamberg, about 2,000 in Bavaria, 311 in Vaud, 167 at Grenoble, 157 at Wurzburg, 133 in a single day in Saxony. Some entire villages were exterminated.

The mania continued until the 18th century. In Scotland, an old woman was burned in 1722 after being convicted of turning her daughter into a pony and riding her to a witches’ coven. In Germany, a nun was burned alive in the marketplace of Wurzburg in 1749 after other nuns testified that she climbed over convent walls in the form of a pig. The last legal execution of a witch occurred in Switzerland in 1782. By that time, various scientists and scholars had raised enough doubt about the reality of witchcraft to bring an end to the madness.

A profound irony of the witch-hunts is that they were directed, not by superstitious savages, but by learned bishops, judges, professors, and other leaders of society. The centuries of witch obsession demonstrated the terrible power of supernatural beliefs.

Excerpted from Holy Horrors: An Illustrated History of Religious Murder and Madness by James A. Haught. Copyright © James A. Haught, 2002. All rights reserved.

James A. HaughtJames A. Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia’s The Charleston Gazette-Mail and a senior editor of the Free Inquiry magazine. He is also the author of numerous books and articles; his most recent book is Religion is Dying: Soaring Secularism in America and the West (Gustav Broukal Press, 2010). Haught has won 21 national newswriting awards and thirty of his columns have been distributed by national syndicates. He is in Who’s Who in America, Who’s Who in the World, Contemporary Authors, and 2000 Outstanding Intellectuals of the 21st Century. His website is haught.net.

Holy Horrors
By James A. Haught
Prometheus Books (30 May 2002)
ISBN-10: 1573927783
ISBN-13: 978-1573927789

Secret Files of the Inquisition – part 1 – Root Out Heretics

Be sure to ‘like’ us on Facebook


  1. Witch hunts still go on today all over Africa, South America, Asia and of course within immigrant populations within Western countries. London has been caught up in some horrible child abuse cases where relatives believed the child to be a witch. Albinos throughout Africa are murdered daily for their body parts as “Witch doctors” make Anti-Witch medicines from their parts.

  2. This excerpts contains an inaccuracy or two. There is probably no serious historian around anymore who believes the number of victims to be anywhere near two million. Most estimates today range between 60.000 and 200.000. Also, Jakob Sprenger has long been debunked as co-author of the Malleus Maleficarum. Heinrich Kramer or Institoris named Sprenger, a fellow monk, as co-.author to lend his book credibility. In realtiy, Sprenger had nothing to do with it. Also, it is patently untrue that older women were the group that was targeted the most. Around two thirds of the victims were women (the rest children and men, who thus make up more than just "some" but literally tens of thousands as well) and they came from all different backgrounds, had different ages and little in common other than they were women. Than in itself is deeply rooted in the Malleus Maleficarum itself that on more than one occasion blames women for being more susceptible to the form of heresy witchcraft was thought to be. And it was indeed a heresy as which witchcraft was fought at least in Catholic countries and regions. Declaring it to be one enabled the Church to make its persecution official business. Also, one important aspect is missing: Until the 15th century, when the Church declard witchcraft rather than the belief in it a heresy, witchcraft was mainly popular superstition – albeit one that put Catholic clergy under pressure. Hence the change of policy. And while the beginnings of (organized) witch trials are certainly clerical, the vast majority of trials was held be secular authorities.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here