The Inquisition and witch hunts marred Europe for centuries

By James A. Haught | 24 March 2022
Freethought Now

(Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Religious insanity scarred Europe for a long time.

After killing Muslims in Crusades and Jews in massacres, Christians began murdering fellow Christians who deviated from official dogma. One deviant group was the Cathari, or Albigenses, so named because they centered around Albi, France. In 1208, Pope Innocent III declared an “internal crusade” to exterminate Albigenses. An army of 20,000 captured the city of Beziers. When commanders asked the papal legate how to distinguish the faithful from heretics among captives, he replied: “Kill them all. God will know his own.” It was done.

Various other internal crusades were fought against sects following unapproved beliefs. Finally, the Holy Inquisition was mobilized to ferret out heretics and execute them. Pope Innocent IV authorized torture in 1252, and Inquisition dungeons became places of horror. Screaming victims usually confessed to escape the pain. Then they were led in a holy procession (“auto de fe” — act of faith) to be burned at the stake.

The Inquisition had three phases: the medieval pursuit and execution of nonconformists, then the Spanish Inquisition in the 1400s, mostly against secret Jews and Muslims, and finally the Roman Inquisition, after the Reformation, that purged hidden Protestants. Uncountable thousands were put to death.

Spaniards brought the Inquisition to American colonies to pursue Natives who returned to tribal beliefs. Hundreds of heresy trials were recorded in Mexico in the 1500s.

In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII issued an infallible bull asserting that many people “abandon themselves to devils, incubi and succubi, and by their incantations, spells, conjurations and other accursed charms and crafts, enormities and horrid offenses, have slain infants yet in the mother’s womb, as also the offspring of cattle, have blasted the produce of the earth, the grapes of the vine, the fruits of the trees, nay, men and women, beasts of burden. … They hinder men from performing the sexual act and women from conceiving.”

Accused women were stripped by inquisitor priests who searched their bodies for “witch marks” or “witch teats” where they allegedly suckled demons. They were tortured into confessing that they copulated with Satan, changed into animals, blighted crops, made themselves invisible, or flew through the sky. They also were forced to name alleged fellow witches — who were arrested and given the same treatment.

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

When the Holy Inquisition branched into finding and killing witches, it followed the bible’s mandate: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” The witch hunts became a ghastly phase of history. Medieval historian Anne Barstow estimates that 100,000 women were executed.

In 1583 in Vienna, for instance, a 16-year-old girl suffered stomach cramps. Jesuit priests exorcized her for eight weeks, then announced that they had expelled 12,652 demons from her — demons that her grandmother had kept as flies in glass jars. The grandmother was tortured into confessing that she had sex with Satan, and was burned at the stake.

Witch hunts spread to many lands, including American colonies, and lasted until the rise of the Enlightenment. In Scotland in 1722, an old woman was burned on charges that she turned her daughter into a pony and rode her to a witch coven. In Germany in 1749, a nun was burned in the Wurzburg marketplace on charges that she turned into a pig and scaled convent walls.

Mark Twain wrote in Europe and Elsewhere: “The Church … gathered up its halters, thumbscrews and firebrands, and set about its holy work in earnest. She worked hard at it night and day during nine centuries and imprisoned, tortured, hanged and burned whole hordes and armies of witches, and washed the Christian world clean with their foul blood. Then it was discovered that there was no such thing as witches, and never had been. One does not know whether to laugh or to cry.”

In his inimitable way, Twain aptly summed up the madness.

This column has been adapted from a March 18, 2019, piece written for Daylight Atheism.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

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

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

Secret Files of the Inquisition – part 2 – Tears of Spain

Secret Files of the Inquisition – part 3 – War on Ideas

Secret Files of the Inquisition – part 4 – End of Inquisition

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