The Inquisition and Witch Hunts

The Inquisition and Witch Hunts March 18, 2019

Baker, Joseph E. (ca. 1837-1914) artist. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs division ID ppmsca.09402

By James A. Haught

This is the third segment of a nine-part series on religious horrors, cruelties, atrocities and tragedies of all types.

After killing Muslims in Crusades and Jews in massacres, Christians began killing 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. Altogether, uncountable thousands were put to death.

During the Roman period, scientist-philosopher Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600 for teaching that planets orbit the sun. Scientist Galileo barely escaped the same fate for the same reason.

Spaniards brought the Inquisition to American colonies to pursue natives who returned to tribal beliefs. Some 879 heresy trials were recorded in Mexico in the 1500s.

After the Reformation, some Protestants developed their own form of Inquisition. Physician Michael Servetus, who discovered the pulmonary circulation of blood, was burned at the stake by John Calvin in Geneva in 1553 for doubting the Trinity.

(Teens at my Unitarian church hold a yearly Michael Servetus Weenie Roast in his honor.)


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.”

By this time, the Holy Inquisition had branched into finding and killing witches, following the Bible’s mandate: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” The witch-hunts became a ghastly phase of history, with uncountable victims. Medieval historian Anne Barstow estimates the total at 100,000 executed.

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.

In 1583 in Vienna, 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.

A science historian adds these cases:

In June of 1510, sixty-four women and men were burned at the stake in Val Camonica, Italy, for causing drought and fires and for harming people, animals and land.

In July of 1518, sixty women and men were burned at the stake in Breto, Italy, for triggering thunder and lightning and for causing sickness and death of nearly 200 people.

In June of 1582, the wife of an English sawyer named Alice Glosscock from the town of Chelmsford was stripped naked and her body searched for ‘the marks of a witch,’ which were found, leading to her conviction and execution.”

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 Würzburg 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.

(Next: Islamic Jihads and Jewish pogroms)

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