Witch Trials in the Thirty Years War

Goya’s Witch’s Sabbath catches the kind of scene Europeans imagined of Satanic communions.

Against the backdrop of ongoing war, another irrational horror of the so-called “Age of Reason” reached its climax in the witch trials of the 17th Century. Belief in witchcraft was hardly new, nor did the superstition exist among either just Protestants or Catholics.[1] As far back as St. Augustine, Christian thinkers had believed there were practicing magicians living among them. But Augustine suggested leaving them alone, for the most part. After all, if there was only one God, magic done in the name of Jupiter or whomever else would have no power to it. This party line held for centuries, born out of both Augustine’s thinking, and the dire straits the western Latin Church regularly found itself in. There was a need to convert Scandinavians, Germans, Magyars, and everyone else who threatened the church’s literal survival as an institution, rather than pick a fight over the details each group brought to their worship when they finally converted. In all likelihood, this willingness to ignore local hedge magicks and the “cunning folk” who sold these services led more to their integration into local Catholic practice, rather than sheltering some pre-Christian faith practiced in secret all over Europe.[2]

But this did not stop Renaissance Christians from believing that witches and Satan worshippers were in their midst. In the late 15th Century what occultist Gerald Gardner refers to as the Burning Times began, punctuated by the publication of Heinrich Kramer’s Malleus Maleficarum. Though the book was quickly denounced by Catholic theologians, its popularity persisted and imitation works appeared. While this first wave of killings ended by the 1520s, the 17th Century brought another resurgence. If anything the persecutions were spearheaded by the most learned scholars of the times. Intellectuals like Christian IV of Denmark firmly believed that witch covens in the service of Satan himself were an active force in the European world. King James of Britain would take a similar cue from Christian, and believed an actual witch plot against his life had taken place. Supposedly several witches had burned a wax effigy of James in an attempt to kill him, and James took the threat seriously enough to endorse the execution of hundreds. Shakespeare famously incorporated this feat into Macbeth‘s prophetic witches and their goddess Hecate.

During the Thirty Years War, most of the faux trials and actual executions took place in relatively quiet areas, with the ever present dread of a possible attack likely playing a role. Areas that had been recently reconquered by the Catholic side were also particularly prone to outbursts. A chancellor for the bishop of Würzburg provides a sense for the atmosphere in 1629:

“There are still four hundred in the city, high and low, of every rank and sex — nay, even clerics — so strongly accused that they may be arrested any hour. Some out of all offices and faculties must be executed; clerics, counselors, doctors, city officials and court assessors.

There are law students to be arrested. The prince-bishop has over forty students here who are to be pastors; thirteen or fourteen of these are said to be witches. A few days ago a dean was arrested; two others who were summoned have fled. The notary of our church consistory, a very learned man, was yesterday arrested and put to torture. In a word, a third part of the city is involved.”[3]

An artist’s depiction of the trials in Jülich, near the Dutch border.

Weasels with more earthly desires also played their part in stoking the flames. In the city of Bamberg the local bishop prompted several waves of witch hunts that climaxed in 1629-31, with more than a thousand sacrificed to appease the local hysteria. These mass burnings took on a different tone from similar trials in Great Britain, and later in Salem where local disputes and bad blood between individuals could drive an execution. Instead the larger scale trials were strung together from a series of tortured confessions, each successive victim chaining together the next.

The fate of the hapless Johannes Junius, Burgomaster of Bamberg offers a glimpse of the horror of the trials. Junius was, for an unnobled person, very well off. He had risen to effectively the mayor of a prosperous town in northern Bavaria. But then in 1628 he was accused of witchcraft by one of his servants and a doctor on the city council. Both already having confessed to practicing witchcraft themselves, Junius’ servant claimed she had seen him at a gathering in the moors outside of town one dark night. There had been wild dancing, and the Eucharist of Christ had been desecrated as part of the opening ceremonies. The doctor for his part claimed that Junius had even attended a coven gathering inside the town hall itself. Through days of verbal interrogation, the torture log notes that Junius denied the charges. Then,

“Thumb-screws were applied. Says he has never denied God his Saviour nor suffered himself to be otherwise baptized; will again stake his life on it; feels no pain in the thumb-screws.

Leg-screws. Will confess absolutely nothing [and] knows nothing about it. He has never renounced God; will never do such a thing; has never been guilty of this vice; feels likewise no pain.

Is stripped and examined; on his right side is found a bluish mark, like a clover leaf, is thrice pricked therein, but feels no pain and no blood flows out.

Strappado [the victim is suspended with their wrists tied behind their back, then dropped from a short height. Typically the pressure would dislocate the victim’s shoulders.]. He has never renounced God; God will not forsake him; if he were such a wretch he would not let himself be so tortured; God must show some token of his innocence. He knows nothing about witchcraft…

On July 5, the above named Junius is without torture, but with urgent persuasions, exhorted to confess, and at last begins and confesses:”[4]

Strappado, as sketched by contemporary Jacques Callot during a later phase of the war. Photo Credit: Jacques Callot

The Burgomaster’s story, when it finally tumbled out, was an inventive one. Sitting in his fields after a costly and unsuccessful lawsuit in 1624, Junius had been approached by a beautiful woman. Even in his vulnerable state Junius had resisted her attempt to seduce him, and the enraged witch had transformed into a goat monster. Threatening to break his neck then and there if he refused again, Junius agreed to renounce Christ and joined the coven. From there it was one slippery Satanic orgy slope into full blown occult practice for the Burgomaster. He claimed his goat/lover had urged him to kill his children, that he had spat out the communion wafer, and that Satan himself had prophesied this very arrest to him. Confession in hand, Junius was then pressed by his interrogators to become another link in the murderous chain of witch trials. Hauled street by street, he identified another ten names, including the city Chancellor who had recently spoken out against the bishop’s prosecutions. New victims identified, Junius was then swiftly burned at the stake.

Before he died, and in spite of his broken hands, Junius managed to smuggle out a letter to his daughter with the help of his own jailers. Unsurprisingly he maintained his innocence. What had broken Junius wasn’t any one torture, but the hopelessness of knowing this was all that was left to him,

“When at last the executioner led me back into the prison, he said to me: “Sir, I beg you, for God’s sake confess something, whether it be true or not. Invent something, for you cannot endure the torture which you will be put to; and, even if you bear it all, yet you will not escape, not even if you were an earl, but one torture will follow after another until you say you are a witch. Not before that,” he said, “will they let you go, as you may see by all their trials, for one is just like another.”[5]

Bild 017
The innocuous and lethal torture chamber of Bamberg. No longer standing, but the site is acknowledged in the city. Photo Credit: City Library of Bamberg

Junius had made up his entire story in exchange for a faster death. Likely the same way the doctor and his house servant had done. Just as the Chancellor and the other nine Junius himself identified, with some prompting, would ultimately do. The Chancellor’s entire family would be killed. Most painful of all, Junius was still Christian to his final hours. His belief was so strong that, having been denied a priest for confession, he treated this final letter to his daughter as one.

The protesting Chancellor was among the next wave of victims, and his entire family was killed. Even in the midst of the war, what remained of the judiciary denounced the bishop’s activities, though this didn’t stop him from seizing the newly deceased’s wealth. When he was finally forced to move shop, the bishop sparked a new wave of killings in the smaller town of Zeil, only ending when Swedish troops arrived in 1631. The few survivors of the bishop’s torture chamber were freed, on the condition they never spoke of the horrors they endured.

[1] In fact both often blamed the other for it. Martin Luther would accuse his mother’s neighbor of being a witch.

[2] An idea that mostly dates to the 19th Century when occult and pre-Christian stories began to enjoy a revival. The strongest voice for the theory was Margaret Murray in her 1920 book Witch Cults of Western Europe. The book is a staple item on the shelves of Lovecraftian antagonists. We’ll get into this more in a future series, but Murray’s claim that a feminist religion hinging on Diana and a horned consort survived the middle ages in secret is viewed as highly unlikely by modern historians like Norman Cohn or Ronald Hutton. However its role underpinning modern Wicca though makes it as much a creation story as any other modern faith’s.

[3] Kors, A.C., Peters, E. (2001). Witchcraft in Europe, 400-1700: A Documentary History. 2nd Edition

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid.


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