What we (don’t) do in the Shadows

Like many successful viral stories, it was the scandal of it all that got people talking. What the practitioners were getting up to behind closed doors was the well known across Europe. Everyone from polite society to the layperson in the streets from Spain to Greece had an opinion on this “immoderate and perverse superstition.”[1] For decades the group had grown in secret; its members violated every known taboo, its practices represented a cornucopia of horrors. Worst of all, anyone, especially women and the lowest classes, could be members and, “daily the evil grows and creeps abroad. It is already too great to be purely a private matter”.[2] The backlash against the movement lasted for more than a century, and thousands were rooted out and killed in some of the most gruesome and inventive ways conceivable.

The rituals invariably started at night, in some safe place. Then as one writer claimed,

A young baby is covered over with flour, the object being to deceive the unwary. It is then served before the person to be admitted into the rites. The recruit is urged to inflict blows onto it—they appear to be harmless because of the covering of flour. Thus the baby is killed with wounds that remain unseen and concealed. It is the blood of this infant—I shudder to mention it—it is this blood that they lick with thirsty lips; these are the limbs they distribute eagerly; this is the victim by which they seal their covenant…

On a special day they gather in a feast with all their children, sisters, mothers—all sexes and all ages. There, flushed with the banquet after such feasting and drinking, they begin to burn with incestuous passions. They provoke a dog tied to the lampstand to leap and bound towards a scrap of food which they have tossed outside the reach of his chain. By this means the light is overturned and extinguished, and with it common knowledge of their actions; in the shameless dark with unspeakable lust they copulate in random unions, all equally being guilty of incest, some by deed, but everyone by complicity.[3]

One romanticized depiction of early Christian Mass in the Catacombs of Paris. Not Pictured: Dead babies. photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Understandably, early Christians disagreed with these descriptions of their own practices, like the excerpt above, penned by Roman author Marcus Minucius Felix in 230 CE. As the Church’s influence grew, many Christians tried to dispel these myths as best they could. There was no incestuous hanky panky occurring,[4] no ass or donkey worship, and it was categorically absurd to suggest they murdered babies swaddled in bread dough[5]; at most, there was merely symbolic cannibalism.[6] Less than a century later, Christianity experienced its de facto acceptance and official adoption under the Emperor Constantine.

Herein lies the roots of our story. Christianity shifted from persecuted minority to dominant cultural force, and over the course of a thousand years, the old narrative was adapted and reapplied in a whole new series of persecutions. No longer were the charges absurd. The alleged culprits were heretics, a society of witches, supposedly present everywhere in Europe. In the 17th century, the secretary of the Bishop of Würzburg wrote that a third of his city was implicated in the cult. They met regularly for a Sabbath, often flying at night to meet their master Satan. New initiates would kiss their master on his buttocks, sealing a compact. Subsequently an orgy, often incorporating incest and infanticide, would ensue. The parallels to the older attacks on Christians themselves, collated from generations of enforced confessions, hit many of the same rhetorical beats.[7] From the confession of Marie Cornu, resident of the Spanish Netherlands in 1611:

… [she] vowed herself forever to the devil… which she has declared to have been her lover and named Belzebub, having given him her soul… she permitted the said devil to carry her an infinite number of times during the night to nocturnal assemblies, as often in Fenain as in other places, in the company of that devil and of many men, women, and young girls, who she has declared were present and well known to her. And there she danced, assisted at table, and there adored the said Belzebub, prince of the devils, being in the form of a black and stinking he-goat, and of being placed on her knees and having kissed his posterior…

…Finally, she confessed to have caused the deaths of two of her own children… she carried the corpse to a nocturnal assembly and dance very near to Fenain, where devoured a part of its heart, and the wife of Jehan Maughuier, also present, devoured another part, and that the devils made a powder of the rest to give it to the women and enable them to commit evil acts…[8]

The Black Mass, in similarly romanticized 19th Century imaginations. Photo Credit: Martin van Maele

The major difference being that there was no such witch cult undermining 16th Century Christian society. At best, there were magicians, practicing healers, or small covens and craftspeople that continued to practice an altered and often Christianized version of older beliefs. Mostly the victims of the witch craze would be Christian themselves. Thousands would die as neighbors turned on one another, and forced confessions in civil courts created a chain of victims from all social classes. Roughly 75-80 percent were women, though no one category or age bracket could be considered ‘typical’. Anyone from ages eight to eighty could be burned for the crime of witchcraft.

This is the story of Europe’s witchcraft craze, its victims, and the heresies and countercultures that may have been the inspiration for greater mania. In the cracks between belief and hysteria, we will even spend time with the actual practitioners of magic. Finding the magic in the horror is not an easy story to tell. And there will be a fair sight more inference and deduction than the Blog usually goes in for; Historian Julian Goodare compares studying medieval cults to reconstructing a dinosaur skeleton from a single fossilized bone. [9] But it is a story. One of the best. There will be battles in dreams, The Hound of God, fairies and goddesses, and of course plenty of evil practiced in the name of God.

[1] Cohn, N. (1970). Europe’s Inner Demons: The Demonization of Christians in Medieval Europe. Pimlico Press.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Wilken, R.L (2003). The Christians as the Romans Saw Them. Yale University Press.

[4] Roman Christian Tertullian points to some of the obvious flaws in this story. Can someone be Christian if their mother isn’t in an Oedipal mood? Would they need to bring along a sister? Would a kissing cousin do in a pinch?

[5] Tertullian, again, makes the obvious point. Namely that if a baby had to be murdered every time someone converted, that would be a frankly staggering number of dead babies. Also a lot of wasted bread dough. Was any component of this ritual truly kneaded?

[6] Case in point, the Eucharist and the concept of transubstantiation.

[7] We’ve been here before.

[8] Kors, A.C., Peters, E. (2001). Witchcraft in Europe 400-1700. University of Pennsylvania Press.

[9] Consequently the author also expects to stomp firmly on at least one or two historical landmines in this debate.


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