How Protestantism fuelled Europe’s deadly witch craze

Walpurgisnacht bonfires are still lit to keep evil spirits at bay

In an island with such a unique and rich past, it is unsurprising that the country’s leaders occasionally turn to history in times of need.

Over the last week, they have been dissecting our relationship with religion. The topic has always fired the nation up, as we wrestle to reconcile the strong and vibrant strands of paganism, Catholicism, Anglicanism, scepticism, and secularism that have dominated the last two millennia.

The Prime Minister declared that we are a Christian country; a range of intellectuals stated openly that we are not; the Archbishop of Canterbury intervened to specify that we are, historically, a Christian country; the former Archbishop of Canterbury clarified that we are, in fact, a post-Christian country; and the Deputy Prime Minister capped it all off by suggesting that the Church of England should finally be disestablished;

Meanwhile, over in Rome, an unprecedented 6,000 priests, 1,000 bishops, 150 cardinals, and two popes led the largest denomination of the largest religion the world has ever seen in a celebration of 21st-century Western spirituality.

This is all fascinating stuff for the historian, because prevailing religious moods are a bellwether of so many other aspects of a society. And coincidentally, now is an interesting time for this public debate on our complex religious history, as today is Walpurgisnacht, one of the many northern European pagan festivals to survive, Christianised, into the modern world.

The story starts with Wealdburg, an Anglo-Saxon girl from Devon. Born around AD 710, she was sent at the age of eleven to the nuns at Wimborne, a place of calm and learning. (A fabulous later medieval chained library still survives there.) At the nunnery, Wealdburg learned the skills that would make her one of England’s first female authors.

Her family was steeped in the Anglo-Saxon church and in its dangerous work to convert the pagan Saxons of Germany. Her father was St Richard the Pilgrim. Her uncle was the great St Boniface. And her two brothers were St Winibald and St Willibald. She is better known as St Walburga, the nun and missionary who ended her life as abbess at the double monastery of Heidenheim in Bavaria.

St Walburga inspired a cult touched by magic

Her cult has always been slightly magical (even before J K Rowling took her name for Sirius’s mother, Walburga Black). Soon after her death, she was confused with Waldborg, a pre-Christian fertility goddess, and thereafter depicted with a sheaf of corn. More magical still, when her remains were inspected in AD 893 they were found to be constantly wet. From then until today, phials of the sacred Walburgisöl her tomb produces are regularly distributed, and she is counted among the Elaephori, or “oil-yielding” saints. Although scientific tests have demonstrated that the oil is natural water which springs up in the tomb, the contact with her bones is held by its many fans to sanctify it.

Today, people across northern Europe and Scandinavia will celebrate the eve of St Walburga’s day, better known by its German name: Walpurgisnacht. In most places bonfires, candles, alcohol, and revelry will be on the menu, but it has a darker side, too.

As anyone who ever soaked up Dennis Wheatley’s electrifying occult thrillers will know, Walpurgisnacht is also the foremost night for witches’ sabbaths. According to legend, the most infamous and infernal of them convenes on the Brocken, the highest peak in Germany’s Harz mountains, a hundred and eighty miles from where St Walburga lies buried.

It is pure coincidence that Walburga was canonised on May Day, thus giving her name to the festivities of the night before. But it is also strangely fitting, as popular belief in the healing properties of saints’ relics (and oils) is inseparable from our historical attachment to magic.

And here is where something fascinating happens. As the Reformation swept away faith in popular and largely benign Christian miracles, it instead offered belief in a much darker magic — one that would quickly lead to the horror of the witch-craze and fantastical legends like the sabbaths on the Brocken.

It is deeply ironic that the Protestant reformers, in abolishing what they saw as harmful superstitious claptrap, replaced it with terrifying magical fears that would end with the brutal and pointless murder of tens of thousands of innocent women.

Before the Reformation there had, of course, been some scattered witch trials. But the same reforming theologians who lambasted what they saw as the crude and irrational magical beliefs underpinning the cult of saints and relics rapidly convinced themselves that hundreds of towns and villages were sheltering the foulest witches and demons, whose unnatural rites jeopardised the health and salvation of Christendom. They saw them flying on diabolical beasts, covering vast distances in the blink of an eye. They found on them folds of skin used for suckling demons in the form of familiars. They accused them of sexually molesting decent folk, invading their beds as lustful incubi and succubi. They were convinced they possessed infernal powers to see the past, the present (at great distance), and the future. But above all, they feared the witches were working ceaselessly to destroy their new, rational churches.

As the reformers set about ridding the world of these devilish handmaidens, the great burnings began, peaking in the late 1500s and early 1600s, before petering out in the early 1700s. In that time, somewhere between 40,000 and 10,000 people (predominantly, but not exclusively, women) were torched alive on suspicion of practising magic.
Thousands of innocent women died in the witch craze

Thousands of innocent women died in the witch craze

The hysteria reached its height around AD 1600. Even King James VI of Scotland (soon to be James I of England), who later sponsored the mellifluous King James Bible, slaved over what had become his personal obsession — Daemonologie, a work in which he passionately set out his certainty at the existence of witches bound by unholy oaths to their infernal master.

The subject was, in fact, deeply personal for him, as he had been the victim of what he believed to be a curse which had caught his ship in fearful storms when returning from Denmark. The result was the infamous North Berwick Witch Trials, in which he personally interrogated many suspected witches at Holyrood Palace, including the healer and midwife Agnes Sampson. Under his supervision, she was stripped and shaved, a spiked witch’s bridle was put into her mouth, a noose was placed around her neck, she was deprived of sleep, then repeatedly probed invasively with a pin to find the Devil’s mark. Inevitably, she succumbed to the horrific torture, confessed, and was executed.

The senseless barbarity of this mass witch hysteria was not confined to Europe, but also exported to the New World. Among the many witch trials there, the best known is that at Salem in 1692, where febrile rumours of diabolic curses led to nineteen people being hanged, one pressed to death, and five more dying in prison.

But how did this all happen? To bring the focus back to England, how did a society that was enjoying the fresh, new plays of William Shakespeare harbour these extraordinary beliefs about witches? And what moved the authorities to set about such extreme and brutal persecution of suspects?

The most widespread and popular view is that a sexually-repressed medieval Church became dysfunctionally obsessed with women and witchcraft, resulting in a vicious misogynistic persecution.

The evidence, though, yields a far more complex picture — not least because by the high point of the witch craze in 1550–1650, the medieval age was well-and-truly over, and the Protestant Reformation had long since killed off the monolithic nature of the one Church. The mass witch burnings took place squarely in the post-Reformation (and Counter-Reformation) “early modern” period.

The story does, however, begin much earlier.

In many of its verses, the Bible assumes magic to be a reality — perhaps most famously when King Saul visited the Witch of Endor. It describes how he put on a disguise (as he had just, frustratingly, banned all magic in his lands) and sought out the old necromancer, whom he commanded to raise the prophet Samuel from the dead for him, which she duly did.

Yet despite the plain text of the Bible, the medieval Church took a more modern line, and categorically denied the existence of magic. Beginning with St Augustine in the AD 400s, it declared magic to be an impossibility. This view was widely followed. For instance, despite the Bible’s injunction not to suffer a witch to live, Charlemagne’s Saxon Capitulary (given at Paderborn in AD 785) ordered the death penalty for anyone who executed another for witchcraft.

The early Church’s most famous formal statement on magic was in the Canon episcopi, a collection of canon law from c. AD 900, which definitively ruled that magic is not real, and that believing otherwise is an error. The Canon was so vastly influential that almost all medieval theology on magic used it as a starting point.

To find the origin of the idea that the medieval Church stoked the witch-craze, we need to look at two men — Heinrich Kramer and Pope Innocent VIII. Between them, they managed to advocate a short-lived minority view that has forever after been popularly seen as the official line.

The prime mover of the two was Kramer — a German Dominican and an inquisitor. In 1486, he published his notorious witch-hunters’ handbook, the Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of the Witches). In it, he insisted that magic was real, and he described how inquisitors should investigate and punish witches. To beef up his credibility, he afterwards added a respected theologian, Jakob Sprenger, as a co-author. At the same time, he got Pope Innocent VIII to confirm him and Sprenger as inquisitors, and to list certain offences of witchcraft. While this papal confirmation was not a dogmatic Church statement that magic existed, it clearly showed a willingness to entertain the idea.

This was exactly what Heinrich Kramer wanted. He wished to launch himself as the pre-eminent witch-hunter, and to have his Malleus Maleficarum fêted as the go-to book for the wave of witch-inquisitors he hoped would follow him.

As it turned out, he failed spectacularly on both counts. Despite brandishing the papal bull in support of his views, the Church condemned his book, ideas, and methods as unethical, illegal, and theologically unsound. It wanted nothing to do with him or the Malleus. There would be no witch persecutions of the sort he envisaged. The Gregorian Inquisition had been established to deal with the religious matter of heresy, not the secular issue of witchcraft. Pope Alexander IV spelled this out clearly in a 1258 canon which forbade inquisitions into sorcery unless there was also manifest heresy. And this view was even confirmed and acknowledged by the infamous inquisitor Bernard Gui (immortalised by Umberto Eco in The Name of the Rose), who wrote in his influential inquisitors’ manual that, by itself, sorcery did not come within the Inquisition’s jurisdiction. In sum, the Church did not want the Inquisition sucked into witch trials, which were for the secular courts.

But fifty years before Kramer published the Malleus Maleficarum, Johannes Gutenburg had fired up Europe’s first printing presses in Mainz, and the scandalous and titillating Malleus Maleficarum was soon flying off the shelves as a best seller, eagerly snapped up by a new protestant readership whose religion was introducing them to unprecedented and violent imagery of the Christian struggle against the Devil.

Luther’s belief in a physical Devil created widespread paranoia

In the age’s new writings, the Devil became more present than ever before. Luther famously described his personal physical bouts with the Devil, whom he saw everywhere and in everything:

We are all subject to the Devil, both in body and goods, and we be strangers in this world, whereof he is the prince and god.

According to Luther:

The Devil liveth, yea and reigneth throughout the whole world.

The result of this intense focus on a physical Devil was a deepening fear of evil in the every day, and of those human agents the Devil worked through. It was therefore a short step for Luther to declare that all witches were the “Devil’s whores” and to be burned. (The violence of the language was not uncommon for the period. Luther famously remarked that German peasants were “lying, thieving hordes” and that the nobility should “smite, slay and stay them as one would a mad dog,” which led directly to a massacre of over a hundred thousand German peasants in 1525–6.) Other reforming thinkers of the time had similarly literalist views of the Bible. John Wesley saw any attempt to deny the existence of witchcraft as “giving up” the Bible. And even into the 1700s, leading jurists like England’s William Blackstone (first Vinerian Professor of Common Law at Oxford) believed that:

To deny the possibility, nay, actual existence of witchcraft and sorcery is at once flatly to contradict the word of God.

Many have theorised why Europe and the New World lost their collective reason over witchcraft for several centuries. Ideas include religious reforms, social change, misogyny, the rise of capitalism, and even an attempt to control the spread of syphilis.

Tonight, as people in numerous European countries limber up to celebrate Walpurgisnacht with bonfires and parties, it is the perfect opportunity to ask ourselves about our society’s view of witches. With the witch-craze far behind us, we are free again to see magic – throughout the ages – as part of our historical social fabric.

Most religious traditions treasure the seasons, where a symmetry of solstices, equinoctes, and other cyclical festivals provide a framework for appreciating the circularity of life. Walpurgisnacht fits neatly into this pattern, falling exactly six months after Halloween, the other great pagan and witchy night of the year.

Both are ancient celebrations.

Halloween is the older, having syncretically evolved from Samhain (the Celtic liminal festival of the dead) into the Christian triduum of Hallowtide — All Saints Eve, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day: three days for remembering the dead.

In medieval times, alongside Hallowtide’s solemn Masses and bell-ringing, regional customs saw charnel houses opened, corpses decorated with flowers, blessings and vigils in graveyards, food left out for the departed, the distribution of spiced cakes and wine, cross-dressing, troupes of revellers, mummers in masks demanding tributes, and general inversion and misrule.

The Church of England under King Edward VI and Queen Elizabeth I stamped out the Church and folk celebrations as popery, although the popular revels were never fully suppressed. They continued in rural areas throughout the 1600s and 1700s, and on occasion officials trying to stop them were beaten up. Across England, the world of the dead continued to be remembered with fires, parties, and rowdy processions, and people still knocked on doors seeking specially baked “soul cakes” in return for saying a prayer for those in purgatory. These Samhain/Hallowtide rituals remained a feature of English life long after the reformation, and they continued almost wholly untouched in Ireland and Scotland, from where they were exported to the United States.

Where Halloween marks the start of winter, Walpurgisnacht celebrates its end (as does the Celtic Beltane, also held now). But Walpurgisnacht is not Celtic. It is a legacy from the pre-Christian Norse cultures of northern Europe and Scandinavia. Like Halloween, it focuses on fire, the changing seasons, the dead, and magic. But where Halloween is a time of playful mischief for remembering a historical attachment to the maverick and effervescent side of the supernatural, Walpurgisnacht has an altogether more sinister aspect. In the Czech Republic, for instance, Walpurgisnacht (Čarodějnice) involves the mass festive burning of straw witch effigies.

In many senses, Halloween and Walpurgisnacht seem to capture profoundly our ambiguity about witchcraft. There is a joy and a silliness to Halloween, with its exuberant children’s storybook witches and cats. But to those who believe that history can teach nothing to our technology-fuelled age, Walpurgisnacht proves the contrary. With its sinister legacy of hysteria around Devilish sabbaths, and its stark reminder of the consequences of witch-hunting, it is a day to recognise — whether we are now a Christian, a post-Christian, or a secular country — that no society is ever as enlightened as it thinks it is.

(First published in The Daily Telegraph, 30 April 2014)