Witchcraft has always been controversial to the western mind because it involves human individuals engaged in impossible activities, such as flying, shape-shifting, and making oneself invisible. The mediaeval Church condemned belief in witchcraft, considering it to be pagan superstition. “Who is there,” asks the Canon Episcopi, “that is not led out of himself in dreams and nocturnal visions, and sees much when sleeping, which he has never seen when awake?” The famous code continues with the question: “Who is so stupid and foolish as to think that all these things which are only done in spirit, happen in the body” (quoted in Kors and Peters 1972, 29-31).

For reasons that are still not very clear, the Church changed its mind and came to accept witchcraft as a diabolic reality. The change occurred in the decades around 1400 and paved the way for the prosecution in the courts of people regarded as witches. This was the beginning of the European witch persecution, which, in some regions, was to last until the end of the eighteenth century. There were, however, sectors of the intellectual elite that remained sceptical towards the existence of witchcraft, and one of these sectors was the Inquisition. […]

In 1526, the Council of the Spanish Inquisition issued a set of instructions for cases of alleged witchcraft. It contained so many reservations, however, that during the remainder of the sixteenth century nobody was executed for the crime of witchcraft, except in a few cases where the situation had gone out of the Council’s control.

Gustav Henningsen, “The Witches’ Flying and the Spanish Inquisitors, or How to Explain (Away) the Impossible [1],” (2009)

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