In 1610, however, during the famous trial against the witches of Zugarramurdi, the Inquisition Council deviated from its normal practice by confirming the death sentences of six witches found guilty of the crime of witchcraft. It seems that the inquisitors of Logrono, which in the meantime had become the seat of the Inquisition for Navarra and the Basque-speaking provinces, had let themselves be influenced by the French judges who were involved in a large-scale witch-hunt on the other side of the Pyrenees. The Spanish inquisitors had even received letters from the French judge, Pierre de Lancre, who did not for a moment doubt the reality of witchcraft (Lancre 1613, 143f; compare Henningsen 1980, 250f).

Not long afterwards, however, the Council realised that the burnings of 1610 had been a serious mistake, and returned to its old policy mentioned above. After the sad affair of Logrono, therefore, no witch was burned by the Spanish Inquisition, in Spain, or in the Spanish dependencies in Italy and the New World. This did not mean, however, that a stop had been put to witchcraft and sorcery trials; on the contrary, their numbers had increased although the death penalty had been abandoned. Thus, during the ninety years from 1610 to 1700, I estimate that the Spanish Inquisition held more than five thousand witch trials.

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


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)

The Roman Inquisition was reconstituted in 1542 to combat the menace of Protestantism in the Italian peninsula, whereas the Spanish Inquisition had been created more than half a century earlier to deal with massive numbers of converted Jews. […]

Wherever one turns, therefore, it appears that Italian Inquisitors were becoming preoccupied with superstitious magic and witchcraft well before 1600 – unlike their Spanish counterparts, who held barely 2 percent of their pre-1615 trials for such offenses. In the seventeenth century this Italian concern with magicians and witches persisted, while the attention that needed to be devoted to heretics continued to diminish. Illicit magic alone constituted over 40 percent of all cases both at Venice and in the Friuli and for close to 40 percent in Naples. Even in Sicily, where it accounted for only 25 percent Holy Office activity after 1615, illicit magic was the largest single category and the 310 trials for this offense were the largest total from any of the twenty Spanish tribunals during this period. After 1600, prosecution of magicians dominated the business of the Italian inquisitions, far more dramatically than it ever did in any part of the Spanish system: in the nine Castilian tribunals, for example, “superstition” accounted for only 12 percent of the 6,240 trials held between 1615-1700. As late as the decade 1701-1710, illicit magic accounted for 69 percent of all Venetian inquisitorial cases and 61 percent of those at Naples.

E. William Monter and John Tedeschi, “Toward a Statistical Profile of the Italian Inquisitions, Sixteenth to Eighteenth Centuries”. The Inquisition in Early Modern Europe: Studies on Sources and Methods (1986)

Those modern scholars are in error, for example, who assume that the notorious Malleus Maleficarum, the work of two German Dominicans first published in 1486, remained “the standard manual for the persecutors of the next two centuries, not only in Catholic but in Protestant countries as well”. On the contrary, a philosophy entirely opposed to that of the Malleus was gaining ascendancy in the tribunals of the Holy Office throughout the second half of the sixteenth century and was made normative thanks to the Instructio pro formandid processibus in causis strigum, sortilegiorum & maleficiorum which began to circulate in manuscript at least as early as 1624 and was incorporated into the Sacro Arsenale (beginning with the edition of 1625), the most widely followed Italian inquisitorial handbook of the age. At the close of the sixteenth century, even Martinus Del Rio, an unquestioning enemy of witchcraft, had separated himself from many of the teachings pronounced by the Malleus Maleficarum a hundred years before.

John Tedeschi, The Prosecution of Heresy (1991)

The Supreme Congregation in Rome watched over the provincial tribunals, enforced the observance of what was for the times an essentially moderate code of law, and maintained uniformity of practice. While moral justice was impossible, given the presupposition of the Church that it had the right, even the duty, to prosecute those who differed in their religious beliefs, legal justice in terms of the jurisprudence of early modern Europe was indeed dispensed by the Roman Inquisition.

In trials conducted under its jurisdiction loose allegations were not permitted and accusers made their depositions under oath. To forestall charges stemming from personal animosities, since the names of prosecution witnesses were concealed, defendants were asked in advance to provide the names of individuals whom they considered their enemies. The records of the trial proceedings were provided to prisoners and to their lawyers in writing (with the names of the deponents deleted) and an appropriate interval, varying from several days to a few weeks, allowed for the preparation of counter arguments and the summoning of friendly witnesses. Judicial torture, which was carefully circumscribed, might be applied only after the defense had made its case and where the indicia, the evidence, was compelling. No properly conducted inquisitorial trial commenced with the rigoroso examine. The local bishop or his vicar, duly constituted members of a provincial inquisitorial court, had to concur in the decision and be present during the questioning.

Particularly in witchcraft proceedings, these and many other safeguards were in effect. Physicians were consulted to establish the corpus delicti, specifically to determine whether an illness or death might have had a natural cause before jumping to the assumption that a maleficium had been perpetrated. The search for the Devil’s mark was unknown in the inquisitorial process, and the failure on the part of the accused to evince emotion or shed tears during the interrogation was considered of scant significance. Alleged participants at Sabbats were not allowed to implicate their accomplices, and the testimony of witnesses who suffered from poor reputations could not lead to the torture of the defendant. In serious cases, sentences pronounced by provincial tribunals were scrutinized by the Congregation of the Inquisition in Rome and implausible confessions which contradicted the defendant’s testimony during the trial were deemed invalid. No witch was ever sent to the stake as a first offender if she showed the signs of repentance. Even in the extreme case of witches convicted of having caused a fatal injury, it was only Gregory XV, in 1623, in opposition to the prevailing tradition, who attempted to have the death sentence invoked. Relatively few encounters with the Inquisition ended at the stake. This was a fate reserved for the relapsed, the impenitent, and those convicted of attempting to overturn a few central doctrines of the Church. But even in these cases lesser forms of punishment often prevailed.

I suggest further that many aspects of modern criminal law were already in place in rudimentary form or were being introduced in the tribunals of the Roman Inquisition in the sixteenth century. The arraigned had the benefit of a defense attorney, including “public defenders” appointed by the court for the indigent, at a time when this figure did not exist in English law and was being relegated to a secondary role in civil French and imperial codes; confessions obtained extrajudicially were invalid; appeals could be and regularly were made to a higher court, namely the Supreme Congregation in Rome itself; first offenders were dealt with infinitely more leniently than recidivists. Imprisonment as a punishment, rather than merely for the purpose of custody during the trial, was introduced by the Inquisition, a consequence of the canonical prohibition against shedding blood, long before it was adopted by civil authorities at the close of the sixteenth century. Before that time, when pronouncing final judgment, secular courts could only choose from among several extreme alternatives. A sentence to life imprisonment (carcere perpetuo) by the Holy Office meant, as it does today, parole after a few years, generally three, subject to good behavior; but commutations after even briefer periods are frequently encountered. And house arrest, joined to work release programs and community service, was a common form of penal practice pursued by the Inquisition in its day. Although abuses occurred at the level of the provincial courts, where the local officials were often overworked, undertrained, and even, occasionally, poorly motivated and unsuited for the task at hand, Rome intervened time and again to enforce acceptable procedure and punish negligent and ignorant judges. The flagrant abuses which beset even the supreme tribunal when Cardinal Carafa, the future Paul IV, was its dominant member, and during his reign as pope, 1555-1559, present a notable aberration in the history of the institution.

John Tedeschi, The Prosecution of Heresy (1991)

After 1650 – and thus long before the official day of reckoning for witch-belief during ‘the possession of Thisted’ in 1696-98 – a marked drop in the numbers of witch- trials took place. On an average Viborg Landsting now had only two or three of this type of case a year, and the Jutland High Court judges grew more and more sceptical. One of them, the Professor of Mathematics, Villum Lange, wrote to Peder Schumacher (the later Griffenfeldt) in 1670:

‘During the past few days we have had a crowd of women brought before us, accused of sorcery. We have condemned a number of them to the stake; but because they are so foolish and simple-minded we have recommended to the court that the case should first be brought before His Majesty for appeal … One of them confessed to us herself that she had talked with the devil; but whether it was melancholia or some other form of fantasy, or was the honest truth, God alone knows. To me she appeared to be a person in her second childhood.’

No wonder that rumours soon began to circulate that this High Court judge ‘was siding with the sorceresses and saying that no sorceresses existed.’ Towards the close of the century the common people were complaining that the Jutland High Court judges never condemned anyone to the stake any more, and that was the reason for there being so many sorceresses in Jutland.

But it was only among the educated uper clases that attitudes were changing. Among ordinary folk the need for witch-trials continued to be felt far into the future, and when the authorities would no longer agree to hear this type of case, people several times took the law into their own hands. In 1722 some peasants at Grgnning on Salling lynched a witch by burning, and in 1800 the last murder of a witch occurred at Brigsted in the neighbourhood of Vejle. Not before the increasing prosperity of the end of the nineteenth century did the grounds for upholding the grim philosophy of witch-belief diminish. Another factor, doubtless, was the great movement of population in connection with industrialisation, which must have helped to break down the strictly-held norms in local communities and to make people more tolerant towards each other. But the truth is that as yet we know too little to enable us to explain why belief in witches disappeared so rapidly in most parts of Denmark, while in a few remote corners of the country it persisted right into our own time.

Gustav Henningsen, “Witchcraft in Denmark” (1982)

It is not easy to calculate how many people were burned at the stake as a result of the witch-trials in Denmark, since many of our old legal archives have been lost, and because a complete survey does not yet exist of the source material that is available. However, systematic examination currently being carried out by two young historians, Karsten Sejr Jensen and Jens Chr. Johansen, of Danish witch-trial records from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries respectively, has already indicated that previous calculations greatly exaggerated.

From my knowledge of the results they have so far achieved I would estimate that the total number of victims countrywide during the period from the Reformation in 1536, up to 1693, when the last legal witch- burning took place, was less than a thousand, and that the maximum number of this type of case tried was two thousand. For it is a fact that there were quite as many acquittals as there were sentences, particularly after 1576, when all death sentences in sorcery cases were referred for appeal to the Landsting. Examination of the court rolls from Viborg Landsting for the years 1612-1637, a period when witch-persecution reached its peak as a result of Christian IV’s ‘Decree concerning Sorcerers and their Accomplices’ of 1617, shows that the Jutland High Court judges imposed considerably milder sentences than the local courts: out of 225 persons who were recommended to be burned at the stake, 114, or slightly fewer than half the total number, were acquitted. The Viborg Landsting statistics during this 25-year period reveal some other interesting details of the witch-trials. 90% of the accused were women, only 10% were men. Distribution into age-groups shows that two-thirds of the witches were old (which in those days meant having reached the age of 50), slightly less than a third were between 25 and 50, and only a very few were under 25. The general assumption that the majority of witches were solitary persons does not hold water here. Most of them were married (59%) or widowed (8%) and only 6% were unmarried; but to these figures must be added, it is true, 27% whose marital status is unknown. The authority of Viborg Landsting covered the whole of Northern Jutland from Kongeaaen to Skagen, an area including 24 market towns and about 950 country parishes. When we recall that at that time every town and every parish had its witches and ‘wizards,’ it is actually surprising that the Jutland High Court judges could find holding an average of 10 cases a year to be sufficient. It is true that only three-fifths of the rolls are extant, but even if this is taken into account and the average calculated as 17 per annum, it is still only 17 per 1000 of the thousands of witches free and at large in Jutland.

The reason for so few being brought to justice was that a trial was a costly undertaking. A person who brought a case before the courts had among other things to take responsibility for the subsistence of the accused if he was being held in prison, and when there was also a risk of the case resulting in an acquittal owing to insufficient evidence, many hesitated to instigate proceedings. It could also happen that the case might be turned against one so that one found oneself accused of defamation and calumnious allegations. Therefore quite frequently witches were combated by other means, for instance their powers could be destroyed by counter-magic. Trial was therefore seen as the last resort. On the other hand many would ‘tag along’ when someone in the parish finally decided to serve a summons on a notorious witch. There could be as many as 50 witnesses in a witch- trial and the charges could involve damages and bewitchings that went back twenty or even forty years. The most frequent accusation levelled against the witches claimed that they brought sickness on able-bodied persons in their prime. In the country they could be charged with damages to cows and horses as well as milk and butter production. In coastal districts they were blamed for ruining the fishing, and in the market towns for harming trade. In short, when the witches were at their deeds of darkess, the very foundations of existence were at risk, people’s naering og bjaering, their very livelihood, as an old phrase has it.

Gustav Henningsen, “Witchcraft in Denmark” (1982)

Concurrently with the purge of wise men and women began to occur the witch-trials proper, but that the whole procedure was new is clear from the length of time taken to get it under way, for instance at Helsingor, where fortunately a complete series of court rolls is extant from 1549 onwards. Here witch-trials were instigated in 1559 and 1565, but not before 1571 was there success in bringing a witch to the stake. However, it is characteristic of the Danish cases that they are almost invariably concerned with concrete crimes committed by sorcery. The devil and the witches’ sabbath do not occupy the same position of importance as in Central European-and later, Northern Swedish-witch-trials.

Denmark throughout the phenomenon and right up to the cessation of trials in the 1690’s remained an undeveloped country where witchcraft was concerned. The reason for the craze never being allowed the opportunity to rage here was due to two ordinances from 1547, which are probably unique in European legislation. The first stipulated that persons found guilty of infamous crimes such as theft, treachery and sorcery, should not be credited when they witnessed against others; the second ruled that ‘no person shall be interrogated under torture before he is sentenced.’. These two procedural rules put an end to the chains of cases mentioned by Palladius, where one sorceress ‘betrayed the other.’ Neither was it possible without torture to force people to confess what they had experienced at the witches’ sabbaths and provide lists of the people they had seen at them.

Gustav Henningsen, “Witchcraft in Denmark” (1982)

This leads directly on to the third function of witch-belief, its importance in preserving social norms: the witch is purely and simply the epitome of all that is antisocial and in defiance of society, and therefore its members make every effort to conduct themselves in such a way that they cannot be accused of being witches. While decent people took pains to do good, witches were always doing evil, whether or not it was advantageous to them. And while envy was described as being one of the cardinal characteristics of witches, everyone else took care to assure their neighbours that such a feeling was unknown to them. A great many ancient polite phrases and forms of greeting would seem originally to have possessed this function: ‘May it become you well,’ ‘congratulations,’ ‘good luck,’ ‘you are welcome,’ the peace of God,’ ‘good-day,’ ‘farewell’ or ‘good luck with the work,’ as one says in Vendsyssel when one passes someone sawing firewood or similarly occupied. One hears time and again of witches who approach or walk past without uttering these remarks, whereupon some mischance or other ensues. This new sociological view of witch-belief has in many respects furthered the demystification of the age of witch-trials. It is no longer necessary to assume that those persecuted were people who had deliberately or with a disturbed mind made a pact with the devil in order to practise black magic, or that the witches belonged to heathen cults secretly cultivating an ancient fertility god, ‘the horned god,’ (or ‘the Devil’ as their Christian persecutors called him). This type of theory, which predominated in the study of the subject right into the 1950s, inevitably puts us on a level with inquisitors, witch-judges and popular witch-persecutors who all believed that the witches really were to blame. Neither is it a solution to brand the witches as various kinds of rebel against society, as was popular in the newspaper articles and polemical publications of the 1970s.

The more perspicacious research into witch-belief has come to indicate that the source material does not support such theories, which, moreover, are entirely superfluous. For when we stop staring blindly at the witches and focus on their accusers, the believers in witchcraft, everything falls into place, and the reason for certain individuals in milieux adhering to the common philosophy described above being allotted the role of scapegoat, becomes abundantly clear. On the basis of the thousands of witch-trial records subjected to scrutiny in recent years, it is possible to ascertain that only an extremely small proportion were mentally deranged folk who were under the delusion that they were witches, and that a somewhat larger group were ‘wise’ men and women. But the greatest number by far were perfectly ordinary people who had never in any way attempted to practise witchcraft. It was a role imposed on them by their surroundings.

Gustav Henningsen, “Witchcraft in Denmark”. Folklore (1982)

I shall maintain that the phrase ‘each town has its witch’ in ‘The Midsummer Ballad’ was more than a poetic commonplace at the period when that poem was composed. When Holger Drachmann wrote it in 1885, witchcraft was still alive and flourishing in the country and the smaller market towns. The witch, like the local ‘original,’ was the role commonly provided in the idyllic villages and cosy provincial towns for individuals who did not conform within the small social group where everyone knew and was concerned with everyone else.

It is difficult to understand how witch-belief could have lasted for so long if it was merely based on foolish misunderstanding and ignorance, as we have been led to assume ever since the Age of Enlightenment. But during the last few decades examination of historical as well as present-day milieux incorporating witch-belief has shown the untenability of the old ideas and led to the realisation that this type of manifestation possesses various psychological and sociological functions. Witch-belief is a philosophy of life that enables people to overcome a considerable number of common problems. It does not teach, as the Church has done in Denmark since the days of Pietism, that accident and misfortune are trials sent by God, to be borne with the same humility as that with which Job bore his, as the Bible records. According to witch-belief the ills of life are not punishment for sins committed but are villainous attacks carried out by certain types of person who are in league with hidden powers: the witches. However, these dangerous people can be overcome; there are two ways of combating them: either through counter-magic, whereby, possibly with the aid of a ‘cunning man,’ an attack is directed against the supernatural side of their nature, or-because the witch is after all a human being of flesh and blood-by resorting to physical violence.

In Denmark, for instance, it was believed that it was possible to quell the power of the witch by drawing blood, which for many ages led to severe maltreatment of supposed witches. The latest recorded maltreatment of a Danish witch occurred in Vendsyssel in 1897. Witch-belief has a further important function in serving as a kind of safety-valve for all the hidden aggression which cannot be expressed through normal channels since it is not tolerated by society. One would be frowned upon for turning away a pauper without giving him anything, or for shutting the door in a neighbour’s face when he called to borrow something, or for throwing one’s mother-in-law out of the house when she was in her dotage; but if one could convince oneself and others that these people in fact were witches, one was perfectly justified in kicking out the pauper, slamming the door on the neighbour and forcing mother-in-law to live in an outhouse on the scraps one put out for her. When one had once established the fact that someone was no ordinary human being, but a witch, there were no limits to how far one could go in setting aside moral and social norms.

Gustav Henningsen, “Witchcraft in Denmark”. Folklore (1982)