The series of show trials that epitomized this dreadful perception of witchcraft and heresy took place after 1307, when ClementV, who had been elected pope two years earlier, agreed to investigate heresies and abominable sexual and religious practices allegedly committed by the Knights Templar. The Templars were a military order originally founded in 1118 after the First Crusade against the Saracens, and since then had built up a distinguished record of service

This medieval illustration shows two Knights Templar being burned at the stake while spectators watch impassively. Gruesome death and unimaginable suffering were spectator sports in the grisly Middle Ages.

to Christendom and the Crusader kingdoms in the Holy Land.

This, though, did not save them from scrutiny once King Philip IV of France made accusations against them. Quite possibly, Pope Clement did not know, or maybe did not care to know, that the charges had been manufactured by Philip, who feared Templar power and coveted Templar wealth, nor that the incriminating evidence later presented was falsified. The craven Clement was essentially a creature of King Philip, who dominated him and had already hounded to death one of his predecessors, Pope Boniface VIII, in 1303. After that, no pope dared challenge the increasingly mighty kings of Europe. Clement V did as he was told. The upshot was the torture, imprisonment and death at the stake of scores of Templars and, in 1312, the dissolution of the Templar Order.

The downfall of the Templars shocked European Christendom. If such a rich, powerful, favoured, propertied organization, could be so completely ruined in just a few years, what chance was there for ordinary people who lacked the Templars' privileges and influence? The answer was, of course, none.


The Templars had been the first, and were the wealthiest and most influential, of the religious and military orders formed to manage the new situation in the Holy Land that followed the success of Christian armies in the First Crusade of 1095-99.The Muslim forces were decisively defeated and Crusader realms were set up in Tripoli, Antioch, Edessa and most prestigious of all, in Jerusalem. These new acquisitions needed an administration and some form of defence. For this purpose, military and religious orders of chivalry were created soon after the conclusion of the Crusade. In addition to the Knights Templar, these included the Knights Hospitaller, who provided medical services, and the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre, whose task it was to defend this most important centre of Christian worship in Jerusalem.

Like the Hospitallers, the Templar Order was mainly composed of Frankish knights. Their task was to provide armed escort and protection for the pilgrims who made the long and arduous journey to the Holy Land, because travelling involved many dangers. Unarmed pilgrims were ambushed, robbed, killed, kidnapped and even sold into slavery by bandits who specialized in swift, hit-and-run tactics and then melted away into the desert landscape.

The first Knights Templar who volunteered to guard and protect the pilgrims against such merciless enemies were only nine in number, but they were well suited to the task. All of them were of noble birth, all well connected to powerful families and all well trained in military tactics. They were all extremely devout Christians, and had adopted the highest ideals of the Christian lifestyle, devoting themselves to the poverty and chastity obedience and humility of monks. They were willing to beg for their food and lead pure, exemplary lives. Their original name, the Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple of Solomon said a great deal about them.

And yet, ironically, and in the end tragically, the Poor Knights became the richest crusader Order. This was not of their own doing, but arose from the rich revenues that were lavished on them by admiring aristocrats and churchmen. Young men from rich families who joined the Order and brought their personal wealth with them also filled Templar coffers.

Popes awarded the Templars special privileges, including exemption from the ban on usury (money lending), which allowed them to set up banks and other financial institutions. These enabled them to offer safe deposits loans, credit, trustee services and strongholds for keeping jewellery, gold or other treasure secure. Several European princes and even some wealthy Saracens entrusted the Templars with their substantial treasuries.

In time, the Templars became property owners with a total of 870 castles, schools and houses. They also built extensively, constructing churches, mills, bridges and city walls. In the Holy Land, the Templars constructed several major castles, on strategic sites in Jaffa, Acre and Sidon. These belonged to a new generation of fortress architecture. They were of unprecedented size and sophistication and included the first concentric castles. One of them, at Safed in the Jordan valley was part of a string of Templar fortresses designed to guard against incursions from the Muslim Emirate of Damascus. It took two years to build at a cost in today's terms of around £40 million. Its walls were over 18 metres thick and 52 metres high, and the castle's seven towers rose to an overall height of nearly 38 metres above the walls. The whole edifice, which required a garrison of 2000 men and £2 million a year to maintain, was cut from solid rock.

But the power, wealth and influence of the Templars proved to be their undoing once the envious King Philip TV of France set to work to bring them down. It took the King seven years to destroy the Templars by means of lies and false accusation, and virtually every other dirty trick he could come up with.

Clement V did as he was told. The upshot was the torture, imprisonment and death at the stake of scores of Templars.


Even good deeds apparently achieved by means of sorcery were regarded as works of the Devil. This lesson was learnt the hard way in France, in 1390, when a man named Jehan de Ruilly accused Jehenne de Brigue of witchcraft after she had used sorcery to cure him of a spell laid on him by Gilette, the mother of his two illegitimate children. De Ruilly, it appears, was at death's door, with barely a week to live, when de Brigue showed him how to make a wax doll of Gilette and suckle a pair of toads. He made a miraculous recovery.

At first, de Brigue professed to know nothing about sorcery or witchcraft, but at her trial, it emerged that she had learnt how to cast spells and summon up a demon named Haussibut to help her in working her cures. It was Haussibut who aided de Ruilly's treatment by revealing to de Brigue that Gilette had hexed him. Despite the beneficial nature of her activities, Jehenne de Brigue was sentenced to burn. She was saved from

This 16th-century woodcut shows a crowd of men and women accused of witchcraft being burned together in a pit.

the stake at the last moment when a re-trial was ordered early in 1391. However, the case against de Brigue grew more and more serious from then on.

She was stretched out naked on a trestle, ready to be tortured, when she started to make lurid confessions. She admitted helping Macette de Ruilly (de Ruilly's wife), prepare a poison to use on her husband so that she could be free to carry on an affair with a curate. Macette denied the story, but when stretched on the rack, she changed her mind and also started to confess. De Brigue and Macette de Ruilly were both found guilty of sorcery and of making a pact with the Devil. They were taken to Chatelet-Les Halles, in the centre of Paris, where they were forced to wear a conical mitre decorated by devils, the sign of the heretic. Next, they were placed in the pillory to be misused and insulted at will by the Parisians. Finally, they were burnt alive at the Pig Market where de Brigue and Macette died at the stake on 17 August 1391.

Even good deeds

apparently achieved by means

of sorcery were regarded as

works of the Devil.

Witch trials continued on into the fifteenth century and assumed an even more brutal and sinister character in Switzerland. Here, in 1428, alleged witches, who were said to fly across the country and use their demonic powers to make men and women infertile, were forced to make confession under torture. Such witches were said to destroy crops, remove milk from cows and kill and eat children at sabbath feasts.

Stretched out naked on

a trestle ready to be tortured

she started to make lurid


They were accused of indulging in obscene dances at their sabbaths, kissing the Devil's rump and participating in wild sex orgies, during which the Devil could change his sex and so enjoy men as well as women in a single night.

During the proceedings, it was believed, the Devil would leave a special mark on the witches' bodies. The discovery of this mark was as good as a death sentence, for once the inquisitors found it, they tested it by 'pricking' with a needle or other sharp instrument: if no blood were drawn or pain were felt, all hope of escape was gone. In Switzerland, some 200 men and women were burned. By 1450, at Briancon, on the French side of the Alps, 110 women and 57 men accused of witchcraft died at the stake.

Men were also targeted in this way in Normandy, in northern France, where the Inquisition at Evreux sentenced Guillaume Edeline, prior of Saint-

A woman accused of witchcraft is shown being undressed by her accusers in a 16th-century torture chamber. One end of the rack, a torture device to stretch victims and dislocate their limbs, can be seen at the bottom right of the picture.

Germain-en-Laye to life imprisonment in 1453 for having sex with a succubus (a female demon who was believed to seduce men while they slept). His sentence included punishment for flying on a broomstick and kissing a goat underneath its tail.

Witches were said to destroy

crops, remove milk from cows,

and kill and eat children at

sabbath feasts.

Robert Olive of Falaise fared worse. In 1456, he was burnt for flying to witches' sabbaths.

This, though, was only a prelude to a full-scale witch-hunt that began in Arras, in the Pas-de-Calais region of northeast France in 1459. One of the first victims was Deniselle Grensieres, a mentally retarded woman who was repeatedly tortured by Pierre le Broussart, a Dominican and the chief inquisitor of Arras. Eventually, Deniselle confessed and named four women and the artist Jehan la -Vitte as her associates. One of the four women, terrified of being tortured, killed herself before she could be handed over to le Broussart. LaVitte also took drastic action. When he was threatened with torture, he feared that he might weaken and name names in his turn. To avoid this, la Vitte tried to cut out his tongue, but all he did was cause deep lacerations around his mouth. This made talking difficult, but la Vitte still had his hands and was obliged to write his account of how men and women

This 16th-century woodcut shows a popular image of dealings with the Devil in which a man and a woman dance in a circle with demons. The musical accompaniment is provided by a violinist perched in the nearby tree.

suddenly found themselves transported to the Devil's meeting place. La Vitte next recounted how the Devil, who assumed human form though his face remained hidden, obliged everyone to kiss his backside, then sit down to a banquet. Afterwards, the lights were extinguished - the signal for an orgy to begin. 'Each (man and woman) took a partner,' la Vitte told the Inquisition, 'and knew each other carnally.' In the spring of 1460, la Vitte, Deniselle Grensieres and the three surviving women she had named were declared heretics and were forced to wear the Devil's mitre. All five of them were burnt.

Assurances came to nothing.

Once they had confessed they

were burnt to death.


They left behind a long list of people they had betrayed to le Broussart and once they were ashes, he lost little time in arresting yet another round of victims. This time, though, his list included several distinguished names - men and women of noble birth or high social standing, bishops and other prelates, judges and high-ranking administrators. Some of them managed to bribe their way out of danger, while others were

La Vitte was threatened

with torture. He tried to

cut out his tongue, but all he did

was cause deep lacerations

around his mouth.

assured that in exchange for a confession they could keep their property and other wealth - and their lives. These assurances came to nothing. Once they had confessed, they were burnt to death, like the ordinary folk on le Broussart's list, and feudal overlords or the local bishops seized their goods and estates.


By this time, the excesses of the witch-hunt had reached such heights that they provoked a backlash. Churchmen in Arras urged le Broussart to declare an amnesty for those he had imprisoned. When he refused, the bishops of Arras and Amiens, together with the Archbishop of Rheims took matters into their own hands. They started to quash the charges of witchcraft that came before them for judgement and pronounced witches' sabbaths as nothing but hysteria and imagination. At this point, the Parlement of Paris, formerly the council of the kings of France, stepped in and freed some of le Broussart's prisoners. Jean Jouffrey, Bishop of Arras released the rest.

The Parlement went further, though. Its members condemned le Broussart for acting 'in error and against the order and dignity of justice'. The inquisition at Arras did not escape censure, either. The inquisitors, it was stated, had 'conducted a false trial and one without due process of law'. The inquisition, the Parlement continued, had perpetrated 'inhuman and cruel interrogation and tortures... such as squeezing the limbs, putting the soles of the feet in the fire and making



The Index of Prohibited Books or Index Librorum
Prohibitorum was a list containing works banned for Catholic
readers by the Church. Prohibited books could contain a
variety of 'errors', including heresy, immorality, explicit sex
or other subjects that were deemed contrary to the
teachings of the Catholic Church. 

In his papal Bull Summis desiderantes of 5 December 1484, Pope Innocent VIII ordered harsh measures to be taken against witches and magicians in Germany.

They started to quash the charges

of witchcraft that came before them

for judgement and pronounced

witches' sabbaths as nothing

but hysteria and imagination.

the accused swallow oil and vinegar'. Prayers, it was suggested, should be said for those who had died.

The mood was very different when Pope Innocent VIII was contemplating the problem of witchcraft and heresy in Germany in 1484. There was no chance of clemency here, for in a bull issued in that year, Innocent outlined a very disturbing situation. He announced:

It has recently come to our ears that in some parts of upper Germany... many persons of both sexes... give themselves over to devils male and female, and by their incantations, charms, and conjurings, and by other abominable superstitions... offences, crimes, and misdeeds, ruin and cause to perish the offspring of women, the foal of animals, the products of the earth, the grapes of vines, and the fruits of trees, as well as men and women, cattle and flocks and herds and animals of every kind, vineyards also and orchards, meadows, pastures, harvests, grains and other fruits of the earth; that they afflict and torture with dire pains and anguish, both internal and external, these men, women, cattle, flocks, herds, and animals, and hinder men from begetting and women from conceiving... it shall be permitted to the inquisitors to exercise their office of inquisition and to proceed to the correction, imprisonment, and punishment of the aforesaid persons for their said offences and crimes...

Simply to deny charges of

heresy or witchcraft was to

prove the charges true.


He did not say so in so many words, but Innocent's new offensive against witches and heresy closed important loopholes in previous practice and represented guilt by accusation with no hope of reprieve. Simply to deny charges of heresy or witchcraft was to prove the charges true and this applied as much to bishops, theologians or other Church worthies as it did to the lowliest serf or peasant. In addition, speaking up in defence of the accused or attempting to prove charges of witchcraft false were also considered signs of a heretic at work.

What followed was nothing short of a massacre masterminded by two Dominicans specially chosen for the task by the pope himself. They were Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, also known as the Apostle of the Rosary. These two became the joint authors of Malleus Maleficarum, usually known as The Witches' Hammer. It was published in around 1486 and reprinted in 28 new editions by 1600. The Witches' Hammer was a

The burning of witches at Demeburg Castle near Hanover, Germany, is illustrated here in a book published in 1555.

manual for identifying and punishing witches, and contained most, if not all, the folk beliefs current at the time. It was primarily designed to instruct judges and magistrates in techniques for interrogating witches and establishing their guilt. The book, which benefited from the wide distribution afforded by the new printing press, was just as popular among Protestants as it was among Catholics and copies could be found in courtrooms where they were regularly consulted by both judges and magistrates until well into the eighteenth century.

But the truthfulness of the book was always in doubt. After all, the subject of witchcraft depended

The frontispiece of Malleus Maleficarum, the manual of witchcraft usually known as The Witches' Hammer and first published in 1486. It was used to identify and punish witches until well into the 18th century.

heavily on fear, gossip and superstition, and this was particularly true at the height of the campaign of hunting and burning witches. In 1487, when Kramer sent a copy of the book to the Faculty of Theology at the University of Cologne, hoping to gain an endorsement for the work, he was severely put out when, instead, it was pronounced both unethical and illegal. Undeterred, Kramer forged an endorsement from the University and included it in future editions.

The Witches' Hammer was

primarily designed to instruct

judges and magistrates in

techniques for interrogating witches

and establishing their guilt.

He also managed to get round the condemnation of Pope Innocent VIII, who was apparently unnerved over the savagery he had unleashed. In 1490 Innocent ordered The Witches' Hammer to be added to the Index of Prohibited Books. However, Kramer had a copy of the papal bull of 1484, together with more endorsements, printed at the beginning of the book, so giving the impression that Innocent had approved it.


But intellectual scepticism about witches was no match for popular belief, which clung on grimly to myths and fantasies, however outlandish, even when scholars, theologians - and popes - rejected them. One typical anecdote in The Witches' Hammer told of the Devil's ability to rob a man of his male organ, which, it appears, simply disappeared from its natural place. Fortunately, the organ magically reappeared after the man in question managed to retrieve it from a woman who had bewitched him. Another story recounted how a rival bewitched a young wife on her wedding day. As her husband recounted:

In the time of my youth I loved a girl who importuned me to marry her; but I refused her and married another girl... But wishing for friendship's sake to please her, I invited her to the wedding. She came, and... raised her hand and, in the hearing of the other women who were standing round, said, 'You will have few days of health after today.'... It happened just as she had said. For after a few days my wife was so bewitched that she lost the use of all her limbs, and even now, after ten years, the effects of witchcraft can (still) be seen on her body.

A 16th-century woodcut showing the meal eaten at the Witches' Sabbath, at which men and women socialized with devils and demons. The meal was followed by a wild sex orgy.


Stories like these rang bells with ordinary folk, for dread of the odd, the unusual, the unexplained or the mystifying had deep roots in their pagan past and was still prevalent in medieval times. So was a fear of sex and sexuality among churchmen and not just for its connection with original sin. The sex drive was a terrible enemy, for it deprived men and women of control and stole away both virtue and virginity. Kramer and Sprenger demonstrated this fear to the full in The Witches' Hammer and Sprenger at least was a thoroughgoing misogynist, writing:

I  would rather have a lion or a dragon loose in my house than a woman... Feeble in mind and body, it is not surprising women so often become witches... A woman is carnal lust personified... if a woman cannot get a man, she will consort with the Devil himself.

Armed with ideas like this and with a brief from Pope Innocent giving them the power to do virtually as

Torturing a victim on the wheel virtually shredded the body to pieces. A monk stands by with pen and paper, presumably waiting to write down a confession.

they pleased, Kramer and Sprenger set off across Germany to root out witchcraft and heresy wherever they could find it. This was a no-holds-barred expedition and the inquisitors used lies, maltreatment and psychological pressure along with physical torture to get the convictions they wanted. They flogged their victims until the blood ran. They used the rack, thumbscrews and crushers of various kinds. But these were just the preliminaries.


The real refinements, which came later, were listed on a tariff of tortures drawn up by Hermann IV of Hesse, Archbishop of Cologne. One option involved cutting out a victim's tongue and then pouring hot metal into their mouth. Another entailed cutting off a hand and nailing it to the gallows, presumably before the condemned witch was hanged. None of this came free, though. The victims family was charged a fee for the privilege and they also had to pay for the expense of a celebratory feast if the victim died under torture. 




Keith Hunt