While witchcraft was not new, during the 16th, 17th and 18th Centuries accusation and persecution of this crime reached an all time high (Hole 21). This was a pan European phenomenon; witches were found all across Europe in countries such as England, France, Germany, and Switzerland. With the rise of the printing press, literature on witchcraft cases was available for everyone from the highest bishop to the lowest peasant to read or hear about and take action (Seth 99).
As the rumors spread and printed trial records circulated throughout Europe about the first few witchcraft trials, people began to grow more suspicious of neighbors or anyone who might have done them wrong. It rapidly became clear that anyone could be a witch and anyone could accuse someone of witchcraft. Soon the notion had spread that Europe was crawling with witches (Sidky 141). Therefore, when commoners learned that accusations were being dealt with quickly and severely, such accusations became rampant.
The crime of witchcraft was unique in that it almost always required confession as a condition of conviction (Paine 71). Witchcraft was a crime that took place at a sabbat unobserved, at night or in remote places. People were supposedly in contact with, selling their souls to and making pacts with the Devil himself. It was clear that the lawyer prosecuting the case could not persuade the Devil to appear in court against his own disciples (Paine 6). It was also difficult to obtain evidence for this unseen crime.
No witness in his or her right mind would confess to seeing a witch at the sabbat for fear of also being named a witch or an accomplice. Therefore, with weak accusations, no witnesses or evidence, a confession was the only plausible means for proving the accusation. There was, of course, only one method for gaining this confession: torture. These tortures ranged from primitive to sadistic, depending on the location, torturer and pain threshold of the accused. Virtually all convictions of witchcraft were punishable by death.
The witches' crimes involved the soul, so they became the business of the church. Sanctioned by the church to secure confessions, the inquisitors, or witch-hammers as they were sometimes called, went about finding witches and all accomplices to this crime of heresy. In Germany, torture had the beneficial side effect that if the accused were persuaded to confess her error, it would appease God and perhaps save her immortal soul. Torture was therefore considered the path to Heaven for the convicted witch.
Civil courts and clerical tribunals carrying out these tortures were carrying out the judgment of God (Paine 72). They followed the Malleus Maleficarum and other old literature on torture from other inquisitions (Paine 79). Their instruments of torture were even blessed by a priest before the painful proceedings began. Witches served Satan, which meant they were earthly recruits in his war against God. It was by that logic that they must be tortured until a full confession is reached. This full confession, according to the Christian church, was required for salvation.
So, in order to maintain this salvation, confessed witches had to be put to death. If not, they might recant and revert to back to Satan's evil path (Paine 72). In these cases, final torture was used. If the prevailing inquisitor felt the witch might recant her confession, the torturer was instructed to use the final torture devices while a last attempt to ferret out accomplices was made (Sidky 118). Those confessed witches who had given accomplices were told they would finally be accepted into Heaven as they were burned to their death on a stake.
In short, these torturers felt they were doing the witches a tremendous favor by saving them from damnation and making it possible for them to attain salvation (Paine 72). In England, the crime of witchcraft was never prosecuted as heresy as it was on the continent. The accused witch was charged with crimes that fell within existing laws (Seth 4). English witchcraft was prosecuted according to the laws the witch had broken using his or her evil spells. The charge fell on the malefica that was allegedly performed by the supposed witch, rather than a contract with the Devil as in Germany (Sidky 23).
Therefore because of this difference, the guilty were hanged, not burned at the stake. The common charge against English witches was their keeping of imps or familiars. These demons would come in any form from dog, cat, or toad, to get special nourishment from a special nipple concealed on the witch's body. This became known as the witch's mark and was the platform that English witch-finders used to identify an accused witch (Sidky 23). In Germany the church and in England the state rulers were giving their blessings to eliminate the witch from society.
But obviously there were great differences between how witchcraft was regarded in England versus on the continent. Thus, the techniques of torture to gain confession differed as greatly. A person accused of witchcraft in Germany could expect a grim, short future. The accused witch would first be chained up in dark, damp, vermin-infested cell in some sort of a dungeon where it was impossible to tell whether it was day or night (Sidky 128). In most dungeons, the cells were not even big enough to sit, stand or lie down.
They would lie or hang in their own filth, exposed to the extreme temperatures of the season and would be poorly fed, if at all. Meals were not provided for nourishment but were a part of the torture process too. Often meals consisted of consecrated salts, holy water and baptismal water (Hole 112). Assuming the accused witch still had not confessed, she would be taken to the torture chamber to meet her torture technician. This alarming figure would be dressed all in black, a cowl over his head with only two holes cut for him to see his quarry.
Frequently, the accused witch thought she was being tortured by the Devil himself, which was, of course, the inquisitor's intention. Before the actual torture began, the accused was stripped and shaved everywhere. This was done so a thorough probing of all body cavities and orifices could ferret out any hidden charms or talismans that might aid in stifling the pain from the torture. If the accused witch was a woman (women were the predominantly accused) no matter what age, she was often raped at this point. If, after this dehumanization, the accused did not wish to confess, she was given a full tour of the chamber.
This was the initial phase of the torture while the accused was bombarded with psychological techniques such as threats, intimidation and verbal persuasion as she heard all the suffering, screams and prayers of the victims already in the second or third phase of the torture. The torturer or his assistant explained all the exhibited devices and sometimes gave a sample demonstration. Many of these techniques came straight from the torture technician's handbook, the Malleus Maleficarum (lecture Tom). In the initial phases of torture, the accused was given a glimpse of the pain to come.
Devices such as toescrew or thumbscrew, shin-vice or a spine roller were used. For the toescrew or thumbscrew, both hands or feet are bound together and a vice-like contraption is applied to the tips of the fingers or toes. This is tightened until blood squirts everywhere and the bones are crushed (lecture Tom). The shin-vice is similar to the thumbscrews, but on a slightly larger scale (Sidky 132). It consisted of two pieces of iron, one with sharp-edged channels, which are bolted together and tightened with a ratchet device.
Before questioning, the accused witch would be tied or held to a chair and the sharp-edged channels would be placed over the shins and bolted together. The torturer would then tighten the ratchet until the shins were pressed causing intolerable pain and blood to spill everywhere. The spine roller was an instrument shaped like a rolling pin with steel teeth imbedded into it. The accused witch would be held face down on the ground while the torturer moved the spine roller up and down the back. This device was capable of shredding skin and muscle in the hands of an expert (Paine 75).