Stage #6: Torture

by Jenny Gibbons

Stage #6: Torture

The next several stages of a Witch trial blur together. Interrogation, confession, and torture went hand in hand, but I'm going to separate them out for clarity's sake. At this point, the court questioned the Witch ("step" 7) and demanded a confession ("step" 8). Torture was applied throughout this process, so I'll cover it first.


As I mentioned before, early modern Witch courts faced a dilemna. They only recognized two types of incontrovertable evidence: eye-witness accounts and confession. Nobody ever saw Witches cast their spells at sabbats (except other Witches, who weren't going to admit that!) and Witches refused to confess. This left the court with a lot of suggestive stories ("Goody Morrow did something weird and then all my yeast died!") and spectral evidence ("Goody Morrow's 'shape' tormented me.") Very persuasive stuff to the courts -- but not solid evidence. Not the sort of stuff you were supposed to kill people over.

Torture was their "savior". Torture made Witches confess. It made them become witnesses against other Witches. It provided the type of "evidence" the courts were demanding.

The Inquisition was responsible for making torture a regular part of Europe's legal system. Medieval courts used sporadic torture and ordeals (which were often painful). In the late Middle Ages, the Church campaigned against ordeals. As a replacement, the Inquisition developed the inquisitorial legal procedure in the 13th century. Their system was based on the old legal system of the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire allowed torture of certain types of witnesses, and unfortunately the Inquisition included that in their new, updated version of Roman law.

However they were not fools. The Inquisition fully realized that people under torture would frequently say anything, just to make the pain stop. Therefore they devised a series of strict limitations on the use of torture:

1) A judge could not torture an accused criminal unless the accuser could prove that a crime had actually occurred. In other words, I had to convince the judge that my cows had died from Witchcraft, not natural causes, before he was allowed to torture the Witch I named.

2) Torture could not be used until the accused had had an opportunity to give evidence in her own defense.

3) A person could only be tortured once and for no longer than one day. Children, invalids, and pregnant women could not be subjected to torture at all.

4) Lethal forms of torture must be avoided. Under no circumstances should the accused die during questioning. For this reason the courts frequently used methods of torture that did grievous damage to the accused's arms and legs, but were unlikely to actually kill her.

The most common form of torture was the strappado. The accused's arms were tied behind her back and attached to a pulley. She would then be lifted into the air, left hanging for 30-60 minutes while she was questioned, then dropped sharply. This often dislocated one or both of her shoulders. Secular courts might tie weights to the Witch's ankles to make the fall more painful.

5) A confession made under torture was not valid unless it was later confirmed by "free confession". (We'll look at that in the confession stage.) If the accused retracted her confession, it was thrown out and she could not be tortured a second time.

Were these limitations effective? Yes -- surprisingly so. Analysis of court records shows that when the Inquisition's limitations on torture were met, approximately 50% of accused men and "almost all" accused women withstood torture without confessing. I'm not sure why the marked sex difference occurs; I haven't found any evidence that the Inquisition used different forms of torture on the different sexes.

So despite ugly features like torture, the inquisitorial procedure worked okay for several centuries. Things didn't fall apart until the 15th and 16th centuries, as the panic over Witches began to increase dramatically. As the terror grew, so did the pressure on the courts. They *needed* convictions. And for convictions they *needed* confessions. A system that let "almost all" women go free was clearly broken.

To "fix" it, secular courts gradually removed most of the limitations on torture. The Inquisition kept its old rules, which is one of the reasons why they killed fewer Witches than secular courts did.

During the panics, almost all countries adopted torture. Some, like Sweden, did not normally allow it. However since no Witches would confess, Sweden finally decided that torture was permissible *only* in Witch trials. When the law forbade torture, as it did in England, Witch hunters often ignored the law. Alse Goodridge refused to confess until a cunning-man forced her to sit close to a fire wearing new leather shoes. Her feet swelled, the shoes shrank, and eventually she confessed, though she recanted once the torment had ended. If a Witch appealed her case to a higher court, the lower courts weren't above deleting all references to torture from the evidence if they thought that the higher court wouldn't approve of their methods of questioning the Witch.

Each of the limitations on torture was undermined.

1) Courts no longer demanded proof that a crime had occurred. Witchcraft was a supernatural crime. The only way to prove that a crime had occurred was to force the Witch to confess. The only way to make her confess was to torture her, and so "logically" you couldn't require proof of a crime before you used torture. Accusation was enough.

2) Torture was frequently used at the beginning of a trial, immediately after the Witch was accused. Friedrich Spee noted that "as soon as possible, she is hurried to the torture, if indeed she be not subjected to it on the very day of her arrest, as often happens."

3) The period and frequency of torture increased and children and pregnant women were no longer exempted. At first officials tried to pretend that nothing had changed -- they were only torturing a suspect once, but that "one" period of torture could be continued on multiple days. In the end they gave up all pretense and freely admitted that they would torture Witches as often and as long as they pleased. A German torturer explained it this way to a pregnant Witch: "I do not take you for one, two, three, not for eight days, not for a few weeks, but for half a year or a year, for your whole life, until you confess; and if you will not confess, I shall torture you to death, and you shall be burned after all."

4) Courts devised an incredible array of tortures other than the strappado, and it became common for Witches to die during questioning. Many judges thought that "taciturnity" (the ability to withstand torture without confessing) was a sign of Witchcraft! Of course, confessing was proof of Witchcraft, so you have to wonder what an innocent person was supposed to do. Because they believed that Witches could withstand greater torments than most criminals the courts invented truly monstrous new torments, just for Witches.

Historian Brian Levack summarized some of them: "In Germany many courts used the witches' chair, which was heated by fire from below, while in Scotland there were reports of a witch's fingernails being pulled out by pincers. In Spanish, French and German lands it was not uncommon for courts to force-feed their prisoners with large amounts of water. Among the clearly illegal tortures were filling the nostrils with lime and water, tying the victim to a table covered with hawthorn twigs, rolling a pin with dagger-like points up and down the spine, gouging out the eyes, chopping off the ears, squeezing the male's genital organs, and burning brandy or sulphur over the victim's body."

Some forms of torture were more humane, but equally effective. Witches were forced to stay awake for over 40 hours at a stretch; in England this was called "waking the Witch." Since sleep deprivation causes hallucinations and makes the victim very susceptible to suggestion it's almost a miracle that anyone escaped this process without confessing.

In addition to official torture, there were a number of unofficial tests for Witchcraft that, realistically speaking, were also forms of torture. The most famous was "pricking". Most Europeans believed that Satan placed some kind of mark on a Witch's body, often around her genitals. The mark was insensible, so the only way you could tell whether or not a suspicious deformity was supernatural was to stab it with a pin.

The name "pricking" makes this sound almost harmless. It isn't so innocuous when you visualize what was actually happening. An accused Witch was stripped naked before a panel of "experts" -- a shocking experience by itself, especially back in those days! Her head and genitals were shaved with a knife, and then needles were repeatedly jabbed into her breasts and genitals. Some accounts describe sticking a pin as long as an inch into the Witch's body.

Scratching was equally foul. Many Europeans believed that you could break a Witch's spell by drawing her blood, usually "above the breath" (that is, from her face). Again, the name "scratching" makes this sound like a minor, unimportant ordeal. But scratching was a very violent operation, one that sometimes proved fatal for the Witch. One English pamphlet described how a man dragging a suspected Witch out of her house, bruising her back severely. He threw her down into the street and then kneeled on her chest. 'And when he had her so under him his wife came and clawed her by the face and said she would claw her eyes out of her head, and her tongue out of her mouth, and called her a damned. . . old witch.'"

The bewitched didn't always use their fingernails to scratch a Witch, either. Zacharias, an English cunning-man, told one of his clients to stick a knife into the buttocks of a suspected Witch. Sir Thomas Grosse stabbed a 94-year-old woman in the face after she was accused of Witchcraft. Courts didn't use scratching very often, but mobs and vigilantes did, sometimes with fatal consequences. Anne Warberton's child was killed by a man who broke into her house to scratch her.

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