Changing views of witchcraft in canon law 1200 – 1500

Tania Dalzell, Dickson College 2006


Witch hunting was a problem first acknowledged as being part of the jurisdiction of the church in the late 13th century. In 1258 after a proposal by the Inquisition the church, as directed by Pope Alexander IV in Quod super nonullius, was allowed to try people for witchcraft so long as their actions were heretical. If they were not, it was a matter for the state. This was a concession made by the papacy after their previous refusal. However, it fell short of the inquisition’s request, to try witches under any circumstances.

The papacy’s position on the trying of witchcraft was broadened in the 14th Century under Pope John XXII (r. 1316 – 1314). Pope John suffered two assassination attempts, one of which was poison and was suspected as being the work of witches. Through this the fear of witchcraft began to grow within the papacy. In a letter written by the Cardinal of Santa Sabina in 1320, Pope John’s fear was outlined as such…

Our most holy father and lord, by divine providence Pope John XXII, fervently desires that the witches, the infectors of God’s flock, banished from the midst of the house of God. Six years later in the Decretal. (Super illus specula, 1326)

Pope John XXII officially preached vigorously against the practicing of witchcraft and threatened any who were found guilty of doing so with excommunication…

We hereby promulgate the sentence of excommunication upon all and singular who against our most charitable warnings and orders presume to engage in these things, and we desire that they incur this sentence ipso facto.

This broadened the previous position by making it the personal responsibility of the church to find and incriminate witches in order to excommunicate them as apposed to only punishing them when their acts were heretical.

As explained by Pope Eugenius IV, more heretics were being found to be witches. He wrote two letters to the Inquisition on the pressing danger of witchcraft in 1434 and 1437. The first explains of the impressing Christian and Jewish peoples that are being found guilty of witchcraft. The second explains the acts conjured in witchcraft that can be found heretical


…They cure diseases, provoke bad weather, and make pacts concerning other evil deeds…In their sorcery they are not afraid to use the materials of Baptism, the Eucharist and other sacraments…Sometimes they make a reversal of the Holy Cross, upon which our holy Saviour hanged for us. Not honouring the mysteries, they sometimes inflict upon the representations and other signs of the cross various shameful things by execrable means.

This comes as no surprise really as the first ever mention of the witches Sabbath appeared earlier this century, through this it was now legal, with the expressed permission of the pope for the Inquisition to hunt and try witches more easily.

In an extract from the Inquisition of Toulouse – The Witches’ Sabbath which was a documented account of two witch trials that was written sometime in the 14th Century states in the trial of Anne Marie Georgel that;


Frequently on Friday nights they [the witches]have attended the Sabbath which…There in company with other men and women who are equally sacrilegious, they commit all manner of excesses, whose details are too horrible to tell…There the He-goat taught her all kinds of secret spells; he explained poisonous plants to her and she learnt from him words for incantations and how to cast spells…He advised her to make sacrilegious communion if she could, offending God and honouring the devil.

In the second account Catherine Delort explains her experience at the Sabbath;

There she worshiped the He-goat and served his pleasure and that of all those who were present at that loathsome feast. The corpses of newly born children were eaten by them; they had been stolen from their nurses during the night; all manner of revolting liquids were drunk and there was no savour in any of the food.

It was through documents and trials such as this one that the witch hunt intensified. Mind you – these confessions were extracted through torture.

Johannes Nider wrote a book on what kinds of people are witches and also, taken the confession of a convicted witch that was about to be executed, received a first hand account on the heretical initiation process through which a person becomes a witch. Nider’s works were published and widely distributed.

In retaliation to all the new found evidence on the destructiveness, heretical, sacrilegious and dangerous nature of witchcraft as well as many requests for help, Pope Innocent VIII issued the papal Bull; Summis desiderantes on the 5th of December 1484.

It was from this that the churches attitude towards witches and witch hunts extrapolated, to the point in the 15th Century where the Hammer of the witches was written 1486, it is a gross generalisation of comparing the so called deficiency of women and witchcraft and is where the idea that witch hunts were really women hunts came from it also goes into great detail the different kinds of witches, who to look out for, what witches do etc. It was a widely dispersed book that influenced witch trials for at least the next hundred years, as it was often used as a witch hunting manual.

So in conclusion, the churches attitude to witch hunts from the 14th to the 15th Century was one of change. Initially they church thought witch hunts to be outside their jurisdiction, eventually it grew to that if a witch was also guilty of heresy, the inquisition was allowed to investigate and try them. Then as fears of witches grew and more substantial evidence was gathered by the Inquisition, witchcraft assimilated into heresy, and by the end of the 15th Century the papacy endorsed witch hunts and so the flood gates opened for the Great European Witch Hunt of the following centuries.