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Quadre The Witch de William Powell COOLTUR Turisme Cultural

The Prosecution of the witchcraft. The History of the witch hunt

When did the prosecution of the crime of witchcraft begin? Why did the prosecution of this crime begin? Who were the courts in charge of judging the suspects of the crime of witchcraft? When did the prosecution of witches in Catalonia end? Below we will explain how the prosecution of the crime of witchcraft began!

In general, the prosecution of the crime of witchcraft is always associated with the court of the Holy Inquisition. But was this really the case? In order to understand how the prosecution of the crime of witchcraft began, we must first look at how the court of the Holy Inquisition was created.

The Court of the Holy Inquisition

The origins of the court of the Holy Inquisition can be traced back to the 12th century, specifically to 1163. This court was created to prosecute cases of heresy. At the beginning, therefore, this tribunal was dedicated to the persecution of Catharism and Valdesism, two movements considered heretical.

At the beginning, this court did not prosecute the crime of witchcraft. In fact, it was not until 1326 when Pope John XXII, through the bull Super illius specula, began to prosecute the crime of witchcraft. In fact, in that year witchcraft was considered a heresy, led by the devil himself, who was attacking the Catholic Church.

Thus, since the 14th century we can find the first trials against the crime of witchcraft. One of the oldest cases of witchcraft in Catalonia dates back to 1373. Estruga Maigarda, a woman from El Mallol (in La Vall d’en Bas, La Garrotxa), was accused of the crime of witchcraft. Unfortunately, we do not know how his judicial process went, or how this process ended, as no documentation has been preserved.

Gravat de Tortura de Bruixes COOLTUR Turisme Cultural
The torture of a person accused of witchcraft

Why did the prosecution for the crime of witchcraft begin?

As we have already said, the crime of witchcraft began to be prosecuted in 1326, a crime considered to be a heresy that attempted against the Catholic Church. But what happened between 1163, the year in which the tribunal of the Holy Inquisition was created, a tribunal in charge of prosecuting the crime of witchcraft, and 1326, the year in which witchcraft began to be prosecuted?

The answer can be found within the beliefs of the Catholic Church. In the creation of the tribunal of the Inquisition, the most widespread belief in the Catholic Church was that the devil existed, but he did not have enough power to interact with the environment and the people. Therefore, at that time it was believed that everything that affected the day-to-day life of the people was the work of God. If several storms, plagues, …, affected people, it was due to a punishment from God to the sinful conducts of people.

This vision, therefore, was changing. In fact, during the 13th century, a new current within the Catholic Church advocated that the devil had more power than had been believed up to that point. This new current defended that the devil could act on earth, creating storms, plagues, …, and could also have carnal relations with people.

This new thinking gained strength within the Catholic Church, and culminated in 1326 with the prosecution of the crime of witchcraft.

Who were the tribunals charged with judging this crime?

As we have already explained, the court in charge of judging the crime of witchcraft, considered to be a heresy, was the court of the Holy Inquisition.

But it was not always the court of the Inquisition that judged the crime of witchcraft. Due to an economic, political, social and religious crisis, in Catalonia, during the 17th century, a large number of civil courts were created that called themselves capable of judging the crime of witchcraft.

At the beginning of the 17th century, Catalonia experienced the great Witch Hunt. At that time, a large number of circumstances came together that led to the creation of these civil courts.

We find that at that time, the court of the Holy Inquisition was busy fighting the two great heresies that burst into Europe, Lutheranism and Calvinism.

Moreover, in Catalonia at that time there was a great economic and social crisis that caused great social tension among the population. In order to calm this social tension, and thus avoid possible social uprisings, which would have acted against those who were at the “town halls”, it was decided to find a scapegoat. This scapegoat was the people considered to be witches and wizards. To be able to act quickly, and because the court of the Holy Inquisition was occupied, civil courts were created in different municipalities of Catalonia to judge the people accused of witchcraft.

Gravat Alemany de 1555 COOLTUR Turisme Cultural
German engraving from 1555 showing the execution at the stake of people accused of witchcraft

When did the prosecution of the crime of witchcraft in Catalonia end?

In Catalonia, the end of the persecution of the crime of witchcraft was in 1622. There are many factors that can explain the end of these judicial processes.

One of the causes of the end of the persecution of the crime of witchcraft was the economic factor. All these processes cost large amounts of money, amounts that emptied the municipal coffers. In fact, in many towns in Catalonia new taxes were created to pay for these legal proceedings. In other municipalities, they considered expropriating the properties of the accused in order to pay for these trials.

One of the other causes of the end of these legal proceedings was the court of the Holy Inquisition itself. Within the court of the Holy Inquisition, different members began to question the veracity of the crimes of witchcraft. Many believed that the confessions made by the accused people could not be believed, as these confessions were made under torture. It was also said that many of the crimes of which witches and wizards were accused, such as creating storms, or killing animals, were the work of God, not of the devil.

Another cause can be found in the Spanish Monarchy. In this case, the civil courts that arose in Catalonia to judge the crime of witchcraft were not under the direct control of the Spanish crown. This was a problem for the king’s power over the different Catalan municipalities.

In this sense, in 1622 it was decided that the only court capable of judging the crime of witchcraft was the Royal Audience of Barcelona. Through this decision, all those cases that were open in the different municipalities of Catalonia had to be sent to the Royal Audience of Barcelona. Once these cases reached this court, these people were acquitted, and the cases were closed. Thus, we can say that in Catalonia, in 1622, the judicial prosecution of the crime of witchcraft ended.

This end does not mean that the population stopped believing in the existence of Witchcraft. In fact, during the years following the end of the judicial proceedings, there were still many complaints about the crime of witchcraft, but these complaints did not lead to any trial. In fact, even today there are many people who believe in the existence of witches and wizards.

Although in 1622 the judicial persecution of the crime of witchcraft ended, the last witch executed in Catalonia, as a witch, was in 1808. That year the witch Baquiol de Biosca was tried, although we understand that in this case, the trial was popular.

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