Heresy and Witch Hunts


Broader overview

Heresy is not unique to the Catholic Church. It occurs in nearly every religion and especially under the fundamentalists in these organisations. It starts taking dangerous forms once it become part of Theocracies, where state and religion are combined and where the state is used to prosecute the heretics.

Heretics were also persecuted at certain times during the Roman times and one could argue that at several times during that person the Christians were seen as the heretics. Of course the tables were turned when Emperor Theodosius declared Christianity the state religion. This meant that all other forms of religion were declared paganism and thus forbidden.  Already -sponsored by Emperor Constantine –  the Council of Nicaea in 325 started to enforce the orthodox  Christian religion and from now it would relentlessness  started to enforce their version of Christianity and increasingly stepped up the persecution of other Christian groups who followed their own implementations of this religion..

Some of these other groups based their authority on the works of St Augustine of Hippo. He started his life as a ‘heretic’, in his early years he was heavily influenced by Manichaeism (a 3rd century Gnostic movement in Persia and one of the most successful religions of its times). The core of this believe is dualism, a continuous  struggle between a good, spiritual world of light, and an evil, material world of darkness. He was also influenced  by the Neo-Platonism of Plotinus.  After his conversion to Christianity he actively started to combat Manichaeism, this example was followed by the Church against even the slightest deviation of the official teaching as interpreted by the Church in Rome.

Iconoclasm was another issue linked to heresy. The  Synod of Elvira (c. 305)  stated that:”Pictures are not to be placed in churches, so that they do not become objects of worship and adoration”.  As a consequence , again thousands of people have been killed and many building and pieces of art destroyed because of this.


Greek for knowledge, a doctrine based on knowledge as the basis for salvation, this view was formed by several groups of people during the 1st and 2nd century and was  based on ancient Greek and ancient Hebrew wisdom. Plato’s writings were among the most influential documents used by the Gnostic. They see Jesus as the deliverer of knowledge. They believed that the  material world was a primordial error, a result of a conflict in the divine realm. Jesus didn’t die for the sins of the world, but because he brought this message. ‘ Saving knowledge’ was the most important element of Gnosticism.

The fact that the Church had to continuously defend itself against heretics also allowed it to define itself and it was during these periods that the Church started to form and describe  its orthodox identity..

However, on some of the edges of the empire, where neither the emperor nor the church leader could assert enough power to permanently stamp out heresy, separate groups were able to permanently establish themselves, they include Christian communities in Ethiopia, Egypt and Syria.


Theological issues

The early Church struggled with the complexity of the nature of Jesus, the concept of the Trinity and the immaculate conception of Maria and through that her ‘divine’ position in all of this. Several of these concepts had arrived from other cultures and they came together in Christianity at a time the Greek and Roman philosophy had become popular and that lead to discussions and heated debates.

Of course these concepts could not be proven in any natural way and the only way out was to make decisions based on faith rather than on reason and this obviously led to clashes.

The different streams of Christianity never questioned the overall concept, they simply had different interpretations, sometimes the differences were extremely small.

Here are some of the key deviations of the concept of the ‘nature of Christ’.

  • Official dogma     Christ maintains two natures, one divine and one human.
  • Arianism                Divinity of the Father but not of the Son.
  • Nestorianism        Even if Jesus was the Son of God, he was born as man and as such Maria could not be the Mother of God. (Still the dogma of the Assyrian Church).
  • Monophysists      Christ has only one nature, his humanity being absorbed by his Deity.
  • Miaphysists          Conjoined nature of Christ, both human and divine, united invisible in the ‘Incarnate Logos’. (Still the dogma of the Coptic Church).

(Jesus, Christ, Jesus Christ, Son of God and Logos – Word –  are all different names for the same person/deity)

Other deviations proclaimed  heresy include:

  • Marcionism          Christ was the first to reveal God of love and mercy, but he himself was not part of the creator.
  • Monatanism         Revelations are coming directly from God and not from the scriptures (accepted the dual nature).
  • Manichaeism       Extreme duality between good and evil.
Apart from Arianism, the other ‘heresies’  all concentrated in the east.

From the Council of Nicaea onwards, slowly but steadily, even the smallest religious diversions would be labelled as heresy and would attract crusade-like campaigns to suppress it. The divinity issue of Jesus remains a hard to explain issue and the fact that the church leaders of the 5th century as well as those in the 21st century are still debating  the issue is a clear indication that it still remains a uncomfortable doctrine. Monotheistic religions in general are very intolerant of often the slightest deviation of the official teachings.

These heresies were very hard to subdue, the Emperor Constantine tried it and after him many others, but the heretics  preferred death over conversation and their believes were able to survive some even into modern times.


Born in a Jewish-Christian family in Zoroastrian Persia Mani proclaimed himself to be the final redeemer after Jesus, Buddha, Zarathustra, the Greek/Egyptian Hermes Trismegistus and Plato. His religion of dualism – body (entirely evil) and spirit (part of the divine) – was called Manichaeism. This religion had a very elaborate mythology with the Prince of Darkness, the Father of Greatness, Mother Life and Primal Man. Like so many prophets Mani ended as a martyr in 276. The religion however spread to Syria, Egypt, India and China. The Catholic Church Father Augustine followed this religion before he in 386 converted to Christianity. Elements of Manichaeism was later on also included in the belief systems of the Paulicianists in Armenia (7th century) the  Bogomils in the Balkans (10th century) and perhaps also the Cathars in France (12th century).


Arianism comprises the theological positions made famous by the theologian Arius (c. AD 250-336), who lived and taught in Alexandria, Egyp. The most controversial of the teachings of Arius was the divinity of the Father but not that of the Son. This conflicted with the Christian position of the Trinity. Arianism was officially denounced by the Council of Nicene in 321 – chaired by Emperor Constantine –  however the debate around the Mediterranean continued for several decades before it was finally led to rest here.

Arianism was very popular amongst the Germanic tribes (Goths and Langobards) as well amongst many monks, local priest and local nobility. After Constantine’s death two of his soldiers became co-emperors and both were of the Arian faith.

When after the migration the Arian tribes settled in catholic regions they generally left them alone. In the following centuries however, the catholic church saw Arianism as a threat to their institutions and the issue  led to massive conflict, wars and endless killings.

It had more to do with who had the power to dictate the catholic faith and in the end it was the pope supported by the Franks (who unlike the Goths and the Lombards, the Franks started of as followers of the Nicenean creed  rather as  Arians) who were finally able to violently suppress Arianism in the 8th century (see also: The Rise of the Carolingians).

While the Arian religion continued to thrive, especially beacuse of the increased powerful position of the Gothic and other Germanic tribes, a new flavour was added in the form of Nestorianism. This was also declared heretic at the 1st Council of Ephesus in 431.


The debate on the nature of the Son of God led to the bishop of Constantinople, Nestorius (428-431) to declared that even if Jesus was the Son of God and as such a divine being, he was born as man and as such Maria could not be called the Mother of God. This created great uproar as by that time the veneration of Mary was already well established. As a consequence the bishop was deposed and exiled at the Council of Ephesus. However, its followers reallocated to Persia and from here they spread throughout the east, even reaching China. This Church of the East went through a variety of schisms but until this day the followers of Nestorianism are still active, perhaps the most well known is the Assyrian Church of the East.

However, after the Council of Ephesus, the debate on the divine nature of Jesus continued and the Alexandrian priest Eutyches took the position one step further and declared that there was no difference between the human and divine nature of Jesus. This position known as Monophysitism or Miaphysitism was ratified at the 2nd Council of Ephesus (449).


Monophysitism and its antithesis Nestorianism kept the Church very busy during the 5th and 6th centuries. The Monophysitic position was  that Christ has only one nature, his humanity being absorbed by his Deity. This was in particular popular amongst the church leaders in Alexandria and Antioch. However, the position became increasingly opposed by the church leaders in the west by both the Arians and the traditionalists. However, Pope Leo brought the discussion back to the two natures and at the Council Chalcedon – in 451 – it was declared that Jesus had two natures without being mixed, transmuted, divided or separated. This obviously was against the general nature of the debate. The following year Monophysitism was forbidden and this led to revolts and uprising from many religious groups in the east. While the Monophysitics were rather tolerant towards the traditionalist, the reverse was not the case. The religion received a great boost during the reign of the eastern Emperor Anastasius (491-518). At the Fifth General Council (of Constantinople) in 553 another shism developed around miaphysite, which refers to a conjoined nature for Christ, both human and divine, united indivisibly in the Incarnate Logos, this lead to the foundation of the Coptic Catholic Church, after more than 1500 years scholars are still discussing the technicalities of these differences.

The Monophysits and Nestorians were concentrated in Constantinople and the eastern part of the Roman Empire and not Rome or in Western Europe. As large parts of the eastern empire were overrun by the Muslims, these  catholic community became isolated and that allowed them to escape  persecution from the mother Church and for that reason small communities of these very early Christian communities still exist in the Middle East. It is only in very recent times that there existance is now under serious threat.

People from Nestorian communities who became stranded in central Asia played a key role along the trade routes between Europe and China and they assisted Marco Polo on his trip to that country.

Other heresies and controversies

Byzantine Iconoclasm

The issue of iconoclasm (wilfully destruction of images)   goes back to the Old Covenant where God had forbidden the Israelites to worship images. However, the various interpretations allow both sides of the argument to argue for their case. It was mostly adhered too during the first few centuries in the Christian era, the Jews and Muslims both also follow a more strict interpretation of the Old Covenant, be it both for different reasons. In most religion some symbols were also allowed – in the Christian tradition the cross, a dove, the pisces, the alpha and alpha and omega and the Chi-Roh sign. Also within the Christian tradition ‘no human hands’ images were allowed, for example there was said to be an image of the face of Jesus in a napkin, and medallions of that image were used in that early period.   At the  Synod of Elvira (c. 305) it was stated that: “Pictures are not to be placed in churches, so that they do not become objects of worship and adoration”. Despite all of these religious rules, Christian images were painted on early frescos and icons. Some beautifully restored frescos of early Christian art from the Roman palace in Trier, dating from the 3rd century, are on display in the local  museum.

In the Christian world a more serious change started to happen when the Roman Emperors during the 4th century proclaimed themselves to be gods and through icons they started to be worshipped by the people. This level of imperial propaganda was matched by religious propaganda from the Christians and religious icons started to become more and more used and theological dogmas were created to facilitate this.The Christians based their argument on the difference between an icon (veneration) and an idol (adoration).

The origin of icons as an art form most likely lies in Egypt where mummies started to be painted in a more realistic way, representing the face of the person that had died. Tradition  has it that Luke the Evangelist introduced the tradition of  icons to the Christian Church.  It was said that he had painted icons of Mary and Jesus. The tradition was also mentioned by Saint Thomas and Christians in  Kerala, India claim to still have one of the Theotokos icons that St. Luke painted and which St. Thomas brought to India. We visited some of the so called St Thomas Christian churches in Cochin, Kerala.

At the Council of Trullo in 692 images of Jesus and the saints were officially allowed with the addition that Jesus – who both has a heavily and a earthly body – should be represented in his earthly state and for example not as a lamb, as was an image that was often used in the past (the good shepherd). Two images of Jesus became prominent (and accepted) as him of a young men without a beard and that of an older man with a beard. Soon after this miracles started to happen linked to such icons. At the same time icons were also used in pagan tradition – incorporating Christian elements – and also paint was scraped from icons and put in bred and wine for healing and religious purposes.

However, at the same time the Arab conquest was happening and influenced by this new religion, a new theological controversy swept through the Byzantine Empire. The division occurred over the use of images in churches, something the Islam had banned. This was started by Emperor Leo III who – on advice of his Arab adviser – blamed the military losses on his people not obeying the Ten Commandments  where it said ‘thou shalt not worship false idols’. Other disasters at that same time, such as the catastrophic eruption of Thera in 726 and the subsequent famines and ecological disasters were all linked into this.

Subsequent the Emperors started to play a key role in this as we see ongoing battles between those in favour (iconophiles) of it and those against (iconoclasts).Over the hundred years (between 740 and 840) this issue would not go away and sometimes one camp would rule under the leadership of one the emperors, only to see another emperor reverse the situation again. The worst period was under Emperor Constantine V, he called for the Council of Hieria in 754  to receive theological and ecclesiastical legitimacy for iconoclasm.

However, there was never uniformity regarding the issue throughout the Empire. In Syria this period saw the height of icon production. Also the only Byzantine city in the west, Ravenna, escaped the iconoclast and preserved its original art and culture  – especially early Byzantine  art.

The issue was finally settled in 843 when Empress Theodora restored icon veneration again, this time the verdict stood. A famous icon still pained today known as the “Triumph’ depicts the celebration of the end of iconoclasm.

At several times in history iconoclasm rears its head and the most infamous was the iconoclast in the Low Countries in 1568 when the Calvinists took statues down in the Catholic Churches.


Christians in North Africa who survived the persecutions under Diocletian didn’t accept those people back into the faith who had accepted the more lenient rules issued the governor of North Africa. Under the leadership of the Berber Bishop Donatus Magnus, they were called traditores. They were strictly fundamental in this rule; baptism performed by these traditores or other sacraments received from them were invalid. This was sometimes traced back generations, wherever a traditores could have been involved everything since that time and everybody (unknowingly at that time) involved were seen as sinners. Unlike the Orthodox Church which held that the validity of the sacraments depended on the holiness of God, Donatists made that depended on the holiness of the priest. It was on this issue that the schism developed between the two parties.

The Donatist had widespread support from the local population and especially after the invasion of the Muslims they were able to escape the persecution from the official Church.

Corruption in the Church

Another effect of the increased power of the Church was an increase in corruption. Church function became highly thought after as there was a high level of income attached to this. This led to simony, whereby tiles and functions could be bought. Since the Church at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 had defined the seven sacraments, this also allowed the priests to charge for them and again these became tradable items. As a result of this bishops and Pastors were often not interested in the actually running of the churches and appointed priests to do that job, many of them were illiterate had little or no training and were often as poor as their flocks. With little or no discipline there was drunkenness and many priests lived with women. This situation lasted for a thousand years and as a result of that the Church received very little respect from the local people. However, because religion and state were one, there was very little they could do as the Church had the possibility to follow up any of their action with the full force of the state.

Already in Merovingian and Carolingian times do we see the Frankish ruler organising church meetings aimed at stamping out abuse and misuse, but despite some good efforts the situation continued for centuries. Of course sometimes the attempts had a longer effect, but as the corruption also flourished at the top echelons i.e. the Pope nothing structurally happened.

During that millennium we see a range of activities from the bottom up. The early monasteries before the year 1000 provided centres of religious strength and could operate more or less in parallel with the Episcopal services. However, with the increased power of Rome that ended around that time.

The year 1000 can be seen as a clear marker. The change of the millennium was linked to religious concepts such as the prophesies surrounding the end time (eschatology), the Antichrist, became mixed into this with religious zealots leading many of these revolts, foretelling, a better world and salvation (chiliastic). There were many occasions of mass megalomania.

The zealots (such as Tanchelm) didn’t have too much problems getting popular support as there was that deep seated hatred against the many misuses of the Church.

See also: The Rise and Fall of the Catholic Church 1000 – 1550


Second wave of heretics

On the other side we also see intellectuals started to become involved in the debate the most famous one being Peter Abelard the most famous intellectual of the 12th century. He was the key person behind the revival of the Greek philosophers, especially Aristotle, whose works he translated in Latin. He successfully opened his school in Paris where he generated an enormous intellectual following. He was regularly accused of and penalised for heresy, he regularly had to flee and hide from his persecutors. However, several of his works were later on supported by Pope Innocent III.

We also see groups of people of pious people include priests and monks turning their backs against the misuses in the Church and starting new religious and pious movements such as Cathars, Brethren of the Free Spirit, Modern Devotion, Mendicant Orders and Lollards.

Very early in the 11th century we see the first ‘heretics’ mentioned at that stage they were referred to as Manichaeists (referring to the writings of St Augustine as mentioned above).

This revival coincided with the rapid rise of the Church and its more militant stand with crusades to Muslims and Pagans, so called Holy Wars. In particular when the crusades in the Holy Land started to peter out, militant action against the heretics increased, this time aimed at the enemy within. This also coincided with a revival in learning, based on the knowledge of the Arabs and the knowledge they had preserved from the Greeks and Romans. This once again stimulated intellectual pursuit in Europe and this led to questioning some of the dogmas of the Church and requests for church reformation and this in turn unleashed a violent response from the Church, accusing anyone  that questioned the Church, its dogmas or teachings as heretics, thus opening the way to persecute them and with secular assistance  punish them, often in the most horrific ways.

The most important element of the punishment was to ensure that the soul of the sinner would be saved so that it would go to heaven, burning at the stake was seen as a purification of the soul. While the church was in charge if this power it handed the actual punishment over to the secular authorities.

The Cathars

But the first large scale group of heretics the Catholic Church was worried about were the Cathars, who started to become more noticeable after 1140. They didn’t accept the Church hierarchy and appointed their own regional bishops and local leaders, which they called bonne homes and bonne femmes which was translated in Latin to perfectus and perfecta; they were celibates. They strongly believed that priests should be worthy of their jobs and not drunk or living with concubines.

They had their first and only meeting of bishops in 1176.

There were indeed several similarities with Manichaeists. They rejected baptism, marriage and didn’t worship the cross. They were strongly anti materialism. However, they firmly believed in God and Jesus and saw themselves as good Christians. They had a large following of ‘believers’ included many of the lower nobility in Languedoc. But also the most powerful leader in the region Raymond of Toulouse was amongst its supporters.

Pope Innocent III, in 1198, addressed the Cathar issue initially through peaceful negotiations, but when that didn’t deliver the results he was after he launched the Albigensian Crusade in 1209 and executed by the French and it rapidly changed into a political issue and land grab in Languedoc for the crusaders from the north. After he was first excommunicated Raymond of Toulouse put his support behind the pope, but there is no evidence that he actually took up arms against the Cathars. The most horrific massacre during the campaign happened in 1244 at Montségur where the whole populated was annihilated.

The Albigensian Crusade also was directly the reason of establishing the infamous Papal Inquisition, which happened in 1229. However, it didn’t become active in Languedoc after the massacre of Montségur. It replaced the Episcopal Inquisition that had been in place since 1184. Inquisitions were different from formal court cases in case of the Inquisition there were no defence lawyers allowed. After the Inquisition was over those convicted of heresy were handed over to the secular powers who looked after the executions in order to prevent the Church of acting against its own Ten Commandments.

The executioner

Often a convicted person himself and shunned by most other people in the community, this was a soul killing job. There is relative high level of depression and suicide among this profession. It was a gruesome process and not often finished with one strong blow of the ax  Often knifes were needed to finish the job and if those heads needed to be displayed on stakes that that was also part of this job, which included some special treatments of the severed head in order to keep the birds away.

The first major inquiry took place in Toulouse in 1244 and 1245 where more than 5,000 witnesses (grouped by villages) were heard, it has remained the largest single inquiry throughout the entire history of the Inquisition.

At the Treaty of Paris in 1279 Languedoc was officially annexed by France. By 1325 the Cathar religion had died out. However, consequent heresies all contained similar elements of the ones that also led to the Cathar movement. We see this theme also coming back a century later in the Free Spirit Movement (see: The Great Death).

Pre-Reformation Movements

These turbulent years became a hotbed for political thoughts, with the best legal brains of Europe being involved in debating the pros and cons of the opposing ideologies and policies supported by the French King, the Roman Emperor and the Pope. This discussion had already started around 1210 and they became the early seeds for what we would later call science (as different from faith).

The key to these philosophical debates are sounding very modern in their arguments in relation to the separation of church and state. They wanted to bring back ‘reason’ into the discussion and reduce the complexity (nominalism) that religion has created to proof ‘nature’ from a religious perspective.

Some of these arguments were taken up by heavyweights such as the physician Marsilius of Padua and the English Franciscan William of Ockham (1288 – 1348) – who had to flee in 1328 to the Bavarian Court of Holy Roman Emperor Louis IV in Munich) .

Ockham’s razor

This is the principle that “entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity” (entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem). The popular interpretation of this principle is that the simplest explanation is usually the correct one.

Also involved in these ‘Ockham’  debates was the  Oxford based theologian John Wycliffe (c.1328-1384). He translated the bible from the Vulgar into English. This was a direct threat to the Church, with non of the ordinary people being able the read Latin,  the Church was in total control of interpreting the Bible. This was not an age of ‘freedom of information’.

Some of Wycliffe’s philosophies can certainly be seen as reformist. His philosophies were also closely aligned with those of and other pre-Reformation movement the Modern Devotion which developed in Overijssel, the Netherlands. While he didn’t support the movement, the Lollards followed Wycliffe’s pre-reformative philosophy, which was also distinctly anti clerical and against papal authority.

In 1401 Henry IV passed the ‘De heretico comburendo’ (Regarding the burning of heretics) aimed at punishing heretics (Lollards) – this was seen as treason and they could therefore be burned at the stake. This law was one of the strictest religious censorship statutes ever enacted in England. Fortunately only a  few burnings did actually happen, the first one in 1410. The Lollards did not have a structured religious system, their name their was derived from the Middle Dutch name Lollen -mumbling).  An Episcopal Inquisition was established which started its operations in 1424 in East Anglia. The Lollards went largely underground and were effectively absorbed into Protestantism during the English Reformation, in which Lollardy also played  a role. Wycliffe is also seen by the Presbyterian as the founding figure of their Church.

Around that same time, the Council of Constance declared Wycliffe (on 4 May 1415) a ‘stiff-necked’ heretic and he was put under the ban of the Church. The most heretic of his 18 thesis was the one on consubstantiation (during the sacrament of the Eucharist, bread and wine remains bread and wine but at the same time is also the body of Christ)  instead of the Church doctrine of  transubstantiation (bread and win = the Body of Christ).  What most likely played a more important role in his conviction was his open stand against the malpractices of the clergy; the Church could simply not tolerate such obstination. It was decreed that his books be burned and his remains be exhumed. The exhumation was carried out in 1428 when, at the command of Pope Martin V, his remains were dug up, burned, and the ashes cast into the River Swift.

However, transubstantiation remained a difficult issue also among many of the clergy and as a result the Church  intensified its doctrine of transubstantiation. Many host miracles were reported, and the host played a key role in preventing or surviving disasters. Places were this happened became places of pilgrimage. In the end it also became an issue in the Reformation, were the Eucharist was changed into a symbolic celebration of the Last Supper.

Wycliffe also very much influenced Jan Hus, a dissident at the university of Prague, who in 1415 was burnt at the stake for his reformists views.

All of this finally came to a head when the Augustinian monk Luther nailed his 95 theses on the church door of Wittenberg. Germany and this started, what later on would be called the Reformation. Finally the time was right for change; however demand for these changes started already a thousand years earlier.

As mentioned, it was not until the 17th century that finally the Age of Enlightenment started to break through and that reason was put back into the place it deserves. Dutchman Baruch Spinoza also played a key role in this movement.

Papal Inquisition

A more powerful church started to more precisely to define its ideology. They regarded heretics as people who refused to conform to the self-evidence truth of Christianity. This militant approach coincided with the formation of the European states which also started to define their ideologies and were thus also able to more define their enemies. In a time where church and state were more less combined the ideologies overlapped and the prosecution became a combined effort.

Seal of the Inquisition
Seal of the Inquisition

The Church did set up its own first prosecuting institutions, the Episcopal Inquisition, which were operated by the bishops and this system was in operation from 1184 till the 1230s.

The local rulers often protested that the bishops were not firm enough in prosecuting the heretics. These rulers had a lot to gain as they could confiscate title, property and other goods from those classified by the church as heretics. Bishops were often more sympathetic to local ‘heretics’ as was the case in Languedoc.

This was the region were the Cathars (Albigenses) were active, a religious sect which originated around the Mediterranean town Albi. They rejected the Old Testament and saw Jesus as the only God. They rejected a God who created the material world and based their religion on spiritualism. They were ant clerical and that in particular created a strong military reaction.

This led in the 1230s to the formation of the Papal Inquisition which made a more coordinated approach possible. The persecution of heretics became a ‘jihad’ and in 1252 a Papal Bull was issued endorsing the use of torture.

These people were consequently mainly brutally prosecuted throughout southern France.

Amazingly the Inquisition continued after the Reformation in both the Protestant Churches as well as in the Catholic Church In particular in the Protestant German States the Inquisition was merciless. From the 16th century onwards the focus shifted here the witches.

Not all of Europe was covered by the Inquisition, England was largely spared (here the more moderate Episcopal Inquisition continued). The the Low Countries saw the introduction of their own flavour of this institution, ‘Raad van Beroerten’ (Council of Blood) this was only after the Reformation has started and was aimed the Dutch rebels who were fighting for the liberation of their land from Spanish occupation. With a few exemptions, mentioned by name, all 3 million Dutch citizens were in 1560 officially declared heretics by the Spanish Council of Blood.

Secular Inquisitions were set up in 1470 first by the Spanish and later also Portuguese rulers. These institutions were for more damaging to their societies than the inquisition operated by the church and hundreds of thousands were killed and tens of thousands fled across Europe, Africa and also to the New World, and in the latter they of course were also persecuted. The effects of the inquisition, its unreason and secrecy lingered on to well into the 19th century. It certainly had set the Iberian countries back in relation to modern developments and it was not until well in de 20th century before that gap started to narrow.

Apart from the Council of Blood, which occurred in the period after the Middle Ages, the Low Countries remained largely spared of the church inquisition.

It is estimated that under the church inquisitions (1200-1500) in all some 10,000 people have been prosecuted, in the regions in and around Brabant this number might have been in the low hundreds.

The official name of the Church Inquisition was the Congregation of the Holy Office of the Inquisition; it still exists but now under the more benign name of Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

With most heretics either killed, brought back in the bosom of the Church, or gone underground the focus of attention moved to witches.

Abstract of an Inquisition document of the confession under torture of Elvira del Campo in 1567
Abstract of an Inquisition document of the confession under torture of Elvira del Campo in Toledo in 1567


Magic has a very long history and has mostly been with us since the early beginning of men. At least to a very a large extend also fueled  because of the absence of science. Within the complex and chaotic pantheons of the gods in the ancient times,  seers played a key role as a conduit between the gods and the humans.

It became institutionalised in the Sumerian kingdom, where the magi held very prominent positions next to the kings. Most likely the function of priests evolved from these functions. While perhaps less prominent magic remained their importance in the Greek and Roman cultures. Wich-hunt also has a long history, when the magi became too powerful they were persecuted and most likely over the millenia there will be ebbs and flow in the fortunes of seers, medicine men and women, shamans, those with paranormal gifts and others that might for other reasons been living on the edged of what was accepted by the people and/or the rulers of the time.

As early as 450 BCE Roman laws existed against ‘verificia’ (harmful magic). Some serious persecutions took place in 184/183 and 180/179 BCE., when an estimated 5,000 people were killed under that law. Similar witch-hunts took place in 81 and 33 BCE.

Also the Church has its seeres and its magic – the most famous magician one perhaps Jesus . St Augustine (354-430) came with the solution, he proclaimed that saints performed their magic for the glory of God, while the magicians did it to satisfy their own ego. So magic and religion became nicely separated. While there were clear links between the old pagan religion and the new one, in the minds of the Medieval Christians  there was a very clear difference between the two concepts. The Church offered everything that the pagan religions offered plus more, ‘salvation’ and ‘immortality’.

However, in the monotheistic religions the situation has become much simpler there was God and the Devil (brought in from Mazdaism). If you were not for God you were for the Devil. While in its origin magic was neutral it now was increasingly linked to the Devil. Initial the Devil was a fallen angle but during the height of the Middle Ages he had grown horns, hooves and a tail and by by the 15th century it had became a real image that created enormous fear among people.

We saw that the early missionaries forbade to practice of seers. The Church called them sorcerers (latin for witch).

During the Concilium Germanicum (Council of Leptines in the Diocese of Cambrai) in 743  – at which Saint Boniface played an important role – a range of bans were introduced in which  the secular (military) powers had to support the priests and bishops in the enforcement of them. They included bans against: animal and food offerings, offerings within dwellings, adoration of stones, rocks, springs and trees, making vows near thorn bushes, holy trees or springs, the cutting of wooden idols, or the making of  images of devils, fortunetelling and predictions based of offerings of lots and so on. Rain and cloud incantations were equally forbidden as was sorcery, predictions made at the birth of a new baby, wearing and using of amulets. Pagan feasts were abandoned in particular those at new years eve and those on Thursdays (in honour of Donar).  Having meals in churches , the singing of secular songs and performance of girl choirs were all off limits.  If priests were involved in fortunetelling they were dismissed and put into as monastery.

Nevertheless, pagan believes were to a certain level tolerated and to make it more palatable for these people many of their gods, traditions and festivals were Christianised.  However, this also made it easy to maintain the underlying traditional believes. Elements of these are still lingering on even in our modern times, a clear indication how powerful some of these believes are and most probably also because they linked people to the bigger world of nature, natural events, the cosmos and many other deep instinctive feelings.

The practice of witch hunts started in all earnest in the late 15th century. The fact that these witch hunts started more than a thousand years after the arrival of Christianity in these regions shows how powerful the early believes, traditions and practices still were at that time.

Under the rules of the religions across Europe, the Middle East and beyond misuse of ‘magic’ has always been forbidden and was treated with harshly. Traditional believes lingered on at the fringes of Europe, one of the last recorded continious pagan practices comes from Iceland in 1639.

For most of the Middle Ages the remnant practices of the Pagans were seen by the Church  as foolish, practised by backwards people with no direct harm to the bigger body of the Church (pagan is linked to rural people). However, this was not seen as heresy and therefore didn’t fall under the jurisdiction of the Inquisition.

Driven by the inflexible piety of the Middle Ages,  in 1484 Pope Innocent VIII did find it necessary to issue the Summis Desiderantus, followed three years later by the Malleus Maleficarum (the Hammer for Witches), the latter becoming the ‘bible’ of witch hunt, which in amazing details describes way on how to detect witches.  This also specifically stated that harmful magic or witchcraft was now seen as heresy and would thus come under the scrutiny of the Inquisition. It is important to realise that at that time scientific knowledge was still extremely limited and any dvelopment of it surpressed by the Church; fear for the unknown often lead to hysterical behaviour.

It was not directly aimed at Pagans but as what the church indicated a new cult of Satan worshipping. Anybody could accuse anybody else of being a witch; this would be enough for that person to be detained by the Inquisition, followed by torture to obtain a confession. Amazingly – in the spirit of the infallible Medieval believe – this was seen by the intelligencia of those day as a total legitimate procedure. Most if not all those who were executed were innocent people, simply victims of an institutionalised religious frenzy.

Between 1480 and 1650 an estimated 100,000 (probably less) ‘witches’ were burned at the stakes, drowned in rivers and lakes (to test if they would float) or died in torture chambers. Witch hunt took really off after the Reformation in 1517, it were the new Protestant lands such as Scotland and Germany which saw the worst of these persecutions. The reason fir this might be that the Protestants followed the Bible literally. Luther himself strongly believed in and actively supported the persecution of witches.

Women in particular became the victim of the witch hunt (75% of all victims), many of them were poor, widowed and living in isolated rural areas.  Women were seen as ‘ soft’ and therefor more easy to penetrate by angles and demons,  they could thus receive either heavenly and devilish knowledge.  Women also had extra openings that allowed for penetration. The test was to see if somebody had sold him or herself  – for no obvious benefit, we have to say – to the Devil.  The Devil was seen as male and women were often seen as ‘stupid’ or weak enough to have sex with him. Society  also saw a link between the medical knowledge of women (herbs and treatments) and Satanic work.  Sadly, many midwives were burned at the stake, the line between medical assistance and which craft activities was very fine. . While there is a notion that it was not a deliberate attack on women, the outcome was that they are grossly over represented in the number of executions. Between 1623 and 1631 the Bishop of Würzburg executed 41 girls aged between 7 and 11 years of age.

The persecution started to die down by the end of the 17th century, when the Enlightenment started to make its entry in the western world. One of the best documented witch hunts date from this time; the trail of the witches of Salem, fuelled by inflexible piously fanatic religious people in this case from the British Puritans, who immigrated between 1620 and 1630 to rural Massachusetts and had very inflexible fundamentalism believes. They were among the most witch-fearing of all Protestants, very Christian but also actively against Satan.

In the early 18th century, many countries passed laws that did forbid witch-hunts. There still is not a clear cause for the craze. It most likely is a combination of the already mentioned inflexible piety together with social unrest, blaming others and political opportunism.


Jewish persecutions

The first Jews arrived in north western Europe during Roman times, most probably trading from the Mediterranean and from here via Marseille and the river systems further north deeper into Europe. After the Edict of Milan in 313, Emperor Constantine established the freedom of religion throughout his empire. In our region this was confirmed in the city documents in Cologne in 321. In the following centuries the rather small communities of Jews played a key role in the development of Europe. Some estimates talk about an approx 10% of the 6th century  population of  the  Roman Empire being Jewish.

In Merovingian and Carolingian times, Jews were well established in these new emerging empires. They were the ones that were involved in bringing knowledge from the Islamic world to Europe and many of the first medical doctors were Jews. They were also instrumental – as merchants – in the trade between east and west. Jews could also be found at the Carolingian court (Isaak the Jew) were in particular Charlemagne showed interest in their knowledge. Significant groups of Jews established themselves in the ‘Shum’ cities (Speyer, Worms and Mainz) – Shum is the Hebrew abbreviation of these cities. In these cities, during the high and late Middle Ages, approx 5% of the population was Jewish.

The Jews living north of the Alps were known as the Ashkenazi Jews. According to Jewish tradition Ashkenazi the son of Gomer is the ancestor of the Germanic, Scandinavian and Slavic peoples.

Dating back from the Theodosius Code (Codex Theodosianus) from the late Roman Empire (439), Jews were separated from Christians. Large section of this code also formed the core of the new Frankish Council resolutions. However, there is very little evidence that the Codes were actually enacted. The Church as an organisation was still in its infancy, with lost of infighting amongst the elections of bishops. This did not provide a strong authoritative organisation. Bishop Gregory of Tours mentions the Jews in his books the History of the Franks. He suggests that the taxation system should be used to stimulate Jews to convert, but also strongly object to forced conversions.

Jews were – and still are – very closely tied to their natural cultural lands – and this has caused problems throughout the millenia. The Romans tried to stamp it out, Emperor Titus conquered their lands in 70. They changed the name of Jerusalem in Aelia Capitolina and Judea into Palestine and started what became known as the Jewish diaspora. However, as a result the rather open and most of the time tolerant Roman society saw the Jews flourishing.

As soon as the Church started to become more institutionalised after 1000, tolerance towards others went out of the window, the Church became militant and power hungry. There was no room for different views, Christianity was the dominant religion and the Church wanted to keep it that way.  There were two rumours that continuously – across the whole of Europe – turned the mob against the Jews within towns across the region:

  • Rumours of ritual murder, often of young children with the allegation that their blood was used for Jewish rituals
  • Rumours of Host desecration – Jews allegedly obtain the Host during mass and than carry it around.

Often the acquisition was enough to get the mob on a killing spree; there was no need for proof even no need of a victim in the case of murder.

There are hundreds of such events across Europe throughout the high and late Middle Ages. Both the church and local rules didn’t initiate or support these attacks, to the contrary they often provided protection, but often they were unable to hold the mob back. In order to protect them against the mob, Jews received special quarters from the Bishop – often very close to the religious centre of the town (cathedral, bishop residence) and often with their own wall around it for their protection.

This increased their isolation. The Jews were often the only group of ‘different’ people within these towns, they were outsiders; lived in their own quarter, had their own way of life, their own food and their own religious activities, they didn’t integrate into the Christian society and with a church that certainly didn’t promote diversity, even without any active aggression against the Jews indirectly of course the Church did maintain an underlying vilification of the Jews.

Ath the 4th Council of Lateran(1215)  it was decreed that Jews had to wear certain marks on the clothing (only one country had decreed their Jews to wear the six pointed yellow star; Portugal).

They also increasingly were limited in their occupations. One of the only professions they could maintain was money lending, a profession officially forbidden to Catholics. Jews were also forbidden to lend money at interest to ‘others’, but they conveniently explained this ‘others’ as being applicable only to other Jews, and therefor a Jew could legitimately lend at interest to a Christian. Money lending was a very lucrative business as the rates were extremely high and often led to usury. In Metz there are still several of the 120 original medieval money change benches, they were well away from the direct centre (around the cathedral) as it was forbidden to have these ‘shops’ near churches.

Reports were spreading that, towards the end of the Middle Ages, whole villages in Germany were sucked dry by usurers. This only fuelled the hatred towards the Jews and made them an easy target in situations where the kings needed to get rid of their debts. However, money lending was hardly ever a reason for the murdering of the Jews. Most involved in the massacres didn’t have any money themselves at all.  Also when Jews were killed it didn’t just involve the ones involved in lending.

Furthermore, especially from the 13th century onwards Jews only represented a very small percentage of money lending and the phantasies of the demonic Jew existed long before money lending started to emerge. Furthermore, as capitalism evolved, these moneylenders developed into banking families led by the Italians, soon followed by the Flemish and the German, the majority of these moneylenders, by far, where Catholic. By the 13th century, the papacy itself had developed by far the most elaborate tax system in Europe, with an elaborative and highly trained (financial) bureaucracy.

The seeds for the ‘demonic Jew’ were already sown in the 3rd century when Hippolytus wrote that Jews were ‘darkened’ unable to see the true light. Origin at that same time called them ‘a most wicked nation’.  A century later Gregory of Nyssa called them ‘the slayers of the Lord’. However, it didn’t get much further than rhetoric and the official Church – as separate from individual zealots – never supported the murdering of Jews.

Similar strong language was used against those following their traditional pagan. However, the old Germanic pagan religions were neatly incorporated in the new Christian religions and slowly but steadily Christianity simply replaced the pagan religion, gods and deities became saints and most religious feasts were simply Christianised.

But Jews never integrated into the Christian society. Many of those above mentioned rumours spread rapidly during bad times such as famine and plague. Than, as nowadays, scapegoats were needed and the Jews were always an easy target, especially amongst the poor and uneducated larges groups that lived in the newly emerging towns, with little or no structures for law and order or any social welfare for the underclass. Often these rumours of ritual murders and desecration also coincided with the Christian Lent, very close to Easter when the Church commemorated the death of Jesus.

The first large scale pogroms started when the mob who accompanied the Crusaders. This happened right from the First Crusade onwards (1096), on their way to the Holy Land, the first few thousands Jews were killed by fanatic poor pilgrims who accompanied the crusade. It was the beginning of a tradition that saw the senseless killing of tens of thousands of Jews in France, Germany, Low Countries, and Hungary and where ever the crusade hordes went. The German mobs were significantly more violent towards the Jews that the French mobs.

Next on their bloodthirsty campaigns where the Jews in the Holy Land, for centuries they had lived in peace with the local Muslims, the Christians however, treated Muslims and Jews alike and killed them indiscriminate.

Nevertheless, during the 12th and 13th centuries, the Jewish communities were always able to recover, partly because they maintained the protection of the local bishop and their financial services were always need by the local rulers. Sometimes they were expelled by the local rulers, often to simply get rid of the debt they had with the Jewish moneylenders, but most of the time they were invited back as long as they accepted that two thirds if the debt were written off.

Prosecution started to increase when the economic boom period ended and a range of natural disasters started to occur during the 14th century. During the Black Death the Jews were accused of poising drinking wells and that this was the source of the epidemic. In 1339 several Jews were burned at the stake in Zwolle for the alleged poisoning of wells in Overijssel. During 1348/49 Jews were massacred through the Low Countries and Lower Rhine regions, often instigated by the flagellants that were moving through the region in large numbers (see also: The Great Death)

Preachers travelled from parish to parish preaching doom and hell for those people who would not repel their sins. In these sermons some also blamed Jews, lepers and others for all the trouble that had flooded over Europe. These zealots got people into a frenzy which led to ongoing pogroms that would last for centuries, some of them revelled the Holocaust, which happened only sixty years ago.

With bishops losing their secular powers, also the Jews started to loose their protectors. This started to happen in France under the reign of Louis IX (the Pious). The kings, dukes and counts started to hand out privileges that allowed Jews to settle in certain areas, operate their businesses, etc. For these privileges the Jews had to pay very high taxes, which often increased especially when the rulers needed more money for wars, etc. The privileges became commodities that were traded between rulers which made life increasingly more difficult for the Jewish communities as they were totally at the mercy of these local rulers.

After first being invited by the Normans who had conquered Britain in 1066, the Jews were 200 years later amass expulsed; after an ongoing range of acquisitions regarding ritual deaths and host desecrations. Most of the British Jews ended up in Rhineland, some 10% in Flanders. In France the Jews were expelled in 1394, most of them also ended up in Germany. This often led to overcrowding of the Jewish quarters in these German cities and they moved further to the east where they in particular swelled the numbers of the local Jewish communities in Hungary and Poland. These less developed countries offered them much more freedom here and they could more easily own property and integrate within the larger communities, but also here they maintained their own identity and religion and as such maintained their position as outsiders. By the end of the Middle Ages there were no Jews left in Germany.

Spain under Muslim reign again was very tolerant towards the Jews. However one of the most fanatic Christian preachers Fray Vincent Ferrer single-handedly whipped up public sentiment which led to one of the most terrible persecutions of Jews ever; especially in Spain. He was afterwards rewarded sainthood.

Apart from those killed some 36,000 Jews emigrated. A large proportion of Portuguese Jews ended up in Amsterdam, not because the Dutch were so tolerant, but anybody who was an enemy of Spain was their friend.

At the same time the Jews were instrumental in the survival of ancient knowledge. Because they taught their children to read the Talmud, they were a literate people and when spread after the diaspora, Jews found themselves employed by courts and nobles in the Byzantium and Persian Empires and even worked with Christian monks in Syria and other parts of the Near East. This work continued during the Caliphate and this brought Jews to Spain where again they played a key role in spreading knowledge back into western Europe.

Because of their often nomadic existence they used their knowledge – in this case their medical knowledge – to examine urine, performed bloodletting, prescribe herbal medicine, placing splints, etc.

The History of Northwestern Europe (TOC)