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Witchcraft, Lycanthropy, Drugs and Disease

An Anthropological Study of the European Witch-Hunts- Second Printing


Homayun Sidky

Long before the political mass-murders witnessed in the present century, western Europe experienced another kind of holocaust – the witch-hunts of the early modern period. Condemned of flying through the air, changing into animals, and worshipping the Devil, over a hundred thousand people were brutally tortured, systematically maimed and burned alive. Why did these persecutions take place? Was it superstition, irrationality, or mass delusion that led to the witch-hunts? This study seeks explanations in the tangible actions of human actors and their worldly circumstances. The approach taken is anthropological; inferences are grounded on a wide spectrum of variables, ranging from the political and ideological practices used to mystify earthly affairs, to the logical structure of witch-beliefs, torture technology, and the role of psychotropic drugs and epidemic diseases.


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Torture: The Proof of All Proofs 117


Chapter Five Torture: The Proof of All Proofs When prosecuting people accused of witchcraft and sorcery the authorities were confronted with the problem of producing evidence: acts of witchcraft took place unseen, at night, or in faraway places. For this reason, Bodin advised that, "one accused of being a witch ought never be fully acquitted and set free unless the calumny of the accuser is clearer than the sun, inasmuch as the proof of such crimes is so obscure and so difficult that not one witch in a million would be accused or punished if the procedure were governed by the ordinary rules." 1 Witchcraft was considered crimen exceptum [an exceptional crime], a crime so horrendous that it was excluded from the customary process of law. All legal safeguards were denied the suspect, and the broadest latitude of evidence was permitted: children of irresponsible age were admitted to testify against their parents; perjurers, felons, and individuals of disrepute were invited to offer testimony; even defense lawyers could be forced to give evidence against their clients.2 Ultimately, in cases of witchcraft, torture was considered probatio probatissimi, "the proof of all proofs." In this chapter I describe the judicial torture system in great detail so that the reader may obtain a precise understanding of the force of torture in bolstering demonology and fueling the persecutions. Large-scale witch-burnings took place only where torture of the most brutal sort was employed to extract the names of accomplices. According to the historian Burr, "No confession...

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