Legal Foundations of Witchcraft Trials

Chapter 3 of the Levack textbook

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The European witch hunt was a judicial operation, very rarely did villagers deal with the witches themselves. The secular courts took over the role of the church courts, and local courts were able to operate without central intervention. Intensive witch hunting became apparent with the introduction of the inquisitorial system in the 13th-16th centuries. This replaced the Accusitorial system which did not need evidence, but if the accused was found innocent, the accuser recieved punishment. As there was no consequence for the accuser under the inquisitorial system, people were freer to make accusations in court.

The inquisitorial system was more logical and evidence based. There was an officer of the court appointed to deal with each case, but a prosecution needed evidence- this could be obtained from two eyewitness accounts or a confession. There were certain accusations such as flight where eyewitness accounts were not feasible, so the prosecution relied on a confession, which, under the new laws could be obtained through the use of torture.

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Importance of Torture

Rules regarding types and usage of torture, especially in the courtroom, were relaxed, designed to speedup the judicial process. To end the painful torture, many would confess to crimes they had noot commited and implicate 'accomplices' who would then be sought out. Arguably, it could be said that without torture, there would not have been the european witch hunt as we know it today.

As judges could use torture to convict crimes for which there was no other evidence, torture became longer and more severe. The impact of torture is evident- it was vital in dissemination and areas where torture was not used such as England boasted a much lower conviction rate than germany, whose rates topped 95% as a pose to the 50% English rate

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The Secular courts

There was co-operation with the church initially, but wicthcraft became a more secular crime. The secular power behind the hunt mobilised it, increasing the scale on which it took place- without secular intervention, the hunt would have been a shadow of itself. By the Early Modern era, maleficium was totally secuar, and the seclarisef courts were more concerned about injury than devil worship. Fears of the spread gave secular courts the power to hear more cases, and also to publicise convictions better than the church, increasing suspicion and hysteria.

The Reformation weakened church authority  and in countries such as Germany and England, large scale hunts and prosecutions did not take place until witchcraft was declared a secular crime in 1563. The church were more focused onm repentance and used less force, whereas secular courts were concerned about keeping public decentralised areas like spain and italy, they had the inquisition to mediate their activity and accusations, so they did not make unjustified convictions and were more focused on personal guilt rather than accusing others.

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The Local Courts

Most witches were prosecuted in courts with a limited sphere of influence, which tended to be harsher with torture and sentencing as judges often lived in communties with the accusors, and as witches were often social outcasts had a degree of bias against them before evidence was gathered. Local judges had an intense fear of witchcraft due to their proximity to the accused witches, and their prosecutions were less evidence based.

in decentralised germany, each of the 300 territories had their own courts, and local judges and inquistors had great freedom to hunt witches. Germany was home to the largest single witchhunts and torture and execution of witches was highest. The inquisition in spain kept spanish prosecution rates down due to a centralised justice system within the organisation.

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