Secular Courts - witchcraft


Secular Courts

Deployment of the full judicial power of the state inthe prosecution of a crime that was primarily spiritual nature. It was a spiritual crime, crime of apostasy and heresy, and so merited punishment by ecclesiastical authorities. However secular courts started to get involve.

The European witch-hunt was essentially a clerical operation, inspired by clerical zeal. Contribution that churchmen made to the development of the cumulative concept of witchcraft and the role the churrch courts played in the prosecution of the crime was important.The churchmen took the lead in the early formulation of the witch beliefs.

First the prosecution of magic was undertaken by both secular and ecclesiastical authorities, since it was a crime of 'mixed jurisdiction'. The church prosecuted it as a form of heresy and condemned the practice because of the growing feeling of the battle between heaven and hell. Secular authorities had a legitimate interest in the crime when it resulted in phyisical injury (maleficia) and especially when it was used for political purposes. 

Secular authorities also played a role, although admittidely a more limited one, in the prosecution of heresy. Lay officials helped to locate and arrest suspect and executed on the basis of secular law. The cooperation of secular authorities punishing heretics was essential, since the church courts could not inflict bodily harm and therefore obliged to surrender condemned heretics to the secular arm for punishment.There was little concern lay officials wouldnt cooperate since heresy was widely regarded as a source of civil disorder.

The punishment that the secular courts adopted for this crime reflected its heretical rather than its felonious nature. Apart from England, where witches were hanged like any other felon, witches were usually burned at the stake. The practice of burning heretics had scriptural foundation -

'if a man not abide in me, he is cast forth as branch that is withere; and men gather them and cast them into the fire, and they are burned'

Burning witches was also a ritual of purification.It also provided guarante for nervous judges that witches would not return from the dead by means of sorcery.

Secular Courts were more prone to torture and convictions resulting in execution. Sometimes the witch was banished - when communities were more concerned with being rid of marginal individuals than


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