“I’ve always wanted to go to Switzerland to see what the army does with those wee red knives” – Billy Connolly
The Inquisition usually gets the lion’s share of the credit for initiating the widespread European witch hunts from the 15th-18th Century A.D. (the time period in which everyone expected them), ultimately executing a total of 40,000-100,000 suspected witches, yet puzzlingly the first set of official, large scale witch trials occurred between 1428-1447 in the Canton of Valais, Switzerland. This bastion of horology, neutrality, international banking, and chocolate craftsmanship, which dates its independent existence to the formation of the Swiss Confederation of 1291 A.D., and strikes everybody as the sort of place a World War Two era dissenting Austrian submarine commander, a singing governess, and seven adorable tykes in lederhosen might want to flee to avoid the Nazis, was actually ground zero not only for three centuries of European pyromanic madness about the sorcerers in our midst, but also hosted the barbecue-based executions of at least 367 men and women (almost 200 people between1428-1430) long before it became popular throughout the rest of Europe. Equally surprising, given that they were the first to initiate conspiracy-focused judicial proceedings against witches is the fact that the last instance of judicial condemnation and execution in Europe took place in Glaris, Switzerland in 1780. Apparently, the tradition of Swiss neutrality has never extended to the supernatural.
Let’s set the stage. It was a dark and stormy night in 1415 A.D. when civil war erupted in the Swiss Confederation. The Valais region had recently been granted relative independence from the Duchy of Savoy (ostensibly a part of the Holy Roman Empire) in 1414 A.D., transferring power to a local Swiss noble family named Raron. The other nobles of Valais were not happy to replace their former Savoy masters with a local noble who exercised complete control, so the whole affair descended into open rebellion that threatened to split the Swiss Confederation. The opponents of the Raron claim on Valais styled themselves “The Dog Society” and used a dog symbol on their banners. After a great deal of fighting (and this was the heyday of the “Swiss Pikeman” – known throughout Europe as tough dudes, and maintaining a virtual monopoly on pike-armed mercenary units in Europe until about 1490), the power of the Raron family was broken, and by 1419, things were a little precarious, but had settled down a bit. The Old Swiss Confederacy of the city-states of Uri, Schwyz, Unterwalden, Glarus, Zug, the Lucerne, Zürich and Bern had consolidated, yet things remained a little tense. The Swiss Confederation remained part of the Holy Roman Empire in name, but by 1490 they had de facto independence. Basically, Switzerland in 1428 was a confusing place where the guy in Bern who was buying the tasty confections you made in Unterwalden was probably the same guy who was burning your village a decade earlier. This tends to make people suspicious of their neighbors. And where there is suspicion, there tends to be the assumption that that unsavory character two houses over is in league with something diabolical. It’s not entirely clear what precipitated the onset of the witch hunts in Valais, but on August 7, 1428, delegates from the Val d’Anniviers and Val d’Hérens regions of Valais demanded that Swiss authorities investigate “unknown” witches and sorcerers. That’s when, quite literally, all hell broke loose.
It’s not that folks weren’t keen on a good witch-burning prior the 15th Century in Europe, in fact plenty of folks fell prey to witch hunts prior to the outbreak of accusations in early 15th Century Switzerland. The Swiss just get credit for really amping up the zealous prosecution of anybody thought to be in league with the Devil, when prior to that, their attempts to get a handle on sorcery were spotty at best. “The over-all acceleration can be traced most clearly for Switzerland, where conditions in modern times have favored the survival of documents that might have been lost elsewhere. Prior to 1383 there are no known instances of sorcery in Swiss territories. In the last decades of the fourteenth century there were four minor cases, each involving a single sorceress—though in one of these there seem to have been no judicial proceedings. Around the turn of the century there was a famous outbreak in Simmenthal under the secular judge Peter of Greyerz, who related his discoveries to the Dominican John Nider…Between the turn of the century and the year 1435, there were more than twenty trials in various towns of Switzerland, notably Lucerne, Basel, and Fribourg. In most, the charges were simple sorcery. In 1428 there was extensive persecution in Valais; whereas the judicial documents speak only of sorcery, the chronicler John Fründ gives abundant details about a devil-worshipping cult in southern Switzerland” (Kieckhefer, 2011). The change in tone was in favor of a “conspiratorial” version of witchcraft, rather than the odd lone sorcerer plying his or her trade, emphasizing witchcraft as an organized sect of devil worshipers looking to usurp the supremacy of Christendom. That is, a conspiracy deemed to fall under the purview of both the church and the secular authorities.
By and large, humans are relatively accepting of the individual foibles and fetishes of their immediate neighbors. Sure the guy next door might be a little weird, but he’s a whiz with computers. Cleared all the viruses off my desktop, so I’ll overlook his unnatural obsession with the Norse gods. Individual strangeness doesn’t bother us so much. Even gives a little flavor to our otherwise mundane lives, and some good stories to tell at the bar. We only start getting paranoid when faced with the sneaking suspicion that there is an organized conspiracy of like-minded folks looking to usher in some sort of nefarious change in the social order. We’re willing to endure a Republican, but the Tea Party has us worried. By the 15th Century, Christianity had been around for 1400 years or so, and had been a dominant theological force in Europe for at least 1000 years, courtesy of Roman Emperor Constantine’s 312 A.D. conversion. Lots of witches got burned prior to the 1400’s, but witchcraft was regarded as an ecclesiastical crime, that is, heresy against the church, which no doubt regarded the existence of a popular set of beliefs about the effectivity of magic to be rather off-putting and were looking to stamp out competition for hearts and minds. Secular trials of witches prior to 1400 emphasize damages done, and the punishment of individual practitioners. 15th Century Switzerland saw the rise of a new perspective, combining the heretical and practical elements into the form that would characterize the later inquisition, and require prosecution of witches by secular as well as ecclesiastical authorities in order to uproot what was regarded as an organized diabolical conspiracy. If I give your cow the evil eye, you might take me to court, sue me for damages, maybe even turn me over to the local priests. The results would no doubt be unpleasant regardless, that is, if the neighbors didn’t just show up one night and administer vigilante justice. The marked change in tone that emerged involved the notion that witches were unionizing, gathering in groups and plotting to undermine society. If one guy stands on a soapbox and rants about the need for revolution, we tend to look the other way. When a crowd of people do so, they call in the riot police. Now, it’s somewhat irrelevant whether such an organized alternative theology existed at all, the simple fact is both church and state authorities in 15th Century Switzerland seemed to be particularly worried about the issue of a conspiracy of witches.
The result of this is seen in the Luzern Chronicle of Johann Fründ, who relates that in 1428 Wallis [Valais] was overrun with the crimes of witches, whose practices he proceeds to describe with a detail which shows that as of yet they were novelties. All are related that we find in the demonologists, and the witches were obliged to pay tribute to the demon—a sheep, a lamb, money, or some object of value. The evil was energetically attacked—numbers were arrested, some died under torture without confessing, and in eighteen months there were 200 burnt, dead or alive. They had in their society 700 members and the devil promised that they would be so powerful that they need not fear justice; indeed, they would have their own laws and overcome Christianity. The persecutions continued for nine years and spread via the St. Bernard from Valais to Savoy (Lea, 1957, p249).
Secular Swiss judge Peter of Greyerz, who conducted a number of witchcraft trials in the early 1400’s in Bern (prior to the advent of the Valais insanity in 1428), related many of his findings regarding the practices of Swiss witches (accusations which would thereafter form important elements in the later inquisitions). These details were recorded by German theologian Johannes Nider in the fifth book of his treatise Formicarius.
According to John Nider, the injury done by the witches was manifold, and difficult to be guarded against; and we are amused with the various absurd formula of exorcism which he recommends against their effects, as though, if their object were to drive away the evil one, or to call upon Divine interference, one proper formula would not be sufficient for every case that could occur. They raised at will destructive storms; they caused barrenness, both of living beings and of the fruits of the earth: a man at Poltingen, in the diocese of Lausanne, by placing a charmed lizard under the doorstop of a house, is stated to have caused the good woman of the house to have abortive births during seven years, and to have produced the same effect on all living creatures of her sex which remained within her dwelling; when the sorcerer was seized, and made a full confession of his evil practices, no lizard was found in the spot indicated, that as it was supposed during so long a period of lime to have been entirely decomposed by decay, all the dust under the door was carefully carried away, and from that time the inmates were relieved from this severe visitation. They sometimes raised illicit love; and at others, hindered the consummation of marriage, excited hatred between man and wife, and raised dissensions between the dearest friends. They drove horses mad, and made them run away with their riders. They conveyed away the property of others into their own possession; though, in most of the examples cited, the property thus conveyed away consisted of articles of small value. They made known people’s secrets, were endowed with the power of second-sight, and were able to foretell events. They caused people to be struck with lightning, or to be visited with grievous diseases; and did many other “detestable things.” Their enmity appears to have been especially directed against little children. There were persons of both sexes who confessed to having transformed themselves into wolves and other ravenous beasts, in order to devour them more at their ease. They watched opportunities of pushing them into rivers and wells, or of bringing upon them other apparently accidental deaths. Their appetite for children is said to have been so great, that when they could not get those of other persons, they would devour their own. They watched more especially newborn infants, which, if possible, they killed before baptism, in such a manner as to make the mothers believe that they had died naturally, or been overlain. When buried, the witches dug the bodies out of the graves, and carried them to the scene of their secret rites, where, with various charms, they boiled them in caldrons, and reduced them to an unguent, which was one of their most efficient preparations. The liquor in which they were boiled was drawn off, and carefully, preserved in flasks. Anyone who drank of it became in an instant a perfect master of the whole art of magic. Such were the Swiss witches of the beginning of the fifteenth century (Wright, 1852, p94-95).
The emphasis seems to turn towards “secret rites”, organized rituals of horror practiced by groups of witches. Hexing somebody is bad, but getting together with your evil buddies and making newborn juice in order to indoctrinate new witches and sorcerers speaks to a whole new order of nefarious activity. An assembly of delegates from the districts of Valais laid out how witches would be prosecuted. When a person was accused of sorcery, he or she was to be arrested and imprisoned by his local judges or the noble he was vassal to. If five or more people accused someone of sorcery, that person was to be arrested and tortured. Those who didn’t confess in trial, but were widely believed to be witches were to be tortured. If you were married to a witch, you had to take an oath that you were ignorant of the fact, or your property would be confiscated. If you were vassal to a noble, the noble had to pay for your burning, but got all your property. If someone confessed, and then defamed someone else, secret inquiry was to be made into his/her activities. If two condemned witches accused the same person, they got arrested and tortured until they confessed. Obviously, torture figured prominently in the proceedings, as did the confiscation of property.
Given the political disorder in the Swiss Confederation that immediately preceded the explosion of witch trials in Valais, we can assume that a fair percentage of accusations amounted to little more than payback, land grabs, or general malice, but tinged with an element of conspiratorial panic. Valais transitioned quickly from the chaos of civil war to a form of solidarity against a (real or imagined) incursion of organized witches that efficiently went after folks in a way that would be a model for later inquisitorial predations. When the world is steadily falling apart, we like to think that it results from the subtle strategems of a super-villain and his dastardly army of evil-doers, rather than common stupidity. As astrologer Jonathan Cainer observed, “Why do we love the idea that people might be secretly working together to control and organize the world? Because we don’t like to face the fact that our world runs on a combination of chaos, incompetence and confusion.”
Kieckhefer, Richard. European Witch Trials. New York, NY: Routledge, 2011.
Lea, Henry Charles. Materials Towards a History of Witchcraft. London: Thomas Yoseloff, 1957.
Wright, Thomas, 1810-1877. Narratives of Sorcery And Magic, From the Most Authentic Sources. New York: Redfield, 1852.