Würzburg Witch Trials - Germany's Deadly 17th Century Witch Hunt

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In the early 17th century, the city of Würzburg, Germany, became the epicenter of one of the most brutal and extensive witch hunts in European history. Between 1626 and 1631, hundreds of people, from the poor and powerless to members of the elite, were accused, tortured, and executed for the crime of witchcraft.

Google Maps shows the location of Würzburg, just south of the center of Germany.
Würzburg is about a 1.5-hour drive from Frankfurt, approximately 120 kilometers (75 miles).

Some estimates suggest that the true number of victims could have been a thousand or more, lost to the flames of superstition and fear. The events of Würzburg weren't isolated; during the peak period of witch hunts from 1400 to 1775, an estimated 100,000 people were tried and 50,000 executed. But how do these tragic chapters in history begin?

Germany in the 1600s

We're going to examine how and why the Würzburg Witch Trials began in 1626. Before we do that, it's essential to understand a bit of history leading up to Germany in the early 1600s. At that time, Germany was part of the Holy Roman Empire, a complex political and religious entity with states and principalities with varying degrees of independence.

How to pronounce ​Würzburg​. It's always best to listen to a native speaker of the language, but here's a rough approximation for English speakers:VOORTS-burgVOORTS: rhymes with "courts" but with a 'v' sound at the beginningburg: (like "berg" or "burg" in English)

The Protestant Reformation, which Martin Luther kicked off in 1517 with his Ninety-Five Theses nailed to the door of the All Saints' Church in Wittenberg, outright challenged the Catholic Church's authority and led to a deep religious divide. The whole thing resulted in a religious upheaval and widespread conflicts like the Schmalkaldic War (1546–1547).

In 1555, the Peace of Ausburg, a treaty between the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and the Schmalkaldic League of Lutheran princes, allowed local rulers the incredible freedom to choose between two Christian denominations: Catholicism and Lutheranism (not Protestantism in general because that was just pushing it too far with religious freedom). It brought about some peace but didn't entirely resolve the religious tensions.

Tensions got so bad that, in 1618, the Thirty Years' War began. Of course, when it started, no one knew it would last thirty years. The war began as an unholy mix of religious and political turf wars, with different states aligning with either the Catholic Habsburgs or Protestant forces. Good thing nothing like this still happens today! 😬

The photo depicts a stunning night view of Würzburg, Germany. The scene showcases an illuminated stone bridge spanning a calm river, reflecting the lights on its surface. In the background, a large, well-lit castle or fortress is perched atop a hill, standing against a dramatic, cloudy night sky. The water below mirrors the warm hues of the lights, creating a picturesque and serene nighttime landscape. Trees frame the image, adding depth and a sense of nature to the urban setting.
Würzburg at night.

Continuous warfare led to widespread social and economic instability, creating an environment of fear and superstition. You can imagine that, in such a climate, accusations of witchcraft were a convenient way to explain and control the chaos, often targeting vulnerable individuals as scapegoats for misfortunes like crop failures and plagues and even as a creative method to assassinate your enemies.

Würzburg, a Catholic stronghold under the Prince-Bishopric, became a focal point for witch trials during the Thirty Years' War. The Prince-Bishops, such as Philipp Adolf von Ehrenberg, were determined to eradicate heresy and consolidate their power. They used witch hunts as a means to enforce religious conformity and maintain social control.

A portrait of Philipp Adolf von Ehrenberg, the Prince-Bishop of Würzburg from 1622 to 1631. He is depicted wearing dark, formal clothing with a white collar. He has a distinctive mustache and goatee, with wavy dark hair. The background is dark with a hint of drapery, and an inscription at the bottom indicates his name and title.
Philipp Adolf von Ehrenberg, the Prince-Bishop of Würzburg from 1622 to 1631. This is the man who ordered the witch trials to take place. His face happens to make a great dartboard.

Philipp Adolf von Ehrenberg, the Prince-Bishop of Würzburg from 1623 to 1631, was a fervent Catholic leader known for his zealous efforts to strengthen Catholic orthodoxy during the Counter-Reformation. This period of Catholic resurgence aimed to counter the spread of Protestantism and involved rigorous enforcement of religious discipline, often resulting in the persecution of those deemed heretical or non-conforming—because, if history has taught us anything, it's that non-conforming people become serious targets, and not just from religious groups.

The Witch Trials Begin

So, in 1626, against the backdrop of political and religious turmoil and with the weaponization of witchcraft accusations rising, the Würzburg Witch Trials began. The Prince-Bishop Philipp Adolf von Ehrenberg spearheaded the efforts to "cleanse" his diocese of witchcraft. And, of course, "cleanse" also just happened to serve his own personal political and social control goals.

As with many witch hunt frenzies, the initial accusations of witchcraft were based on personal vendettas or just sheer bad luck. For instance, a failed harvest or sudden illness could prompt accusations against neighbors or rivals. And, sometimes, simply traveling through Würzburg without an explanation the locals liked got you accused of being in league with the Devil. Oh, I mean...The Devil™️.

The more the accusations came in, the more tensions increased, and the more people became convenient scapegoats for anything and everything that went wrong. Meanwhile, as people were tortured and burned regularly, the Prince-Bishop took the opportunity to assert his control and support religious orthodoxy. He also believed that rooting out witchcraft (and torturing and beheading people and burning people at the stake) was a divine mandate.

A photo of the Marienkapelle in Würzburg, Germany, featuring its striking Gothic architecture with a white facade and red trim. The chapel has a tall, ornate spire adorned with a golden statue at the top. The building showcases large arched windows and detailed stone carvings around the main entrance. The sky is bright and blue with scattered clouds, enhancing the vivid colors of the chapel.
The Marienkapelle, a 14th-century Gothic chapel in Würzburg, is believed to be the site where the burnings took place. "Marienkapelle" translates to "Chapel of Mary" in English. It is named in honor of the Virgin Mary.

The actual trials, as with all witch trials throughout history, were conducted under severe torture, prompting confessions just to escape excruciating pain. Those confessions were used to implicate others, and sometimes, a confession wouldn't be accepted without accusing others of witchcraft. This created a domino effect that further fueled the hysteria and reinforced the idea that the entire witch hunt was a divine mandate and that the Prince-Bishop was doing God's work.

An image of a pamphlet printed in 1627, titled "Ein Warhafftige und gründtliche Beschreibung," detailing witch trials in the bishoprics of Würzburg and Bamberg. The text is in German, using a Gothic typeface, and describes the confessions and executions of those accused of witchcraft. The pamphlet is an example of historical propaganda used to justify the witch hunts and spread fear among the population.
The pamphlet about the witch trials in Würzburg and Bamberg, printed and circulated in 1627 by authorities under the direction of Prince-Bishop Philipp Adolf von Ehrenberg, was propaganda that spread fear and justified the brutal, unjust actions of authorities. It manipulated public opinion, reinforced superstition, and sanctioned the murder of innocent people under the guise of moral and religious duty.
German transcription:
Ein Warhafftige und gründtliche Beschreibung
Aus dem Bistum Würtz- und Bamberg
Deszgleichen von dem gantzen Fränckischen Craiß
wie man alda so vil Herrn Mit ihrem Weibspersonen verbrennet läßt
und was sie mußten bekennen haben
Ist alles fließ aus Glaubwürdigen Schreiben zusammen getragen
Und inn das Lied versezt.
In Thon:
Hilff Gott das mir gelinge / ic.

Ist ein sonderliche Bekandtniß darinn St
biezhen Artickel begriffen
Wie und was geschefflt sie den eisenischen verfluchten Götzen
und inn was für Stucken es sich bloß giebt
Wie ihr im lesen vernemen werdet
das vor maist sich nun ein fromer Christ erwollich zu halten
und im Göttes sein Leben zu zubringen. Wie folget.

[ornamental design]
Gedruckt im Jahr Christi
English translation:
A True and Thorough Description
From the Bishopric of Würzburg and Bamberg
Likewise from the entire Franconian Circle
how so many Lords with their women were burned there
and what they had to confess
It is all diligently compiled from credible writings
And set in the form of a song.
To the tune:
Help God that I succeed / ic.

It is a special confession wherein
are contained articles
How and what they do to the iron cursed idols
and in what parts it exposes itself
As you will learn in reading
that especially now a pious Christian should keep himself
and in God's way to bring life. As follows.

[ornamental design]
Printed in the Year of Christ

The accusations, torture, and executions spread like wildfire. The first arrests targeted poor working-class women. As the trials expanded, they increasingly targeted men, children, and people from all social classes. Men sometimes made up the majority of those executed, including forty-three priests and Ernst von Ehrenberg, the nephew of the Prince Bishop. At least 49 children, many from the local orphanage and school, Julius-Spital, were also executed.

"To conclude this wretched matter, there are children of three and four years, to the number of three hundred, who are said to have had intercourse with the Devil. I have seen put to death children of seven, promising students of ten, twelve, fourteen, and fifteen."— George L. Burr, ed., The Witch Persecutions in Translations and Reprints from the Original Sources of European History, 6 vols. (Philadelphia: ​University of Pennsylvania History Department​, 1898-1912) vol. 3, no. 4, pp. 28-29

A 1629 account describes daily arrests of people from all walks of life, with a third of the population suspected of attending the Witches' Sabbath and being recorded in Satan's black book. Accusations ranged from serious crimes like murder and satanism to minor offenses like humming a song with the Devil's name or simply being a vagrant.

It started with a few, and because of that domino effect, the few became dozens, and dozens quickly grew...

Escalation and Mass Executions

The Würzburg Witch Trials only lasted a total of about five years, but the number of victims skyrocketed in a pretty short time. The methods of interrogation and torture were specifically designed to extract confessions—no matter what. Devices such as the strappado, where victims were suspended by their arms tied behind their backs, and the rack, which stretched the body, were commonly used. ​Read more about the devices and methods used here​.

The original few trials that kicked it off grew into hundreds dead in a short period. The estimates are a somewhat broad range due to incomplete historical records, but it's believed to be somewhere between 600 and 900 people executed. Those numbers even include children, and in some cases, entire families were completely wiped out.

During the Würzburg Witch Trials, the concept of witchcraft was widely supported by religious doctrine and even some emerging scientific thought. The Catholic Church endorsed the persecution of witches, viewing it as a necessary measure to protect the faithful from heresy and diabolical influence. The Malleus Maleficarum, a treatise on witchcraft published in 1487, was influential in shaping these beliefs, providing guidelines for identifying and prosecuting (aka torturing) witches. You can read more about ​Malleus Maleficarum​ here.

"...the judge may safely promise witches to spare their lives, if only he will later excuse himself from pronouncing the sentence and will let another do this in his place." — Malleus Maleficarum, 1487

Not everyone accepted the validity of the trials and the methods used. Some questioned the legitimacy of the accusations and the use of torture to extract confessions. Skepticism was fueled by the lack of concrete evidence and the realization that many confessions were made under extreme duress. Scholars and some members of the clergy started to argue that the trials were more about social control and political power than genuine witchcraft.

I know! Shocking, right?

One prominent skeptic was Friedrich Spee, a Jesuit priest who anonymously published "Cautio Criminalis" in 1631, criticizing the witch trials. Spee argued that torture led to false confessions and that the trials were unjust. His work planted early seeds of doubt and skepticism about the witch hunts, highlighting the need for due process and rational investigation. Spee's critique was a significant departure from the general consensus of the time, but his influence was extremely limited. Over time, his work became more recognized, but sadly, it did little to nothing to help anyone during the Würzburg Witch Trials. The skepticism, though, did mark the beginning of a shift in perspective, where reason and evidence started to challenge superstition and fear.

The Würzburg trials were part of a broader pattern of witch hunts that swept the world during the 16th and 17th centuries, including the Salem Witch Trials in 1692 in colonial Massachusetts and the Pendle Witch Trials in 1612 in England. These trials followed the tragic pattern of baseless accusations, torture, and executions—but every one of them reinforced the idea that the witch hunts were doing God's work.

It took centuries for most witch hunts to end, but it may surprise you to find out that they still happen. A ​2020 UN report​ states that at least 20,000 people were killed as "witches" in 60 countries between 2009 and 2019, but the actual number is likely much higher.

Modern Reflections

Modern religious institutions, including the Catholic Church, have acknowledged that some wrongs were committed during the witch hunts. The Church has expressed regret for its role in the persecution and has emphasized the need for compassion, understanding, and the application of justice rooted in respect for human dignity. This acknowledgment is part of an effort by religious institutions to come to terms with past mistakes and promote values that prevent such tragedies from recurring.

It's also important to note that the true frenzy came from local communities and their own hysteria. In contemporary discussions about witch trials, there is a focus on understanding the psychological and social factors that contributed to the hysteria. This analysis could help in developing strategies to prevent similar occurrences in the future, ensuring that fear and superstition do not override reason and humanity.

I mean...it didn't help the hysteria around the Satanic panic that started in the 1980s and still continues today.

"Satanic panic is a ​moral panic​ consisting of over 12,000 unsubstantiated cases of Satanic ritual abuse (SRA, sometimes known as ritual abuse, ritualistic abuse, organized abuse, or sadistic ritual abuse) starting in the United States in the 1980s, spreading throughout many parts of the world by the late 1990s, and persisting today."— Thanks, ​Wikipedia​!

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