Valais witch trials
The Valais witch trials consisted of a witch-hunt including a series of witch trials which took place in the Valais (today part of Switzerland) between 1428 and 1447. It can be considered as the first series of witch trials in Europe, fifty years before the phenomenon became widespread. The victims were also accused of being werewolves. The persecutions started in French-speaking lower Valais and spread to German-speaking upper Valais and to nearby valleys in what are now the Swiss and French Alps.
The number of the victims of the prosecutions is unknown; there were at least 367 men and women killed.
In 1428, the duchy of Savoy had been tormented by a civil war from 1415–1419, between clans of the nobility, where people had been severed between the sides for and against the Raron family, which other noble clans had rebelled against, and society was in a state of great tension.
On 7 August 1428, delegates from seven districts in Valais demanded that the authorities initiate an investigation against alleged, unknown witches and sorcerers. Anyone denounced as a sorcerer by more than three people was to be arrested. If they confessed, they were to be burned at the stake as heretics, and if they did not confess, they would be tortured until they did so. Also, those pointed out by more than two of the judged sorcerers were to be arrested.
The events began in Val d'Anniviers and Val d'Hérens in southern French-speaking Valais and spread north to the German-speaking Valais (Wallis). Within one and a half years, between one and two hundred people had been burned to death. The hysteria had by then spread to the French and Swiss Alps, from Sankt Bernhard, Thuringia in Savoy to Briançon in Dauphiné. From these territories, it then spread over the valleys in Drance, Argentière, Freissinières and Valpute, resulting in one hundred and ten women and fifty seven men being tortured or burned to death, until the persecutions stopped in 1447.
The witch trials of Valais are poorly documented; the best source is the contemporary chronicle made by the clerk of the court, Johannes Fründ, (1400–1469), an eyewitness to the events. His document, however, was written in the middle of the trials (circa 1430, seventeen years before their termination), and therefore lacks a complete coverage.
Quotations from the trials
The following are citations from the chronicles of Johannes Fründ:
" In the year which was counted one thousand and four hundred and thereafter the twenty eight year after the birth of Christ, the bishopric of Wallis saw the uprising of evil, murder and heresy among witches and sorcerers, among women as well as men, known by the name sortilegi in Latin, and they were found first in two valleys in Wallis..."
" ...and an abundance of them have confessed to great evil and many murders and heretic beliefs and an abundance of evil things, which they have performed, such things which are in Latin known as sortilegia, and of which many are stated in this document; however, a lot of it is not mentioned, so that no one may be corrupted. One should consider that these people, be they male or female, which are guilty of these things and this evil which they have performed, have learned this from the evil spirit..."
"There were even those who killed their own children and fired and cooked them and took them to their company to eat them, and carried mischief and other things to church, so that everyone believed them to be children. But they had left their children at home and ate them later, when they so chose."
" There have also been many of them, guilty of such evil, so great a heresy and so many murders, that they with this evil, heresy and magic did not tell any to the priest, so that it may not be stopped. And there were many of these people, who could speak more when they had been apprehended than other uneducated people, and who called upon God and his saints more than others. This they did so that they would be considered innocent. And some of them did not confess at all; some let themselves be tormented and tortured to death, rather than confess or say anything...."
"...and still they were many testimonies against them and even more had reported them as guilty, which everyone could give proof of, and they were thought bewitched so not to be able to point out the other witches. And no matter how severely they were questioned, during more and more torture, many would no confess but let themselves be tortured. So they died from it, and were all the same judged and burned, some alive and some dead. "
" And there had been so many, that they claimed that if they had been able to rule but one year more, they could have established a court among themselves; and the evil spirit lead them to understand that they would be so strong that they need not fear no rule or court and that they would establish a court to take control over Christianity ..."
"...for they revealed they condemned over seven hundred people, of which over two hundred have been burned in one and a half years; they are still sentenced and burned every day, when you are able to arrest them."
People with a good reputation pointed out by a condemned were not arrested directly but first investigated discreetly. However, those pointed out by several condemned were arrested immediately. Some confessed directly; others refused and were described as very verbal in their defense. Only very few of their names are known, but they were all peasants, though some of them were described as well educated and learned.
With the exception of the trials in Dauphiné, where most accused were female, there were about as many male as female among the accused. They are not considered to have been old, as they managed to withstand torture long before they died. People were arrested daily.
- Flying: to have smeared in chairs, flying through the air and plundering wine cellars.
- Lycanthropy: to have killed cattle in the shapes of werewolves.
- Invisibility: to have made themselves invisible with herbs.
- To have cured sickness and paralysis caused by sorcery by giving it to someone else.
- Cannibalism: to have abducted and eaten children.
- To have met and learned magic from Satan.
- Conspiracy: to have planned depriving Christianity of its power over humanity.
The Devil was to have come to sinners and promised to teach them magic if they renounced Christianity and stopped going to church and confession; they paid him taxes and he did not demand any worshipping.
The condemned was tied upon a ladder with a wooden crucifix in their arms and a bag of gunpowder around their neck. The ladder was then tipped into the burning stake. Some were instead decapitated before being burned. Many were tortured to death but their bodies were burned at the stake nonetheless.
The property of the executed was given to their family only if they could swear to have been unaware of the sorcery; otherwise it went to the nobility, who paid for the executions of their vassals. When Fründ wrote his document in 1430, 100 or 200 people had been executed but the persecutions were to continue until 1447. It's hard to know the exact number of victims by that time. Unlike later trials, about as many men as women are believed to have been killed.
- Eva Kärfve (1992). Den stora ondskan i Valais: den första häxförföljelsen i Europa (The Great Evil of Valais) (in Swedish). Stehag: B. Östlings bokförlag Symposion.
- Carlo Ginzburg: Benandanti: de goda häxmästarna.(Benandanti: The good sorcerers) Stehag: B. Östlings bokförlag Symposion (1991) (In Swedish)
- P. G. Maxwell-Stuart: Witch Beliefs and Witch Trials in the Middle Ages: Documents and Readings