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The Use of Torture in Medieval Christianity

Witches, Women, and Witchcraft


Inquisitors often resorted to torture in order to extract information or confessions from accused witches. Red-hot tongs were applied to womens’ breasts and genitalia. Researcher Nancy van Vuuren has written that “The women’s sex organs provided special attraction for the male torturer.” It should not be surprising that just about every torture victim eventually confessed.

Confessions commonly came attached to denouncements of other possible witches, keeping the Inquisitors in business. In Spain, church records tell the story of Maria of Ituren admitting under torture that she and sister witches turned themselves into horses and galloped through the sky. In a district of France, 600 women admitted to copulating with demons. Some entire villages in Europe were exterminated.

Although the children of heretics and Jews had never known much in the way of compassion from Inquisitors, the children of convicted witches suffered even more horribly. These kids were themselves prosecuted for witchcraft — girls after the age of nine and a half, boys after the age of ten and a half. Even younger children could be tortured to elicit testimony against parents.

Voluntary testimony from someone as young as two could be admitted even though it was never regarded as valid in other cases. A French judge is reported to have regretted leniency when he sentenced young kids flogged while they watched their parents burn instead of sentencing them to burn as well.

It seems to me that witches served a symbolic role for the male, celibate religious authorities in Europe. Witches were not simply adherents to an alternative religiosity, and they certainly weren’t turning whole towns into toads. Instead, their treatment at the hands of men, and the rationales used by those men indicate that the oppression of witches was somehow symbolic of the oppression of women in general, of women’s sexuality, and of sexuality in general.

I hate to sound Freudian, but I really do think that in this case, the assertions by celibate men about the alleged sexual obsessions of witches are really a clear case of projection. I think that it was the religious authorities who were obsessed and insatiable with their sexuality, but since their repressive ideology couldn’t allow that, they had to project their desires onto others. If women, sexually evil beasts, were actually responsible for the priests’ sexual desires, then the priests could in turn still feel holy — and better yet, “holier than thou,” more righteous and holy than the hated women around them.


  • Helen Ellerbe, The Dark Side of Christian History.
  • James A. Haught, Holy Horrors.
  • J.N. Hillgarth, Christianity and Paganism, 350-750.
  • Malcolm Lambert, Medieval Heresy.
  • Edward Peters, Heresy and Authority in Medieval Europe.
  • R. Dean Peterson, A Concise History of Christianity.

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