Early Modern Witch Hunting and Modern Crime Investigation

I got to do lots of interesting research for the historical setting of the Werewolves in the Renaissance series. Crime and punishment for witchcraft are at the heart of the first novel, and I learned that the Early Modern period in Europe laid the foundation for criminal investigation to this day.

Most any person is familiar with formulaic crime stories. A crime happens. Evidence is documented. The guilty are accused, tried, and punished. Justice is served.

Except that following a procedure does not justice make, and the bureaucratic methods of modern crime investigations have their roots in the infamous Inquisitions of the Roman Church in Medieval times.

Educated Investigators

In the book “God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World” the author Cullen Murphy wrote, “Looking at the Inquisition, one sees the West crossing a threshold from one kind of world into another. Persecution acquired a modern platform – the advantages afforded by a growing web of standardized law, communications, administrative oversight, and controlled mechanisms of force. It was run not merely by warriors but by an educated elite.”

The infamous witch hunting manual “Hammer of the Witches” or “Malleus Maleficarum” by German inquisitor Heinrich Kramer in association with Jakob Sprenger is an example of standardized communication explaining how to ferret out heretics and witches. Published in 1486, the book promoted the reality of witchcraft, insisted that women were more susceptible to it, and instructed magistrates on how to find witches, interrogate them with torture, and conduct the trials. Although the Church discredited the book in the early 1500s, its definitions and sadistic methods remained widespread, resulting in terrible tortures and executions of thousands and perhaps hundreds of thousands of citizens throughout Europe until the 1700s.

In 1532, Charles V the Holy Roman Emperor decreed that torture was allowed to determine the validity of witchcraft accusations. This action indicated the increasing importance placed on making society obey a single worldview. Burning at the stake was the punishment. With the legal doors wide open to the use of torture, all kinds of fantastical stories came from the mouths of victims because torture will make people say anything, especially when led on by questions specifically meant to confirm heresy and allegiance to the Devil.

In my novel Werelord Thal: A Renaissance Werewolf Tale, witch hunting is an important part of the plot because the werewolf Thal is hunting the men who tortured and killed his witch mother. The Jesuit brothers Vito and Miguel represent the educated elites promoting the persecution. For them it is part of their career ladder. By persecuting witches and heretics they gather more power onto themselves through fear and violence. I did not have them use the “Hammer of the Witches.” Instead I made up a title for Miguel’s witch hunting manual because it’s fun to do stuff like that when you’re a novelist. While administering a campaign of terror in Prague, he refers to “The Identification of Heretics, Sorcerers, and Witches and Methods for Gaining Confession,” which happens to be the newest title on the subject in my fictional version of 1561 Bohemia.

I’ve long been fascinated by beliefs in witchcraft and witch hunting in Renaissance and Early Modern Europe because it is so horrifying. Imagine going downtown in your home town and seeing people, mostly women, being burned alive. What a vicious form of social control. The fear that people lived under must have been very psychologically punishing.

In Cullen’s book “God’s Jury,” his whole point was that secular governments of the modern world have taken the Inquisition play book quite to heart. The criminal needs only to be codified as some horrible other such as communist, drug lord, terrorist, or protester and then “the unthinkable becomes permissible” like authorities reserving the right to torture the accused or take their children.

It’s all still going on today but not as often in public view. My novel Werelord Thal offers an engaging way to experience these historical realities while giving the persecuted real magic powers to defend themselves.

Download a Free copy of Werelord Thal: A Renaissance Werewolf Tale

Historical fantasy novel involving witchcraft

Amazon Kindle



Apple Books


Google Play

This entry was posted in inspirations and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.