Valais Witch Trials
Today, the southwest Swiss canton of Valais is better known for its wine, tourism and local landmark, the Matterhorn. However, between 1428 and 1436 the area became notorious as the location of the first of Europe’s systematic campaigns of witch hunting. The trials, which were spread over an eight-year period, predating other major European witch trials by 50 years, saw at least 367 people lose their lives.
The background to the trials was one of political and religious tension. The Waldensian heresy was on the rise in early fifteenth century Valais, so the Inquisition established a base at Lausanne along Lake Geneva to help police matters. Furthermore, Valais had just emerged from a significant rebellion. Between 1415 and 1420, the region had risen against the dominance of the powerful Raron family. In the aftermath, tensions still simmered and the authorities were conscious of a need to reassert themselves, especially with the rural population. The Valais witchcraft trials were an answer to both problems.
In Valais, all the authorities required for a charge of witchcraft to stick was “public talk or slander of three or four neighbors.” In August 1428, the authorities in the Valais municipality of Leuk received delegates from seven Valais districts bringing accusations of murder, heresy and sorcery and pacts with the devil. Most of the accused were male and peasants, although some were educated and a third were women. On August 7, 1428, the first of the trials began.
Under torture, the accused began to tell tales that blended malicious magic with heretical practices. The witches met at night in cellars, where the devil lectured them in the guise of a schoolmaster. In return for avoiding the mass and confession ( practices which echoed the Waldensian heresy), their unholy master gifted the congregation with special powers. Some claimed they were in possession of a magic ointment that allowed them to fly on chairs. Others admitted to the ability to shapeshift into wolves. Most, however, declared the devil had granted them the power to curse and kill their neighbors.
The persecutions spread over the whole Valais district. Within one and a half years, between one to two hundred people were executed. Some were decapitated. However, most burnt to death. This incendiary death had a twist. For the condemned were bound to a ladder with a bag of gunpowder around their neck. Then, the ladder was tipped into the fire, causing the powder to explode. With any luck, death was instantaneous.
The rise of Protestantism caused such witch trials to spread and increase.