10 Over the Top Historical Tests for "Proving" Someone Was a Witch

Witch marks pointed out to a court. Google Images. Public Domain.

Witch Marks

Once a suspected witch was in custody, more evidence was needed to prove their guilt. The Malleus Maleficarum had already established that witches gained their powers through a pact with the devil. By the sixteenth century, this idea was embellished by the notion that such an agreement would be sealed with a mark on the witch’s body. Belief in the so-called ‘witch’s mark’ or ‘devil’s mark’ reached its height in 1645, before dying off by 1700.  The mark, which could take the form of moles, birthmarks or scars, was believed to be created by Satan branding, scratching or even licking his witches to seal the pact between them.

The more unusual the birthmark, the more suspicious it was. Odd shaped marks that looked like animals such as toads were particularly suspect. Some people tried to cut off their moles to avoid inquisitors damning them as witches. This desperate move, however, was a pointless exercise as scars were regarded as pact marks made by Satan’s claws. In England and New England, loose lobes of skin were particularly significant. These ‘witch’s teats,’ as they were known were not pact marks per se but instead interpreted as a third nipple by which the witch fed her satanic master or her familiar. The Pendle witch Anne Whittle told how after agreeing to give her soul to the devil, she was told she must give  ‘one part of her body for him to suck upon.’

Witches marks were often the first thing inquisitors looked for, although sometimes, they were only searched for after a witch refused to confess. Such was the case with Geillis Duncan; a maidservant tried for witchcraft during the North Berwick witch trials of Scotland in 1590. The investigation for marks involved a full body search. The suspect was stripped of all their clothes and often their body hair so that a doctor or midwife (depending on the sex of the suspected witch) could examine them, often with a judge and jury looking on.

No part of the body was exempt- including the genitals. Martin Delrio in his 1599 book ‘Disquisitionum Magicarum Libri Sex ‘ describes how witch’s marks were found in different places for each sex. ‘In men it may often be seen under the eyelids, under the lips, under the armpits, on the shoulders, on the fundament [bottom or anus), in women moreover on the breast or on the pudenda.” (female genitals)

Birthmarks aside, it would have been a rare individual who had a blemish-free body- especially in medieval Europe where diseases were rife. Sometimes the mark alone was enough to damn a suspect. However, some inquisitors preferred to test blemishes further, to see if they truly were the mark of the devil. Further testing was even used in the rare cases were no suspect marks were found at all. These tests were simple to carry out and needed nothing more than a needle or pin.