An adolescent looks eagerly up at the career counselor as he waits for her to begin. She looks up from her papers, stacks them neatly, puts them down and puts her crossed hands to her lips, pondering. After a few seconds of permuting the psychological components of the young man in front of her she finally concedes that a fanatic/obsessive streak, paradoxically combined with opportunism and cemented by a dose of frustration (possibly sexual) and a healthy dash of pyromania can only lead to the result she keeps coming to.
So she looks the youth in the eye and asks him: “Say, how would you feel about becoming a Witch Hunter? All your skills point into that direction”.
A look of satisfaction and relief crosses his face at her confirmation as he says: “Yes, I think that would work. It’d be good and proper for me to do God’s work. I would like that”. He thanks her and walks towards the door. After a hesitation: “Ma’am. I notice you have red hair. Most interesting. I do hope we’ll meet each other again. Godspeed.”
That’s probably how things would have went if they had career counselors in the past to deal with what would become famous witch hunters. Of course, being a witch hunter wasn’t really a sanctioned profession. And if you thought the above fictional interaction even a bit disturbing, it pales in comparison to the actual conduct of 6 historical witch hunters that you can read about below.
1. Sebastian Michaelis
He was a Grand Inquisitor (late 16th – early 17th century France). He wrote a book which includes a demonic hierarchy much referenced in later times. But 1611 is the notable year in his case. This year, he added a new success to the 18 he already had. By burning at the stake the local priest of Aix-en-Provence, Father Gaufridi, without any sort of evidence, based solely on the testimonies of his nuns, of which Madeleine de Demandolx de la Palud was the first to accuse. As you can imagine, a Grand Inquisitor sentencing a priest under these circumstances was… pretty original and … novel, to say the least.
2. Peter Binsfeld
This man’s is one of those who added to the factors that started the medieval witch hunts in Europe and increased their numbers. Because, despite perhaps not being a prolific witch hunter himself, like others on this list, he had the major contribution of writing a book called “Treatise on the Confessions of Evildoers and Witches”, which became one of the staples of witch hunting “expertise” and reference material and was widely popular and circulated in the Europe of the times. Binsfeld beliefs regarding witch hunting included: torture as a favorite modus operandi, accepting the torture of children as ok, accepting the commencement of a trial based on one sole accusation and the encouragement to accuse one’s family members.
3. Pierre de Lancre
France, 1906, the province of Labourd where a combination of French, Spanish and Basque cultures co-existed. Their quarrels are believed to have been settled sometimes with false accusations of witchcraft as well. Which led to a great number of such accusations, prompting the king of France to appoint Pierre de Lancre as judge. So good, hard-working Pierre immediately set to work using his refined methodology to detect witches using his dependable tell-tale signs: swearing, dancing indecently and even… eating too much. By these standards EVERYBODY would be put to the stakes nowadays. Sadly, in his time he only managed to do so with about 80 people…
4. Balthasar von Dernbach
The second time that he was appointed as prince-abbot at the Fulda monastery in 1602 (the first time being 25 years earlier, when he had to abdicate to the a general revolt against his die-hard Catholic views), he convicted Merga Bien and burned her at the stake. His first success of many, since in just 3 short years later until 1605 he had managed to convict and execute more than 200. When he died in 1605 the number of accusations and subsequent executions started dwindling. Go figure… Perhaps the insidious witches covenant he had been battling so assiduously didn’t feel it was worth their time to stay in the vicinity without such a worthy adversary, eh? Right.
5. Matthew Hopkins
This guy was so badass that he even gave himself an original, non-existent title: “The Witchfinder General”. But don’t worry, he made sure that no one would dare snicker at it and/or mock him, as he was efficient and ferocious enough to have between 200 and 300 convictions and executions to his name in the middle 1600s in England. Though his life previous to becoming the bane of (imagined) witches everywhere is not documented, what information exists does point out that he took up witch hunting as a secure way of making money (by intimidating people to bribe him… or else) and that he had had a brief try as a lawyer before that. Sounds like a guy who had his materialistic goals well in order, thank you very much.
6. Nicholas Remy
Prepare to be amazed. Another lawyer (seems to be a pattern there in medieval times), Nicholas is all sorts of goodies wrapped into one. He was made a noble in 1583 for his services as a passionate witch hunter and later, in 1591, the procureur-general for the duchy of Lorraine. So he had official power at his disposal like others on this list. Add to that that he was an influential scholar on witchcraft, writing the acclaimed “Demonolatry” which became one of the most renowned texts on witchcraft in Europe and you already have a hard-to-equal figure. But it doesn’t stop here. His confirmed convictions and executions number 128. However, there are accounts and his own declarations at the time that the real number was around 900! Which cannot be confirmed today due to court records being destroyed or having deteriorated. Still, plausible, giving his power and career. Oh and he advocated the elimination of entire blood-lines once a witch was discovered in the family.