The Würzburg witch trial, which took place in Germany in 1626–1631, is one of the biggest mass-trials and mass-executions seen in Europe during the Thirty Years War; 157 men, women and children in the city of Würzburg are confirmed to have been burned alive at the stake; 219 are estimated to have been executed in the city proper, and an estimated 900 were killed in the entire Prince-Bishopric.
The Würzburg trial was among the largest of the Witch trials in the Early Modern period, alongside those at Trier (1581–1593) and Bamberg (1626–1631).
The first persecutions began with the consent of Julius Echter von Mespelbrunn; he was the Prince Bishop of Würzburg. This cleansing of alleged witches reached its climax during the reign of his nephew and successor Philipp Adolf von Ehrenberg. These so called witch trials started in the territory surrounding the city in 1626 and ended four years later in 1630. As so often with these mass trials of witchcraft; the victims who were normally peasants soon became people from all areas of society; these included nobles, councilmen, mayors and even priests. This witchcraft hysteria soon spread to other areas of Germany such as Bamberg, Eichstätt, Mainz and Ellwangen.
Many of the witch-trials of the 1620s can be attributed to mass hysteria that swept through Europe. In some areas the lord or bishop was the instigator, in others the Jesuits. So called local witch-committees were also set up. Among prince-bishops, Philipp Adolf von Ehrenberg of Würzburg was particularly active: in his reign of eight years (1623–31) he burnt 900 persons, including his own nephew, nineteen Catholic priests, and children of seven who were said to have had intercourse with demons. The years 1627–29 were dreadful years in Baden, recently reconquered for Catholicism by Tilly: there were 70 victims in Ortenau, 79 in Offenburg. In Eichstatt, a Bavarian prince-bishopric, a judge claimed the death of 274 witches in 1629. At Reichertsofen an der Paar, in the district of Neuburg, 50 were executed between November 1628 and August 1630. In the three prince-archbishoprics of the Rhineland the fires were also relit. At Coblenz, the seat of the Prince-Archbishop of Trier, 24 witches were burnt in 1629; at Schlettstadt at least 30—the beginning of a five-year persecution. In Mainz, too, the burnings were renewed. At Cologne the City Fathers had always been merciful, much to the annoyance of the prince-archbishop, but in 1627 he was able to put pressure on the city and it gave in. Naturally enough, the persecution raged most violently in Bonn, his own capital. There the chancellor and his wife and the archbishop’s secretary’s wife were executed, children of three and four years were accused of having devils for their paramours, and students and small boys of noble birth were sent to the bonfire.
The craze of the 1620s was not confined to Germany: it raged also across the Rhine in Alsace, Lorraine and Franche-Comté. In the lands ruled by the abbey of Luxueil, in Franche-Comté, the years 1628–30 have been described as an “épidémie démoniaque.” “Le mal va croissant chaque jour,” declared the magistrates of Dôle, “et cette malheureuse engeance va pullulant de toutes parts.” The witches, they said, “in the hour of death accuse an infinity of others in fifteen or sixteen other villages.”
In August, 1629, the Chancellor of the Prince-Bishop of Würzburg thus wrote (in German) to a friend:
As to the affair of the witches, which Your Grace thinks brought to an end before this, it has started up afresh, and no words can do justice to it. Ah, the woe and the misery of it–there are still four hundred in the city, high and low, of every rank and sex, nay, even clerics, so strongly accused that they may be arrested at any hour. It is true that, of the people of my Gracious Prince here, some out of all offices and faculties must be executed: clerics, electoral councilors and doctors, city officials, court assessors, several of whom Your Grace knows. There are law students to be arrested. The Prince-Bishop has over forty students who are soon to be pastors; among them thirteen or fourteen are said to be witches. A few days ago a Dean was arrested; two others who were summoned have fled. The notary of our Church consistory, a very learned man, was yesterday arrested and put to the torture. In a word, a third part of the city is surely involved. The richest, most attractive, most prominent, of the clergy are already executed. A week ago a maiden of nineteen was executed, of whom it is everywhere said that she was the fairest in the whole city, and was held by everybody a girl of singular modesty and purity. She will be followed by seven or eight others of the best and most attractive persons. . . . And thus many are put to death for renouncing God and being at the witch-dances, against whom nobody has ever else spoken a word. To conclude this wretched matter, there are children of three and four years, to the number of three hundred, who are said to have had intercourse with the Devil. I have seen put to death children of seven, promising students of ten, twelve, fourteen, and fifteen. Of the nobles–but I cannot and must not write more of this misery. There are persons of yet higher rank, whom you know, and would marvel to hear of, nay, would scarcely believe it; let justice be done . . . P. S.–Though there are many wonderful and terrible things happening, it is beyond doubt that, at a place called the Fraw-Rengberg, the Devil in person, with eight thousand of his followers, held an assembly and celebrated mass before them all, administering to his audience (that is, the witches) turnip-rinds and parings in place of the Holy Eucharist. There took place not only foul but most horrible and hideous blasphemies, whereof I shudder to write. It is also true that they all vowed not to be enrolled in the Book of Life, but all agreed to be inscribed by a notary who is well known to me and my colleagues. We hope, too, that the book in which they are enrolled will yet be found, and there is no little search being made for it.
These witch trials seem to have been a phenomenon resulting from a great mass hysteria; people from all walks of life were arrested and charged, regardless of age, profession or sex, for reasons ranging from murder and satanism to humming a song with the Devil, or simply for being vagrants and unable to give a satisfactory explanation of why they were passing through town. Thirty-two of them appear to have been vagrants, and many others themselves believed they were witches and worshipped Satan.
At least 157 people were executed in the city. The actual number was in fact larger, as Hauber, who preserved the list in Acta et Scripta Magica, adds that the list is far from complete and that there were a great many other burnings too many to specify. In the territory outside the city, several hundreds of people were burned also, and the total number is estimated to have been about 900.
Already in 1616-1617, there had been a first wave of witch trials in the city, and an isolated witch trial in 1625, which gave way to the great hysteria in 1626. The great witch hysteria of Würzburg started in 1626, and stopped in 1631, though the documents of the executed are from the period 1627-29. In 16 July 1631, Philip Adolf died, and when the city was taken by king Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden the same year, the witch trial was put to an end. The executed are listed to have been 157 people until February 1629; after this, the executions are not documented. They are estimated to have been 219 in the city itself, but 900 total in the areas under the authority of the Prince Bishop. It has been called the greatest witch trial ever to have occurred in Franconia, though the famous Bamberg witch trials of 1626-1630 was a close second with 300 executions.
This was not the biggest recorded execution of witches; in the Fulda witch trials in 1603–1605, 205 people were burned, and in the Trier witch trials in 1587–1593, 368 people were executed, but it is an example of the many great mass witch trials that were held in primarily Germany, France and Switzerland.
A Jesuit, Friedrich Spee, was more radically converted by his experience as a confessor of witches in the great persecution at Würzburg. That experience, which turned his hair prematurely white, convinced him that all confessions were worthless, being based solely on torture, and that not a single witch whom he had led to the stake had been guilty. Since he could not utter his thoughts otherwise—for, as he wrote, he dreaded the fate of Tanner—he wrote a book which he intended to circulate in manuscript, anonymously. But a friend secretly conveyed it to the Protestant city of Hameln and it was there printed in 1631 under the title Cautio Criminalis.