“On this day in 1484, Pope Innocent VIII issued a papal bull decrying witchcraft in Germany and opening the way for systemised persecution of witches. The papal bull is often considered the predecessor of the modern witch-hunt.
Born Giovanni Battista Cybo in Genoa in 1432, Innocent was of Greek ancestry, Neapolitan upbringing, and Roman education. Through the influence of friends, he was made a priest, cardinal, and eventually Pope Innocent VIII in August 1484. Shortly after his coronation, Innocent tried, unsuccessfully, to rally Christendom to join arms in a crusade against the “”infidels,”” or Muslims. His calls were not heeded, and so Innocent instigated a new crusade.
The late 1400s were what many scientists consider the start of the Little Ice Age, a centuries-long period of cooling that occurred after the Medieval Warm Period. In Germany, Christians were suffering under the burden of an increasingly frigid climate, withering crops, mass starvation, and rising crime. At the same time, German churchman and Dominican Heinrich Kramer had requested authority from the Pope—after he was refused by local authorities—to prosecute witchcraft in Germany. Pope Innocent VIII saw an opportunity and seized upon it. He blamed Germany’s climactic problems on witches and decided to turn his crusading zeal on the anti-Christian menace of witchcraft and magic. On 5 December 1484, just months after his coronation as Pope, Innocent VIII issued Summis desiderantes affectibus, a papal bull to inquisitors Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, authorising the systematic persecution of witches and magicians in Germany.
In a turnaround from previous centuries, the bull recognised the existence of witches and made it heresy to believe otherwise. It also gave full papal approval for their persecution, urging inquisitors to do whatever was necessary to get rid of witches and local authorities to cooperate or face excommunication. Inquisitors often resorted to torture in order to extract information or confessions from accused witches, who were made to confess fictional stories of flying, turning into animals, engaging in black magic, or having sexual relations with demons. These “”witches”” were also forced to implicate others before being flogged, burned, or otherwise killed.
Two years after Pope Innocent issued his papal bull, Kramer and Sprenger wrote Malleus Maleficarum (“”Hammer of the Witches””) in 1486, an infamous treatise on witches that established their existence and advocated for their persecution. It was to be the beginning of a centuries-long witch-hunt in the western world.”