In the 1430s, a small group of writers in Central Europe – church inquisitors, theologians, lay magistrates and even one historian – began to describe horrific assemblies where witches gathered and worshiped demons, had orgies, ate murdered babies and performed other abominable acts. Whether any of these authors ever met each other is unclear, but they all described groups of witches supposedly active in a zone around the western Alps.
The reason for this development may have been purely practical. Church inquisitors, active against religious heretics since the 13th century, and some secular courts were looking to expand their jurisdictions. Having a new and particularly horrible crime to prosecute might have struck them as useful.
I just translated a number of these early texts for a forthcoming book and was struck by how worried the authors were about readers not believing them. One fretted that his accounts would be “disparaged” by those who “think themselves learned.” Another feared that “simple folk” would refuse to believe the “fragile sex” would engage in such terrible practices.
Trial records show it was a hard sell. Most people remained concerned with harmful magic – witches causing illness or withering crops. They didn’t much care about secret satanic gatherings.