The origins of witchcraft trials

  • August 22, 2022
The origins of witchcraft trials

Scholar-Elect Larissa de Freitas will compare the treatment of witches to that of heretics in Europe in the Middle Ages.

How did stereotypes about witches and witchcraft emerge as Christianity took hold in Europe?

Larissa de Freitas Lyth [2022] has researched the early part of the medieval era as Christianity co-existed beside widespread pagan practices and documents suggesting how confessors should deal with certain behaviour, particularly related to sexuality.

For her PhD, which she begins in the autumn, she will look at a later period of the Middle Ages when witchcraft trials had started up and will compare the treatment of witches to that of heretics. Her research will centre on Switzerland and she will study both the Valais Witchcraft trials (1428-circa 1436) and the accusations against the Waldensians in the second half of the 15th century, exploring how the trials compare to manuals for confessors. The aim is to find out where the two share similarities with inquisitorial culture and where they differ from it.

A love of ancient history

Larissa’s interest in history is deep rooted, although her first passion was Egyptology. It was not perhaps the most obvious subject for someone born in Curitiba in southern Brazil. Larissa grew up in the nearby town of Araucaria, an only child to parents who were both teachers – her father taught chemistry and her mother taught history.

When she was 16 Larissa travelled to Cambridge and spent a month learning English and going to museums.  During that time she also visited the Louvre and spent a whole day in the Egyptian section. She returned to Brazil, ‘obsessed’ with Cambridge.

Larissa wanted to study ancient history or Egyptology, but her options were limited in Brazil so she chose history and took a module in ancient history. She had also started to become interested in the history of churches, especially in the Middle Ages, given that it was difficult to study Egypt in Brazil. One of her first assignments was to write an academic article and she chose to write about the Catholic military order the Knights Templar. Alongside her course, Larissa taught English. 

Non-Christian practices

At the end of her three and a half years at the private Pontifica Universidade Catolica do Paraná in Curitiba, Larissa had to write a dissertation. She had been really interested in how non-Christian practices continued in a Christian environment in the Middle Ages, having read and been fascinated by the  Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg’s book Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath which analysed the stereotypical image of a witch and where ideas of them flying by night and transforming into animals came from.  The book mainly covered 15th century Italy.

Larissa decided to focus on an earlier period in Europe’s history, consulting a 10th century German document on belief, Regino of Prum’s ‘Canon episcopi’. She explored the idea of ‘maleficium’ – an act of witchcraft performed with the intention of causing damage or injury.  “It gave me a glimpse of what people who were not able to write and whose stories we don’t hear about believe,” she says, adding the proviso that it was filtered through the eyes of the author.  

After leaving university, Larissa knew that she wanted to continue her studies, but not at the same university. She continued to teach English and started teaching history. She also volunteered as an English teacher at a project that offered free lessons to people from state schools to help them pass the competitive exam they need to get into a university. She says it was very satisfying to later see some of her students studying history at the university she did her master’s at. She is very impressed that many of the students have also been keen to help disadvantaged students and have donated some of the little money they have during Covid to buy laptops and textbooks for them.

For her two-year master’s, which she started in 2018, Larissa attended the free Universidade Federal do Paraná. In the 10th century document she had studied there was just one paragraph about what religious leaders should do when confronted by non-Christian beliefs. Larissa studied the 11th century ‘Corrector sive medicus’ – in Latin – which provides over 100 questions and answers for religious leaders who are dealing with people who are confessing sin. As such it provides an insight into how the church dealt with the non-Christian practices that were happening around them which it wanted to get rid of and how it viewed them.

Larissa’s focus was on sexuality and penance, for example, attitudes to bestiality and how it was considered similar to homosexuality. Surprisingly, she says, the penance for sex between women was not very harsh compared to that between men, deriving from the idea that semen should only be for procreation. Some of the penances were fairly light-hearted, for instance, those who were drunk when they had the holy wafer and threw up as a result got 40 days penance. There were also descriptions of magical practices to make someone fall in love, for instance, it was believed that women should mix menstrual blood with food or drink and give it to their husbands so their love for them would be more ardent. This was ‘punished’ with five years of penance on appointed days. Another practice involved an abortion potion made of herbs. Those who performed abortion magic had to do penance for 10 years on appointed days.

Conferences and a fellowship

Larissa finished her master’s in June 2021, getting an extension due to Covid, which she says opened up new possibilities for her because she could attend events virtually that she would never have had access to before. She was able to present at workshops, including one run by the University of Edinburgh and she applied for another run by Cambridge University. She was selected to present a paper at the International Medieval Congress at Leeds, the biggest such conference in the world, on a panel of women discussing religious dissent in medieval Europe. She had applied not knowing there was a registration fee which she could not have afforded. However, by the time she found out she had been told she had won an award for best abstract in German studies. 

Moreover, off the back of one online presentation she was offered a research fellowship at Masaryk University in the Czech Republic on religious dissent and the digital humanities. She has been doing this since January, coding historical sources into computer software. The work involved breaking down sentences in historical texts on witchcraft trials in Switzerland into a series of semantic data statements. “The idea is to find connections,” says Larissa, for instance, family relations to see if there are patterns to the accusations and the people who ended up being punished. 


At Cambridge Larissa will be continuing on from her undergraduate and master’s work, but looking at a later period – the 15th century when non-Christian practices finally coalesced around the idea of witchcraft and the first witchcraft trials began. “I am interested to chart the development,” she says. It is not just women who are accused of witchcraft, but men and women tend to be accused of different things, she says. Men are likely to be accused of killing or eating children. Women are more likely to be accused of having sex with the devil with their sexuality viewed as a threat to men and are treated in similar ways to those accused of heresy – a concept which developed earlier before witchcraft became more common. Her PhD will be supervised by Professor John H. Arnold in the Faculty of History.

Larissa is very excited to have won a Gates Cambridge Scholarship. She says: “Covid unlocked a chain of opportunities for me that have led to the Gates Cambridge Scholarship. I was not expecting this plot twist. It is such a massive honour.”

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