The Valais witch trials of 1428 in Switzerland marked the onset of systematic witch hunts in Europe. Notably, unlike the majority of cases, these trials saw two-thirds of the victims being male. The Valais phenomenon, rooted in political upheaval, spread its malevolent influence to neighboring regions and beyond, shaping the trajectory of subsequent witch trials in Western Europe. The Council of Basel in 1431–1437 played a pivotal role in disseminating the Valais narrative, contributing to the broader tapestry of witch trials in the following centuries. The Valais legacy remains unique, challenging the conventional gender pattern observed in most witch hunts.
In contemplating the peculiarities of the Valais witch trials, one might speculate on the unique concoction of elements that defined this enigmatic region. Valais, with its rugged Alpine landscapes and isolated valleys, presents a canvas where the potent forces of nature intertwine with the echoes of ancient lore and a robust Roman-pagan imprint. The alchemy of these elements, shaped by the region's historical isolation and political turbulence, could have fostered an environment ripe for the proliferation of superstitions and anxieties. Perhaps it is this distinctive blend of natural forces, cultural heritage, and historical complexities that fueled the intense scrutiny and apprehension surrounding witchcraft in Valais, setting the stage for the unprecedented systematic witch hunts that unfolded and left an indelible mark on the region's history.
In the shadowed valleys of the Valais, where the Alpine peaks stand as silent witnesses to a time when darkness gripped the land, the tale of the Valais witch trials unfolds like a ghastly symphony. This was a chapter etched in the history of Switzerland in the year 1428, when the ominous whispers of witchcraft echoed through the House of Savoy and the prince-bishopric of Sion, initiating the first systematic witch-hunt in Europe.
The malevolence, however, did not confine itself to one linguistic enclave. It began its sinister journey in the French-speaking Lower Valais, ensnaring the minds of the populace, and like a relentless phantom, it crept into the German-speaking Upper Valais and the neighboring valleys of the Western Alps. The Valais witch trials, lasting six to eight years, etched their dark mark on the landscape before subsiding in the mid-1430s. But the malignant seeds had been sown, casting their tendrils far beyond the Valais, reaching Vaud, Fribourg, Neuchatel, and beyond.
History whispers of occasional burnings of witches in Switzerland since the 15th century, but it was the Valais trials that marked the inception of systematic persecution. The veil of darkness is lifted by the ink of Johannes Fründ of Lucerne, whose short report, written around 1430, paints a macabre picture of the events that unfolded at the behest of Christoph von Silenen, the castellan in Siders.
The Valais, politically fragmented and scarred by rebellion and the waning power of Savoyard rule in Vaud, became the breeding ground for a chilling phenomenon. The persecution of the Waldensians in Fribourg (1399–1430) provided fertile ground for the emergence of a functioning inquisition in Lausanne, adding fuel to the already smoldering flames.
The valleys of Val d'Anniviers and Val d'Hérens were the first to witness the witch-hunt, but soon, the entire Valais succumbed to the creeping terror. The authorities in Leuk, on August 7, 1428, issued a formal proclamation, where mere gossip among neighbors became a damning accusation, leading to arrest and imprisonment, even for the noblest of blood. Torture awaited those accused by a specific number, a cruel form of justice doled out to those "qualified" to slander their neighbors.
Fründ's account is a chilling narrative of victims accused of murder, heresy, and sorcery, their alleged pact with the devil staining the valleys. The devil, appearing as a black beast, demanded tribute, urging his followers to shun holy mass and confession. Some met their demise under torture without confessing, while others admitted to heinous deeds—from causing lameness and blindness to madness, miscarriage, and even infanticide.
The sinister topos of flying witches, astride chairs anointed with salves, and nocturnal gatherings in people's cellars for anti-Christian sermons by the devil, unfolded like a diabolical play. Werewolves, the alleged killers of livestock in the guise of a wolf, and purveyors of invisibility potions, added layers to the macabre tapestry of the trials.
The trials persisted well into the 1430s, claiming an unknown number of victims—perhaps in the hundreds. Fründ speaks of a conspiracy involving "700" witches, with "more than 200" burned within two years. Unlike the later European witch trials, the victims in Valais were predominantly male.
The echoes of the Valais witch trials reverberated through the ages, influencing the spread of the phenomenon to Fribourg, Neuchatel, Vevey, the bishopric of Lausanne, and Dommartin. The Council of Basel (1431–1437), where theologians discussed evidence and collected court proceedings from the Valais, Vaud, and Savoy, became a pivotal point in the unfolding saga. These documents were studied by the first authors on witchcraft, such as Johannes Nider, author of Formicarius (1436–1438), amplifying the Valais's dark influence on the broader canvas of the early modern witch trials in Western Europe.