Few have heard of Johannes Junius, but his case of being burned at the stake after accusations of witchcraft casts light on an era in history where superstition and religion prevailed over rational thought. Johannes Junius was one of an estimated 300-600 people executed in a particularly vicious wave of witch trials known as the Bamberg witch trials, which took place between 1626 and 1631. It was one of the most intense in Europe and no one was safe from being accused; the stereotype of a witch was completely broken down by the end of the trials.
Johannes was born in 1573 and was executed on 6 August, 1628. He had been the mayor of Bamberg for twenty years when he was arrested. Whilst there is not much information on Johannes himself, his trial and torture was recorded in great detail. He is a striking example of the rich and powerful falling victim to witch accusations, as he was a highly influential public figure due to his roles as mayor, counsellor and landlord. Johannes is one of the most intriguing victims of the witch trials in 17th century Germany, as he left a fascinating and touching letter to his daughter Veronica in which he detailed and condemned the torture he had endured.
Despite his former status in Bamberg, upon being denounced as a witch Johannes was denied all legal rights. Witnesses were called forward to give evidence against Johannes, yet there was no real evidence to back their claims; the witnesses of Johannes’ witchcraft were coerced into testifying against him. Furthermore, the judges conducted his hearing unfairly by not asking the witnesses to swear an oath upon testifying. Once accused of black magic, Johannes – like many others – was essentially condemned to torture and execution with no escape route.
Johannes protested against this injustice, but his refusal to cooperate led to Johannes being viciously tortured. Thumb screws were applied, then leg vices, and finally he endured strappado, a form of torture that involves the victim’s hands being tied behind their back and being suspended in the air from their wrists. Throughout this torture, Johannes still resisted giving a confession, until his will was finally broken on 5 July, 1628.
In his confession, Johannes described how in 1624, while undergoing some financial difficulty, he was approached by a woman who would later be revealed as a demon. This succubus insisted he renounced God for the Devil on pain of death. Johannes depicted how he resisted at first, yet as more demons came for him, he renounced God for the Devil and took the name Krix. He also confessed to attending witch-Sabbaths, that he rode to these Sabbaths on a black dog, and how he attended a witch-dance where he refused their demands to give his daughter for a sacrifice. Of course, these were inventions of Johannes’ in a desperate attempt to relieve his torture, as revealed in his letter.
Johannes’ letter was written in secret by a quivering hand from inside his jail cell during the midst of his trial on 24 July, 1628. He describes how through physical and emotional torture he was forced into admitting not only his own witchcraft, but the witchcraft of others too. In a particularly disturbing part, he exposes how he was led through the streets to name other witches, showing how the witch hunts of the early modern era snowballed into coerced persecution.
Johannes Junius overcame many obstacles in writing and delivering his letter, yet his persistence and courage in speaking out to his daughter leaves us with a rich source depicting the horrors of the accusations of witchcraft. His strength is admirable throughout his ordeal, and yet he is still someone many know little about. A harrowing insight into the brutality of this early modern superstition, the ordeal of Johannes Junius displays the deceptive nature of witch-hunting in great detail and this is what makes him an undiscovered hero of history.