Witch trials in Early Modern Europe

The period of witch trials in Early Modern Europe came in waves and then subsided. There were early trials in the 15th and early 16th centuries, but then the witch scare went into decline, before becoming a big issue again and peaking in the 17th century. Some scholars argue that a fear of witchcraft started among intellectuals who believed in "maleficium"; that is, bad deeds. What had previously been a belief that some people possessed supernatural abilities (which sometimes resulted in protecting the people), now became a sign of a pact between these people with supernatural abilities and the devil. Witchcraft became associated with wild Satanic ritual parties in which there was much naked dancing, orgiastic sex, and cannibalistic infanticide.

Witch-hunts were seen across early modern Europe, but the most significant area of witch-hunting in modern Europe is often considered to be southwestern Germany. [H.C. Erik Midelfort, ‘Heartland of the witchcraze: central and northern Europe’ History Today February 1981 pp.27-31 ] In Germany the number of trials compared to other regions of Europe shows it to have been a late starter. Witch-hunts first appeared in large numbers in southern France and Switzerland during the 14th and 15th centuries. The peak years of witch-hunts in southwest Germany were from 1561 to 1670. [H.C. Erik Midelfort, Witch Hunting in Southwestern Germany 1562-1684,1972,71] The first major persecution in Europe, that caught, tried, convicted, and burned witches in the imperial lordship of Wiesensteig in southwestern Germany, is recorded in 1563 in a pamphlet called "True and Horrifying Deeds of 63 Witches". [Wolfgang Behringer, Witches and Witch-Hunts,2004,83]

Estimates of the numbers of women, men and children executed for participating in witchcraft vary wildly depending on the method used to generate the estimate. Brian Levack, author of "The Witch Hunt in Early Modern Europe", took the number of known European witch trials and multiplied it by the average rate of conviction and execution. This provided him with a figure of around 60,000 deaths.


At the time, Basel was a center of theologians who preached the dangers of witchcraft, and with the Council of Basel (1431-1449), their ideas came to the attention of a wider audience. The European witch-hunts only began on a large scale in the wake of the Council, from the 1450s, and was sustained throughout the Early Modern period.

Rather than a theologically sanctioned campaign of the church, the phenomenon had all traits of mass hysteria. The classical attributes of a witch—flying on brooms, intercourse with the Devil, and meeting of demons and other witches at sabbaths—became canonical from around 1400, although similar accusations had been issued against heretics since the 11th century. The idea of witch sabbats fostered a classical conspiracy theory, with fantasies of an underground witch sect plotting to overthrow Christianity Based on Ronald Hutton's essay "Counting the Witch Hunt".]

Assuming 40,000 executions over 250 years in Europe, which had a population of approximately 150 million at the time with a life expectancy of about 40 years, suggests roughly one execution for witchcraft per 25,000 deaths, ranking about 3.5 times higher as cause of death than death by capital punishment (for any offense) in the U.S. in the late 20th century, [1,057 executions over 30 years, compared to some 90 million deaths over the same period.] or roughly 5 times lower than death by capital punishment in the People's Republic of China. [an estimated 4,000 executions per year, with a population of 1.2 billion with a life expectancy of about 73 years.]


There have been contemporary protesters against witch trials and against use of torture in the examination of those suspected or accused of witchcraft. [Charles Mackay, 'Memoirs of Popular Delusions', 1841] [Charles W Upham, ‘Salem Witchcraft: With an Account of Salem Village and A History of Opinions on Witchcraft and Kindred Subjects’, 1867] [Sir Walter Scott, 'Letters On Demonology And Witchcraft', 1885] [George L Burr (editor), 'Translations And Reprints From The Original Sources Of European History', 1896] [Paul Carus, 'History of the Devil', 1900] [Charles Lea, 'A History of the Inquisition In Spain', 1906-1907] [John D Seymour, ‘Irish Witchcraft And Demonology’, 1913] [Barbara J. Shapiro, ‘"Beyond Reasonable Doubt" and "Probable Cause": Historical Perspectives on the Anglo-American Law of Evidence’, 1991] [Stephen Snobelen, ‘Lust, Pride, And Ambition: Isaac Newton And The Devil’, November 2002] [Kathryn A Edwards, 'Review of Friedrich Spee von Langenfeld, Cautio Criminalis, or a Book on Witch Trials', H-German, H-Net Reviews, August, 2005]

;Middle Ages
* 643: The Edictum Rothari, the law code for Lombardy in Italy (‘Let nobody presume to kill a foreign serving maid or female slave as a witch, for it is not possible, nor ought to be believed by Christian minds')
* 672-754: Boniface of Mainz consistently denied the existence of witches, saying that to believe in them was unChristian
* 775-790: The First Synod of Saint Patrick declared that those who believed in witches are to be anathematized
* 785: Canon 6 of the Christian Council of Paderborn in Germany outlawed the belief in witches
* 9th century: French abbot Agobard of Lyons denied that any person could obtain or wield the power to fly, change shape, or cause bad weather, and argued that such claims were imagination and myth
* 906: In his work ‘A Warning To Bishops’, Abbot Regino of Prüm dismisses the popular beliefs in witches and witchcraft as complete fiction
* 936: Pope Leo VII wrote to Archbishop Gerhard of Lorch requiring him to instruct local authorities not to execute those accused of witchcraft
* The Canon Episcopi (10th century), denied the existence of witches, and considered the belief in witches to be heresy (it did not require any punishment of witches)
* 1020: Burchard, Bishop of Worms argued that witches had no power to fly, change people’s dispositions, control the weather, or transform themselves or anyone else, and denied the existence of incubi and succubi. He ruled that a belief in such things was a sin, and required priests to impose a strict penance on those who confessed to believing them
* 1080: Gregory VII wrote to King Harold of Denmark advising that those accused of supernaturally causing bad weather or epidemics should not be sentenced to death.
* Coloman, the Christian king of Hungary (11th century), passed a law declaring ‘Concerning witches, no such things exist, therefore no more investigations are to be held’ (’De strigis vero quae non sunt, nulla amplius quaestio fiat’)

;Early Modern period
* 1498: Although not denying the existence of witches, Ulrich Molitor an attorney in Constance wrote ‘Dialogus de lamiis et pythonibus mulieribus’, in which he deplored the methods of persecution and punishment inflicted on those accused of witchcraft
* Late 15th century: Antonino, Archbishop of Florence condemned the popular belief in witches, insisting that the powers attributed to them were impossible, and such beliefs were foolish.
* 1514: Alciatus, a civil legal official, was asked by a local prelate to assess the case of a number of women brought to trial for witchcraft. Expressing his belief that they were more in need of medicine than punishment, Alciatus advised against punishment and suggested they be treated kindly
* 1518-1520: As legal counsel to the city of Metz (Germany), French born Cornelius Agrippa successfully defended a local peasant woman from accusations of witchcraft
* 1540: Antonio Venegas de Figueroa, Bishop of Pamplona, sent a circular to the priests in his diocese, explaining that witchcraft was a false belief. He recommended medical treatment for those accused of witchcraft, and blamed the ignorance of the people for their confusion of witchcraft with medical conditions
* 1563: Johann Weyer, 'De praestigiis daemonum et incantationibus ac veneficiis'
* 1580: Frenchman Michel Eyquem de Montaigne objected to the persecution of witches, and expressed his scepticism that reports of witchcraft were ever true
* 1583: Protestant Johann Matthaus Meyfart condemns the inhuman treatment of those accused or convicted of witchcraft
* 1584: Reginald Scot, 'Discoverie of Witchcraft'
* 1592: Cornelius Loos, 'D vera et falsa magia'
* 1599: English Archbishop Samuel Harsnett condemned not only those who practiced fraudulent exorcisms, but also the very belief in witches and demons
* 1602: Anton Praetorius, Gründtlicher Bericht von Zauberey und Zauberern, 'Thorough Report on Witchcraft and Witches'
* 1610-1614: Alonso de Salazar y Frías, inquisitor reviewing the Logroño trials. His reports (1610-1614) led to the practical suppression of witch burnings in the Spanish empire one century before the rest of Europe [http://www.euskomedia.org/aunamendi/120441 SALAZAR Y FRÍAS, Alonso de] , article by Ainhoa Arozamena Ayala for the Spanish-language "Auñamendi Encyclopedia"] .
* 1617: Adam Tanner, 'Disputationes'
* 1622: Johann Grevius, 'Tribunal Reformatum'
* 1631: Friedrich von Spee, 'Cautio Criminalis'
* 1651: The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes published ‘Leviathan, or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil’, in which he rejected the belief in witches and opposed witch hunts
* 1656: Englishman Thomas Ady published the first of three devastating works attacking beliefs in witches and witchcraft. He opposed the witch hunts vigorously
* 1669: John Wagstaffe published ‘The Question of Witchcraft Debated; or, a Discourse against their Opinions that affirm Witches’, opposing the witch hunts and declaring the belief in witchcraft to be superstition.
* 1676: John Webster published ‘The Displaying Of Supposed Witchcraft’, opposing the witch hunts and dismissing the belief in witches as superstition
* 1691: The Dutch theologian Balthasar Bekker published ‘Die Betooverde Wereld’, reprinted in English as ‘The World Bewitch’d’ (1695), an attack on the witch hunts and belief in witches
* 1693-1700: Robert Calef wrote repeatedly opposing the witch hunts
* 1712: An anonymous English physician published ‘A Full Confutation of Witchcraft, More particularly of the DEPOSITIONS Against JANE WENHAM, Lately Condemned for a WITCH; at Hertford’, opposing the witch hunts and the belief in witches
* 1718: Anglican clergyman Francis Hutchinson
* Christian Thomasius, De crimine magiae
* Hermann Adolph Meinders
* Hermann Löher, "Hochnötige Unterthanige Wemütige Klage Der Frommen Unschültigen"

End of the witch-trials in the 18th century

During early 18th century, the practice subsided. The last execution for witchcraft in England took place in 1716, when Mary Hicks and her daughter Elizabeth were hanged. Jane Wenham was among the last subjects of a typical witch trial in England in 1712, but was pardoned after her conviction and set free. The Witchcraft Act of 1734 saw the end of the traditional form of witchcraft as a legal offence in Britain, those accused under the new act were restricted to people who falsely pretended to be able to procure spirits, generally being the most dubious professional fortune tellers and mediums, and punishment was light.

Helena Curtens and Agnes Olmanns were the last women to be executed as witches in Germany, in 1738. In Austria, Maria Theresa outlawed witch-burning and torture in the late 18th century; the last capital trial took place in Salzburg in 1750. The last execution in Switzerland was that of Anna Göldi in 1782, whose execution was at the time widely denounced throughout Switzerland and Germany as state-sponsored murder. (Göldi's trial was not technically a "witch trial" since explicit allegations of witchcraft were avoided in the official trial.) In 1793, two women was executed for witchcraft in Poland. The very last execution was likely that of Barbara Zdunk in 1811.

In Neopaganism and feminism

The phrase "the burning times" was used in reference to the European and North American witch trials by Gerald Gardner in 1954. [cite book |last=Gardner |first=Gerald |authorlink=Gerald Gardner |title=Witchcraft Today |year=1954 |pages=p. 139] Gardner claimed he had discovered an "Old Religion" based on an ancient tradition of witchcraft; the "burning times" were its period of greatest persecution, and a major reason for the secrecy maintained within the religion ever since. His account relied heavily on the theories of Margaret Murray, now regarded as highly flawed; he also repeated the figure of nine million casualties first derived by an antiquarian at Quedlinburg, Germany, through the false extrapolation of local records, and repeated by various German and English historians, notably the 19th century women's rights campaigner Matilda Joslyn Gage. [cite book |last=Gage |first=Matilda Joslyn |authorlink=Matilda Joslyn Gage |title=Woman, Church and State |year=1893] [Poole, Robert (ed.) (2003) "The Lancashire Witches: Histories and Stories". Manchester: Manchester University Press. ISBN 0719062047. p. 192.] This figure is now known to be a massive overestimate, about a hundred times the estimates of most modern researchers. [cite book |last=Hutton |first=Ronald |authorlink=Ronald Hutton |title=Triumph of the Moon |pages=p. 141; de_icon Behringer, Wolfgang: "Neun Millionen Hexen. Enstehung, Tradition und Kritik eines populären Mythos", in: Geschichte in Wissenschaft und Unterricht 49. 1987, pp. 664-685, extensive summary on [http://www.historicum.net/themen/hexenforschung/thementexte/rezeption/art/Neun_Millionen/html/ca/0e43e9dea3/] ] While Gardner referred to the witch hunts in general as "the burning times", he noted that burning was only practiced on the Continent and in Scotland; in England accused witches were hanged. ["Witchcraft Today" p. 52.]

Modern historians agree the witchhunts had little to do with persecuting a pagan cult, but were largely the result of an interplay of a series of complex historical and societal factors.

It is probable that the majority of the accused identified as Christian. [Keith Thomas 514-7, Hutton passim.] Generally accepted casualty figures amongst historians are also dramatically lower, ranging from Levack at around 60,000 to Hutton at around 40,000; the entire adult female population in Europe at the time was no more than 20-22 million. [ [http://www.history.com/encyclopedia.do?articleId=214411] European population, 16th century.] Victims of the witchhunt were not always female, though women were the majority. In some countries, especially in Scandinavia, the majority of the accused were male; in Finland some 70% and in Iceland almost 80% of the accused were men.Fact|date=February 2007 However taking Europe as a whole between 1450 and 1700, only 20-25% of those accused were males.Fact|date=February 2007 Misogyny is usually considered an important factor in the witch-hunts, along with social unrest and religious conflicts between Protestants and Catholics.

Most contemporary practitioners of Wicca and related Neo-Pagan religions no longer subscribe to Gardner's or Margaret Murray's theories, and see Wicca as a modern development based on a variety of sources, rather than an unbroken tradition dating from ancient times. They believe that their religion is no less valid because of its recent inception.

The term "The Burning Times" was further popularised by Mary Daly in her 1978 book, "Gyn/Ecology: The Meta-Ethics of Radical Feminism", who maintained that the trials were fundamentally a persecution of women by patriarchy; she expanded the term's meaning to include not only the witch-hunts but the "entire patriarchal rule". Neo-Pagan author Starhawk subsequently introduced the term into her book "The Spiral Dance" in 1979. The term was adopted by various American feminist historians and popularised in the 1970s for all historical persecution of witches and pagans, again often quoting nine million casualties. They also referred to it as the "Women's Holocaust". [See cite book |first=Ronald |last=Hutton |authorlink=Ronald Hutton |title=Triumph of the Moon chapter 18 for his exploration of their ideas.]


Further reading

*Briggs, Robin. 'Many reasons why': witchcraft and the problem of multiple explanation, in "Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe. Studies in Culture and Belief", ed. Jonathan Barry, Marianne Hester, and Gareth Roberts, Cambridge University Press, 1996.
*Levack, Brian P. "The Great Scottish Witch Hunt of 1661-1662", The Journal of British Studies, Vol.20, No, 1. (Autumn, 1980), pp. 90-108.
*Levack, Brian P. "The witch hunt in early modern Europe, Second Edition". London and New York: Longman, 1995.
*Macfarlane, Alan. "Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England: A regional and Comparative Study". New York and Evanston: Harper & Row Publishers, 1970.
*Midlefort, Erick H.C. "Witch Hunting in Southeastern Germany 1562-1684: The Social and Intellectual Foundation." California: Stanford University Press, 1972. ISBN 0804708053
*Oberman, H. A., J. D. Tracy, Thomas A. Brady (eds.), "Handbook of European History, 1400-1600: Visions, Programs, Outcomes" (1995) ISBN 9004097619
*Poole, Robert. "The Lancashire Witches: Histories and Stories" (2002) ISBN 0719062047
*Purkiss, Diane. "A Holocaust of One's Own: The Myth of the Burning Times." Chapter in "The Witch and History: Early Modern and Twentieth Century Representatives" New York, NY: Routledge, 1996, pp. 7-29.
*Thurston, Robert. "The Witch Hunts: A History of the Witch Persecutions in Europe and North America". Pearson/Longman, 2007.
*Purkiss, Diane. "The Bottom of the Garden, Dark History of Fairies, Hobgoblins, and Other Troublesome Things." Chapter 3 "Brith and Death: Fairies in Scottish Witch-trials" New York, NY: New York University Press, 2000, pp. 85-115.
*West, Robert H. "Reginald Scot and Renaissance Writings". Boston: Twayne Publishers,1984.
*Briggs, K.M. "Pale Hecate’s Team, an Examination of the Beliefs on Witchcraft and Magic among Shakespeare’s Contemporaries and His Immediate Successors". New York: The Humanities Press, 1962.

ee also

*Basque witch trials
*Bideford witch trial
*Blood libel
*Christian views on witchcraft
*European witchcraft
*Parma witch hunt
*Pierre de Lancre (conductor of a bloody witch-hunt in Labourd)
*Poison affair
*North Berwick witch trials
*Ramsele witch trial
*Salem witch trials
*Torsåker witch trials
*Trial by ordeal
*Würzburg witch trial

External links

* [http://www.summerlands.com/crossroads/remembrance/_remembrance/stages_witch_trial.htm The Stages of a Witch Trial] — a series of articles by Jenny Gibbons.
* [http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15674a.htm 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia entry on "Witchcraft"]
* [http://www.bede.org.uk/decline.htm The Decline and End of Witch Trials in Europe] by James Hannam
* [http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/salem/witchcraft/Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive and Transcription Project]
* [http://www.visualstatistics.net/East-West/Witch%20Trials/Witch%20Trials.htm Witch Trials]
* [http://www.elizabethan-era.org.uk/elizabethan-superstitions.htm, Elizabethan Superstitions in the Elizabethan Period] by Linda Alchin

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