Witchcraft in the 16th and 17th Centuries


How do Historians Account for the Comparative Differences in Witch Hunting and the Witchcraze Throughout Europe?

Title page of the seventh Cologne edition of the Malleus Maleficarum, 1520 (from the University of Sydney Library)
Title page of the seventh Cologne edition of the Malleus Maleficarum, 1520 (from the University of Sydney Library)

The witchcraze was a period in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries where so-called ‘witches’ were hunted and punished for practising witchcraft. This belief in witchcraft was most noticeable in Scotland and continental Europe as this is where the majority of accusations took place.[1] This essay will look at several different areas of witchcraft and the witchcraze, including where beliefs did and did not take hold, the proportion of men and women who were accused, the influence of the Protestant Reformation and the prosecution of witches across Europe. Historians tend to agree that the witchcraze took off in Protestant areas more than Catholic areas, and also that it was largely female-identified. Historians also agree that there were different punishments for witchcraft in different countries, with some being stricter than others. However, there are some problems in analysing the differences in the witchcraze in different countries because for some countries it is difficult to access the trial records and historians do not even agree on the number of people who were executed as witches in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries at the height of the witchcraze.

The witchcraze had more of an effect in some countries than others but the questions that were asked to accused witches by the interrogators and the authorities were often given the same or very similar answers all across the globe, and it was this which first gave rise to the idea that the witchcraze was an ‘international conspiracy’.[2] This suggests that authorities believed that witches were banding together to take over their countries. However, the witchcraze did not really take off in countries that did not make the change from accusatorial to inquisitorial allegations and these countries saw far fewer trials and fewer mass panics than countries that did make the change.[3] This meant that people were now being accused of being witches by the courts and the authorities rather than by their friends and neighbours within their own community. According to Brian Levack around 75 percent of all witchcraft persecutions occurred in combined Germany, France, Switzerland and the Low Countries, and together these countries contained about half of the entire European population.[4] This means that countries like England, Scotland, Spain and Italy, which were on the peripheries of Europe, were the countries which had the minority of witchcraft persecutions and did not make the change to inquisitorial procedure. It seems that witchcraft in England, and other similar countries, was a ‘marginal phenomenon’ with only a few trials and even fewer panicked witch hunts, because England had not made the transition from accusatorial to inquisitorial accusations.[5] Conversely to the ‘marginal phenomenon’ that occurred in England and the other outlying European countries, witchcraft trials began in France, but then the centre moved to the Holy Roman Empire, but specifically Germany, as the hunts became more ‘intense’ and it turned into a witch ‘craze’.[6] This centre would hold right up until the demise of witchcraft well into the eighteenth century. However, it has also been suggested that, as well as the earliest witch hunts and trials taking place in France, there were also early witchcraft trials in England; in both countries as early as 1300.[7] This implies that witchcraft did not simply begin in the sixteenth century, but that it developed into a ‘craze’ rather than being a ‘marginal phenomenon’. Even in places where witchcraft trials were not commonplace, they still arose in times of difficulty and uncertainty – for example, in Scotland in the 1590s with the crisis with Denmark and in England in the 1560s with the English Civil War.[8] One example, where cases of witchcraft were a rarity, is Spain. In Granada in 1526 it was decided to act cautiously in terms of witchcraft accusations and the authority of the Malleus Maleficarum was dismissed. This decision was triggered by a witch hunt in Navarre where two girls claimed they could tell a witch by looking into her eyes and many people were arrested and burned before the Spanish Inquisition managed to intervene and put a stop to it.[9] It can be seen that witch hunts and the witchcraze varied across Europe, and that it was by no means a unified experience – some countries persecuted witches while others did not, and some countries saw witches as women, while others thought men were more culpable.

Witchcraft was largely female-identified, but there were a few countries who actually executed more men for witchcraft than women, although this was a minority. Wiesner says that about 80 percent of accused witches

Witches by Hans Baldung Grien (Woodcut, 1508).
Witches by Hans Baldung Grien (Woodcut, 1508).

were in fact women, so witchcraft was gendered.[10] In the places where it was the men who were largely accused of witchcraft, there do not seem to have been large witch hunts like there were in Germany and Scotland – places like Russia, Iceland, Finland and Estonia persecuted more male witches than female.[11] Historians do not seem to be able to explain this conclusively. For example, in Iceland, there were only ten trials for witchcraft which involved women, and of 22 executions for witchcraft, only one was female.[12] With Iceland being on the periphery of Europe, this could have had something to do with the fact that witchcraft never became gendered as it did in central Europe. Even in parts of France, as well as places like Russia Finland, Estonia and Iceland, there were more men accused of witchcraft than women, or at least relatively equal numbers of men and women who were accused.[13] Geoffrey Quaife suggests that, in the Spanish Netherlands, men were more harshly treated when they were accused of witchcraft than women were as nine of every twelve men charged with witchcraft were executed, whereas it was only every seven of twelve women; and one in ten women were acquitted but no men were.[14] Perhaps this unsympathetic treatment of men is because witchcraft was female-identified, so when they discovered a male witch, he was treated more harshly to dissuade others. In the opening of the Malleus Maleficarum, it says that witchcraft was a form of heresy and that it is maleficia and mainly practised by women.[15] Women were considered to be more susceptible to being tempted by the Devil, which is considered the source of witchcraft, coming from the temptation of Eve in the Garden of Eden. Witchcraft was tied to ‘the physical reality of the female sex’ and specifically the changes a woman’s body undergoes during pregnancy.[16] Similarly, witchcraft beliefs hinged on women and maternity; many cases of witchcraft involved childbirth, suckling and the vulnerability of babies and toddlers, and many so-called ‘witches’ were lying-in maids or midwives.[17] These women assisted at the birth of a child and so were useful scapegoats in their deaths. However, early witch trials in Germany made no distinction between male and female witches and at the beginning of the witch trials there were actually more men than women who were put on trial for dabbling in witchcraft.[18] Then ‘the pattern suddenly changed’ and witchcraft became more female-identified, particularly in places like Germany, France, Switzerland and Italy.[19] This gendered approach shows how women and men were treated entirely differently and women were victimised as the weaker sex. Women were considered to be the inferior sex and so they were seen to be more easily tempted than men into consorting with the Devil and practising witchcraft. The supposed pact that witches made with the Devil makes witchcraft significantly a religious issue.

Historians have long discussed the reasons behind the witchcraze and witch hunts. Many historians have assumed that the Reformation was the catalyst in the witchcraze and that Catholics were more zealous in hunting witches than Protestants were, but this was not necessarily true as ‘Protestants were just as active in hunting witches as Catholics’.[20] This suggests that the religious changes surrounding the Protestant Reformation did not have any effect on the witchcraze, which implies in turn that religion was not the catalyst for the witchcraze. However, Wiesner also argues that there were fewer trials during the Reformation when ‘Protestants and Catholics were busy fighting each other’.[21] This suggests that religion did play a role; but that it was not in increasing the number of witchcraft trials, but actually in decreasing them. According to Julian Goodare, the Malleus Maleficarum was the major work which actually connected witchcraft directly with anti-Catholic feeling.[22] But the Malleus Maleficarum, although published originally in Germany which was the heart of the witchcraze, was the first ‘encyclopedia’ of witchcraft beliefs and it was actually used by both Protestant and Catholic authorities in witch trials until the eighteenth century.[23] This implies that the Malleus may not have been anti-Catholic, but that Protestants chose to interpret it as such, in the way they wanted, and possibly took their lead from the authors of the work. Additionally, witchcraft was seen as anti-Catholic in the Scottish Witchcraft Act of 1563, which was seen as a ‘weapon’ for anti-Catholic feeling.[24] It was not openly anti-Catholic as Scotland had a Catholic Queen, Mary Queen of Scots, at this time, but it did have anti-Catholic subtexts and so the wording was changed slightly before it was passed so that it would not offend her Catholic nature.[25] Even with these changes, the Scottish Witchcraft Act was still anti-Catholic and pro-Protestant, directly connecting witchcraft and the Devil with Catholicism. New ideas in Germany, particularly Protestant but also humanist, changed the general perception of women as their role within society changed. This was because Protestant ideas about women and their social position were very different to Catholic ideas of the same.[26] These ideas were more ably spread in Germany than other countries, especially at the beginning of the sixteenth century, as Germany was one of the first European countries to publish texts in the vernacular, a Protestant idea; this helped to ‘spread the modern notions’ of women and witches among the ordinary people of Germany.[27] On the other hand, the Church did not always have an input into governmental and legal affairs, as can be seen in the Netherlands. Contrary to Scotland, the reformed church in the Netherlands had no influence on legal matters.[28] Hence, the growth of witchcraft trials in the Netherlands cannot be attributed to the influence of the Protestant Reformation. Nevertheless, it can be seen that witchcraft was persecuted in both Catholic and Protestant countries and that the influence of the Malleus Maleficarum was paramount in countries of both religions. It seems that the Protestant Reformation in Europe was used as an excuse to persecute and execute those who were accused of witchcraft.

Punishments for witchcraft in 16th-century Germany. Woodcut from Tengler's Laienspiegel, Mainz, 1508.
Punishments for witchcraft in 16th-century Germany. Woodcut from Tengler’s Laienspiegel, Mainz, 1508.

Behringer crunches numbers on the amount of executions in different European countries: according to him there were four executions for witchcraft in Ireland, 115 in Finland, 200 in the Netherlands, 300 each in Russia and Spain, 1,000 in Denmark, 1,500 in Britain (England, Scotland and Wales), 2,500 in Italy, 4,000 in Switzerland, 5,000 in France and 25,000 in Germany.[29] As has already been mentioned, Germany was the heartland of the witchcraze and places like Germany, France and Switzerland, which had the highest execution rates, were centres of the Protestant Reformation in Europe in the sixteenth century. Jonathan Barry and Marianne Hester argue that between about 1585 and 1590 accusations of witchcraft peaked in Germany.[30] Germany was the venue for some of the worst witch hunts in the history of the witchcraze – in Ellwangen, an independent German state, cases never got to the high court and so it was the place of one of ‘the most severe witch hunts in German history’ where 400 people were executed as witches in the period 1611 – 1618.[31] Many historians attribute the German witchcraze to the influence of the Protestant Reformation and the state of the Holy Roman Empire. Germany was part of a decentralised empire, and was not a unified country. This gave individual states the freedom to hunt, convict and execute witches as they pleased, as can be seen in the example of Ellwangen.[32] Scotland also had large witch hunts – around 2,000 Scottish cases of witchcraft are known, and around 1,600 of these were in the period 1620 – 1680 and numbers seem to decrease after 1680 and by the time that the Witchcraft Act was abolished in 1736, witchcraft had effectively died out altogether.[33] In Scotland in the period 1649 – 1650 only four percent of those accused of witchcraft were acquitted whereas in England in the period 1652 – 1657 87 percent were acquitted of charges of witchcraft.[34] England was one of the most lenient countries with respect to the witchcraze and witchcraft accusations and, in England, witch trials were supervised by the assize courts which limited the amount of executions.[35] In London there was a case of a woman called Jane Kent. She was accused of killing a five-year-old girl, Elizabeth Chamblet, after her father refused to deliver her some pigs without her first paying money and his daughter fell ill soon after. Witnesses swore that she had devil’s marks and the like but she managed to persuade the judge that she had ‘lived honestly’ and was a ‘great pains-taker’ and went to Church and so the jury found her not guilty.[36] This case is illustrative of examples where women could prove that they had lived well and that they were honest and so they could not be guilty of witchcraft and murder. Persecution of so-called witches seems to have been a Europe-wide phenomenon, but the extent of the witchcraze varies from country to country, with the heartland being in Germany and the Holy Roman Empire. Thousands died accused of being a witch and the ‘craze’ lasted two centuries.

To conclude, the witchcraze was a period in sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe where witches were hunted and punished for practising witchcraft. This essay has looked at where witchcraft did and did not take hold, as well as the different numbers of men and women who were accused in different countries, the influence of the Protestant Reformation and the varying persecutions across Europe. Germany was the centre of the ‘craze’ but Scotland was also diligent in persecuting so-called ‘witches’ – it prosecuted twelve times as many witches as England but never reached the German proportions.[37] Historians agree that the witchcraze had more of an effect in Protestant areas than Catholic ones, and also that it was largely female-identified. However, historians cannot agree on how many people were executed as witches, as there is a problem with the source material; trial records in some countries are incomplete and so we cannot get a full picture of the extent of witch hunts and the witchcraze in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.


[1] Marianne Hester, Lewd Women and Wicked Witches: a Study of the Dynamics of Male Domination (London: Routledge, 1992) p. 107

[2] Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks, Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008) p. 255

[3] Ibid, p. 257

[4] Brian P. Levack, The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe (Harlow: Pearson Education Ltd, 2006) p. 211

[5] Bengt Ankarloo & Stuart Clark (eds.), Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: the Period of the Witch Trials (London: Athlone Press, 2002) p. 79

[6] Brian P. Levack, The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe (Harlow: Pearson Education Ltd, 2006) p. 211

[7] Alan C. Kors & Edward Peters (eds.), Witchcraft in Europe 400 – 1700: a Documentary History (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001) p. 16

[8] Geoffrey R. Quaife, Godly Zeal and Furious Rage: the Witch in Early Modern Europe (Abingdon: Taylor & Francis, 1987) p. 13

[9] Wolfgang Behringer, Witches and Witch-Hunts: a Global History (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2004) pp. 168 – 9

[10] Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks, Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008) p. 254

[11] Ibid, p. 256

[12] Bengt Ankarloo & Stuart Clark (eds.), Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: the Period of the Witch Trials (London: Athlone Press, 2002) p. 84

[13] Jonathan Barry & Marianne Hester (eds.), Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe: Studies in Culture and Belief (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996) p. 288

[14] Geoffrey R. Quaife, Godly Zeal and Furious Rage: the Witch in Early Modern Europe (Abingdon: Taylor & Francis, 1987) p. 107

[15] Joseph Klaits, Servants of Satan: Age of the Witch Hunts (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985) p. 44

[16] Lyndal Roper, ‘Witchcraft and Fantasy in Early Modern Germany’, History Workshop Journal, Vol. 32, No. 1 (1991) pp. 19 – 43, p. 22

[17] Ibid, p. 22

[18] Sigrid Brauner, Fearless Wives and Frightened Shrews: the Construction of the Witch in Early Modern Germany (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1995) p. 6

[19] Ibid, p. 6

[20] Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks, Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008) pp. 253 – 4

[21] Ibid, p. 256

[22] Julian Goodare, ‘The Scottish Witchcraft Act’, Church History, Vol. 74, No. 1 (2005) pp. 39 – 67, p. 60

[23] Alan C. Kors & Edward Peters (eds.), Witchcraft in Europe 400 – 1700: a Documentary History (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001) p. 180

[24] Julian Goodare, ‘The Scottish Witchcraft Act’, Church History, Vol. 74, No. 1 (2005) pp. 39 – 67, p. 59

[25] Ibid, p. 48

[26] Sigrid Brauner, Fearless Wives and Frightened Shrews: the Construction of the Witch in Early Modern Germany (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1995) p. 5

[27] Ibid, p. 4

[28] Bengt Ankarloo & Stuart Clark (eds.), Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: the Period of the Witch Trials (London: Athlone Press, 2002) p. 81

[29] Wolfgang Behringer, Witches and Witch-Hunts: a Global History (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2004) p. 150

[30] Jonathan Barry & Marianne Hester (eds.), Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe: Studies in Culture and Belief (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996) p. 84

[31] Brian P. Levack, The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe (Harlow: Pearson Education Ltd, 2006) p. 213

[32] Ibid, p. 101

[33] Bengt Ankarloo & Stuart Clark (eds.), Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: the Period of the Witch Trials (London: Athlone Press, 2002) p. 80

[34] Geoffrey R. Quaife, Godly Zeal and Furious Rage: the Witch in Early Modern Europe (Abingdon: Taylor & Francis, 1987) p. 146

[35] Jonathan Barry & Marianne Hester (eds.), Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe: Studies in Culture and Belief (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996) p. 108

[36] www.oldbaileyonline.org, 1682, Jane Kent, date accessed 4th October 2011

[37] Marianne Hester, Lewd Women and Wicked Witches: a Study of the Dynamics of Male Domination (London: Routledge, 1992) p. 99

5 thoughts on “Witchcraft in the 16th and 17th Centuries

    1. Thanks so much! This was one of my favourite subjects through my degree, just because of the variety across Europe, and some of the (what we now consider strange) beliefs that people had.

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    1. Oh good! It’s been a while since I wrote it – it’s an old undergraduate essay that I was quite proud of, but there’ll be a bit more on witchcraft soon as I’m currently writing on women in the Reformation, so keep a look out!

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