View Full Version : What was 'Witchcraft' and 'The Witch Craze' in Early Modern Europe?

27 Apr 2016, 03:06
Hello all! For those that don't know me I'm Jake, a Historian at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, England. I do follow PF but I haven't posted in a very long time.
Since January I've been studying a module entitled 'Witchcraft, Magic and Belief in Early Modern Europe' headed by Prof. Malcom Gaskill. It's been incredibly interesting and I often found myself wondering if I should share the information on PF. Currently I'm revising for an exam in the module and as such I can't think of a better time to collect and share what I've learned.

Honestly when I started writing this I intended for it to be a short blog summing up what I've learned. As it stands it's become a full essay and I've actually managed to go above the blog 10,000 character limit (oops).
I'm posting this here with the hope that you guys will find it interesting and useful. Please feel free to comment if you have any questions regarding it or want me to cite/reference any information.

Also, just to clarify; I'm a polytheist of no particular distinction. I am not a Wiccan, I have not written this essay to contest any neo-pagan beliefs or support any arguments on the surrounding topics. This is simply a summary of what I've learned over the past 4 months and what I believe to be historically accurate.


What was Early Modern Europe like at the time of the Witch Phenomenon? (1450-1750~)
Europe was agricultural, many people lived in widespread villages that relied on communal goodwill and charity to survive. Disaster, disease and death were common but accepted. Infant mortality was high and there was little to no social mobility; A French peasant born into a small village in Lorraine would die a French peasant born into a small village in Lorraine, hopefully with heirs and a continued lineage.
However, life was not terrible; communities had a vibrant tradition of festivities, marriages and celebration. Wars seriously disrupted trade and the growing of food but during peacetime peacetime the masses enjoyed relatively healthy diets encompassing veg, meat (eaten occasionally) and gruel (to be replaced by bread). Centralised state control was considerably weaker then compared to the present day and armies were raised primarily through militia. Professional standing armies were rare and private armies were made not viable through heavy taxation.

Christianity was widespread. Catholic unity in Europe was broken by the Protestant reformation (1517), which resulted in a definite split in European confessional doctrine. It can safely be said that England was Protestant, Spain, Italy and France were officially Catholic and the disunited provinces of Germany (then the Holy Roman Empire) was an amalgamation of everything in between, varying state by state. A strong tradition of ‘passive’ magical protection remained alongside Christianity. Christian symbols and paganistic charms (such as Neolithic arrow heads, known as ‘elf arrows’) were worn as protection and Apotropaic marks (‘VV’ for ‘Virgin of Virgins’) were inscribed on buildings to ward off evil and disaster.

Medicine and healing practices were underdeveloped and quite often lethal, for example Richard Wiseman’s surgical textbook (pub 1676) was commonly known as ‘Wiseman’s book of Martyrs’. Magic, magical power and magical healing was believed to exist, ‘witches’ were accepted as a real, evil and dangerous phenomenon but individuals known as ‘cunning folk’ (or sometimes ‘white witches’) also existed as localised healers.
The witch phenomenon itself was incredibly fragmented, it was far from a wave that swept over Europe. Instead it was characterised by pockets of trials, succeeding localised calamity or suffering often in a seemingly random pattern. Sometimes the smallest of issues could provoke a massive anti-witch reaction (as is the case in Salem) and at other times some completely unprecedented and damaging calamity could spark no hunts at all. Over the period of the witch hunts the figures generally accepted by academics are 90k-110k trials and around 40k executions, while this is a lot it’s a lot less that is often speculated in popular culture (for example Dan Brown, in his Da Vinci Code states 5 million witches were burned in the witch craze (p173)).

What was ‘Witchcraft’?
Harmful magical practice will be referred to as ‘Witchcraft’ or ‘Maleficium’, both defined as ‘a visual or representational preternatural discipline, which was seen as an inversion of Christianity. Maleficium was believed to have been practiced in order to control of change events outside of bodily influence with the ultimate aim of causing harm.’

Harm caused by witchcraft was weird. It was attributed to pretty much anything that couldn’t be explained medically, to list off a few; impotence, stomach pains, wound infection (poison was seen as a maleficium art), hernias, abscesses, excessive bleeding or vomiting, epileptic seizures, convulsions, eye swelling, itchiness or throwing up objects that ‘cannot be bred in the body naturally’ (Drage) such as ‘sticks, thorns, stones, pins, wool and hair’.

Changing weather, destruction of crops and general calamity was believed to be a product of witchcraft. But, as Michel Bailey states, ‘people in early modern Europe were accustomed to [calamity]’, and seemed ‘to have had a fairly well-attuned sense of how often they should expect them. Malficium was the explanation not for all misfortune, but for seemingly excessive misfortune’. (Cite1)

Who/What were ‘Witches’?
Several attributes were bound to the witch stereotype, and can be seen on most accused individuals. A witch was expected to be an old hag-like women*1, widowed, financially independent and often ostracised from their closest community. If they were argumentative or provoked unrest within the community, it was a sign the individual could be a witch. Certain confessions (such as gravediggers or butchers) were often viewed with suspicion, and if misfortune followed an argument or malthought accusation could follow.

It was believed witches were bound to the devil in a servant-master pact made at a ‘point of distress’. (ie; Someone’s child dies, then the devil appears stating ‘I’ll resurrect your child if you serve me’). They were believed to meet at periodic sacrilegious gatherings referred to in multiple contemporary texts (Kramer, Bodin, Weyer) as ‘sabbats’ and were believed to fly at night causing death, disease, impotence, sudden storms and committing atrocities such as ‘eating babies’ (Cohn). Long, painful deaths were often attributed to witchcraft as suffering was presumed to be the work of the devil. It was believed that death instigated by God was sudden and instant.

If an individual was accused and taken to court they could be identified as a witch by finding a ‘devil’s mark’ on their body, a prick where the devil drank the accused’s blood or used it to sign the pact. This mark could be anything from a small dot to a wound or scar.
*1 Witchcraft and Gender to be discussed briefly later.

What were ‘Cunning Folk’?
Cunning folk were individuals who provided magical services to the community. They acted as healers (of men and livestock), diviners, soothsayers, treasure/item finders, guides, clairvoyants, etc. They occupied an ambiguous role, sometimes accepted and welcomed and at other times feared and shunned. Cunning folk were relatively common but as proof of their existence comes primarily from court evidence there isn’t a lot of information surrounding them.

Their magic was often Christianised, invoking saints or prayers and representational, utilising the elements or icons etc. Remedies could be anything from a short prayer to an herbal mixture (pasted, burned, ingested, applied to the skin or simply left near the patient).
Cunning folk were persecuted, but rarely. Once stance (that was often predominant when they were brought to trial) was that although they used their magic for healing purposes, it was still ordained by the devil, and as such any physical healing made by the cunning folk was paired with spiritual damnation.

The above link holds a very good examples and court testimonies of a cunning folk (Appoline Belz) practicing her version of magical healing. My Particular favourite is ((3) Anne Femme Loys de Chastenot hostelier de Ste Marie, 30), it holds some very good examples of ‘paganistic’ (as viewed by the church) and Christianised magical healing.

Witchcraft and Gender.
Women made up 90% of the accused in Western Europe, Spain and England. Iceland was split 50/50. In Russia only 1/3rd of those accused were female. What does this tell us? It tells us that witchcraft accusations fit the social gender-concepts of the areas in which the accusations were made.
In Catholic Spain the majority of those accused were women because the hag stereotype was particularly strong and because the concept of feminine weakness (arising from Eve’s original sin) placed the female sex as the one most likely to be seduced by the devil. In Russia, accusations of men were more common because social emphasis and prestige was placed on rearing a large family. Russian Orthodoxy accepted the connection between Eve and Witchcraft, yet it wasn’t incorporated in witch hunts (Kivelson). Impotence was the biggest concern and if a man became infertile his other male competitors would be the first suspects.

The witch concept was not a machine for ‘gendercide’. Women were not targeted to establish male dominance or patriarchy. Men already had that and women were not contesting it. Gender occupies a less pivotal role in the witch phenomenon than what is commonly stressed. Witches were tried and executed because they were perceived to be a real and dangerous threat by the state, not simply because they were male, female, old, smart, stupid, etc. or of a particular race. Gender was just one checkbox on the extensive list of what a witch was, and not all the boxes needed to be ticked.

Witchcraft, State and Christianity.
The article invoked by any man advocating the burning of witches was Exodus 22:18 ‘Thou shall not suffer a witch to live’. Although, Weyer and others argued this was a mistranslation of the bible and ‘witch’ should instead be ‘poisoner’. Christianity did play an active role in the creation of the witch stereotype and Christian theology was relied on heavily in establishing the danger of maleficium.
It has been argued that Witchcraft, maleficium and possession was used by Protestants and Catholics (Hugh Trevor-Roper) to combat each other in their pursuit for legitimacy. This could be the case, particularly in possession and exorcism which was made into a spectacle by both sides as propaganda. However, witch trials and executions owed their occurrence to weak secular authority. By the mid to late 1500s Witchcraft was generally considered by state law as a felony, and as such was outside the jurisdiction of ecclesiastical courts. The Inquisition was a Christian body but it ultimately answered to the state in which it resided. Christian authority on the persecution of witches was actually very weak.

States attacked witches with the intention of keeping the peace within their borders and eliminating threats, it is also apparent that witch trials become far more frequent where centralised authority breaks down and localised authority retains control. For example; the Holy Roman Empire, which was made up of lots of very small principalities under the semi-federal rule of the Holy Roman Emperor, was bar far the seat of the witch craze. Germany sported far more executions than any other state (not including witch panics, which will be covered below). Jenny Gibbons states ‘the worst horrors occurred where centralised authority broke down’. Excess occurred whenever local authority broke the rules (no longer being enforced by the state); such as in the ‘Bamberg witch house’ (1623-33), where Bishop Johann Georg II tortured and burned 600 witches completely against secular permission.

As a final note it should be said that neither Protestants nor Catholics killed more witches, there are arguments, contemporary texts and figures (conveniently) for and against both sides which makes it pointless to try and pin the blame on a particular confession.

Witch Trials.
Witch trials were secular, fragmented and often accompanied by a loud mob of scared populace determined to find the accused guilty. In Catholic countries investigation and accusation was brought about by the Inquisition. In protestant countries there was no specific body created with the aim of bringing witches to trial (but this does not mean there were significantly less trials in Protestant countries). In a trial two witnesses or a confession was needed, as witchcraft was typically a crime short of witness’s trial was reliant on a confession, which was usually what necessitated the use of torture. Torture and harsher methods to reach justice were justified as witchcraft was accepted as a ‘Crimen Exceptum’, a crime against God.

Judicial ordeals (tests) were rare and believed by most states to no longer have any legislative value. One particular ordeal that remained in rare use in Scotland was the ordeal by water, where the witch was lowered in a body of water. It was believed that if the witch was truly a witch, the pure nature of the water would reject the evil in the witch and she would float, whereas an innocent accused would sink as there was little evil to reject.

Evidence accepted in trials was often wide and would never be accepted in today’s court systems; spectral evidence (belief that the witch had to be present in some form to cast the harm received by the victim) often led to witch accusations based on some petty circumstances, for example an accusation could be levied because the victim had had a stomach ache and a pigeon had been following them around all day (no joke). The devils mark often played an important role, lawyers and laymen were often obsessed with the idea that witches had signed a formal contract with the devil. Child testimony was accepted on multiple occasions and children themselves sometimes found themselves under accusation.

Yet Witches brought to trial were far from doomed. England 1559-1736 saw 513 accused witches, yet only 109 Executions, Alpine Italy 1596-1670 saw 131 Accused and no executions. (Figures obtained from Lecture; Malcom Gaskill, ‘Tribunals, Trials and Punishments’). There were often cases where re-evaluation of a trial (often prompted by other authority) after the accused was found guilty led to a less harsh sentence, or even acquittal.

Executions were public spectacles, methods varied from drowning, hanging (England, France) or beheading (Germany). Burning was a purification ritual and was used by Catholic countries against heretics, it was not a specific punishment for witches.

Witchcraft Panics.
Panics are where the majority of deaths relating to witchcraft occur. They were incredibly rare, adding to the fragmented and localised nature of witch hunts. Examples include Salem (1692-93), Dauphiné France (1420-1450), Bamburg and Würzberg (both 1616-30). They often died down once the ‘usual suspects’ had been killed or if state authority stepped in, however panics were equally as able to completely disregard all stereotypes. Accusations could jump up and down the social ladder, encompassing large facets of the population at a fast and seemingly random pace. This latter effect was often due to witches being prompted to denounce other witches under torture, this led to a snowball effect of further accusations, and if panic took hold of the local population lynchings and trials were very hard to stop.

Interesting Contemporary Sources;
- Malleus Maleficarum (Pub 1486) – Kramer’s infamous ‘Hammer of Witches’ is the most notorious text on the persecution of witches. It’s literally the ‘Mein Kampf’ of the 15th-17th Centuries and is worth a read if you've not heard of it before.
- De Praestigiis Daemonum, Weyer (1563) – Johann Weyer was a principle critic of witchcraft accusations, he did believe that Demons existed and had a lasting effect on the world, but he objected to the vehemence of witchcraft persecutions and insisted the innocence of many accused.
- De la Demonomanie des sorciers, Jean Bodin (1580) – Bodin outline’s his ’15 detestable crimes’ in this text, which was heavily relied upon by legislative bodies attempting to identify witches.

Recommended Reading;
- Michael D. Bailey, ‘Magic and Superstition in Europe : A Concise History from Antiquity to the Present’, (Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc., 2007)
- Robert W. Thurston, ‘Witch, Wicce, Mother Goose’, (GB: Pearson Education, 2001)
- Davies O., ‘Popular Magic : Cunning-folk in English History’, (Cornwall: MPG Books, 2003),
- Norman Cohn, ‘Europe’s Inner Demons’, (London: Sussex University Press, 1975)
- Stuart Clarke., ‘Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe’, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997)
- Kai T. Erikson, ‘Wayward Puritans : A Study in the Sociology of Deviance’, (New York: John Wiley & Sons Inc., 1966), (Includes probably the best account of Salem that I’ve read, but is not just a book on Witchcraft)

- Valerie A. Kivelson, ‘Male Witches and Gendered Categories in Seventeenth-Century Russia’, Comparative Studies in Society and History 45, 3, (July 2003), pp606-631, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3879463?seq=1#fndtn-page_scan_tab_contents (Contains lots of very useful information on Russian Witchcraft)
- E. William Monter, ‘Witchcraft in Geneva, 1537-1662’, The Jounral of Modern History 43, 2, (June 1971), pp179-204, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1876542?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

Cite 1 - Michael D. Bailey, ‘Magic and Superstition in Europe : A Concise History from Antiquity to the Present’, (Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc., 2007), p161
(The lack of cites is down to the majority of information coming from my revision notes, it is all sourceable (mostly to the recommended reading above or to Gaskill's lectures), if anyone wants me to cite any information just ask and I'll find it.)
-Also as a final note I wrote this in a day, so if anything doesn't make sense let me know ;P I tend to ramble.

27 Apr 2016, 04:04
Interesting read. Also, if you haven't come across him, my favorite inquisitor (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alonso_de_Salazar_Fr%C3%ADas) is actually inside the time period you're looking at and does some surprising things.

27 Apr 2016, 08:50
Thanks! And I'll definitely have a look, case studies such as that are really useful and generally the only time I find them is when I stumble across them ;P

27 Apr 2016, 10:16
I came across him by accident. I don't know of any academic sources regarding him off hand (due to never needing to look) but unless someone comes along disproving his existence or something he's liable to remain my favorite inquisitor for a very long time.

27 Apr 2016, 12:56
Well if you're ever interested in reading further, this book (https://books.google.co.uk/books?hl=en&lr=&id=DRWGZKmbwh8C&oi=fnd&pg=PR9&dq=Alonso+de+Salazar+Fr%C3%ADas&ots=yj3sWNmxQs&sig=AaZ1ugiecE-DSNOiTawxjDH0ubs#v=onepage&q=Alonso%20de%20Salazar%20Fr%C3%ADas&f=false) is apparently the principle source of information on him. I myself will be acquiring it at some point when I've got some free time ;)

*(Gustav Henningsen, 'The Salazar Documents : Inquisitor Alonso de Salazar Frías and others in the Basque Witch Persecution', (Boston: Brill Academic Publishers, 2004),

27 Apr 2016, 13:02
I may come back to that thought at some point. ATM, I have other more pressing concerns. Thanks for the link though.