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Witchcraft. In Early Modern Europe. Witchcraft Trials. In Europe, between 1500-1650, thousands of witchcraft trials were held. Between 40,000-100,000 people, accused of being witches, were killed. Some 80 percent of them were women.* Why then? Why women?

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In Early Modern Europe

witchcraft trials
Witchcraft Trials

In Europe, between 1500-1650, thousands of witchcraft trials were held. Between 40,000-100,000 people, accused of being witches, were killed.

Some 80 percent of them were women.*

Why then? Why women?

*NOTE: In some outlying areas of Europe (Iceland, Estonia, Finland) far more men than women were accused. On the other hand, in many regions 90 per cent or more of accused witches were women (Hungary, Denmark, and England, for instance). Still, overall, 80 percent of those accused throughout Europe were women. Courts did not give male suspects more favorable treatment. (See Robin Briggs, Witches & Neighbours: The Social and Cultural Context of European Witchcraft, pp. 260-61.)

why then
Why then?

A response to change? What change?

religious change
Religious Change
  • Protestant Reformation and Catholic Reformation
  • Religious wars that resulted from the split
  • Attempt to stamp out unorthodox pre-Christian beliefs in order to shore up power of church
political change
Political Change
  • Growing power of the state (France, England, Spain, Netherlands)
  • Tension among smaller states (German states, for instance)
  • Attempt to stamp out popular culture to shore up the power of the state
social and economic change
Social and Economic Change
  • Peasant unrest
  • Elite unrest (waning power of nobility)
  • Inflation
  • Capitalism

Note: Conditions created an atmosphere in which it was easier for the trials to occur

laws and legal procedure
Laws and Legal Procedure
  • Inquisitorial system of criminal procedure in secular and ecclesiastical courts (England, which was under common law, was different.)
    • Full-time judges investigated crimes, arrested and interrogated suspects, handed down sentences. These phases were not clear-cut.
    • There was no jury.
    • Proceedings in court were closed to the public.
    • Torture was allowed.
    • Conviction required a confession or two eye-witnesses.
    • Convictions could be appealed.
  • Secular courts gaining jurisdiction over prosecution of witchcraft in many places
  • Little interference with local and regional courts by central authorities
what response to change
What Response to Change?
  • Sexual repression (witches represented sex out of control)
  • Affirmation of patriarchy
  • Affirmation of church hierarchy
  • Affirmation of state authority
  • Crack-down on popular culture
fear of change leads to fear of the other
Fear of change leads to fear of the other
  • Other as projection
  • Peasant widow witch is triply other
    • Female
    • Without a man
    • Old and poor
  • BUT
    • Not true everywhere in Europe
    • Some witchcraft trials show a long process of alienation.

Note: An article by Edward Bever asserts that early modern women acted more like witches than men – they were more likely to poison enemies, use ritual magic, and show great anger because these were the weapons available to them.

dangerous witches
Dangerous witches

Weak, so susceptible to devil’s advances

Sexually powerful through association with devil, so able to seduce men into sin

Important during marginal spaces – the intersection between life and death. (Women were the midwives. Women prepared the bodies of the dead.)

Durer, Three Witches


The witchcraft scares began where the Italian states, German states, France, and Switzerland meet. Why? Protestant-Catholic conflict?

Pagan cults?

witchcraft prosecution was most intense in
Witchcraft prosecution was most intense in:
  • Scotland
  • Parts of England
  • Southwest German states
  • Switzerland
  • Austria
  • Low countries


top down or filter up
Top down or filter up?
  • Was the great fear of witches an invention of elites (top down theory)?
  • Did it filter up from peasant pre-Christian beliefs (filter up theory)?
  • OR . . .
elite view of the witch
Elite View of the Witch
  • Rising fear of devil
  • Notions about women
    • associated with original sin (Eve)
    • Associated with animality, the body – the body is earthly, opposed to the soul
    • See Malleus Maleficarum (Sourcebook, pp. 57-68, 123-127)
  • Association of sorcery (making magic) with heresy (holding an opinion or acting in opposition to the orthodox doctrine of the church). This association is unique to Early Modern Europe.

This influential work, written by two Dominicans, Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, was published in 1484. Its ideas of witches were held by many of the elites.

rising power of devil
Rising Power of Devil

The devil in this picture shows signs of paganism – he seems to be part goat. The “witch” is actually an alchemist, one of those intellectuals who sought to turn lead into gold and other “magic.” He could be Faust. This is just one version of the witch under the power of the devil.

seduction by the devil
Seduction by the devil

The goat-like demon here presents his back end to the woman. A common element of ritual life is that of reversal or “upside-down-ness,” which plays upon opposites. The demon shows the most vulgar part of his body, the opposite of the face, perhaps.

women in league with the devil
Women in League with the Devil

This demon has bird-like characteristics, showing the animality of evil.


The woman worships the reptilian-avian-monkey demon. Note his human torso, legs, and arms. – And his modesty.

diabolism and the witch the elite view
Diabolism and the Witch: The Elite View
  • The witch makes a pact (the diabolic pact) with the devil in order to gain supernatural power.
  • This is heresy because she (or he) gives allegiance to the devil rather than God and so repudiates divine authority.
Pre-Christian beliefs exist along with Catholicism
  • Syncretism*:
    • Catholicism overlays pre-Christian belief
    • Catholic practice arises from pre-Christian belief

*Look it up!

the peasant witch
The Peasant Witch
  • A healer, white witch, cunning woman
  • A witch able, by magic, to cause disaster (malefice, evil eye)
    • Deaths
    • Storms
    • Bad harvest
    • Siamese twins
  • Is usually a socially approved deviant
Peasant witch with Magical PowersThis witch is probably cooking up a potion. Note the dead animal and animal parts on the floor.

A witch stealing milk rides on a Star of David. Sometimes prejudice against Jews was linked to witchcraft. However, Jews could not be heretics because they were not Catholics.

Again, naked witches brew up a storm. Notice the witch flying on a goat in the background and the animal parts on the ground

Some witches had the ability to fly, sometimes out of body, usually at night. They possibly were members of pre-Christian fertility cults. Example: the benandante of Fruili (good witches), born with a caul (amniotic sac) on their heads as a sign they were witches, supposedly flew out of their bodies to a meadow to fight for the harvest against bad witches. (See Carlo Ginzberg, Night Battles.)


More flyers. The man in red is a common figure in tales about night-flying witches. He is usually the leader. The witches flew on brooms, yes, but also on animals.

witches sabbat or black mass
Witches’ Sabbat (or Black Mass)

A pre-Christian rite (harvest festival, say) transformed by church doctrine into an upside-down mass?

According to this piece of lore, which probably emanated from the elites, the participants worshiped the Devil instead of God and engaged in lewd behavior that aped some part of Catholic ritual. For instance, they would kiss the demon’s rear, the opposite of kissing the pope’s ring.

persecution of witches
Persecution of Witches
  • Both Protestants and Catholics persecuted witches.
  • Often several members of a family were accused of witchcraft.
  • The typical witch in Western Europe was female, alone, and old.
  • Trials occurred in secular as well as ecclesiastical courts.
  • Witchcraft was a crime as well as a sin.
finding witches
Finding witches

Some made a profession out of it.

Matthew Hopkins, English witch hunter, 1644

catholics and protestants

Lower rate of convictions

More accusations of malefice

More emphasis on Devil’s Sabbat


Higher rate of executions

Fewer accusations of malefice

More emphasis on diabolic pact

Catholics and Protestants
england vs the continent

Common law forbade torture

Accusation more often from below

Explanation as guilt of accuser



Accusation more often from above

More trials (superstructure of myth of Satanic witches and sabbat)

England vs. the Continent
the trials
The Trials

How to prove someone’s a witch?

  • Devil’s mark or witch’s tit (post 1560)
  • Testimony by witnesses
  • Torture
why were persecutions supported by the folk
Why were persecutions supported by the folk?
  • Widow witch danger to family
  • Accuser and accused in social relation
  • Peasants infantilized and terrorized by state
  • Collective psychodrama
  • Oppressive social structure
And. . .
  • Scapegoating
  • Power fight
  • Code of neighborliness replaced by competition
  • Outlet for aggression
  • Rural malaise
why confess
Why confess?
  • Mythomaniac
  • Really is a witch
  • Desire to save soul

Burned, hanged, executed by other means