Witch Trial Hysteria in the Medieval and Early Modern Worlds


A girl is accused during the Salem Witch Trials (Bettmann / CORBIS)

Natural events and pandemics contributed to the hysteria surrounding the witch trials of the 16th through 18th centuries.


Introduction

The witch trials in the early modern period were a series of witch hunts between the 15th and 18th centuries, when across early modern Europe, and to some extent in the European colonies in North America, there was a widespread hysteria that malevolent Satanic witches were operating as an organized threat to Christendom. Those accused of witchcraft were portrayed as being worshippers of the Devil, who engaged in sorcery at meetings known as Witches’ Sabbaths. Many people were subsequently accused of being witches and were put on trial for the crime, with varying punishments being applicable in different regions and at different times.

In early modern European tradition, witches were stereotypically, though not exclusively, women. European pagan belief in witchcraft was associated with the goddess Diana and dismissed as “diabolical fantasies” by medieval Christian authors.

Background to the Witch Trials

During the medieval period, there was widespread belief in magic across Christian Europe. The medieval Roman Catholic Church, which then dominated a large swath of the continent, divided magic into two forms—natural magic, which was acceptable because it was viewed as merely taking note of the powers in nature that were created by God, and demonic magic, which was frowned upon and associated with demonology.

It was also during the medieval period that the concept of Satan, the Biblical Devil, began to develop into a more threatening form. Around the year 1000, when there were increasing fears that the end of the world would soon come in Christendom, the idea of the Devil had become prominent.

In the 14th and 15th centuries, the concept of the witch in Christendom underwent a relatively radical change. No longer were witches viewed as sorcerers who had been deceived by the Devil into practicing magic that went against the powers of God. Instead they became all-out malevolent Devil-worshippers, who had made pacts with him in which they had to renounce Christianity and devote themselves to Satanism. As a part of this, it was believed that they gained new, supernatural powers that enabled them to work magic, which they would use against Christians.

An image of a witch and her familiar spirits taken from a publication that dealt with the witch trials of Elizabeth Stile, Mother Dutten, Mother Devell, and Mother Margaret in Windsor, 1579. / Wikimedia Commons

While the witch trials only really began in the 15th century, with the start of the early modern period, many of their causes had been developing during the previous centuries, with the persecution of heresy by the medieval Inquisition during the late 12th and the 13th centuries, and during the late medieval period, during which the idea of witchcraft or sorcery gradually changed and adapted. An important turning point was the Black Death of 1348–1350, which killed a large percentage of the European population, and which many Christians believed had been caused by evil forces.

Beginnings of the Witch Trials

Overview

While the idea of witchcraft began to mingle with the persecution of heretics even in the 14th century, the beginning of the witch hunts as a phenomenon in its own right became apparent during the first half of the 15th century in southeastern France and western Switzerland, in communities of the Western Alps, in what was at the time Burgundy and Savoy.

Here, the cause of eliminating the supposed Satanic witches from society was taken up by a number of individuals; Claude Tholosan for instance had tried over two hundred people, accusing them of witchcraft in Briançon, Dauphiné, by 1420.

While early trials fall still within the late medieval period, the peak of the witch hunt was during the period of the European wars of religion, between about 1580 and 1630. Over the entire duration of the phenomenon of some three centuries, an estimated total of 40,000 to 100,000 people were executed.

The Trials of 1580–1630

The height of the European witch trials was between 1560 and 1630, with the large hunts first beginning in 1609. During this period, the biggest witch trials were held in Europe, notably the Trier witch trials (1581–1593), the Fulda witch trials (1603–1606), the Basque witch trials (1609–1611), the Würzburg witch trial (1626–1631), and the Bamberg witch trials (1626–1631).

The Witch Trials of Trier in Germany was perhaps the biggest witch trial in European history. The persecutions started in the diocese of Trier in 1581 and reached the city itself in 1587, where they were to lead to the deaths of about 368 people, and as such it was perhaps the biggest mass execution in Europe during peacetime.

The Examination of a Witch, by Thompkins H. Matteson (1853) / Wikimedia Commons

In Denmark, the burning of witches increased following the reformation of 1536. Christian IV of Denmark, in particular, encouraged this practice, and hundreds of people were convicted of witchcraft and burned. In England, the Witchcraft Act of 1542 regulated the penalties for witchcraft. In the North Berwick witch trials in Scotland, over seventy people were accused of witchcraft on account of bad weather when James VI of Scotland, who shared the Danish king’s interest in witch trials, sailed to Denmark in 1590 to meet his betrothed, Anne of Denmark.

The sentence for an individual found guilty of witchcraft or sorcery during this time, and in previous centuries, typically included either burning at the stake or being tested with the “ordeal of cold water” or judicium aquae frigidae. Accused persons who drowned were considered innocent, and ecclesiastical authorities would proclaim them “brought back,” but those who floated were considered guilty of practicing witchcraft, and burned at the stake or executed in an unholy fashion.

Decline of the Trials

While the witch trials had begun to fade out across much of Europe by the mid-17th century, they continued to a greater extent on the fringes of Europe and in the American colonies. The clergy and intellectuals began to speak out against the trials from the late 16th century. Johannes Kepler in 1615 could only by the weight of his prestige keep his mother from being burned as a witch. The 1692 Salem witch trials were a brief outburst of witch hysteria in the New World at a time when the practice was already waning in Europe.

Overview

While the witch trials had begun to fade out across much of Europe by the mid-17th century, they continued to a greater extent on the fringes of Europe and in the American colonies. The clergy and intellectuals began to speak out against the trials from the late 16th century. Johannes Kepler in 1615 could only by the weight of his prestige keep his mother from being burned as a witch. The 1692 Salem witch trials were a brief outburst of witch hysteria in the New World at a time when the practice was already waning in Europe.

Witch Trials and Women

An estimated 75% to 85% of those accused in the early modern witch trials were women, and there is certainly evidence of misogyny on the part of those persecuting witches, evident from quotes such as “[It is] not unreasonable that this scum of humanity, [witches], should be drawn chiefly from the feminine sex” (Nicholas Rémy, c. 1595) or “The Devil uses them so, because he knows that women love carnal pleasures, and he means to bind them to his allegiance by such agreeable provocations.” In early modern Europe, it was widely believed that women were less intelligent than men and more susceptible to sin.

Title page of the Malleus Maleficarum, seventh Cologne edition / University of Sydney Library, Wikimedia Commons

Nevertheless, it has been argued that the supposedly misogynistic agenda of works on witchcraft has been greatly exaggerated, based on the selective repetition of a few relevant passages of the Malleus Maleficarum. Many modern scholars argue that the witch hunts cannot be explained simplistically as an expression of male misogyny, as indeed women were frequently accused by other women, to the point that witch hunts, at least at the local level of villages, have been described as having been driven primarily by “women’s quarrels.” Especially at the margins of Europe, in Iceland, Finland, Estonia, and Russia, the majority of those accused were male.

Barstow (1994) claimed that a combination of factors, including the greater value placed on men as workers in the increasingly wage-oriented economy, and a greater fear of women as inherently evil, loaded the scales against women, even when the charges against them were identical to those against men. Thurston (2001) saw this as a part of the general misogyny of the late medieval and early modern periods, which had increased during what he described as “the persecuting culture” from what it had been in the early medieval period. Gunnar Heinsohn and Otto Steiger in a 1982 publication speculated that witch hunts targeted women skilled in midwifery specifically in an attempt to extinguish knowledge about birth control and “repopulate Europe” after the population catastrophe of the Black Death.


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