The European Witch craze of the Early Modern period.

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The persecution of witches began in the sixteenth century and coincided with the early modern period; it became highly symptomatic at this time and is described as being a “renaissance problem”. The first wave of major panics began in France and Germany and lasted until the early years of the sixteenth century. The second wave began around 1560, and extended beyond Germany and France to Switzerland and England. The final wave began around 1620, and lasted throughout much of Europe until the last quarter of the seventeenth century.

Because of the nature of these variations, it is immensely difficult to impose a single cause explanation for the European witch craze of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. There are, however, many possible explanations. For example, changes in the weather and climate in many parts of Europe during the sixteenth century which lead to crop failures could have caused hostile feeling to be directed towards supposed witches. On the other hand, many of the witch persecutions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were small scale village affairs culminating in the prosecution of the local “wise woman” as a result of an illness or crop failure.

It is also interesting to note that the first major persecutions in Germany, the country in which much of the craze was concentrated, could have been linked to the publication of a certain book, the Malleus Maleficarum or “The Hammer of the Witches”. Of course, there is one factor which does seem to have contributed to the European witch craze, and this is the separation of Europe into Catholic and Protestant factions.

Of course, whilst considering the extent to which the reformation was responsible for the witch persecutions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it is important to remember that the doctrines of Protestantism (even though Luther did, in fact, strongly believe in the existence of witches) and Catholicism did not induce the hunts. Rather, it was the indirect consequences of religious division which in part led to the European witch craze of the early modern period.

It is interesting to note that many of the early modern witch hunts were concentrated in Germany and Scotland. Indeed, Germany has often been described as the “classic land of the witch-hunt”. The first major persecutions in Germany were perhaps largely connected with the publication of a certain book, the Malleus Malleficarum, or The Hammer of the Witches, published in 1486. The Malleus was a treatise on the prosecution of witches, and was used widely throughout the witch trials in Europe throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

However, even the Malleus does not fully explain why the witch trials were concentrated largely in Germany, because the German holocaust of witches depended largely on the idea of the witches’ Sabbat, a supposed occurrence on which the Malleus does not go into any great detail . In a Sabbat, witches would supposedly meet in large groups and communicate with the Devil. If one was suspected of attending a Sabbat, this would often lead to mass accusations and torture. There is very little evidence for the actual existence of Sabbats.

Rather, the idea seems to have been obtained as a consequence of the reliance of local German factions on the advice of Universities. For example, in the early modern period, Germany still came under certain areas of Roman law, and Roman law dictated that, in problematic conditions, local factions should seek the council of those learned members of society. The idea of Sabbat seems to be a theory which originated in German universities, but which, through this law, appears to have become widespread knowledge.

Thus, the German Holocaust of witches in the renaissance period could have been partly executed, not because of German temperament, but because of a legal system that allowed bishops and other ecclesiasts an unparalleled degree of influence in their territories, and permitted university professors to become full members of the judicial mechanism.


Very few people were literate in the early modern period, and as such they tried to rationalise the natural world around them. As they were illiterate, they were unable to learn scripture by any means other than oral transmission by those more learned than themselves. Thus, they increasingly came to rely on superstition for protection. They relied on amulets to help them in their daily lives and even relied on spells to ensure the success of harvests.

It is possible that the reformation tried to bring about a suppression of these beliefs. Following the reformation, for example, many local elites tried to impose a stricter form of Christianity on the population at large. There were attacks on folk ideas and practises as part of an overall missionary effort to reform the population at large. Long-established beliefs were subjected to reinterpretation, and if they could not be included within the structure of the accepted religion they were often heralded as demonic activity.


Interestingly, it can be argued that the persecution of witches was to some extent used by these separate factions as a form of propaganda, in that any successful campaigns against witchcraft by Protestantism or Catholicism could confirm either Catholics or Protestants as the champions of the “true” religion. One example that seems to reinforce this argument is that there were many cases of supposed possession in Europe during the sixteenth century.

For example, German Jesuits in the later 16th century used exorcisms to validate the power of the Catholic Church. Also, the exorcist john Darrel claimed in the 1590’s that the Baptists “do what they can” so that the Protestant church would not get credit for performing successful exorcisms.

This culminated in a heated propaganda battle between the two factions. The relevancy of this is that the “possessions” often led to allegations of maleficarum, or witchcraft. Indeed, in Germany, France, and England the activities of Darrel led to a series of witch trials and at least two executions.


Accusations of witchcraft also occurred within religious factions. For example, Protestants popularly regarded Catholicism as the source of witchcraft, and this accusation was likewise directed at the Protestants. Popular belief denoted that they suffered from satanic delusions, and Luther was even regarded by some members of the Catholic Church as being devil spawn.

At the same time, both of the major authorities regarded the reforming movements within their respective factions as a threat similar to witchcraft. Indeed, Luther himself stated that Anabaptists were “sorcerers and authors of witchery” and viewed their teachings as “false” and as a sign that they were under Lucifer’s control. Protestants regarded what they termed as the superstitious practises of the Catholic Church as “magic”.

Both factions closely identified Maleficium with the practises of the enemy church. The smaller sects, such as the Anabaptists, were apparently regarded as being too small to make much impact, and they did not try to widely impose their beliefs. They also viewed the larger orthodoxy’s as having a connection with the devil, however, and sought to isolate themselves from the “witch-like” practises that dominated the world.

Thus, the belief in the existence of witchcraft in the early modern period was a widespread one. Religious paranoia was rife even within the separate factions of the Christian religion. This was yet another indirect effect of religious division.


It is also important when considering the impact of the reformation on the witch craze to differentiate between the major witch hunts and the lesser, small scale affairs. For example, on a village level, it was often a woman living on the outskirts of society who was accused, possibly in part due to a neighbour becoming ill or the illness and death of livestock. Often, arbitrary events were explained away as being the effects of maleficium, and the accused would often fit into the above category.

In a society where most families were nuclear, and status and welfare was often decided by the rank or wealth of respective families in villages, widows and spinsters, poor women who did not have sufficient family connections or the benefit of a dowry found themselves marginalised to the outskirts of society. To gain a place in society some of these women would assume a role, such as that of the local witch or wise woman.

However, the occurrence of arbitrary events or even of events at a more personal level would often lead to accusations of witchcraft. This was also a factor in which religious division played a role. For example, accusing a neighbour of witchcraft in the sixteenth century was a way of showing cohesion with accepted views of both religions . Indeed, during the witch hunts of the early modern period, approximately 100,000 people were prosecuted throughout Europe, 80% of them being women who, as widows and spinsters, were isolated in their villages.

This persecution of a largely female population could be due to the fact that they were isolated within their communities, but it could also in part be due to the popular ideology of the Catholic Church, who viewed women as a source of sin that had to be controlled . The societal purging of these women had advantageous effects for the local clergy. Many peasants living in small and rural communities would often turn to a local councillor for help and guidance before they would turn to god. The murders of these so called witches were ultimately a way of re-establishing the positions of the local elites and clergy as the authority on local beliefs and customs. It gave them much greater control over the beliefs of their people. Thus, witch persecutions also tended to operate on a small scale, local level, but even at a village level, the indirect consequences of the reformation could still be felt.


Though the reformation seems to have contributed to the witch craze of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, this cannot fully explain the cause of the witch hunts. For example, climactic change could, to some extent, be responsible. For example, what is popularly termed as “the little ice age” began around the mid sixteenth century and led to extremely cold weather in many parts of Europe, thus in turn leading to crop failures. As was noted above, many people living in Europe at this time had a propensity for ascribing arbitrary events to the practise of witchcraft. As such, many hunts were the result of climactic failures and crop failures.

However, even the little ice age cannot be used as a full explanation of the causes of the witch persecutions in Europe, as flare ups occurred in at different times in different areas of the continent. Accusations of witchcraft arose in times of desperation, times of war, social crisis, famine and loss of certainty. Some outbreaks were the consequence of demography which resulted in a lack of penetration of the Christian religion. For example, in Spain and France the largest outbreaks occurred in the Pyrenees, in remote areas where Christianity was not practised as much and where folk beliefs were strong. Thus, in Spain and in France many hunts also occurred as a result of the desire of the accepted church to suppress many folk beliefs and practises.



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