Stories of witches and witch-hunting in early modern Europe have captivated us for centuries. During the early modern period of European history, stretching from roughly 1450 to about 1750, about 100,000 people—most of them women—were tried for the crime of witchcraft. About half of these people were executed, in most cases by burning at the stake. But witchcraft is more than just a Halloween story–for the men and women involved it was a very real, very frightening aspect of daily life.
Guest Brian Levack explains that, at its heart, medieval accusations of witchcraft and sorcery are not supernatural at all, but instead based in the all too human need to explain the ordinary cycles of birth, death, sickness, wellness, and the constant struggle between rich and poor.
- Brian LevackJohn E. Green Regents Professor in History and Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of Texas at Austin
- Joan NeubergerProfessor of History, University of Texas at Austin
Let’s start with an overview of the crime of witch craft in early modern Europe. What period are we talking about and how many people were involved?
During the early modern period of European history, stretching from roughly 1450 to about 1750, about 100,000 people—most of them women—were tried for the crime of witchcraft. About half of these people were executed, in most cases by burning at the stake.
So when we talk about witchcraft in history, we really talking about societies that decided to prosecute people for practicing witchcraft, is that right? And how was that crime defined?
The crime of witchcraft, as it was defined during these years, consisted of two main components. The first was the alleged practice of harmful magic, which was the use of some kind of supernatural, preternatural, or mysterious power to bring misfortune upon one’s neighbors. These misfortunes often involved the infliction of disease, injury, or death on human beings or their livestock. Witches were also accused of making men sexually impotent. Misfortunes inflicted on the entire community, such as the destruction of crops by hailstorms or the burning of towns, were also occasionally attributed to witchcraft. Christian theologians claimed that the power to perform these maleficent magical deeds came from the Devil.
The second component of the witches’ crime was the worship of the Devil. Witches were accused of having made an explicit, face-to-face pact with the Devil, by which they allegedly promised to serve him as their god in return for the power to inflict magical harm. In many countries it was also believed that witches would gather in remote locations to worship the Devil collectively. At these assemblies, often referred to as sabbaths, witches would allegedly kiss the Devil’s buttocks, trample on the cross, and have themselves rebaptized in the religion of their new demonic master.
In Roman Catholic countries the witches were often accused of making a mockery of the Mass, which the priest saying the Mass backwards while standing on his head and consecrating a black host. At the sabbath, witches allegedly reversed all the moral norms of society. In particular, they were accused of dancing naked and engaging in promiscuous sexual relations with the other witches and the numerous demons in attendance. They allegedly sacrificed young, unbaptized children to the Devil and then ate them. In some countries it was believed that witches flew to these assemblies, sometimes on broomsticks or on the backs of animals.
There is no reliable evidence that any of these charges of collective Devil worship had any basis in reality. Most of the confessions of witches were coerced and therefore provide a better indication of what judges wanted defendants to say than what the accused witches had actually done. Confessions given voluntarily reflected either the dreams or fantasies of witches, the suggestions of confessors, or the confused statements of those who were senile or mentally ill.
How then did they prosecute the crime of witchcraft?
During the 15th century European judicial authorities became alarmed that they were faced with a vast conspiracy of witches who had rejected their Christian religion and were assisting the Devil in his work of physical destruction. For this reason judges in both the ecclesiastical and temporal courts took steps to identify witches and prosecute them. In order to secure the conviction of these witches, it was usually necessary to obtain their confessions. In so doing judicial authorities often subjected the accused to physical torture. Accused witches would have their thumbs screwed tight in iron vises, their legs crushed until the bones were reduced to pulp, and their bodies hung by their wrists from the ceiling in order to make them confess to harmful magic and the worship of the Devil. In most circumstances, especially when the torture was extreme, the accused witches confessed to the crimes that their inquisitors were convinced they had perpetuated. Then, in order to extract the names of their alleged confederates, they were asked, once again under torture, to identify other witches who had joined them at the sabbath. It was this last procedure, the naming of accomplices, that explains why a single witch hunt could take such a high toll in human life.
Witch hunting became very widespread in some parts of Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries—where was it concentrated?
Most of the large witch hunts occurred in the late 16th and 17th centuries, which was the most intense period of executions throughout Europe. Some hunts, such as those in the diocese of Trier between 1587 and 1593 and the city of Würzburg between 1627 and 1629, claimed hundreds of victims.
And Trier and Würzburg were in German terroritories?
Yes. Within the lands of the Prince Bishop of Eichstätt 274 persons were executed for witchcraft in 1629. On the lands of the convent of Quedlinberg in Germany in 1589, 133 witches were executed in one day. A witch-hunt in 1585 left two German villages with only one female inhabitant each.
Many of the most severe hunts took place in German territories, especially those where torture was administered with few restraints. Prosecutions in some of the Swiss cantons were just as severe as in German lands. Other locations of intense-witch-hunting were Scotland, Hungary, Poland, the Spanish Netherlands, and the French-speaking territories on the eastern border of France. There were fewer executions in Scandinavian countries, England, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, and Italy.
How do you explain the concentration of witch hunting in these territories?
The intensity of prosecutions in various localities was determined by the strength of the belief in the sabbath, the degree to which judicial authorities were willing to allow the use of excessive torture, and the severity of social and economic conditions that might lead villagers to accuse their neighbors.
So really the concentration of witch hunting had more to do with prosecutors and the context than with anything the alleged witches were doing. Let’s talk about how these witchcraft prosecutions played out locally—can you give us an example?
Almost all European countries experienced at least one large witch hunt. In England, where torture was forbidden, the notorious witch-finder Matthew Hopkins secured the conviction and execution of more than 150 witches during the years 1645-47. Many of these witches confessed after Hopkins had kept them awake for up to 72 hours. This tactic was justified as an effort to make the witches’ imps (their personal demonic spirits) appear, but for all intents and purposes it was a form of torture. At Salem, Massachusetts, 30 witches were convicted and 19 of them executed in 1692 after a group of teen-age girls, who manifested the signs of demonic possession, accused individuals of causing their afflictions by means of witchcraft.
Most witch hunts targeted women, is that right?
Most witch hunts began when villagers accused their neighbors of harming them by magical means. About 80 percent of those accused were women, although that percentage varied considerably from country to country. Many female witches were healers, who were the main source of health care in rural areas. When their cures failed, those women became vulnerable to the charges that they had caused their patients’ death by magical means. In a few instances witches were midwives, who could also be easily suspected of deliberately causing the death the infants they helped to deliver. Other women accused of witchcraft were those who came into the household after the birth of a baby and assisted the mother with child care. It was only natural that the mothers, resenting this intrusion by other women into their homes, would suspect these persons of causing any harm that might befall her child. Witches were often described as bad or cruel mothers, who instead of nurturing young children, caused their illness or death.
Were all these incidents inspired by local conflicts and problems?
The villagers who made the original accusations of witchcraft were almost exclusively concerned with the magical, as opposed to the diabolical, aspects of the witch’s crime. They were aggrieved because their neighbors had harmed them, not because they had made a pact with the Devil or attended the sabbath. Charges of Devil-worship were usually introduced by judges who had studied at the universities or who had read some of the many witchcraft treatises that were published during these years. The most famous of these treatises was the Malleus Maleficarum [The Hammer of Witches], which was written by two Dominican inquisitors in 1486. The authors of these treatises had their own explanation why most witches were women. Most of them emphasized the weakness of women and their greater vulnerability to demonic temptation. The Malleus claimed that women were also the more carnal of the species and more eager therefore to have sexual relations with the Devil.
It’s not easy to tell whether witch hunters were inspired by religious zeal or whether religion helped them explain conflicts and tragedies in their lives? Which do you think it was?
Witch hunters were often inspired by religious zeal. Claiming to be doing God’s work, they set out to rid their communities of the Devil’s confederates and thereby create a godly state. The Biblical condemnation of witchcraft, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” (Exodus 22:18) strengthened the determination of both ecclesiastical and secular judges to bring witches to justice. Protestant and Catholic reformers, inspired by a heightened fear of the Devil, were among the most zealous witch-hunters, although the persons they identified as witches were usually nominal members of their own religious faith. Individuals, suspected of various forms of moral deviance or of not attending religious services, were particularly vulnerable to charges of witchcraft.
We’ve been talking almost exclusively about hunting and prosecuting witches. What do we know about the practice of witchcraft? Was there a practice of witchcraft? Were there any people who believed they had magical powers?
Most of the people who were accused of witchcraft were inncoent scapegoats. But a few individuals, believing they had magical powers, did actually try to harm others by casting spells on them. For some poor, old women who were shunned by their neighbors, witchcraft was the only power they believed they could use to defend themselves against those who had subjected them to a miserable life of poverty and social isolation.
Did the people who prosecuted witchcraft believe that they were prosecuting actual witches with magical powers?
Yes, they really did. They believed that these people had not only practiced harmful magic but, much more seriously, they thought that these people were involved in this vast demonic conspiracy that was going to bring about the end of Christiandom and Christian civilization and the moral order. And that is why they needed a confession; that is why they forced these people to confess because they knew that they were guilty. Of course, what they didn’t understand is that when they applied torture and the person was not guilty, they could force that person to confess just to stop the torture and that just confirmed everything they believed about these people.
We associate witchcraft hunting with the early modern period. How did it come to an end? When did it stop?
Witch-hunting gradually declined in intensity and came to an end in most European countries by the early 18th century. The men most responsible for its decline and end were lawyers who came to the realization that innocent people had been executed on the basis of insubstantial evidence or they had been forced to confess under torture. Although most of these skeptical lawyers still believed in the possibility of witchcraft, they came to the realization that the crime could not be proved at law. Thus ended one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in the history of the West.