The fight against witchcraft varied from country to country and from time to time. In some places, it was limited to religious sermons condemning the practice and urging those who believed in God not to seek help from witches. Religions prescribed that sorcerers must be beheaded, but the number of sorcery trials in the Islamic world was relatively small because it was complicated to prove sorcery.
The Church authorities could sentence a sorcerer to official penance – an obligation to pray regularly for forgiveness, fast for a certain period, and wear skimpy, rough clothes. The secular authorities did not judge for witchcraft itself, but for the damage, it caused, with sentences appropriate to its burden. Nevertheless, in the prime of the Middle Ages, Catholic theologians actively studied, concluding early canonical texts, the world of demons, and their ability to influence the world around them and people’s lives. Centuries later, the demonological theories they developed were instrumental in organizing the widespread persecution of witches and sorcerers.
On the edge of the Late Middle Ages in Europe, ordinary people were pretty common to blame the suspected perpetrators of witchcraft. In an attempt to regain its shaken influence, the Church actively persecutes the heresies that have proliferated in various countries – religious currents critical of many of its tenets. In their sermons, almost all the heretical groups called for simplifying the church structure and abolishing the obligatory duties that the ordinary people paid to the clergy. Since there was public support for these actions, the Inquisition tried to accuse heretics of witchcraft by all possible means to tarnish their image among the people (Minkema & Davis, 2020).
For example, in the first half of the 15th century, there were mass trials of members of the Waldensian movement in the western Alps, during which people were accused of witchcraft-related crimes, in addition to heresy. These and similar events heralded the coming era of the witch-hunt, which lasted two centuries and later became one of the darkest pages of European history.
Periodization of the witch-hunting and its leaders
The peak of witch-hunting in Europe was in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. There were three outbreaks of hysteria around witchcraft in 1585-1595, around 1630, and in the 50s and 60s of the XVII century. A remark should be made at once – “witch-hunting” may be a rather conventional notion: some contemporary researchers dispute the prevailing view that the overwhelming majority of those accused of witchcraft were women (Kissane, 2018).
It was probably a misconception caused by the fact that women were warned against witchcraft by theorists of that time. However, in reality, according to some researchers, men were convicted of witchcraft at least as often, and the legal documents of some European regions show that men were convicted for it in more significant numbers. The “leaders” in the number of burned witches and sorcerers were Germany and Switzerland, and there were also many victims in France and Scotland. In England, there were far fewer victims of “witch phobia”, and English law, as in olden times, prescribed punishment not for witchcraft itself but for the damage it caused.
However, during the English Revolution of 1640 – 1660, which resulted in the decline of the central government, England was also seriously affected by the search of the “devil’s accomplices”. The accomplices were headed by lawyer Matthew Hopkins, who traveled through the country and offered for money to the public his services in the exposure of witches and witches. Hopkins’s victims were about 200 people, a little less than half of all those executed for crimes using witchcraft in England. Italy and Spain, whose population was primarily devoted to Christian ideals and where occultism was not widely practiced, were practically untouched by the witch-hunting.
Suspicion, trial, and sentencing
Not only did the scale of prosecutions varied from country to country, but also the procedure for investigation, trial, and sentencing. Similar was the ease of prosecution, the difficulty or even impossibility of defense, and the speed of trial and execution of the sentence. If a crop was damaged by hail, a child became seriously ill or died, or milk disappeared from a cow, people began to suspect that it was due to someone else’s wickedness. A suspect might be a personal enemy of the victim, an outsider who had settled on the land of the community. It could also be a person who stood out from the crowd or an outcast whom the neighbors were used to blaming for their troubles (Hutton, 2017).
Many took advantage of the accessible court action against “witches” for personal ends: husbands ratified their annoying wives, and wives denounced their husbands or lovers. Many people denounced relatives to get hold of their property; social and political opponents were also accused of witchcraft. A beautiful woman could be accused of witchcraft by other envious women. The authorities arrested the suspect at the very first denunciation.
The suspect was first persuaded to repent and confess to conspiring with the Devil voluntarily. If the person under investigation persistently denied guilt, the torture weapons of the time were used. The women usually broke down quickly under torture and confirmed all the accusations against them. No matter how it was obtained, a confession was considered conclusive evidence for the verdict (Kallestrup & Toivo, 2017). In most European countries, those found guilty of witchcraft were burnt at stake in front of a crowd.
In some countries, they hang. Those who voluntarily confessed and repented were sometimes spared life and imprisoned. The most serious charge was participation in a coven – a nocturnal gathering of witches and sorcerers where they were believed in medieval Europe to make a pact with Satan. The belief was that Satan would lend demons to witches and sorcerers in exchange for their souls and then use those demons to harm good Christians. According to popular belief, witches and sorcerers would travel to a coven by smearing an ointment and thus become airborne and able to ride a broom.
Patterns of witchcraft hysteria in different European countries
The pattern of witchcraft hysteria in Germany
In Germany, witch trials were a farce at times during outbreaks of mass hysteria. If a victim refused to confess, even under torture, this was also seen as proof that the accusation was justified. If a person, especially a woman, could not confess even when subjected to cruel tests, it was a sign that the Devil was helping them. Therefore, from the moment a suspect was arrested, he was already condemned to prosecution and death. In the Saxon town of Osnabrück, 121 witches were burned within three months of 1585, and in the surroundings of the West German town of Trier, 306 people were burned between 1587 and 1593.
After a “witch” or “sorcerer” had confessed, they were often interrogated for the names of their accomplices, and the names of other participants in the “satanic plot” were extracted from the confessed “accomplices” (Goodare et al., 2021). Sometimes in the course of unwinding new cases based on statements from the accused in old cases, the prosecution returned to the person who had initiated the first trial. The persecution of witches and sorcerers in Germany reached its most extensive form during the Thirty Years’ War from 1618 to 1648 when the warring parties staged mass witch trials on occupied territories.
The pattern of witchcraft hysteria in England
In England, torture in witchcraft cases was forbidden at once. However, the lawyer Matthew Hopkins, mentioned above, took advantage of the weak control of the supreme authority. He started to “expose” criminals who made a pact with the Devil by external signs, which, as he and his accomplices claimed, are necessarily present in witches and sorcerers. Large birthmarks on suspects’ bodies were seen as nipples through which the witch feeds the demons that serve her, and places insensitive to needle pricks were seen as the marks of the Devil’s hand. Suspects were put to the test by being tied up and thrown into a pond or hole in the ice.
In England, it was believed that water, as a pure element, would repel anything the Devil touched. If the suspect or suspects drowned, this proved their innocence, but if they remained on the surface (which could happen if no air escaped from under their clothes), they were considered guilty.
The pattern of witchcraft hysteria in Sweden
In Sweden, the most famous manifestation of witch-phobia was the Mura trial of 1669. Many children began complaining to their parents that they were abducted at night by witches, including their peers from other communities, and forced to worship Satan. Following a trial in which some 300 young “victims” were heard, dozens were beheaded and posthumously burned, including 15 children. Another 56 children found to have been minor collaborators with the witches were subjected to corporal punishment.
The pattern of witchcraft hysteria in France
Across Europe, the charge of lycanthropy – turning into a wolf through witchcraft rituals to harm people – was pretty ordinary; the most common victims were men. There is also a well-known case in France where a real wolf was killed. The wolf was probably attempting to steal cattle, but it was suddenly caught and burnt because the farmers thought it was a reincarnated human, and the judges agreed with them. Often the victims of werewolfism charges were mentally ill people whom themselves claimed out loud to be wolves.
Many modern scholars see the “witchcraft” of the 16th and 17th centuries as a “struggle of two cultures”. These two cultures are the emerging New Age, based on solid-state influence, and the declining Middle Ages, based on collectivism and the strength of local unwritten customs, developing individualism under the influence of the bourgeoisie. Mass persecution, therefore, ceased by the eighteenth century, when the dominance of state power and capitalism in European life had become undeniable. The fact that European states were interested in the “witch hunt” is confirmed by the large number of educated people, humanists, who held respected public offices, among the initiators of the persecutions.
Although most outbreaks of witch-phobia occurred in European provinces or politically fragmented states with a weak central authority. This was probably because the traditional medieval culture was dying out more slowly in peripheral parts of Europe than in industrialized centers against it was particularly fierce there. The increasing power of European monarchs supported by the bourgeoisie, which was independent of feudal lords, caused the state, its laws, and the united management system to encroach on the provinces.
Those provinces were used to living by the local ancient unwritten laws. Therefore, the state fought against anything that could preserve the communities’ ancient culture and internal autonomy, which undermined the unity of the state. It was important for the state to split the burgher or peasant community and take overall care of the well-being of the population. Moreover, it was also significant to create a stir around the “witchcraft menace,” which was a very convenient means to do this.
The suspicion of the inhabitants towards each other prevented them from rallying against state innovations; simultaneously, “witch-phobia” kept them more closely tied to the state, which acted as the primary protector of the “witchcraft’s intrigues”. The state and the Church it supported, on the pretext of combating witchcraft, dealt first and foremost with the followers of traditional culture. All in all, the whole society of the countries it took over was deeply interested in the “witch-hunt”, and in this way, society has itself produced and directed the mass witchcraft hysteria.
Goodare, J., Voltmer, R., & Willumsen, L., H. (2021). Demonology and Witch-Hunting in Early Modern Europe. Routledge.
Hutton, R. (2017). The Witch: A History of Fear, from Ancient Times to the Present. Yale University Press.
Kallestrup L. N., & Toivo, R., M. (Eds.). (2017). Contesting Orthodoxy in Medieval and Early Modern Europe: Heresy, Magic and Witchcraft. Springer.
Kissane, K. (2018). Food, Religion, and Communities in Early Modern Europe. Bloomsbury.
Minkema K.P., & Davis P. D. (2020). Witchcraft Accusations in Comparative Contexts: The Early Modern European Witch-hunts and Alleged Child Witches in the Democratic Republic of Congo. On Knowing Humanity Journal, 4(1), 95-98.