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The witch trials in the early modern period, alternately known as the Great Witch Craze, were a period of witch hunts that took place across early modern Europe and the European colonies in North America between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries. The trials were sparked by the belief 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 such acts as malevolent 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.
Belief in the reality of magic and the existence of malevolent witches was widespread in Early Modern popular culture, but it was among the educated elite that the idea of witches' as Devil-worshippers developed. The Roman Catholic Church had persecuted various heretical groups during the preceding Late Medieval, and it was from that context that the Early Modern witch trials emerged. The peak of the witch hunt was during the period of the European wars of religion, between circa 1580 and 1630. The hunts declined in the early eighteenth century with the growth of the Enlightenment and rationalism among the educated elites. Laws were implemented to bring about the end of organised persecution of accused witches, although sporadic lynchings of accused witches continued beyond the Early Modern.
Over the entire duration of the phenomenon of some three centuries, an estimated total of 40,000 people were executed. Among the best known of these trials were the Scottish North Berwick witch trials, Swedish Torsåker witch trials and the American Salem witch trials. Among the largest and most notable were the Trier witch trials (1581–1593), the Fulda witch trials (1603–1606), the Würzburg witch trial (1626–1631) and the Bamberg witch trials (1626–1631). The sociological causes of the witch-hunts have long been debated in scholarship. Mainstream historiography sees the reason for the witch craze in a complex interplay of various factors that mark the early modern period, including the religious sectarianism in the wake of the Reformation, besides other religious, societal, economic and climatic factors.
Academic scholarship on the subject has intensified since the 1970s, allowing for a sophisticated understanding of the trials. Meanwhile, alternative perspectives have also developed; the witch-cult hypothesis held that the witches persecuted were practitioners of a surviving pre-Christian religion, and has led to the formation of the Neo-Pagan religion of Wicca. Radical feminist interpretations of the trials have emerged, attributing them to an intentional attempt by men to subjugate women. The trials have since provided inspiration for various fictionalised portrayals in literature and film.
Three developments in Christian doctrine have been identified as factors contributing significantly to the witch hunts; namely, a shift from the rejection of belief in witches to an acceptance of their existence and powers, developments in the doctrine of Satan which incorporated witchcraft as part of Satanic influence, and the identification of witchcraft as heresy. Belief in witches and praeternatural evil were widespread in medieval Europe, and the secular legal codes of European countries had identified witchcraft as a crime before being reached by Christian missionaries. Scholars have noted that the early influence of the Church in the medieval era resulted in the revocation of these laws in many places, bringing an end to traditional pagan witch hunts.
Throughout the medieval era mainstream Christian teaching denied the existence of witches and witchcraft, condemning it as pagan superstition. Notable instances include an Irish synod in 800, Agobard of Lyons, Pope Gregory VII, and Serapion of Vladimire. The traditional accusations and punishments were likewise condemned. Historian Ronald Hutton therefore exonerated the early Church from responsibility for the witch hunts, arguing that this was the result of doctrinal change in the later Church.
However, Christian influence on popular beliefs in witches and maleficium (harm committed by magic), failed to eradicate traditional beliefs, and developments in the Church doctrine of Satan proved influential in reversing the previous dismissal of witches and witchcraft as superstition; instead these beliefs were incorporated into an increasingly comprehensive theology of Satan as the ultimate source of all maleficium. The work of Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century was instrumental in developing the new theology which would give rise to the witch hunts, but due to the fact that sorcery was judged by secular courts it was not until maleficium was identified with heresy that theological trials for witchcraft could commence. Despite these changes the doctrinal shift was only completed in the 15th century, when it first began to result in Church-inspired witch trials. The 1485 treatise by Henricus Institoris met initial resistance in some areas, and some areas of Europe only experienced the first wave of the new witch trials in the latter half of the 16th century.
Early Modern Europe and its North American colonies were replete with a belief in the reality of magic and witchcraft. Belief in the witch, an individual who practiced malevolent magic, was not new to Early Modern Europe. Witches had appeared both in literature – most prominently with the character of Circe in Homer's Odyssey – and in reality, with many individuals writing curses on leaden tablets across the Roman Empire. In parts of Early Medieval Europe there was a widespread and long-lasting belief in witches who rode out with a goddess, varyingly known as Diana, Herodias, Holda, or Perchta; in the Canon Episcopi, the Roman Catholic Church maintained that cavalcade did not really happen, and that instead it was an erroneous superstition caused by the Devil.
Many Early Modern communities contained professional or semi-professional practitioners of folk magic; in England they were known as "cunning folk" although other terms were used elsewhere. They were believed to be able to cure disease, counter malevolent sorcery, identify enemies, foretell the future, and locate treasure and lost property, and would offer their services in these areas for a fee. In contrast to this low magic was the high magic practiced by learned men of the Renaissance. Advocated by the likes of Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola, this Renaissance high magic was influenced by ancient philosophies like Neoplatonism and Hermeticism and was theoretically complex, seeing the practice of magic as part of a wider spiritual system.
Historians like Carlo Ginzburg and Éva Pócs have suggested that various beliefs pertaining to magic and witchcraft in Early Modern Europe represented a survival of shamanistic pre-Christian beliefs about visionary journeys. For instance, Emma Wilby has argued that the Early Modern accounts of familiar spirits represent a survival of pre-Christian animism, and has drawn comparisons between alleged witches' Sabbath journeys and the spirit-visions found in ethnographically-recorded shamanic societies in Siberia and North America.
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, with many believing that his activities on Earth would soon begin appearing. Whilst in earlier centuries there had been no set depiction of the Devil, it was also around this time that he began to develop the stereotypical image of being animal-like, or even in some cases an animal himself. In particular, he was often viewed as a goat, or as a human with goat-like features, such as horns, hooves and a tail. Equally, the concepts of demons began to become more prominent, in particular the idea that male demons known as incubi, and female ones known as succubi, would roam the Earth and have sexual intercourse with humans. As Thurston noted, "By about 1200, it would have been difficult to be a Christian and not frequently hear of the devil ... [and] by 1500 scenes of the devil were commonplace in the new cathedrals and small parish churches that had sprung up in many regions." The field of demonology had emerged in Medieval Christendom as certain members of the clergy began to focus in particular on the actions of demons in the world.
In the 14th and 15th centuries, the concept of the witch in Christendom underwent a relatively radical change. No longer were they viewed as sorcerers who had been deceived by the Devil into practicing magic that went against the powers of God, as earlier Church leaders like Saint Augustine of Hippo had stated. Instead they became the all-out malevolent Devil-worshiper, who had made a pact with him in which they had to renounce Christianity and devote themselves to Satanism. As a part of this, they gained, new, supernatural powers that enabled them to work magic, which they would use against Christians. It was believed that they would fly to their nocturnal meetings, known as the Witches' Sabbath, where they would have sexual intercourse with demons. On their death, the witches’ souls, which then belonged to the Devil, subsequently went to Hell.
For many educated Christians in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, including theologians and judges, there was a great concern about the idea that witches were in league with the Devil. Conversely, it appears that the idea of the witch as Satanist was far less prevalent among the peasantry and popular classes, who were far more concerned about the potential harm that they could receive from witches than from where the witches gained their magical power.
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 twelfth and the thirteenth centuries, and during the Late Medieval period, during which the idea of witchcraft or sorcery gradually changed and adapted. The inquisition had the office of protecting Christian orthodoxy against the "internal" threat of heresy (as opposed to "external" military threats such as those of the Vikings, the Mongols, and the Saracens or Turks).
During the High Middle Ages, a number of heretical Christian groups, such as the Cathars and the Knights Templar had been accused of performing such anti-Christian activities as Satanism, sodomy and malevolent sorcery in France. While the nucleus of the early modern "witch craze" would turn out to be popular superstition in the Western Alps, reinforced by theological rationale developed at or following the Council of Basel of the 1430s, what has been called "the first real witch trial in Europe", the accusation of Alice Kyteler in 1324, occurred in 14th-century Ireland, during the turmoils associated with the decline of Norman control.
Thurston (2001) speaks of a shift in Christian society from a "relatively open and tolerant" attitude to that of a "persecuting society" taking an aggressive stance towards minorities characterized as Jews, heretics (such as Cathars and Waldensians), lepers or homosexuals, often associated with conspiracy theories assuming a concerted effort on the part of diabolical forces to weaken and destroy Christianity, indeed "the idea became popular that one or more vast conspiracies were trying to destroy Christianity from within." 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 their enemies. The catalog of typical charges that would later be leveled at witches, of spreading diseases, committing orgies (sometimes incestuous), cannibalizing children, and following Satanism, emerged during the fourteenth century as crimes attributed to heretics and Jews.
Witchcraft had not been considered a heresy during the High Medieval period. Indeed, since the Council of Paderborn of 785, the belief in the possibility of witchcraft itself was considered heretical. While witch-hunts only became common after 1400, an important legal step that would make this development possible occurred in 1326, when Pope John XXII authorized the inquisition to persecute witchcraft as a type of heresy.
As historians Geoffrey Scarre and John Callow highlighted, the trials of demonic witches was "an early modern and not a medieval phenomenon".
By the late fourteenth century, a number of "witch hunters" began to publish books on the topic, including Nicholas Eymeric, the inquisitor in Aragon and Avignon, who published the Directorium Inquisitorum in 1376.
The earliest known witch trials in which the accused were associated with the fully developed stereotype of the demonic witch was in the Valais witch trials of 1428, which took place 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.
Soon, the idea of identifying and prosecuting witches spread throughout the neighboring areas of northern Italy, Switzerland and southern Germany, and it was at Basel that the Council of Basel assembled from 1431 to 1437. This Church Council, which had been attended by such anti-witchcraft figures as Johann Nider and Martin Le Franc, helped to standardize the stereotype of the Satanic witch that would be propagated throughout the rest of the trials. Men who had been at the Council of Basel went on to spread the ideas regarding demonic witchcraft throughout other parts of Europe in the ensuing years.
The development of the printing press allowed for a number of books to be published which outlined the existence of demonic witchcraft and described how to deal with it; circulating throughout the literate sectors of Western Europe, they stimulated increased interest in the subject and advocated a coherent intellectual response to it. Works published in this vein included Johannes Nider's Formicarius (c.1435), the Errores Gazariorum (c.1450), Nicholas Jacquier's Flagellum Haereticorum Fascinariorum (1450s), Ulrich Molitor's De Lamiis (1489), and most famously Heinrich Kramer's Malleus Malificarum (The Hammer of the Witches). At the same time, printing allowed fictional stories about witches and magicians to be spread throughout the continent, such as the tales of Dr Faustus, thereby reinforcing the belief in malevolent practitioners of magic who interacted with the Devil and his demons.
On December 5, 1484, Pope Innocent VIII issued the Summis desiderantes affectibus, a papal bull in which he recognized the existence of witches and gave full papal approval for the inquisition to move against witches, including the permission to do whatever necessary to get rid of them. In the bull, which is sometimes referred to as the "Witch-Bull of 1484", the witches were explicitly accused of having "slain infants yet in the mother's womb" (abortion) and of "hindering men from performing the sexual act and women from conceiving" (contraception[dubious ]).
The height of the European 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).
In 1590, the North Berwick witch trials occurred in Scotland, and were of particular note as the king, James VI, became involved himself. James had developed a fear that witches planned to kill him after he suffered from storms whilst traveling to Denmark in order to claim his bride, Anne, earlier that year. Returning to Scotland, the king heard of trials that were occurring in North Berwick and ordered the suspects to be brought to him—he subsequently believed that a nobleman, Francis Stewart, 5th Earl of Bothwell, was a witch, and after the latter fled in fear of his life, he was outlawed as a traitor. The king subsequently set up royal commissions to hunt down witches in his realm, recommending torture in dealing with suspects, and in 1597 he wrote a book about the menace that witches posed to society entitled Daemonologie.
Whilst 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. In Scandinavia, the late 17th century saw the peak of the trials in a number of areas; for instance, in 1675, the Torsåker witch trials took place in Sweden, where 71 people were executed for witchcraft in a single day. In the nearby Finland, which was then under the control of the Swedish monarchy, the hunt peaked in that same decade. During the same period, the Salzburg witch trials in Austria led to the death of 139 people (1675–1690).
The clergy and the 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 burnt 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. In the 1690s Winifred King Benham and her daughter Winifred were thrice tried for witchcraft in Wallingford, Connecticut, the last of such trials in New England. While found innocent, they were compelled to leave Wallingford to settle in Staten Island, New York. In 1706 in Virginia, Grace Sherwood was tried by ducking and jailed for allegedly being a witch.
The 18th century witnessed increased urbanisation and technological development in Europe, which gave Early Modern society an increased belief in its own abilities to fashion the world; this led to a decreasing believe in the existence of invisible forces affecting humanity. Belief that Satan interfered in human affairs directly had also begun to wane. Belief in demons became rare among the educated elites, and thus a belief in demonic witchcraft eroded with it. Rationalist sceptics of the trials came to the opinion that the use of torture had resulted in erroneous testimony.
During the early 18th century, the practice subsided. Jane Wenham was among the last subjects of a typical witch trial in England in 1712, but was pardoned after her conviction and set free. The last execution for witchcraft in England took place in 1716, when Mary Hicks and her daughter Elizabeth were hanged. Janet Horne was executed for witchcraft in Scotland in 1727. The Witchcraft Act of 1735 saw the end of the traditional form of witchcraft as a legal offense in Britain, those accused under the new act were restricted to people who falsely pretended to be able to procure spirits, generally being the most dubious professional fortune tellers and mediums, and punishment was light.
Helena Curtens and Agnes Olmanns were the last women to be executed as witches in Germany, in 1738. In Austria, Maria Theresa outlawed witch-burning and torture in the late 18th century; the last capital trial took place in Salzburg in 1750.
While the educated elites had largely abandoned their belief in the reality of witchcraft, this belief remained widespread in popular culture. From this point on, it was very rare for an accused witch to undergo a judicial process and be threatened with execution, but there was still a danger from popular justice and lynch mobs.
In the later 18th century, witchcraft had ceased to be considered a criminal offense throughout Europe, but there are a number of cases which were not technically witch trials which are suspected to have involved belief in witches at least behind the scenes. Thus, in 1782, Anna Göldi was executed in Glarus, Switzerland, officially for the killing of her infant, a ruling at the time widely denounced throughout Switzerland and Germany as judicial murder. Like Anna Göldi, Barbara Zdunk was executed in 1811 in Prussia not technically for witchcraft but for arson. In Poland, the Doruchów witch trial occurred in 1783 and the execution of additionally two women for sorcery in 1793, trialed by a legal court but with dubious legitimacy.
Despite the official ending of the trials for Satanic witchcraft, there would still be occasional unofficial killings of those accused in parts of Europe, such as was seen in the cases of Anna Klemens in Denmark (1800), Krystyna Ceynowa in Poland (1836), and Dummy, the Witch of Sible Hedingham in England (1863). In France, there was sporadic violence and even murder in the 1830s, with one woman reportedly burnt in a village square in Nord.
In the 1830s a prosecution for witchcraft was commenced against a man in Fentress County, Tennessee, based upon his alleged influence over the health of a young woman. The case against the supposed witch was dismissed upon the failure of the alleged victim, who had sworn out a warrant against him, to appear for the trial. However, some of his other accusers were convicted on criminal charges for their part in the matter, and various libel actions were brought. The persecution of those believed to perform malevolent sorcery against their neighbors continued right into the twentieth century. For instance, in 1997 two Russian farmers killed a woman and injured five other members of her family after believing that they had used folk magic against them.
There were extensive efforts to root out the supposed influence of Satan by various measures aimed at the people who were accused of being servants of Satan. To a lesser degree, animals were also targeted for prosecution: see animal trial. People suspected of being "possessed by Satan" were put on trial. On the other hand, the church also attempted to extirpate the superstitious belief in witchcraft and sorcery, considering it as fraud in most cases.
Geoffrey Scarre and John Callow thought it "without doubt" that some of those accused in the trials had been guilty of employing magic in an attempt to harm their enemies, and were thus genuinely guilty of witchcraft.
Most of the trials were not motivated by stupidity or a love of violence, but of a belief that it was the morally appropriate course of action for people to take; while some of those carrying out the trials appeared to exhibit sadism, most appear to have acted "from a spirit of duty and a concern for the public welfare." Scarre and Callow described the trials as "a frightning example of how morally motivated action can lead to massive suffering". Lecky argues there was a large amount of impartial evidence demonstrating the existence of witchcraft and that views only changed when the concept of evil spirits came under skepticism in general.
There were many regional differences in the manner in which the witch trials occurred. The trials themselves emerged sporadically, flaring up in some areas while neighbouring areas remained largely unaffected. One of the areas that witnessed the largest number of panics, trials, and executions was in the German-language states that comprised the Holy Roman Empire. Nevertheless, there were regional variations here, with relatively few executions in southern Bavaria and the Lower Rhine area. On the whole the trials were less severe in neighbouring France, although again there was regional variation domestically, with the Pyrenees, Languedoc, the Alps and the North East being particularly heavily affected by the trials. There was also large trials in Lorraine and Franche-Comté, although these regions would only be permanently annexed by France after 1660. The situation differed in Southern Europe, with few trials taking place in either Spain or Italy. When they did occur in these nations, it was in the northern regions such as Spain's Basque Country; being close to neighbouring countries, these areas were more open to foreign influences and had a weaker central authority.
There was much regional variation within the British Isles. In Ireland, there were few trials, and those that did take place lacked the demonic elements present elsewhere in the continent. Similarly, the trials in England were atypical of Europe as a whole, for the emphasis of the charges was normally on the practice of malevolent magic rather than contact with the Devil, while the concept of witches' familiars played a key role, which was conversely largely absent from the continental trial accounts. North of the border, in Scotland, witch trials were far more numerous and resulted in far more executions than in England, having far more in common with the trials of France and Germany. Among the British settlements in New England, witch trials were very rare and not a feature of typical Early Modern life.
A country's government and legal system often made a major difference. England, for instance, had and has a long history of strong judicial centralization and therefore regulations prevented easy convictions, except for periods such as the English Civil War and the periods of Witch-hunting ; Scotland, on the other hand, lacked the strong central government that England had and authorities had greater trouble controlling local justice or even contributed to the problem. During the time of the Witch Hunts, Germany was a patchwork of over 300 autonomous territories and was highly decentralized politically, therefore making Germany highly vulnerable to massive witch hunts in the absence of judicial regulations
There are particularly important differences between the English and continental witch-hunting traditions. The checks and balances inherent in the English jury system, which required a 23-strong body (the grand jury) to indict and a 12-strong one (the petit jury) to convict, always had a restraining effect on prosecutions. Another restraining influence was its relatively rare use of torture: the country formally permitted it only when authorized by the monarch, and no more than 81 torture warrants were issued (for all offenses) throughout English history. Continental European courts, while varying from region to region, tended to concentrate power in individual judges and place far more reliance on torture. The significance of the institutional difference is most clearly established by a comparison of the witch-hunts of England and Scotland, for the death toll inflicted by the courts north of the border always dwarfed that of England. It is also apparent from an episode of English history during the early 1640s, when the Civil War resulted in the suspension of jury courts for three years. Several freelance witch-hunters emerged during this period, the most notorious of whom was Matthew Hopkins, who emerged from East Anglia and proclaimed himself "Witchfinder General".
The majority of those accused were from the lower economic classes in European society, although in times of severe panic wealthier and high ranking individuals were accused as well, including priests, judges and in very rare cases members of the nobility. On the basis of this evidence, Scarre and Callow asserted that the "typical witch was the wife or widow of an agricultural labourer or small tenant farmer, and she was well known for a quarrelsome and aggressive nature."
In various instances, it was men rather than women who constituted the majority of the accused. For instance, in Iceland 92% of the accused were men, and in Estonia 60% of the accused victims were male, mainly middle-aged or elderly married peasants, and known healers or sorcerers. In the witch trials of Moscow in Russia, two-thirds of those accused were male.
Although it was far more common for them to be the accusers rather than the accused, in certain rare cases, children were put on trial for witchcraft. For instance, at one point during the Würzburg trials of 1629 children made up 60% of those accused, although this had reduced to 17% by the end of the year. Several decades later, in the late 1660s, children in Mohra, Sweden publicly claimed that adults had taken them to the witches' Sabbath. As a result, fifteen boys over the age of 16 were executed, while forty younger children were whipped.
Various acts of torture were used against accused witches to coerce confessions and perhaps cause them to name their co-conspirators. The torture of witches began to increase in frequency after 1468 when the Pope declared witchcraft to be "crimen exceptum" and thereby removed all legal limits on the application of torture in cases where evidence was difficult to find.
In Italy, an accused witch was deprived of sleep for periods of up to forty hours. This technique was also used in England, but without a limitation on time. Sexual humiliation torture was used, such as forced sitting on red-hot stools with the claim that the accused woman would not perform sexual acts with the devil. In most cases, those who endured the torture without confessing were let go.
The use of torture has been identified as a key factor in converting the trial of one accused witch into a wider social panic, as those being tortured were more likely to accuse a wide array of other local individuals of also being witches.
A variety of different punishments were employed for those found guilty of witchcraft, including imprisonment, flogging, fines, or exile. In the Old Testament's Exodus 22:18 it states that "Thou shalt not permit a sorceress to live". Many faced capital punishment for witchcraft in the period, either by being burned at the stake, hanged on the gallows, or beheaded. Similarly, in New England, people convicted of witchcraft were hanged.
Historian Ronald Hutton asserts that scholars can be "reasonably sure" that the "overall number of executions" for witchcraft in this period lies between forty thousand and sixty thousand. There is nevertheless some variation of estimates within this range; Scarre and Callow put forward forty thousand as an estimate for the number killed. Hutton estimated that the numbers were between forty and fifty thousand, while Brian Levack came to an estimate of 45,000. Wolfgang Behringer and Lyndal Roper had independently calculated the number as being between fifty and sixty thousand. This figure does not include unofficial lynchings of accused witches, which went unrecorded but which are nevertheless believed to have been somewhat rare in the Early Modern period. It would also have been the case that various individuals would have died as a result of the unsanitary conditions of their imprisonment, but again this is not recorded within the number of executions.
In the sixteenth-century, there were isolated individuals who expressed scepticism regarding the trials; for instance in 1584 the English writer Reginald Scot stated that those who believed that they could cause harm using magic were simply deluded.
Various suggestions have been made that the witch trials emerged as a response to socio-political turmoil in the Early Modern world. One form of this is that the prosecution of witches was a reaction to a disaster that had befallen the community, such as crop-failure, war, or disease. For instance, Midelfort suggested that in southwestern Germany, war and famine destabalised local communities, resulting in the witch prosecutions of the 1620s. Problematically for this theory, it has been highlighted that in that region, the witch hunts declined during the 1630s, as a time when the communities living there were facing increased disaster as a result of plague, famine, economic collapse and the Thirty Years' War. Furthermore, this scenario would clearly not offer a universal explanation, for trials also took place in areas which were free from war, famine, or pestilence.
The English historian Hugh Trevor-Roper advocated the idea that the witch trials emerged as part of the conflicts between Roman Catholics and Protestants in Early Modern Europe. This theory has however received little support from other experts in the subject. This is because there is little evidence that either Roman Catholics were accusing Protestants of witchcraft, or that Protestants were accusing Roman Catholics. Furthermore, the witch trials regularly occurred in regions with little or no inter-denominational strife, and which were largely religiously homogenous, such as Essex, Lowland Scotland, Geneva, Venice, and the Spanish Basque Country. There is also some evidence, particularly from the Holy Roman Empire, in which adjacent Roman Catholic and Protestant territories were exchanging information on alleged local witches, viewing them as a common threat to both. Additionally, many prosecutions were instigated not by the religious or secular authorities, but by popular demands from within the population, thus making it less likely that there were specific inter-denominational reasons behind the accusations.
In south-western Germany between 1561 and 1670 there were 480 witch trials. Of the 480 trials that took place in southwestern Germany, 317 occurred in Catholic areas, while Protestant territories accounted for 163 of them. During the period from 1561 to 1670, at least 3,229 persons were executed for witchcraft in the German Southwest. Of this number 702 were tried and executed in Protestant territories, while 2,527 were tried and executed in Catholic territories.
Inspired by ethnographically-recorded witch trials that anthropologists observed happening in non-European parts of the world, various historians have sought a functional explanation for the Early Modern witch trials, thereby suggesting the social functions that the trials played within their communities. These studies have illustrated how accusations of witchcraft have played a role in releasing social tensions or in facilitating the termination of personal relationships that have become un-desirable to one party.
Undertaking in-depth analysis of the social and cultural context of the English witch trials, Keith Thomas and Alan Macfarlene showed that the accused were unpopular, anti-social, and often aggressive, known for begging from their neighbours and verbally cursing those who turned them away. In this they provided an explicitly functionalist explanation of the trials, in that they were used to eliminate anti-social members of the community.
Another theory is that the witch trials represented a method whereby the socio-economic elites used it as form of social control to consolidate their dominance over the poorer sections of the population.
Another theory, proposed by the prominent American anthropologist, Marvin Harris, in his work, 'Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches' (1973), is that the witches were scapegoats victimized by the Church and secular lords to focus and divert public furor at a time of economic dislocation: "The practical significance of the witch mania therefore was that it shifted responsibility for the crisis of late medieval society from both Church and state to imaginary demons in human form." (Harris, 1973, 205) Religious and secular authorities, argues Harris, in leading the witch hunts, not only exonerated themselves but made themselves indispensable, cementing their power.
While the modern notion of a "witch hunt" has little to do with gender, the historical notion often did. In general, supposed "witches" were female. Said noted Judge Nicholas Rémy (c.1595), "[It is] not unreasonable that this scum of humanity, [witches], should be drawn chiefly from the feminine sex." Concurred another judge, "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."
While the previously mentioned theories mainly rely on micro level psychological interpretations, another theory has been put forward that provides an alternative macroeconomic explanation. According to this theory, the witches, who often had highly developed midwifery skills, were prosecuted in order to extinguish knowledge about birth control in an effort to repopulate Europe after the population catastrophe triggered by the plague pandemic of the 14th century (also known as the Black Death). Citing Jean Bodin's "On Witchcraft", this view holds that the witch hunts were not only promoted by the church but also by prominent secular thinkers to repopulate the European continent. By these authors, the witch hunts are seen as an attempt to eliminate female midwifery skills and as a historical explanation why modern gynecology—surprisingly enough—came to be practiced almost exclusively by males in state-run hospitals. In this view, the witch hunts began a process of criminalization of birth control that eventually led to an enormous increase in birth rates that is described as the "population explosion" of early modern Europe. This population explosion produced an enormous youth bulge which supplied the extra manpower that would enable Europe's nations, during the period of colonialism and imperialism, to conquer and colonize 90% of the world. While historians specializing in the history of the witch hunts have generally remained critical of this macroeconomic approach and continue to favor micro level perspectives and explanations, prominent historian of birth control John M. Riddle has expressed agreement.
As this theory has an alternative macroeconomic explanation some scholars oppose it. Diane Purkiss argues "that there is no evidence that the majority of those accused were healers and midwives; in England and also some parts of the Continent, midwives were more than likely to be found helping witch-hunters."
The vast majority of those accused in the European and North American witch trials were women. Estimates of the fraction of women among the victims range between 75% and 85%. There was a widespread assumption that the crime of witchcraft was association with women, just as crimes like highway robbery were associated with men. Historian Robert Thurston nevertheless stressed that this did not mean that the hunts were "an attack, intentional or otherwise, on women". Many modern scholars argue that the witch hunts cannot be explained simplistically as an expression of male misogyny, as women were frequently accused of witchcraft by other women. It is also argued that the supposedly misogynistic agenda of works on witchcraft has been greatly exaggerated. There are various reasons as to why this was the case. In Early Modern Europe, it was widely believed that women were less intelligent than men and more susceptible to sin.
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 that which it had been in the Early Medieval.
Early rationalist historians interpreted the witch trials as an example of mass superstition, and thus their end in the eighteenth-century was seen as a revival of common sense among the population. This idea did not take into account that the existence of malevolent witches fitted within the worldview of the Early Modern, with its strong divide between good and evil, and that a belief in witches was therefore "common sense" to Early Modern people.
From the 1970s onward, there was a "massive explosion of scholarly enthusiasm" for the study of the Early Modern witch trials. This was partly because scholars from a variety of different disciplines, including sociology, anthropology, cultural studies, philosophy, philosophy of science, criminology, literary theory, and feminist theory, all began to investigate the phenomenon and brought their different insights to bear on the subject. This was accompanied by in-depth analysis of the trial records and the socio-cultural contexts on which they emerged, allowing for a far more sophisticated understanding of the trials than had previously been available. During this process, Britain and Germany established themselves as the main centres for the research of the subject. There have nevertheless been regional differences in how this has been undertaken; scholars in Britain and the United States have for instance largely neglected questions regarding how ancient ideas influenced and informed the identities of Early Modern witchcraft, something which conversely has been of great interest to a number of continental European scholars.
Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the common belief among educated sectors of the European populace was that there had never been any genuine cult of witches and that all those persecuted and executed as such had been innocent of the crime. However, at this time various scholars suggested that there had been a real cult that had been persecuted by the Christian authorities, and that it had had pre-Christian origins. The first to advance this theory was the German Professor of Criminal Law Karl Ernst Jarcke of the University of Berlin who put forward the idea in 1828; he suggested that witchcraft had been a pre-Christian German religion that had degenerated into Satanism. Jarcke's ideas were picked up by the German historian Franz Josef Mone in 1839, although he argued that the cult's origins were Greek rather than Germanic.
In 1862, the Frenchman Jules Michelet published La Sorciere, in which he put forth the idea that the witches had been following a pagan religion. The theory achieved greater attention when it was taken up by the Egyptologist Margaret Murray, who published both The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921) and The God of the Witches (1931) in which she claimed that the witches had been following a pre-Christian religion which she termed "the Witch-Cult" and "Ritual Witchcraft". She claimed that this faith was devoted to a pagan Horned God and involved the celebration of four Witches' Sabbaths each year: Halloween, Imbolc, Beltane and Lughnasadh. However, the majority of scholarly reviews of Murray's work produced at the time were largely critical, and her books never receiving support from experts in the Early Modern witch trials. Instead, from her early publications onward many of her ideas were challenged by those who highlighted her "factual errors and methodological failings".
However, the publication of the Murray thesis in the Encyclopædia Britannica made it accessible to "journalists, film-makers popular novelists and thriller writers", who adopted it "enthusiastically". Influencing works of literature, it inspired writings by Aldous Huxley and Robert Graves. Subsequently, in 1939, an English occultist named Gerald Gardner claimed to have been initiated into a surviving group of the pagan Witch-Cult known as the New Forest coven, although modern historical investigation has led scholars to believe that this coven was not ancient as Gardner believed, but was instead founded in the 1920s or 1930s by occultists wishing to fashion a revived Witch-Cult based upon Murray's theories. Taking this New Forest coven's beliefs and practices as a basis, Gardner went on to found Gardnerian Wicca, one of the most prominent traditions in the contemporary Pagan religion now known as Wicca, which revolved around the worship of a Horned God and Goddess, the celebration of festivals known as Sabbats, and the practice of ritual magic. He also went on to write several books about the historical Witch-Cult, Witchcraft Today (1954) and The Meaning of Witchcraft (1959), and in these books, Gardner used the phrase "the burning times" in reference to the European and North American witch trials.
In the early twentieth century, a number of individuals and groups emerged in Europe, primarily Britain, and subsequently the United States as well, claiming to be the surviving remnants of the pagan Witch-Cult described in the works of Margaret Murray. The first of these actually appeared in the last few years of the nineteenth century, being a manuscript that American folklorist Charles Leland claimed he had been given by a woman who was a member of a group of witches worshipping the god Lucifer and goddess Diana in Tuscany, Italy. He published the work in 1899 as Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches. Whilst historians and folklorists have accepted that there are folkloric elements to the gospel, none have accepted it as being the text of a genuine Tuscan religious group, and believe it to be of late-nineteenth-century composition.
Wiccans extended claims regarding the witch-cult in various ways, for instance by utilising the British folklore associating witches with prehistoric sites to assert that the witch-cult used to use such locations for religious rites, in doing so legitimising contemporary Wiccan use of them. By the 1990s, many Wiccans had come to recognise the inaccuracy of the witch-cult theory and had accepted it as a mythological origin story.
Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, various feminist interpretations of the witch trials have been made and published. One of the earliest individuals to do so was the American Matilda Joslyn Gage, a writer who was deeply involved in the first-wave feminist movement for women's suffrage. In 1893, she published the book Woman, Church and State, which was "written in a tearing hurry and in time snatched from a political activism which left no space for original research." Likely influenced by the works of Jules Michelet about the Witch-Cult, she claimed that the witches persecuted in the Early Modern period were pagan priestesses adhering to an ancient religion venerating a Great Goddess. She also repeated the erroneous statement, taken from the works of several German authors, that nine million people had been killed in the witch hunt. The United States has become the centre of development for these feminist interpretations.
In 1973, two American second-wave feminists, Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, published an extended pamphlet in which they put forward the idea that the women persecuted had been the traditional healers and midwives of the community who were being delibarately eliminated by the male medical establishment. This theory disregarded the fact that the majority of those persecuted were neither healers nor midwives and that in various parts of Europe these individuals were commonly among those encouraging the persecutions. In 1994, Anne Llewellyn Barstow published her book Witchcraze, which was later described by Scarre and Callow as "perhaps the most successful" attempt to portray the trials as a systematic male attack on women.
Other feminist historians have rejected this interpretation of events; historian Diane Purkiss described it as "not politically helpful" because it constantly portrays women as "helpless victims of patriarchy" and thus does not aid them in contemporary feminist struggles. She also condemned it for factual inaccuracy by highlighting that radical feminists adhering to it ignore the historicity of their claims, instead promoting it because it is perceived as authorising the continued struggle against patriarchal society. She asserted that many radical feminists nonetheless clung to it because of its "mythic significance" and firmly delineated structure between the oppressor and the oppressed.