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The witch trials in the early modern period were a period 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 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.
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, peaking between about 1580 and 1630. The witch hunts declined in the early 18th century. In Great Britain, their end is marked by the Witchcraft Act of 1735. But sporadic witch-trials continued to be held during the second half of the 18th century, the last known dating to 1782, though a prosecution was commenced in Tennessee as recently as 1833.
Over the entire duration of the phenomenon of some three centuries, an estimated total of 40,000 to 100,000 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.
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Three developments in Christian doctrine have been identified as factors contributing significantly to the witch hunts: 1) a shift from the rejection of belief in witches to an acceptance of their existence and powers, 2) developments in the doctrine of Satan which incorporated witchcraft as part of Satanic influence, 3) 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. Promulgation of the new doctrine 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.
During the Medieval period, there was widespread belief in magic across Christian Europe, and as the psychologist Gustav Jahoda noted, "the new world as people saw it [in the medieval] included witches, devils, fairies and all kinds of strange beasts ... magic and miracles were commonplace." The Mediaeval 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, divination and necromancy. This idea of malevolent magic, or maleficarum, was mentioned by historian Robert W. Thurston, who stated that "One of the most persistent features of European world views ... was the presence of humans who used magic to help or hurt their neighbors."
During the Late Middle Ages and early modern period, magical practice was roughly divided into two forms. The first of these, folk magic, was the form of popular practice widely found amongst common people, consisting largely of simple charms and spells. There were various professionals who performed folk magic in a professional capacity, including charmers, astrologers, fortune tellers, and most importantly, cunning folk. These were believed to "possess a broader and deeper knowledge of such [magical] techniques and more experience in using them" than the average person, and it was also believed that they "embodied or could work with supernatural power which greatly increased the effectiveness of the operations concerned." One of the primary purposes of the cunning folk was in removing curses and other bewitchments that their clients believed that they had suffered, and in this manner cunning folk were in most cases working actively against witchcraft, using such methods as the witch bottle in order to do so.
The other form of magic was ceremonial magic, followed by those who adhered to philosophies like Hermeticism and the Qabalah. Whilst the Church disapproved of demonic magic, which was practiced by both certain cunning folk and ceremonial magicians, and condemned it in Early Medieval texts, they did little to actively suppress those that they believed practiced it, not believing them to be any significant threat to Christendom.
Various historians, notably Carlo Ginzburg, Éva Pócs, Gabor Klaniczay and Emma Wilby have theorised that many elements of early modern witchcraft were based upon, or even a continuation of, pre-Christian religious beliefs about visionary journeys that had connections with both shamanism and animism. In early modern Europe, there was often a belief that witches (and in many cases also cunning folk) were aided in their performance of magic by supernatural entities known as familiar spirits, who appeared in many different forms, usually taking the appearance of either humans or animals. As historian Ronald Hutton remarked, "It is quite possible that pre-Christian mythology lies behind this tradition", an idea supported by other historians, such as Wilby.
In the early modern period, it was also widely believed by the prosecutors that the witches traveled to a nocturnal meeting known as the Witches' Sabbath where they worshiped the Devil, feasted, and committed various Christian sins. Although some historians believe that this was entirely a fictional idea created by the witch hunters, others, having studied the first hand reports given by self-professed or accused witches, have come to the conclusion that these trips to the Sabbath were genuine visionary journeys that some witches believed that they went on. Emma Wilby compares these to similar claims made in the early modern period by certain cunning folk that they traveled on a visionary journey into Fairyland, where they found an assembly led by the King and Queen of the Fairies, feasted, and danced. After making various comparisons with ethnographic and anthropological examples of shamanism in Siberia and North America, she came to the conclusion that both the witches' Sabbath and the Fairyland journeys were visionary experiences undergone by various magical practitioners that likely had their origins in earlier, pre-Christian shamanic ideas.
Some historians have traced the idea of a visionary nocturnal journey from the early modern period into earlier periods of European history that were closer to the pre-Christian era. The fact that such nocturnal journeys containing praeternatural entities have been found across Medieval and early modern Europe, from the Benandanti of sixteenth-century Friuli in Italy to the supposed werewolves of early modern Hungary has led historian Carlo Ginzburg to believe that they were a part of an "ancient stratum of beliefs" in Europe, that had been found in pre-Christian paganism. Indeed, historian Robert Thurston noted that in the tenth century document, the Canon Episcopi, the author (likely a Christian monk) described that there were women who, due to a trick of the Devil, had visions that made them think that they met other women at nocturnal meetings to ride in processions led by the goddess Diana across "great spaces of the earth". Thurston notes that it was these descriptions of women's nocturnal travels which were "clearly the cultural forerunner of the witches' sabbath." According to these historians therefore, the idea of the witches' sabbath, along with the similar idea of familiar spirits and the cunning folk's journey to Fairyland, were not developments of the witch hunters but were genuine visionary traditions amongst the European populace, ones with their origins in pre-Christian religion.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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 become apparent during the first half of the 15th century in south-eastern 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.
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.
Following the meeting of the Council and the increase in the trials around this area of central Europe, the idea that malevolent Satanic witches were operating against Christendom began spreading throughout much of the Holy Roman Empire and several adjacent areas. According to historian Robert Thurston, "From this heart of persecution the witch stereotype spread, both through a flood of new writings on the subject and through men who had been at the Council of Basel and now went elsewhere to take up new assignments in the church." The most notable of these works was published in 1486, written by the German Dominican monk, Heinrich Kramer—allegedly aided by Jacob Sprenger—known as the Malleus Malificarum (The Hammer of the Witches) in which they set down the stereotypical image of the Satanic witch and prescribed torture as a means of interrogating suspects. The Malleus Malificarum was reprinted in twenty-nine editions up till 1669.
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 seventy-one 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.
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.
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.
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.
Persecution and killing of supposed witches still occurs in modern times in Sub-Saharan Africa, India, and Papua New Guinea causing tenthousands of mostly woman and children being killed since 1960 see further information on modern witch-hunts. Saudi Arabia and Cameroon are the only countries that still have legislation outlawing witchcraft, with Saudi Arabia having the death penalty for it.
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.
The evidence required to convict an alleged witch varied from country to country—but prosecutions everywhere were most frequently sparked off by denunciations, while convictions invariably required a confession. The latter was often obtained by extremely violent methods. Although Europe's witch-frenzy did not begin until the late 15th century—long after the formal abolition of "trial by ordeal" in 1215—brutal techniques were routinely used to extract the required admission of guilt. They included hot pincers, the thumbscrew, and the "swimming" of suspects (an old superstition whereby innocence was established by immersing the accused in water for a sufficiently long period of time). Investigators were consequently able to establish many fantastic crimes that could never have occurred, even in theory. That said, many judicial procedures of the time required proof of a causative link between the alleged act of witchcraft and an identifiable injury, such as a death or property damage.
The flexibility of the crime and the methods of proving it resulted in easy convictions. Any reckoning of the death toll should take account of the facts that rules of evidence varied from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and that a significant number of witch trials always ended in acquittal.
In York, England, at the height of the Great Hunt (1567–1640) one half of all witchcraft cases brought before church courts were dismissed for lack of evidence. No torture was used, and the accused could clear himself by providing four to eight "comparators", people who were willing to swear that he wasn't a witch. Only 21% of the cases ended with convictions, and the Church did not impose any kind of corporal or capital punishment.
In the Pays de Vaud, nine of every ten people tried were put to death, but in Finland, the corresponding figure was about one in six (16%). A breakdown of conviction rates (along with statistics on death tolls, gender bias, and much else) can be found in Brian Levack, The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe (2nd ed, 1995).
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". Such men were inquisitors in all but name, proceeding pursuant to denunciations and torture and claiming a mastery of the supposed science of demonology that allowed for identification of the guilty by, for example, the discovery of witches' marks.
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 grow 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. With the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum in 1487 the accusations and torture of witches again began to increase, leading to the deaths of thousands.
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.
Besides torture, at trial certain "proofs" were taken as valid to establish that a person practiced witchcraft. Peter Binsfeld contributed to the establishment of many of these proofs, described in his book Commentarius de Maleficius (Comments on Witchcraft).
Legal treatises on witchcraft that were widely referred to in continental European trials include the popular Malleus Maleficarum (1487) by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, the Tractatus de sortilegiis (1536) by Paolo Grillandi and the Praxis rerum criminalium (1554) by Joos de Damhouder.
The sentence generally was death (as Exodus 22:18 states, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live"). There were other sentences, the most common to be chained for years to the oars of a ship, or excommunicated then imprisoned.
Nearly always, a witch's execution involved burning of their body. In England, witches were usually hanged before having their bodies burned and their ashes scattered. In Scotland, the witches were usually strangled at the stake before having their bodies burned—though there are several instances where they were burned alive. In France, witches were nearly always burned alive. In America people convicted of witchcraft were hanged  (in a handful of exceptional cases, such as that of Giles Corey at Salem, alleged witches who refused to plead were pressed to death without trial). Most of the victims were never given proper burials, since they had been convicted of witchcraft, they were no longer considered people. They were often laid in unmarked graves.
The frequent use of "swimming" to test innocence or guilt means that an unknown number also drowned prior to conviction.
In A History of Torture, George Ryley Scott says:
The peculiar beliefs and superstitions attached to or associated with witchcraft caused those who were suspected of practising the craft to be extremely likely to be subjected to tortures of greater degree than any ordinary heretic or criminal. More, certain specific torments were invented for use against them.
It has been suggested that the execution of persons associated with witchcraft resulted in the loss of much traditional knowledge and folklore, which was often regarded with suspicion and tainted by association.
Ever since the ending of the witch hunt, various scholars have estimated how many men, women and children were executed for witchcraft across Europe and North America, with numbers varying wildly depending on the method used to generate the estimate. In the nineteenth century, historians were still unsure as to the exact number, for instance the German folklorist Jacob Grimm claimed that the number was simply "countless" whilst the Scottish journalist Charles Mackay believed that it was "thousands upon thousands". A news report of 1832 suggested 'however incredible it may appear, the enormous sum of three thousand one hundred and ninety-two individuals were condemned and executed in Great Britain alone'. Within several decades, the American suffragette Matilda Joslyn Gage had claimed that nine million women had been killed in the European trials, a figure which would be repeated by a number of later writers such as Gerald Gardner, although it has since been described as having "no rational basis whatsoever" by the professional historian Ronald Hutton.
In the latter part of the 20th century, as historians began to study the witch trials in greater depth, the estimated number of executions began to be reduced, with the historian Norman Cohn, in Europe's Inner Demons (1975) criticizing claims that they were in the hundreds of thousands, calling these "fantastic exaggerations". Attempting to come to an accurate figure, the historian Brian Levack, author of The Witch Hunt in Early Modern Europe (1987), took the number of known European witch trials and multiplied it by the average rate of conviction and execution. This provided him with a figure of around 60,000 deaths, however, for the third edition of the work (2006) he later reassessed that number to 45,000. This number was criticised as being too low by Anne Llewellyn Barstow, author of Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts (1994)—a work which was derided as un-scholarly and "largely ignored by academics"—who herself arrived at a number of approximately 100,000 deaths by attempting to adjust Levack's estimate to account for what she believed were unaccounted lost records, although historians have pointed out that Levack's estimate had already been adjusted for these.
Ronald Hutton, in his unpublished essay "Counting the Witch Hunt", counted local estimates, and in areas where estimates were unavailable attempted to extrapolate from nearby regions with similar demographics and attitudes towards witch hunting. He reached an estimate of 40,000 total executions. Table of recorded and estimated executions according to Hutton's estimates
|England (and Wales)||228||300–1,000|
Before the 15th century, the position of the church was that belief in witchcraft was a vestige of pagan folk belief and there are numerous medieval sources which deny the existence of witches and penalize popular belief in them.
After Innocent VIII granted the existence of witches in Summis desiderantes affectibus (1484), the position of the church was ambivalent. As a result of the Protestant Reformation, large parts of the Holy Roman Empire dissolved their ties with the Roman church, and witch-trials in those areas were now conducted by secular courts under the control of the Protestant Reformers.
Since 1993 the city council of 17 German and 2 Swiss cities have issued a resolution to exonerate the victims of the local witch hunt and have put up commemorative plaques. The City Council of Düsseldorf issued a resolution in November 2011 to exonerate the victims of the witches craft trials and the City Council of Cologne exonerated Katharina Henot and the other victims of the persecution of witches in Cologne on June 28, 2012. The victims of the witch craft trials of Salem/USA have been exonerated consecutively in 1711, in 1957 and in 2001.
One theory for the number of early modern witchcraft trials connects the counter-reformation to witchcraft. 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. Nineteenth-century historians today dispute the comparative severity of witch hunting in Protestant and Catholic territories. “Protestants blamed the witch trials on the methods of the Catholic Inquisition and the theology of Catholic scholasticism, while Catholic scholars retorted that Lutheran preachers drew more witchcraft theory from Luther and the Bible than from medieval Catholic thinkers.”
Other theories have pointed out that the massive changes in law allowed for the outbreak in witch trials. Such laws established criteria for determining heretical nature, and punished all aspects. Another theory is that rising number of devil literature popularized witchcraft trials, in which the German market saw nearly 100,000 devil-books during the 1560s. Another assumption is that climate-induced crop failure and harsh weather was a direct link to witch-hunts. This theory follows the idea that witchcraft in Europe was traditionally associated with weather-making. Scholars also imply that a connection between witchcraft trials and the Thirty Years’ War may also have a direct correlation.
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." Also the fact remains that most women used herbal medicines as part of their household skills, and a large part of witches were accused by women.
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."
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. He noted that at the time, women were generally considered less intelligent and more susceptible to sin than men.
Whilst not all of those who condemned witchcraft in this period specifically condemned women as well, there were those who did, for instance, in the Malleus Malificarum, Sprenger and Kramer stated that:
Though statistically insignificant, in a few countries men accounted for the majority of the accused. In Iceland, for instance, 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.
Modern scholars agree 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 recognized that the supposedly misogynistic agenda of works on witchcraft has been greatly exaggerated.
In Neopaganism, especially Wicca, the European witch-hunts tend to be portrayed as persecution of pagans. In second-wave feminism, especially Feminist Wicca, they tend to be portrayed as persecution of women. In both schools of thought, a claim of "nine million women" as victims of the European witch-hunts, a figure more than a hundred times too high and based on an 18th-century estimate, has been frequently repeated throughout the second half of the 20th century.
The neopagan claim that the European witch-hunts were in fact an instance of persecution of pagan religion originates in the 1950s with Gerald Gardner. The idea is based on a scholarly theory that can be traced to the 19th century, according to which the witch-hunts were not simply a mass hysteria but a reaction to a real non-Christian religion, and that this religion had been a remnant of pre-Christian traditions. The theory was proposed by Karl Ernst Jarcke in 1828, who thought that pre-Christian paganism during the Middle Ages had developed into a form of Satanism. 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. The claims by Gardner, and following him by adherents of Wicca and certain other neopagan movements are directly inspired by Murray.
The phrase "the burning times" was used in reference to the European and North American witch trials by Gerald Gardner in 1954. Gardner claimed he had discovered an Old Religion based on an ancient tradition of witchcraft; the "burning times" were its period of greatest persecution, and a major reason for the secrecy maintained within the religion ever since. His account relied heavily on the theories of Margaret Murray, now regarded as highly flawed; he also repeated Murray's figure of nine million victims. Modern historians agree the witchhunts had nothing to do with persecuting a pagan cult.
It is probable that the majority of the accused identified as Christian. Casualty figures generally accepted amongst historians are also dramatically lower, ranging from Levack at around 60,000 to Hutton at around 40,000; the entire adult female population in Europe at the time was no more than 20–22 million. Victims of the witchhunt were not always female, though women were the majority. In some countries, especially in Scandinavia, the majority of the accused were male; in Finland some 70% and in Iceland almost 80% of the accused were men. However taking Europe as a whole between 1450 and 1700, only 20–25% of those accused were males. Misogyny is usually considered an important factor in the witch-hunts, along with social unrest and religious conflicts between Protestants and Catholics.
The term The Burning Times was further popularised by Mary Daly in her 1978 book, Gyn/Ecology: The Meta-Ethics of Radical Feminism, who maintained that the trials were fundamentally a persecution of women by patriarchy; she expanded the term's meaning to include not only the witch-hunts but the "entire patriarchal rule". Neo-Pagan author Starhawk subsequently introduced the term into her book The Spiral Dance in 1979. The term was adopted by various American feminist historians and popularised in the 1970s for all historical persecution of witches and pagans, again often quoting nine million casualties. They also referred to it as the "Women's Holocaust".
A figure of nine million victims (or "nine million women" killed) in the European witch-hunts is an influential popular myth in 20th-century feminism and neopaganism. The nine million figure is ultimately due to Gottfried Christian Voigt. The history of this estimate was researched by Behringer (1998).
Voigt published it in a 1784 article, writing in the context of the Age of Enlightenment, wishing to emphasize the importance of education in rooting out superstition and a relapse into the witch-craze which had subsided less than a lifetime ago in his day. He was criticizing Voltaire's estimate of "several hundred thousand" as too low. Voigt based his estimate on twenty cases recorded over fifty years in the archives Quedlinburg, Germany. Based on records of the 29 year period 1569 to 1589, he estimated about 40 executions in this period, and extrapolated to about 133 executions per century. Voigt then extrapolated this number to the entire population of Europe, arriving at "858,454 per century" and for an assumed 11 centuries of witch-hunts at "9,442,994 people" in total. Voigt's number was rounded off to nine million by Gustav Roskoff in his 1869 Geschichte des Teufels ("History of the Devil"). It was subsequently repeated by various German and English historians, notably the 19th-century women's rights campaigner Matilda Joslyn Gage by Margaret Murray (1921), and notoriously in Nazi propaganda, which in the 1930s used witches as a symbol of northern völkisch culture, as opposed to Mediterranean or "Semitic" Christianity. The 1935 Der christliche Hexenwahn ("The Christian Witch Craze") claimed that the witch-hunts were a Christian, and thus ultimately Jewish, attempt to exterminate "Aryan womanhood". The survey of judicial records taken by Himmler's Hexen-Sonderkommando within the SS has proven useful for modern estimates of the number of victims. Mathilde Ludendorff in her 1934 Christliche Grausamkeit an Deutschen Frauen ("Christian cruelty against German women") also repeated the figure of nine million victims.
Voigt's and Roskoff's nine million figure is too high by a factor of at least 100 according to modern estimates, but it has kept on being repeated throughout the second half of the 20th century, by Gerald Gardner (1954) and subsequently in Gardnerian Wicca and second wave feminism, as late as in the 1990 The Burning Times film and the lyrics of the 2005 Burning Times album by Christy Moore.
Curiously, not only the nine million estimate of Voigt's has proven influential, but his estimate of "133 Quedlinburg executions per century" also has an involved history, appearing as the claim that 133 witches being burnt in the year 1589 alone in Geschichte der Hexenprozesse (1880, revised 1910), and even as a mass-execution of 133 witches on a single day in Quedlinburg in Gustav Roskoff, Geschichte des Teufels (1869, p. 304). Reference to this supposed mass-execution as factual was made as late as 2006 in the third edition of Brian P. Levack's The Witch Hunt in Modern Europe (p. 24). Reference to an alleged execution of 133 witches in Osnabrück as factual appears as late as 2007 in John Michael Cooper, Mendelssohn, Goethe, and the Walpurgis night: the heathen muse in European culture, 1700–1850 (p. 15).
Apparently, Voigt's estimate of the "average number of executions per century in Quedlinburg" happened to coincide with the number of victims in a spurious report of a singular mass execution in a single day in Osnabrück distributed in the late 1580s. References to this supposed mass execution as factual is also found in 19th-century literature, sometimes together with the claim that the four prettiest of those condemned were lifted out of the flames and carried away through the air before they were burned. Finally, Roskoff (1869) seems to have mixed up "133 executions on a day in Osnabrück" with "133 executions per century in Quedlinburg" to arrive at "133 executions on a day in Quedlinburg". The Osnabrück report seems to originate with a flyer first distributed in 1588, claiming an execution of 133 witches on a single day in "this year". The flyer was later reprinted, in 1589 and during the 1590s, with the reported event always kept as occurring in "this year". This sensationalist headline perhaps reflects the historical mass execution in Osnabrück of 121 witches during the summer of 1583 (in the course of about five months, not on a single day), the highest number of executions by far recorded for any year in this city (Pohl 1990)
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.
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 following few decades, various other Pagan witches appeared in Britain and the United States claiming that they were the inheritors of the ancient Witch-Cult, including Robert Cochrane, Sybil Leek, Charles Cardell, and Victor Anderson. The idea that the Wiccan religion was the continuation of the pagan Witch-Cult which Christian authorities had tried to wipe out during "the burning times" was subsequently popularised by other prominent Wiccans, such as Doreen Valiente, Alex Sanders, Zsuzsanna Budapest, Raven Grimassi, and Starhawk, but by the 1980s came to be rejected by a number of Wiccan authors who realised that it lacked a historical basis, such as Scott Cunningham. Indeed, folklorist Jacqueline Simpson noted in 1994 that "Even the Wiccans are beginning to see how flimsy is the alleged historical evidence for the antiquity and continuation of their 'Old Religion'... many now hold that the factual truth or falsity of the Wiccan view of history is an unimportant question—all that matters is its emotive power as myth and symbol."
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 next prominent feminist interpretation that saw the trials as a way to persecute women came from the propaganda of Nazi Germany during the 1930s. The Nazi propagandists used witches as a symbol of northern völkisch culture, as opposed to Mediterranean or "Semitic" Christianity. One notable example of this came from Mathilde Ludendorff in her 1934 Christliche Grausamkeit an Deutschen Frauen ("Christian cruelty against German women"), where she again repeated the figure of nine million victims.
In 1973, two American second-wave feminists, Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, published their own pamphlet examining the witch trials, Witches, Midwives & Nurses: A History of Women Healers, in which they put forward the idea that "the women persecuted as witches had been the traditional healers and midwives of their communities, and that their destruction had not merely been a blow against female power but against natural medicine and therapies. The witch trials were therefore a victory for both patriarchy and a flawed, male-dominated, modern science." Although they had initially self-published the work, they received such a positive response that the Feminist Press took over publication, and the work then began worldwide distribution, being translated into French, Spanish, German, Hebrew, Danish and Japanese.