The period of witch trials in Early Modern Europe was a phenomenon that came in waves and then subsided. There were early trials in the 15th and early 16th centuries, but then the witch scare went into decline, before becoming a big issue again and peaking in the 17th century. Some scholars argue that a fear of witchcraft started among intellectuals who believed in maleficium; that is, bad deeds. What had previously been a belief that some people possessed supernatural abilities (which sometimes resulted in protecting the people), now became a sign of a pact between these people with supernatural abilities and the devil. Witchcraft became associated with wild Satanic ritual parties in which there was much naked dancing, orgiastic sex, and cannibalistic infanticide.
Witch-hunts were seen all across early modern Europe, but the most significant area of witch-hunting in modern Europe is often considered to be southwestern Germany. In Germany the number of trials compared to other regions of Europe shows it to have been a late starter. Witch-hunts first appeared in large numbers in southern France and Switzerland during the 14th and 15th centuries. The peak years of witch-hunts in southwest Germany were from 1561 to 1670. The first major persecution in Europe, that caught, tried, convicted, and burned witches in the imperial lordship of Wiesensteig in southwestern Germany, is recorded in 1563 in a pamphlet called True and Horrifying Deeds of 63 Witches.
Estimates of the numbers of women, men and children executed for participating in witchcraft vary wildly depending on the method used to generate the estimate. Brian Levack, author of The Witch Hunt in Early Modern Europe, 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.
Pope John XXII formalized the persecution of witchcraft in 1320, when he authorised the Inquisition to prosecute sorcery. In 1484 Pope Innocent VIII issued the bull Summis desiderantes authorising two inquisitors Kramer and Sprenger, to systemise the persecution of witches.
At the time, Basel was a center of theologians who preached the dangers of witchcraft, and with the Council of Basel (1431-1449), their ideas came to the attention of a wider audience. The European witch hunts began on a large scale only in the wake of the Council, starting in the 1450s. Witch hunting was thereafter sustained throughout the Early Modern period.
Rather than a theologically sanctioned campaign of the church, the phenomenon had all the traits of mass hysteria. The classical attributes of witches—flying on broomsticks, intercourse with the Devil, and meeting demons and other witches at sabbaths—became canonical from around 1400, although similar accusations had been issued against heretics since the 11th century. The idea of witch sabbats fostered a classical conspiracy theory, with fantasies of an underground witch sect plotting to overthrow Christianity. The areas mainly affected by this were the Holy Roman Empire and adjacent parts, as well as Scotland. Reprints of the Malleus Maleficarum in 29 editions between 1487 and 1669 mark the peak of the European craze. 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. Winifred King was the last person tried for witchcraft in New England.
Although the reasons for the witch scares are debated, there is a correlation between centralized government and acquittals in witch trials. Most witch trials that resulted in convictions took place in rural areas. In these areas there was about a 90% conviction (and execution) rate. Although most citizens of the time did believe that witchcraft was real, equally they were not ignorant of how personal interests could be involved in accusations. Another interesting aspect of witchcraft in the early modern period is how the highest concentration of trials took place in border areas lacking strong central authority and in social turmoil, especially in northern Italy, Switzerland, Germany, eastern France and the French-Spanish border. Witch trials were significantly less common in both Catholic and Protestant countries that were less affected by Reformation upheavals than were the torn regions of central and north-western Europe. The Spanish Inquisition was generally skeptical on the reality of witchcraft, while in Italy (except Lombardy under French laws) the trials were rare and with relatively mild consequences. In England this was largely due to the Witchcraft Act 1562 and the Anglican doctrine of lack of miracles.
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. These trials were biased against the alleged witch. 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 1400s - 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 "compurgators", 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 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 authorised by the monarch, and no more than 81 torture warrants were issued (for all offences) 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 out of 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. Research into the laws and records of the time show that the witchfinders often used peine forte et dure and other torture to extract confessions and condemnations of friends, relatives and neighbors.
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.
Some argue that Queen Elizabeth I of England and King James VI of Scotland saw the act of rebellion as a blasphemy. Opposing either monarch was tantamount to opposing God himself. In the 16th and 17th century the act of rebellion was linked directly with the devil, who led a revolt against the authority of God. Rebellion was not only unlawful, but wicked. As a result, some argue that subjects of England and Scotland of the time had good reason to be afraid of rising up against their ruling class. King James VI of Scotland (James I of England) wrote:
James' book Daemonologie stated that women are more likely to use magic. It states:
Queen Elizabeth I was suspicious and fearful of witchcraft. During her reign, lasting from 1558 to 1603, she clashed with Spain and the Catholic Church. Events in England, Scotland, and Ireland heightened public fear of witchcraft. The Bubonic Plague that struck the city of London in 1603 was commonly believed to be an act of witches. Scholar Brian Levack argues that religious persecution was a prime cause for the prevalence of witch hunts in England and in Scotland, as was separation of the Catholic Church from the Protestant Church of England.
During the 1600s the English courts did not use torture as a method in hunting witches. The only case in which alleged torture was used was in a 1645 trial in Essex. One example of this treatment is that the judges would wake up the accused in the middle of the night, would soak him/her with cold water, and then would start questioning him/her. The judges would order the guards to keep the accused from falling asleep.
Alan Macfarlane, author of the book Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England - A regional and Comparative Study, found that the diaries of English people in the 1500’s to 1600’s did not mention any of the witch trials that occurred in their county, with the exception of 3 diaries which were found in Essex, from:
In 1584 Reginald Scot published The Discovery of Witchcraft in which he argued that witchcraft existed only in fantasy, and that the witch trials were unchristian and full of injustices. The book mocks the lurid witch-hunter's manual, the Malleus Maleficarum. In 1603 James I ordered all copies of the book burnt (though James would later alter his own views on witchcraft after he became more skeptical of the belief). According to K. Briggs, Scot was inspired by an "impulse of chivalry and a desire to protect those old, weak and ignorant people for whom no one spoke".
Scot's work was neither the first nor the last of its kind, but was a significant and highly influential work in a continuum of protests against beliefs in witches, and against the treatment of those suspected of witchcraft (see section below, 'Protests').
During 1661 to 1662 Scotland held one of the largest witch hunts in European history, in which an estimated 600 people were accused of witchcraft or ritually summoning the devil. How many were executed in the 16 month period is unknown. With the exception of the witch-hunt of 1597, there had never previously been so many people convicted of witchcraft.
The hunt began in Lothian, Scotland, for unknown reasons. It is also unknown what types of people were accused of witchcraft, and why the accusations suddenly stopped.
The hunt began two years after the death of Oliver Cromwell and a year after Charles II had recovered the crown, making him the king of England, Scotland, and Ireland. Brian Levack argues that the reason for such a large number of accusations may have been a display of power by the regime of Charles II. According to Levack:
The last witch trial was that of Martha Minnen. Her neighbors Victor and Maria Deckx accused Mrs. Minnen of witchcraft in the village of Witgoor, in the Kempen region of Flanders. They complained to Judge Boon that the behavior of Mrs. Minnen smacked strongly of witchcraft, because her lifestyle was that of a social nonconformist. Martha Minnen kept 50 cats, and had given a neighboring child a nest full of sparrows as a gift. 
Erik Midelfort describes the early modern witch trials in Germany as a chain of events leading to panic among the populace. It is true that between the years of 1560 and 1630 the execution of witches steadily rises and reaches its climax in the years between 1626 and 1630. It is also true that during these same years the climate changed drastically into what is known as ‘the little ice age’. As early as 1631 weather is mentioned in Spee’s Cautio Criminalis as phenomena conducive for the instigation of witch persecution. The Cautio is the antithesis to the Malleaus; to be sure, the Cautio uses weather as evidence to indicate that “ignorance or superstition of the common folk” plays a role in the origin of German witch panics. Spee offers the view that the lack of understanding of changing events, like crop yield affected by weather, the uneducated peasant class, through lack of reason and faith in superstition, generates the presence of witchcraft. Additionally, Spee submits that jealousy of those who are able to provide food for their family stirs up the suspicion of magical intervention. The result is a system determined to convict witches in order to calm the poor population. Wolfgang Behringer’s study Weather, Hunger and Fear studies not only the correlation of the little ice age and the rise in witch hunts but offers perspective on the climate change’s repercussions. In this study Behringer indicates that the change in temperature choked food supply and vastly increased the price of grain, in areas dependent on agrarian tradition this means certain devastation. It is believed that the little ice age began to show symptomes around 1560 and began to decline around 1629, a range that corresponds with the peak in witch hunts. In 1628 the weather change reached its peak to the point the year hardly had a summer season; moreover, it is in the years 1626 and 1630 that the witch trials in Wurzenberg claimed the lives of 900 accused witches, a clear indication that trends in weather affect trends in witch trials. With the climate changing so suddenly and the wealthier remaining able to purchase the high priced grain, the conclusion is the poor populace accusing witches of tampering with the weather. The assertions that early modern European witch hunts, at least where Germany is concerned, is the product of a number of events falling in line with each other is one clear a well developed view of the nature of these witch hunts.
For a contrasting argument of Midelfort's assertions, see E. William Monter's Witchraft in France and Switzerland (Cornell University press 1976), an in-depth exploration of regional qualities of witchcraft pertaining to the Jura mountain region of Switzerland and Western France.
The moon also appears in witchcraft. For example, it features in the cult that appeared in medieval Milan, northern Italy, at the end of the 14th century. Two women of higher society, Sibillia Zanni and Pietrina de' Bugatis, were brought before the Inquisition in 1384 and again in 1390 for having claimed that, together with others - both living and dead, they worshipped the goddess Madonna Oriente. Madonna Oriente is the Italian translation of the Latin words "Domina Oriens." It has been demonstrated that this name was used to denote the Moon (Lewis & Short). Those who worshipped her were the first female Inquisition victims to be burned as witches, although they were most certainly neither the first victims of persecution as alleged witches nor the first victims of the Inquisition.
It is believed that the Scottish witch-hunt started in April 1661, because of the Haddington petition. Earl Haddington influenced parliament to create a commission on witch-hunts in Scotland. It is argued by some that the ruling elite were in favor of this petition because they had a fear of witchcraft The typical accusation of witchcraft was because of the following:
It is thought that sections of the Haddington petitions have some similarities with the Malleus Maleficarum. For example, the physical characteristics which characterise witches and the harm that witches can do to their victims. The other reason why it is believed to have such similarities is that the Malleus Maleficarum states that women are pure evil. During the witch hunt in Scotland 84 percent of the accused were women.
The Haddington petition mentions the characteristics of the mark of the devil, which is a way to identify a witch and the recommendations by King James I on how to identify a witch and know the devils mark. Haddington also mentions that the majority of the elite of Scotland intended to abolish sinful acts like witchcraft from Scotland.
During the 1500s and 1600s, women in Scotland who were accused of witchcraft were tortured. Unlike in England, it is believed that the majority of women accused of witchcraft in Scotland confessed because they were tortured. The historian Diane Purkiss claims that, due to the torture the women received, the majority said the first thing that came into their minds in order to stop being tortured.
There were also some women in Scotland accused of witchcraft because they told stories about fairies and believed in them. The judges regarded a confession of belief in fairies to be the same as being allied with the devil.
There are a few cases in which Scottish women willingly admitted to practicing magic. That was considered enough evidence to be convicted of witchcraft. Any type of magical or cult practice was considered evidence of a direct relationship with the devil. Women like Bessie Dunlop (who was tried in 1576) and Elspeth Reoch (who was tried in 1616) were accused of witchcraft because both of them were practicing magic. Although witchcraft was outlawed in England during the 1500s and 1600s, some women still practiced 'white' witchcraft. It was a type of healing art that was not practiced in order to harm people, but to cure and help them. For example, they would function as fortune tellers, also recommending certain herbs as medicine.
Gender plays an important role in the witch hunts of early modern Europe. Almost everywhere women were accused and executed at a higher rate than men, with 80% of those accused and 85% of those executed in Europe being women. In a few countries however, 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.
Anne Llewellyn Barstow claims 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.
The sentence generally was death (as Exodus 22:19 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.
The most common death sentence was to be burnt at the stake. In only a few cases were the alleged witches still alive while the stake was set on fire. The garrote was sometimes used in England to execute religious heretics before they were burned at the stake. In England it was common to hang the person first and then burn the corpse, a practice adopted sometimes in other countries (in many cases the hanging was replaced by strangling). Drowning was sometimes used as a means of execution. England was also the only country in which the accused had the right to appeal the sentence.
The most common methods used to execute alleged witches were burning and hanging. The frequent use of 'swimming' to test innocence/guilt means that an unknown number also drowned more or less accidentally prior to conviction. Burning at the stake was common on the Continent as a penalty for heresy, but the common-law jurisdictions of England and colonial America invariably sent people convicted of witchcraft to the gallows. (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.) The measures employed against alleged witches were some of the worst ever to be legally sanctioned in the Western world.
In A History of Torture, George Ryley Scott says:
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.
Estimates of the numbers of women, men and children executed for participating in witchcraft vary wildly depending on the method used to generate the estimate. The total number of witch trials in Europe which are known for certain to have ended in executions is around 12,000.
Brian Levack, author of The Witch Hunt in Early Modern Europe, 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, he has recently updated this number to 45,000. Even so, this number only accounts for the executions that took place in Early Modern Europe.
Anne Lewellyn Barstow, author of Witchcraze, 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, author of Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles and Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft, 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. Cohn, Europe's Inner Demons, p. 253 denounces as "fantastic exaggerations" numbers of several hundred thousands.
Table of recorded and estimated executions according to Hutton's estimates
|American Colonies||36||35 - 37|
|Austria||??||1,500 - 3,000|
|Bohemia||??||1,000 - 2,000|
|Channel Islands||66||66 - 80|
|England||228||300 - 1,000|
|France||775||5,000 - 6,000|
|Germany||8,188||17,324 - 26,000|
|Ireland||4||4 - 10|
|Luxembourg||358||355 - 358|
|Netherlands||203||203 - 238|
|Poland||???||1,000 - 5,000|
|Scotland||599||1,100 - 2,000|
|Spain||6||40 - 50|
|Sweden||??||200 - 250|
|Switzerland||1,039||4,000 - 5,000|
|Grand Total:||12,545||35,184 - 63,850|
Assuming 40,000 executions over 250 years in Europe, which had a population of approximately 150 million at the time with a life expectancy of about 40 years, suggests roughly one execution for witchcraft per 25,000 deaths, ranking about 3.5 times higher as cause of death than death by capital punishment (for any offense) in the U.S. in the late 20th century,
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 witch craft in Scotland in 1727. The Witchcraft Act of 1735 saw the end of the traditional form of witchcraft as a legal offence 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 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.
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.
Even after legal trials and executions had stopped, the belief in witches resulted in lynchings in 19th century Europe, such as the cases of Anna Klemens in Denmark 1800, Krystyna Ceynowa in Poland 1836, and Dummy, the Witch of Sible Hedingham in 1863 in England. In France, there was sporadic violence and even murder in the 1830s, with one woman reportedly burnt in a village square in Nord.
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.
The nine million figure is ultimately due to Gottfried Christian Voigt, who based his estimate on twenty cases recorded over fifty years in the archives Quedlinburg, Germany. Voigt then extrapolated this number to the entire population of Europe over the full 1,800 years of Christian history. 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 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.
This figure is now known to be a massive overestimate, about a hundred times the estimates of most modern researchers. While Gardner referred to the witch hunts in general as "the burning times", he noted that burning was only practiced on the Continent and in Scotland; in England accused witches were hanged.
Modern historians agree the witchhunts had nothing to do with persecuting a pagan cult, but were largely the result of an interplay of a series of complex historical and societal factors.
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.
Most contemporary practitioners of Wicca and related Neo-Pagan religions no longer subscribe to Gardner's or Margaret Murray's theories, and see Wicca as a modern development based on a variety of sources, rather than an unbroken tradition dating from ancient times.
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".