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date: 09 July 2020


Abstract and Keywords

The purpose of this book is threefold. The first objective is to summarize the current state of knowledge in the field of witchcraft studies. The second objective is to identify the most important historical literature that has been produced on the subject, to discuss the different ways scholars have approached the subject and comment on the controversies to which the subject has given rise. The third objective is to propose new ways of looking at the topic or suggest avenues for further research. A general discussion of witch beliefs and witchcraft prosecutions is also presented.

Keywords: witchcraft studies, witch beliefs, trials, witchcraft

the scholarly study of the history of witchcraft, which began with the publication of Wilhelm Soldan’s study of witch trials in the mid-nineteenth century, continues to grow at a furious pace and shows no signs of abating. One reason for the proliferation of witchcraft studies, especially in the past few decades, has been the interdisciplinary nature of the field. Historians continue to form the nucleus of witchcraft scholarship, but anthropologists, folklorists, literary scholars, sociologists, art historians, and psychologists, as well as scholars working in the interdisciplinary fields of religious studies and gender studies, have also made notable contributions to the field.

Among the many signs of the health and fertility of witchcraft studies are the plethora of local and regional studies in the regions where witches were prosecuted; numerous collections of scholarly essays;1 the publication of a six-volume history of witchcraft and magic in Europe from ancient times to the present;2 an authoritative four-volume encyclopedia of witchcraft with entries by scholars from twenty-eight countries;3 the publication of modern scholarly editions of early modern treatises on witchcraft and demonology;4 a six-volume edition of English pamphlets and (p. 2) demonological treatises spanning the years 1520–1736;5 the publication of anthologies of primary sources;6 and the establishment of national witchcraft research projects in Scotland, Germany, Norway, Hungary, and Poland. A journal devoted exclusively to magic and witchcraft, Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft, commenced publication in 2006, while an internet listserv, Hexenforschung, produces daily postings, mostly in German but with a good number in English.7 One sign that the field of witchcraft studies has come of age has been the publication of a book devoted entirely to witchcraft historiography.8 Reviews of the literature of witchcraft have also appeared from time to time.9

The purpose of this volume is threefold. The first is to summarize the current state of knowledge in the field. The contributors have done this in such a way as to make their presentations useful both to those already familiar with the topic and those who are coming to it for the first time. The second objective is to identify the most important historical literature that has been produced on the subject, to discuss the different ways scholars have approached the subject, and comment on the controversies to which the subject has given rise. The titles listed as Further Reading in each chapter are intended to identify the most significant works in the field, with a preference for works in English, while the notes provide suggestions for those who might wish to conduct further research. The third objective is to propose new ways of looking at the topic or suggest avenues for further research.

The chapters in this volume are grouped in three sections. The first part, which includes Chapters 18, focuses on witch beliefs—the ideas of both educated elites and illiterate villagers and townspeople regarding the identity, powers, and activities of those people known as witches. The second part, spanning Chapters 924, deals with witchcraft prosecutions—the formal accusation, trial, and punishment of those suspected of perpetrating the crime of witchcraft. The chapters in this second section are organized geographically, although the first chapter deals with the origins of trials for diabolical witchcraft in France, Switzerland, and Italy and concludes with a study of the decline and end of witch-hunting throughout Europe and in European settlements in the Americas. The third part addresses some of the thematic issues that scholars have explored in studying the subject. These deal with the relationship between (p. 3) witch-hunting and some of the main developments in early modern European history. They include the Catholic and Protestant Reformations, the development of science and medicine, economic and social change, the growth of the modern state, the introduction of new systems of criminal procedure, changing gender roles, and the increase in the number of demonic possessions.

It is, of course, impossible to separate the trials themselves from the beliefs upon which prosecutions were based. The beliefs of judges or inquisitors who conducted the trials and those of the witches’ neighbours who initially suspected and accused them had a direct bearing on the judicial case against the accused. At the same time, the formal sentencing of witches, the public reading of their confessions at the time and place of execution, and the publication of accounts of their misdeeds and trials promoted or reaffirmed the witch beliefs of judges and witnesses alike. Evidence gained from the trials was also incorporated into demonological treatises, especially those written by judges or inquisitors, and those treatises in turn contributed to the diffusion of witch beliefs to a wider audience, especially after these works became available in print.

The witch beliefs that inspired the trials and were enshrined in the demonological literature were far from homogeneous. There was little consensus regarding the identity of a typical witch or the powers she or he possessed. Reference to the development of a cumulative or composite concept of witchcraft—a notion that originated in the work of the German scholar Joseph Hansen at the beginning of the twentieth century—is useful in identifying the full complement of diabolical and magical activities that witches were believed to perform, but there were very few trials in which the witches were actually accused of all the elements included in this concept.10 The most salient feature of that concept, the alleged nocturnal assemblies of witches, often referred to as the witches’ sabbath (sabbat in French), was itself a composite of many different notions of both popular and learned origin that admitted countless variations in different parts of Europe. Like many other alleged activities of witches, references to the collective worship of the devil did not appear in the judicial record of even a majority of witchcraft prosecutions. Other witch beliefs, such as the magical practices that witches were engaged in, the different relationships between witches and the demons that were believed to be the source of their power, the personal characteristics of witches, and the nature of their relationships with their communities, varied from place to place. There was no one stereotype of the European witch, and even within specific localities witches did not conform to a single social profile. There was broad agreement that witches were individuals who could cause harm, misfortune, or evil by some sort of preternatural or occult means, but even that broad definition (p. 4) excludes so-called good or white witches, who performed a variety of beneficent functions by occult means.

The absence of any clear sense of the identity of witches was reflected in the many different ways in which the crime of witchcraft was defined. Most of the early modern authors who discussed witchcraft claimed that it involved both the practice of harmful magic (maleficium) and a subservient relationship with the devil, with whom the witch was believed to have formed a pact that enabled her, among other things, to exercise magical powers. But different jurisdictions chose to emphasize one dimension of the witch’s crime to the exclusion of the other, and the judicial record reflects those differences. On the one hand, many witchcraft prosecutions throughout Europe enumerated the alleged maleficia of accused witches but made no reference to the relationship between the accused and the devil. On the other hand, large clusters of witches who were tried for having made pacts with the devil and worshipping him at the witches’ sabbath were never specifically charged with performing acts of magical harm. This latter situation prevailed mainly in so-called chain-reaction witch-hunts, in which confessing witches, subjected to or threatened with additional torture, named their alleged accomplices. All these offenders were referred to as witches. The reason for the very broad, imprecise definition of witchcraft is that it was a composite crime that allowed lay and ecclesiastical, local and central judicial authorities to prosecute individuals for engaging in those activities which represented the greatest perceived threat to religious orthodoxy, political stability, or the social order.

One of the main impediments to establishing a precise definition of witchcraft was its ambivalent relationship to magic. Although the charges against witches usually included the practice of maleficent magic, magic could also be prosecuted as a separate crime in many jurisdictions. Most languages had different words for the two offences, as in German, where Zauberei could be distinguished from Hexerei. One reason for the ambivalent relationship between witchcraft and magic was that the practice of ritual magic in the late Middle Ages had a formative influence in defining the crime of witchcraft in the early modern period.11 The central witch belief of the pact with the devil, for example, developed mainly within the context of the condemnation of ritual magic. In a certain sense the male, educated ritual magician was transformed into the illiterate female witch in the early fifteenth century. After this transformation occurred, however, those suspected of practising magic might still be prosecuted as magicians rather than witches. Towards the end of the period of the witch trials, the incorporation of magic into witchcraft was reversed, as the composite crime of witchcraft broke down into its various components. As authorities became increasingly reluctant to prosecute people for making pacts with the devil or gathering at the sabbath, they continued to prosecute them for performing magical acts. In this connection it is noteworthy that in the early eighteenth century, the Saxon jurist Christian Thomasius titled his critique of witchcraft prosecutions De crimine magiae.

(p. 5) The ambivalent relationship between witchcraft and other offences was also apparent when judicial and ecclesiastical authorities emphasized the spiritual or heretical nature of the crime. The distinction between witchcraft and other heresies emerged in the context of efforts by inquisitors to identify and prosecute Waldensians in the early fifteenth century, and notions drawn from dualist heresies further influenced the representation of the witches’ sabbath. In early witchcraft trials, however, witchcraft was viewed as a new religious offence that resembled other medieval heresies in some respects but not others. Witches were heretics, apostates, and antinomians whose activities differed from those of others who had allegedly abandoned their faith or denied some of the basic articles of the Christian faith. In Catholic lands witches could also be distinguished from Protestant ‘heretics’, while in Protestant territories they could be distinguished from Anabaptists or members of other radical sects. But towards the end of the period of the trials, when the concept of witchcraft began to break down and courts stopped hearing witchcraft cases, prosecutions of individuals who might earlier have been tried for witchcraft were sometimes not identified as such but prosecuted only for blasphemy, sacrilege, or even making pacts with the devil.

The problem of defining the crime of witchcraft with any consistency or precision is only one difficulty when making sensible estimates of the number of prosecutions and executions during the early modern period. Historians have never taken seriously the claim, first advanced by an eighteenth-century anticlerical lawyer, that nine million witches were executed during the early modern period. This implausible claim, based on a crude extrapolation of the number of executions in one German town, nonetheless found favour among a small group of modern popular writers in the twentieth century who, for ideological reasons, wished to make the death toll from witchcraft prosecutions greater than that of the Holocaust.12 Nor have modern historians accepted uncritically the inflated claims of early modern judges who boasted about how many witches they had executed or the size of the imagined armies of witches that rulers feared were threatening their domains or all of Christendom.13 Nevertheless, until scholars began to scour local and regional archives in search of evidence of witchcraft trials and executions, the estimates of the number of witchcraft executions tended to be high. Since then, these estimates have tended to be significantly lower. In some cases, however, the discovery of previously unknown records has led scholars to make modest upward estimates of the number of witches in some jurisdictions.

This research has resulted in a broad agreement that approximately 100,000 individuals in Europe and colonial America were prosecuted for witchcraft between 1400 (p. 6) and 1775, and that the number of executions did not greatly exceed 50,000.14 These estimates, therefore, have also forced a reconsideration of the once common assumption that the great majority of those witches who were brought to trial were executed. Archival research has revealed that as many as 75 per cent of witches who were prosecuted in some jurisdictions escaped with their lives. Restraint in the administration of torture and the reversal of sentences on appeal help to explain why so many accused witches avoided the stake or the gallows. Those witches whose lives were spared were not, however, treated kindly. A sizeable number of them received non-capital sentences, which might have included corporal punishment, imprisonment, or banishment. These punishments took a physical and emotional toll, and banishment was often considered a fate worse than death. Those who were acquitted or otherwise set free, sometimes after successfully withstanding torture, did not fare much better. Shunned by their neighbours, who had in most cases been the first to suspect and accuse them, they lived in fear of physical assault and lynching by villagers who were convinced that the cause of justice had not been served.

Lower estimates of the number of trials and executions have not reduced the importance of witchcraft in early modern European society. For one thing, the number of trials does not reflect the number of those who were accused but never brought to trial. That number included villagers and townspeople whom confessing witches named as accomplices but who were not tried. It also included the numbers who were in prison awaiting trial when higher authorities decided to stop the trials. Many others were suspected of being witches but were never formally charged, while still others lived in fear of such accusations. The prevalence of witch beliefs in all levels of society made witchcraft a more significant dimension of European society and culture than the number of trials might suggest.

The extensive archival work undertaken in recent years has also made possible more precise comparisons between witch-hunting in different countries and regions. It should come as no surprise that roughly half of all European witchcraft executions took place within the boundaries of the Holy Roman Empire—mainly because of the weakness of imperial judicial control over the smaller territories and the absence of an effective appellate structure within the empire. For this reason it has become customary to refer to Germany, or more precisely the lands within the Holy Roman Empire, as the heartland of the witch-hunt.15 This region included the predominantly French-speaking duchy of Lorraine, although most of the territories within the empire were German-speaking. By comparison, all other European countries, with the exception of some of the Swiss cantons, showed relative restraint in prosecuting and executing witches. Even in Germany there were wide discrepancies in the geography of (p. 7) witch-hunting. Some of the worst hunts occurred within small ecclesiastical territories, such as Ellwangen, Würzburg, and Bamberg. By comparison there were very few executions in some of the imperial free cities, such as Rothenburg ob der Tauber.16 A comparative study of Electoral Trier and Swabian Austria also reveals striking differences in the relative intensity of witch-hunting in German-speaking lands.17

Research in judicial records has led to a major reconsideration of the claim that witchcraft accusations on the European continent usually came ‘from above’ (i.e. that they originated in charges introduced by judicial officials), whereas those in England, where officers of the common law courts could not initiate prosecutions, came ‘from below’ (i.e. that they originated in charges made by the witches’ neighbours). It is true that some members of ruling elites on the Continent deliberately initiated witch-hunts in their territories, either because they genuinely believed that witches were threatening to destroy the social order or, more cynically, because they wanted to use the prosecutions to legitimize their own tenuous rule or distract their subjects from other, more pressing concerns. The use of the inquisitorial system of criminal procedure on the Continent, which allowed judges to arrest and prosecute suspects without formal accusations by their neighbours, also made it appear that the courts were taking the initiative in such witch-hunts. But except when the accused witches were themselves members of ruling or educated elites, the courts did not initiate prosecutions without first receiving a complaint or accusation that arose from the lower ranks of society. Even when courts proceeded ex officio rather than waiting for an accusation or denunciation from the people in the witch’s community, they had to rely on widespread rumour or mere suspicion that certain individuals were reputed to be witches. In that sense all witchcraft prosecutions of non-elites came from below.

Successful witchcraft prosecutions usually required the cooperation of the witches’ neighbours, who made the original accusations and testified against the accused in court, and the judicial elites, who conducted the trials and in most cases determined their outcome. Witchcraft historians have traditionally distinguished between the witch beliefs of the educated and those of the illiterate or minimally educated. There is a measure of truth in that distinction. The illiterate, for the most part, thought of witches as evil people who caused misfortunes by magical means, whereas educated elites, especially those trained in theology and law, were more concerned with the demonic, and therefore religious, dimension of the witches’ crime. The distinction between popular and learned culture, however, was never ironclad. Most villagers and townspeople believed in the existence of the devil and the possibility that he could have commerce with human beings. During early modern witch-hunts a process of cultural negotiation and exchange took place between the illiterate, on the one hand, and those who were educated, on the other. Sermons preached at the times of the trials provided (p. 8) one means of instructing the broader population in the diabolical dimension of witchcraft, but the trials themselves proved to be even more instrumental in this cultural exchange.18 The interrogation of witnesses and the use of torture and other forms of judicial pressure to extract confessions from witches imposed learned notions of witchcraft on villagers who had little or no knowledge of theology or demonology, while the reference to popular beliefs regarding magic and the world of spirits, often embodied in folkloric traditions, led to the assimilation of the demonological ideas of inquisitors. One body of popular beliefs that worked its way into learned demonology was local lore concerning the alleged gathering of witches, including the identification of the mythical sites where witches were believed to assemble, such as Blåkulla in Sweden or Blocksberg in Germany.

Most witchcraft historians now agree that popular and learned notions of witchcraft informed each other at various times and in different ways. Some notions of witchcraft that demonologists cited from classical Greek and Roman literature were themselves the product of learned commentaries on popular beliefs, such as the characteristics of the mythological witch figures Diana and Hecate, the metamorphoses of witches in the works of Ovid and Apuleius, and the description of bacchanalian orgies in ancient times that contributed to the origin of the idea of the witches’ sabbath. The belief of some demonologists and judges that witches could fly provides one of the best examples of the interaction between popular beliefs, some of which had a history stretching back into ancient and medieval times, and demonological ideas anchored in scholastic theology regarding the power of the devil to move people and objects through the air.

Popular witch beliefs in the early modern period command greater interest and respect among historians today than they did in the early and mid-twentieth century. It is no longer possible, or certainly not advisable, for historians to dismiss the beliefs of the uneducated as mere ‘peasant superstition’, as one historian did in the 1960s.19 Anthropological studies of witchcraft and other beliefs in non-Western societies have also led historians to understand that popular notions of witchcraft had their own internal coherence. The same can be said of the ideas of theologians and judges, which historians in the liberal, rational tradition have likewise dismissed as ‘irrational’, but which also followed their own internal logic. Whatever its perceived shortcomings, scholastic theology cannot be labelled as irrational. Nor can demonology be readily dismissed as unscientific or incompatible with a rational view of the natural world.20

(p. 9) The attention that historians have given to early modern treatises on witchcraft has also made it difficult to sustain the traditional polarity between a large body of credulous works that endorsed the reality of witchcraft and those of a small band of sceptics who called them into question. A simple distinction between believers and non-believers can no longer be maintained. On the one hand, even the most ardent promoters of witchcraft theory entertained at least some doubts regarding the reality of the crime, and very few of them accepted all the beliefs contained in the composite notion of witchcraft. On the other hand, many of those contemporaries who have won fame among historians as sceptics did not deny that witches existed or that the devil could exercise power in the world. Instead they chose to deny specific aspects of the witches’ alleged crime, such as their ability to fly, transform themselves into beasts, or copulate with demons. Belief in the existence of witchcraft was also common among men often identified in the literature as judicial sceptics—judges and other men trained in the law, who came to the realization that the crime of witchcraft, while possible, could not be proved at law. Instead of subscribing to the traditional distinction between believers and sceptics, witchcraft historians now agree that there were different types and degrees of belief regarding witchcraft, and that there were elements of belief and disbelief in the works of all demonologists. The same can be said of the witch beliefs of the less educated members of society, who tended not to subscribe to the beliefs of demonologists regarding the relationships between witches and demons.

Historians do not agree on the exact chronological boundaries of the early modern period of European history, but for many it stretched from about 1400, just before trials for witchcraft began, and 1750, when most of them had come to an end. Witch beliefs have a much longer history, extending back into classical antiquity and forward into the modern period, and for that reason the ‘history of witchcraft’ covers a much broader chronological span than the period of the trials. But the reason for restricting this volume to the early modern period is that the overwhelming majority of trials and all the large panics took place during these years. Nevertheless, the prosecution of individuals identified variously as sorcerers, practitioners of magic, or ‘witches’ occurred in Europe before 1400, while the lynching of witches, that is, their illegal murder to satisfy the demands of popular justice, has continued to the present day, especially in Africa and Asia.

The witchcraft prosecutions discussed in Part II of this volume include those held in Russia, which straddled the boundaries between Europe and Asia, and others that took place outside Europe in English, Spanish, and Portuguese colonies in the New World. This book also includes a separate chapter on the multilingual Rhine-Moselle borderlands, which witnessed some of the most intense witch-hunting in all of Europe. The assignment of a single chapter to the Iberian Peninsula is based on the many similarities between witch beliefs and witchcraft prosecutions in the Spanish kingdoms and Portugal. Similar considerations informed the decision to deal with all five Nordic countries in a single chapter. There is no separate chapter on Switzerland, whose cultural and linguistic diversity makes the history of witchcraft prosecutions in its (p. 10) cantons difficult to treat as a unit, but fifteenth-century trials in francophone Switzerland receive coverage in other chapters.21

In preparing this volume, no effort was made to impose uniformity in approach or interpretation, and the chapters reflect that diversity. This is how it should be in a field as complex and controversial as that of witchcraft studies. Indeed, differences of approach and interpretation help make the history of early modern European witchcraft challenging, vital, and exciting.


(1) Two of the most influential such anthologies are Bengt Ankarloo and Gustav Henningsen, eds, Early Modern European Witchcraft: Centres and Peripheries (Oxford, 1991) and Jonathan Barry, Marianne Hester, and Gareth Roberts, eds, Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe: Studies in Culture and Belief (Cambridge, 1996).

(2) Bengt Ankarloo and Stuart Clark, eds, Witchcraft and Magic in Europe, 6 vols (London, 1999–2002).

(3) Richard Golden, ed., Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Western Tradition, 4 vols (Santa Barbara, CA, 2006).

(4) Witches, Devil, and Doctors in the Renaissance: Johann Weyer, De praestigiis daemonum, ed. George Mora (Binghamton, NY, 1991) ; Henricus Institoris, Malleus Maleficarum, ed. and tr. Christopher S. MacKay, 2 vols (Cambridge, 2006); Jean Bodin, On the Demon-Mania of Witches, tr. Randy A. Scott, ed. Jonathan L. Pearl (Toronto, 2001); Friedrich Spee von Langenfeld, Cautio Criminalis, or a Book on Witch Trials, tr. Marcus Hellyer (Charlottesville, VA, 2003); On the Inconstancy of Witches: Pierre de Lancre’s Tableau de l’inconstance des mauvais anges et demons (1612), ed. Gerhild Scholz Williams (Tempe, AZ, 2006); Martín Del Rio, Investigations into Magic, ed. P. G. Maxwell-Stuart (Manchester, 2000).

(5) James Sharpe, Marion Gibson, Malcolm Gaskill, and Peter Elmer, eds, English Witchcraft, 1560–1736, 6 vols (London, 2003).

(6) Alan Kors and Edward Peters, eds, European Witchcraft 400–1700 (2nd edn, Philadelphia, PA, 2003); Marion Gibson, ed., Witchcraft and Society in England and America, 1550–1750 (Ithaca, NY, 2003); Brian P. Levack, ed., The Witchcraft Sourcebook (London, 2004).


(8) Jonathan Barry and Owen Davies, eds, Palgrave Advances in Witchcraft Historiography (Basingstoke, 2007).

(9) For two reviews of witchcraft literature that have appeared since 2000 see Brian P. Levack, ‘Themes of Recent Witchcraft Research’, ARV: Nordic Yearbook of Folklore, 62 (2006), 7–31; Malcolm Gaskill, ‘The Pursuit of Reality: Recent Research into the History of Witchcraft’, Historical Journal, 51 (2008), 1069–88.

(10) Joseph Hansen, Zauberwahn, Inquisition und Hexenprozeß im Mittelalter, und die Entstehung der großen Hexenverfolgung (Munich, 1900). For a late twentieth-century account of the gradual but by no means linear accumulation of the different elements of this concept of witchcraft see Norman Cohn, Europe’s Inner Demons: The Demonization of Christians in Medieval Christendom (rev. edn, Chicago, 1993).

(11) See Edward Peters, The Magician, the Witch and the Law (Philadelphia, PA, 1978).

(12) See Robin Briggs, ‘Number of Witches’, Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, iii, 839–41; Diane Purkiss, The Witch in History: Early Modern and Twentieth-Century Representations (London, 1996), 7–29.

(13) The Burgundian judge and demonologist Henri Boguet speculated that there were 300,000 witches in France alone, and more than 1,800,000 in all of Europe at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Henry Boguet, An Examen of Witches, tr. E. Allen Ashwin (London, 1929), p. xxxii.

(14) For estimates of the number of executions in the various European states and territories and a calculation of their intensity based on the size of the population see Wolfgang Behringer, Witches and Witch-Hunts: A Global History (Cambridge, 2004), 149–51.

(15) H. C. Erik Midelfort, ‘Heartland of the Witch-Craze: Central and Northern Europe’, History Today, 31 (1981), 27–31.

(16) Alison Rowlands, ‘Imperial Free Cities’, Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, ii, 540–4.

(17) Johannes Dillinger, ‘Evil People’: A Comparative Study of Witch-Hunts in Swabian Austria and the Electorate of Trier, tr. Laura Stokes (Charlottesville, VA, 2009).

(18) David Hall, ed., Witch-hunting in Seventeenth-Century New England (Boston, MA, 1991), 9; Gustav Henningsen, ‘The Papers of Alonso de Salazar Frias’, Temenos, 5 (1969), 105.

(19) H. R. Trevor-Roper, The European Witch-Craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries and Other Essays (New York, 1969).

(20) Stuart Clark, Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe (Oxford, 1997), 151–78.

(21) For francophone Switzerland see E. William Monter, Witchcraft in France and Switzerland: The Borderlands during the Reformation (Ithaca, NY, 1976). On German-speaking areas see Guido Bader, Die Hexenprozesse in der Schweiz (Affoltern, 1945).