The Changing Nature of Witchcraft in the 16th and 17th Centuries

Up to 40,000 people died during the early modern witch craze.[1] Throughout this time, peoples’ understanding of witches frequently changed, in relation to ‘maleficia’ and the nature of witches, their gender, the law, the Reformation and the scepticism that emerged during the Enlightenment.

It was originally believed that witches practised magic, or ‘maleficia,’ on their own.[2] Theologians and lawyers later argued that the ‘essence’ of witchcraft was a pact with the Devil.[3] Now this was worse than previous ideas, and more ludicrous, as people were accused of secretly meeting with the Devil at sabbaths.[4] At these ceremonies, they would take part in rituals that mocked the mass.[5] Through this activity, witches directly threatened Christendom, as they took part in heretical practices.[6] It was the Devil who brought all sin into the world, and Protestants and Catholics sought to eliminate Him.[7] The Devil’s collusion with ordinary people meant that the threat of evil was ever present. See the change? First witches work alone, now they work with the Devil. This belief led to an increase in witch hunts, as peoples’ fear of witches, as well as the religious desire to stamp out evil, increased.

At first, people thought that only females could be witches… sorry ladies. This belief was solidified in Heinrich Kramer’s ‘Malleus Maleficarum,’ published in 1486, which claimed that women were more ‘impressionable’ to the charms of the Devil, due to their ‘fragile feminine sex.’[8] 75 to 85 percent of tried witches were female, which showcases the impact of Kramer’s work.[9] Apparently women were better placed to carry out the Devil’s work, as their domestic roles in the household, such as cooks and midwives, gave them the opportunity to poison food and kill new-born babies.[10] Accused women also did not conform to the ideal image of passive womanhood.[11] The indictment against Scot Margaret Lidster in 1662 described her as a ‘witch, a charmer and a libber,’ the latter term being a negative connotation of a ‘liberated’ and free-thinking woman.’[12] The idea that witches were women rebelling against the social norm was a prominent one throughout the sixteenth century.

However, Christina Larner argued that ‘witchcraft was not sex specific,’ and this was true.[13] Catholics and Protestants acknowledged this, attributing the idea to the gender ambiguous Biblical quote ‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.’[14] Catholics noted that men could also attend sabbaths, explaining the rise in male prosecution for witchcraft.[15] Rita Voltmer demonstrates this change when examining the Rhine-Meuse region in the city of Trier, where a number of boys claimed to have attended the sabbath in order to provide musical entertainment.[16] This reflected the male role in village life, as men were pipers and drummers.[17] The idea spread due to the publication of the ‘Tractatus de confessionibus maleficorum et sagarum,’ in 1589 by Peter Binsfield, the Bishop of Trier, which recounted his experience of the Rhine-Meuse trials.[18] This led to an increase of printed images and etchings of men at the sabbath, meaning that both men and women could be convicted and condemned.[19] That’s some twisted gender equality right there. Male witches also inverted the traditional values of their sex, as women did, as the former were depicted as poor husbands and father figures, and effeminate, weak men.[20]  The Devil suddenly became even more scary as he could corrupt men and women.

Changes to the law allowed a greater rise in witch hunts, as people became more willing to accuse their peers of witchcraft.[21] Traditionally witches were tried using accusatorial methods, in which the suspect knew the accuser.[22] Said accuser could also be put on trial if the charges against the defendant turned out to be a load of rubbish.[23] As the accuser was at risk, people were unwilling to testify. The inquisitorial method remedied this.[24] Under this system, only legal authorities could bring cases forward, and a confession was required before execution, which was usually obtained through intense questioning and torture.[25] Torture was used as lawyers did not believe that witches acted alone, and they sought the names of their conspirators.[26] This change encouraged people to accuse others, as those doing the accusing were not put at risk themselves.[27] The inquisitorial Method led to more deaths in Germany, Switzerland and Southern France.[28] So, changes in the law meant big changes for witches.

Differing Catholic and Protestant ideas too affected witches. Protestants believed that the threat of the Devil was forever present.[29] They downplayed the threat of witchcraft and instead were more concerned with the threat of Satan.[30] Catholics agreed about the threat of the Devil, but some believed that the rival Protestant faith was itself the work of the Devil, leading to accusations of heresy and heightened religious conflict.[31] Catholics continued to persecute Protestants in order to purify the world of Satan’s heresy, and planned to do so internally by resisting temptation, and externally, by prosecuting witches and heretics.[32] Witch hunting was severe in places that harboured conflict between Catholics and Protestants, and especially affected religious minorities living on the boundaries of states with different religions, such as Germany and Scotland.[33] The world officially went nuts.

Scepticism and enlightened attitudes also played a role. Some witch hunts ended due to the ludicrous nature of the accusations, and the lack of proper evidence for witchcraft.[34] This was supported by peoples’ doubts over the existence of witchcraft, such as Johann Weyer and Reginald Scot.[35] This led to tighter controls being issued by the superior central courts, such as the Parlement of Paris.[36] The Parlement decreed that all witchcraft convictions needed judicial review, which was adopted in 1604.[37] With proper restrictions placed on witch trials, practices such as torture to obtain confessions were halted, leading to a decrease in prosecutions. The legal constraints made it harder for the authorities to obtain a guilty verdict. People stopped accusing others of witchcraft, believing that their case would be dismissed.[38] Therefore, cases declined… mainly because people started to engage their brains.

Religious ideas about the Devil too aided the decline of prosecutions. Leading Protestant thinkers, such as Luther and Calvin, maintained that God was sovereign and would always prevail against the Devil, as stated in the Bible.[39] Protestants took the Bible as the word of God, and discarded ideas that were not explicitly recorded in it as invalid.[40] The Bible did not mention Devil worship, and instead detailed how God actively restrains the Devil, which prompted Protestants to argue that witchcraft was not a threat.[41]

From gender to religion, law to scepticism, beliefs about witches and their nature changed frequently throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. It’s lucky that common sense prevailed and eventually led to the decline of witchcraft prosecutions.

Thanks for reading!

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[1] T. Blanning, The Pursuit if Glory: Europe 1648-1815, (London 2008), pg. 464

[2] B. Levack, The Witch Hunt in Early Modern Europe, (London, 2006), pg. 8.

[3] M. Wiesner-Hanks, Early Modern Europe, 1450-1789, (London, 2013), pg. 434.

[4] Ibid., p. 434.

[5] Ibid., p. 434.

[6] Levack, The Witch Hunt in Early Modern Europe, p. 8.

[7] R. Scribner, ‘The Reformation, Popular Magic, and the “Disenchantment of the World”’, The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 23 (1993), p. 479.

[8] Wiesner-Hanks, Early Modern Europe, 1450-1789, p. 434.

[9] Ibid., p. 433.

[10] Ibid., p. 433.

[11] Ibid., p. 437.

[12] Ibid., p. 437.

[13] A. Rowlands, ‘Witchcraft and Gender in Early Modern Europe’ in B. Levack (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America (England, 2013), pp. 449-467, p. 453.

[14] Ibid., p. 455.

[15] Ibid., p. 455.

[16] Ibid., p. 455.

[17] Ibid., p. 456.

[18] Ibid., p. 456.

[19] Ibid., p. 456.

[20] Ibid., p. 457.

[21] Wiesner-Hanks, Early Modern Europe, 1450-1789, p. 434.

[22] Ibid., p. 434.

[23] Ibid., p. 434.

[24] Ibid., p. 434.

[25] Ibid., p. 434.

[26] Ibid., p. 434.

[27] Ibid., p. 434.

[29] Levack, The Witch Hunt in Early Modern Europe, p. 112.

[28] B. Levack, The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America, p. 473

[30] Ibid., p. 113.

[31] Ibid., p. 114.

[32] Ibid., p. 114.

[33] Ibid., p. 122.

[34] Wiesner-Hanks, Early Modern Europe, 1450-1789, p. 439.

[35] Ibid., p. 439.

[36] B. Levack, ‘The Decline of Witchcraft Prosecutions’ in D. Oldbridge (eds.) The Witchcraft Reader (London, 2008), pp. 341-348, p. 342.

[37] Ibid., p. 342.

[38] Wiesner-Hanks, Early Modern Europe, 1450-1789, p. 439.

[39] Levack, The Witch Hunt in Early Modern Europe, p. 128.

[40] Wiesner-Hanks, Early Modern Europe, 1450-1789, p. 129.

[41] Ibid., p. 129.

Published by harpalkhambay

I am an English Literature and History graduate, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

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