The European Witch Hunts
A few centuries ago in Europe, the fear of witchcraft led to witch hunts and executions. These occurred largely in France, Germany, northern Italy, Switzerland, and the Low Countries—Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. “Tens of thousands of people in Europe and European colonies died, ” and “millions of others suffered torture, arrest, interrogation, hate, guilt, or fear, ” says the book Witch Hunts in the Western World. How did this paranoia begin? What fed it?
The period of witch trials in Early Modern Europe was a widespread moral panic suggesting that malevolent Satanic witches were operating as an organized threat to Christendom during the 16th to 18th centuries. 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. More than 75% of those executed were women.
The history of witchcraft in Europe begins with both folk beliefs and with religious and classical texts. The texts have roots in Hebrew, Greek and Roman history. The development of beliefs about what witchcraft meant — and especially the history of its gradual identification as a kind of heresy — takes effect over hundreds of years. I have also included a few American and global events for perspective on the history of witchcraft trials and executions.
For the great majority of people who lived before the 18th century, magic was an ordinary part of everyday life. To them, the world was a mysterious and frightening place. They did not know what caused disease and other natural phenomena and so they sometimes assumed there was a supernatural explanation.
However, if you could use magic for good to make your crops grow better or to heal the sick then logically you could, if you wished, used magic to harm your enemies. For people who believed in magic the thought that your enemies could use magic to harm you must have been terrifying.
Beliefs about witchcraft varied. Some (but not all) people who believed in witches believed that they held nocturnal meetings called sabbats. At the sabbat they did wicked things like dancing naked, indulging in orgies and carrying out a parody of the Catholic mass. Witches were even supposed to kill babies and eat them! Most people believed that witches could fly.
According to some authorities when a witch made a pact with the Devil he touched them and left a mark (which was not necessarily visible) on their body. The mark was insensitive to pain. One test for a witch was to prick their body with a blade. If they did not flinch or bleed when pricked in a certain place then it was evidence that they were a witch.
Many people believed that witches could affect the fertility of animals (very important when people relied on flocks and herds for their livelihood). They also believed that witches could make humans or animals ill or even kill them by magic.
Most people in the 16th century and 17th century believed that God had an enemy called the Devil, who was very powerful. They believed that witches made a pact or agreement with the Devil and agreed to worship and serve him. Witches then used magic to harm animals or humans. Many people believed that there were ‘fifth columnists’ who were out to cause harm. To people at the time, the thought that your neighbor might secretly be a witch must have been very frightening.
European “Christendom” saw a high level of persecution of witches — those supposedly practicing Maleficarum or harmful magic — which peaked especially from the mid 15th century (the 1400s) to the mid 18th century (1700s).
The number executed on charges of witchcraft is not certain and subject to considerable controversy. Estimates have ranged from about 10, 000 to nine million. Most historians accept a figure in the range from 40, 000 to 100, 000 based on public records; there were perhaps two to three times that many individuals accused formally of or tried for witchcraft. About 12, 000 executions have been identified in existing records.
About three-fourths of the executions based on witchcraft accusations were in the Holy Roman Empire, including parts of what are today Germany, France, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. The peaks of accusations and executions came at somewhat different times in different regions.
The most executions in Europe, by number, for witchcraft were in the period from 1580 to 1650.
In England, witches were hanged not burned. In the rest of Europe witches were usually burned but normally they were strangled first.