Saturday, November 8, 2014

Why was witchcraft a crime in early modern Europe?

Witchcraft in one form or another has been a part of human existence throughout recorded history.  There is mention of sorcerers and soothsayers in the Bible and other ancient works.  However, in the time of early modern Europe, something changed which made witchcraft intolerable, and as a consequence, also illegal.  This essay will examine historical scholars’ viewpoints and research with the aim of discovering why witchcraft became so widely persecuted and illegal in early modern Europe, specifically from the time of the thirteen-hundreds to the seventeen-hundreds. 

It is a commonly accepted fact among historians and anthropologists that witchcraft existed throughout nearly all pre-modern societies, and that there was some efforts made to control those witches that sought to use magic to do evil deeds, or maleficia.[1]  These efforts do not appear to have ever reached the scale or extent of open persecution that they did throughout the few hundred year period between the late thirteen-hundreds and early seventeen-hundreds.  There are a few different reasons offered by modern scholarship as to what the cause of this dramatic increase in persecution of witchcraft  was, such as weather, gender, and politics, but they all appear to agree mostly on one origin for these reasons; the Catholic church. 

While witches were an accepted part of society, and believed to have ‘supernatural powers’, it wasn’t until around 1380 that there was a shift in the powers attributed to a witch, namely that they were proclaimed to have the power to affect the weather.[2]  These types of claims were only then beginning to be recognised by the Christian ecclesiastical authorities, and started to make their way into prominent inquisitorial trials.  It is also around this time that what Behringer refers to as The Little Ice Age was beginning to occur.[3]  This was a climatic deterioration that the populace of early modern Europe had no explanation for, and that devastated many crops by changing the seasons to a longer, colder winter and a shorter, wetter summer.  Behringer goes on to say that due to this significant and, seemingly at the time, unexplainable environmental change, the need for a scapegoat found purchase in witchcraft.  While Behringer’s position does make sense, and quite possibly contributed to the beginnings of the persecution of witches, it does not reason that the weather would be the sole cause for the massive-scale persecutions of witches that followed.  However, he does also make the point that in the 1480s, the Church accepted the belief that witches could alter the weather.[4]

Another reason that witchcraft came under the intense persecution at this time was because of the shifts in what the traditional culture believed.  A study done by Richard Kieckhefer shows that there was a shift in the nature of witch persecution in 1500 by the learned onto the traditional culture which believed in witches, witchcraft, magic and sorcery.[5]  This shift is believed to have come about through a substitution of diabolism for sorcery in the prevailing orthodoxy, and thus took away the independent person’s powers over rituals and potions and replaced it with a supernatural being, in this instance the devil, as the central agent in magic.[6]  Thus the Church began defining witchcraft and magic as something that was contrary to God, as it had the devil at its core.  These ideas were pressed and fleshed out further by the educated Christian theologians, canon lawyers, and officials, ensuring that the demonological component was added to the concept of witchcraft so that it was clear that the essence of witchcraft was making a pack with the devil which required the witch to do the devils bidding.[7]  This line of reasoning, that the Church was redefining the belief system of early modern European culture, would explain why there was a fast spreading of the persecution of witches when they had been so widely accepted before. 

Through these insidious actions of the Church, witches were transformed from people with magical power that helped others and sometimes used magic to get things that they wanted, into people that were being used by the devil for his own purposes.  These ideas continued to develop into witches engaging in wild sexual orgies with the devil, flying through the night to sabbats which mocked mass, and stealing communion and unbaptised babies for use in their rituals.[8]  There were even claims that witches were forming world-wide organisations with the aim of overthrowing Christianity, which claim finalised the position of the witch in relation to the Church as a heretic.[9]  This seems to be what the Church’s goal was from the beginning; to establish a line of reasoning backed by the belief of the general population that would allow open persecution and hunting of witches.  The question however is why?

The first systematical witch-hunts began in the 1430s around Lake Geneva and the Dutchy of Savoy under the direction and supervision of the papal inquisitors and judges.[10]  These were some of the earliest trials with the new belief of witchcraft as a baseline.[11]  In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII had two German Dominicans, Henrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, begin hunting witches.  Kramer presided over the trials and executions of a number of groups of witches, all of whom were composed of women.  He espoused extreme views on the power of witches, and used torture on his subjects to get confessions, and as such was banished from the area by the local authorities.[12]  It was at this time that he wrote Malleus maleficarum (The Hammer of [Female] Witches), which was violently anti-feminine and even suggested that the Latin word femina (woman) was derived from the two words fe (faith) and minus (less), suggesting that women were faithless beings.[13]  This is a fundamental piece of information in understanding what was happening with the witch-hunts and the illegalisation of witchcraft at this time in early modern Europe.  It demonstrates the prejudice against women from the Church and men in general that was prevalent at this time, and appears to be a large contributing factor to the witch-hunts.   There were also conflicts arising between men and women over the slowly emerging male medical profession which was encroaching on the dominion of the female midwives and healers, as well as the prevailing belief that women were innately inferior to men and more easily influenced by the designs of Satan.[14]  These ideas helped the Church play on the fears of the public to achieve their goal of illegalising witchcraft.

During the Reformation around 1529, there were divisions called confessions being created across Europe.[15]  At this time, both political and religious leaders began to pass laws in the hopes that there would be a boost in order and morality.  It is then that witchcraft became officially illegal, and as pointed out by Anderson, “all European codes were erected on a basis of canon law, Roman law, and Germanic law – all unfavourable to woman”.[16]  Rulers north of the Alps began to agree with the Malleus and started passing statutes that authorised the death penalty for witches that caused harm through magic.  Examples of these civil laws were the criminal code of the Holy Roman Empire from 1523 and the English and Scottish witchcraft statutes of 1563.[17]  There was a brief reprieve on the witch-hunts during the Protestant Reformation while the Catholics were hunting and persecuting the Protestants and visa versa, but by 1570 the witch trials had begun again with renewed fervour.  The concept that witchcraft was demonic had firmly been ingrained in the culture of most of Europe by this time, and there were large scale witch-hunts and executions, almost all of which were women.  Interestingly, it was only in the more isolated and remote areas of Europe, such as Estonia, Iceland, Russia and Finland that did not adopt the idea of demonic witchcraft.  In these areas, the witch-hunts were very few, and at least half of the people prosecuted were male.[18] 

In conclusion, by drawing upon the facts and scholarly research examined in this essay it can be derived that witchcraft became illegal in early modern Europe due primarily to the Church fabricating ideas of demonic involvement in witchcraft.  This appears to have been done as a means of gaining even more power and authority than what was already enjoyed by the Church.  It was accomplished by imposing these fabricated views onto the public until the local rulers agreed that there must be some merit and fact to the claims of demonic involvement in witchcraft, and as such action needed to be taken.  This was the case in Illeraichen, where Count Hans von Rechberg was finally worn down enough by the demands to persecute witches for crop failure, that he imprisoned some women that were accused as suspect witches.[19]  Women were already viewed by the Church and by men in general as weaker and more likely to succumb to the devil, so they made the perfect target.[20]  As Anderson said, “…the fact that the witches persecuted in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were predominantly female… meant that accusations against witches were also, generally, accusations against women.”[21]  Thus, by using women and witchcraft negatively, the Church was able to affect popular and political change, create laws illegalising witches and witchcraft, and ultimately gain a more prominent place in the world for itself.


Anderson, A. & Gordon, R.  (1978).  ‘Witchcraft and the status of women – the case of England’.  British Journal of Sociology,  Vol. 29, No. 2. 

Behringer, W.  (1999).  ‘Climatic change and witch-hunting: The impact of the little ice age on mentalities.’  Climatic Change.  Vol 43, No. 1

Wiesner-Hanks, M.  (2011).  Early Modern Europe, 1450-1789.  University Press, Cambridge

[1] Wiesner-Hanks, Early Modern Europe, 1450-1789, p. 387
[2] Behringer, Climatic change and witch-hunting: The impact of the little ice age on mentalities, p. 336
[3] Behringer, Climatic change, p. 336
[4] Behringer, Climatic change, p. 336
[5] Anderson, Witchcraft and the status of women – the case of England, p. 171
[6] Anderson, Witchcraft, pp. 171
[7] Wiesner-Hanks, Early Modern Europe, p. 387
[8] Wiesner-Hanks, Early Modern Europe, p. 387
[9] Wiesner-Hanks, Early Modern Europe, p. 387
[10] Behringer, Climatic change, p. 336
[11] Wiesner-Hanks, Early Modern Europe, p. 387
[12] Wiesner-Hanks, Early Modern Europe, pp. 387-388
[13] Anderson, Witchcraft, pp. 173
[14] Anderson, Witchcraft, p.174
[15] Wiesner-Hanks, Early Modern Europe, p. 151
[16] Anderson, Witchcraft, p. 174
[17] Wiesner-Hanks, Early Modern Europe, p. 388
[18] Wiesner-Hanks, Early Modern Europe, p. 388
[19] Behringer, Climatic change, p. 338
[20] Wiesner-Hanks, Early Modern Europe, p. 386-387
[21] Anderson, Witchcraft, pp. 171-172

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