Witch trials in the early modern period  

From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia

Jump to: navigation, search

"The clergy has not stakes enough, the people insults, the child stones, for the unhappy being. The poet, no less a child, throws yet another stone at her, a crueller one still for a woman. Gratuitously insulting, he makes her out always old and ugly. The very word Sorceress or Witch calls up the image of the Weird Sisters of Macbeth. Yet the cruel witch trials prove exactly the opposite; many perished just because they were young and pretty." --La Sorcière (1862) by Jules Michelet

Related e



The Witch trials in the Early Modern period were a period of witch hunts between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, when across Early Modern Europe, and to some extent in the European colonies in North America, there was a widespread hysteria that malevolent Satanic witches were operating as an organized threat to Christendom. Those accused of witchcraft were portrayed as being worshippers of the Devil, who engaged in such acts as malevolent sorcery, and orgies 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.

The witch trials originated in south-eastern France during the fourteenth century, before spreading through central Europe and then into other parts of the continent and also amongst European colonies in North America. While early trials fall still within the Late Medieval period, the peak of the witch hunt was between 1580 and 1630. The last known trial occurred in 1782. Amongst the most well known of these trials was the Scottish North Berwick witch trials, Swedish Torsåker witch trials and the American Salem witch trials. Among the largest and most notable was the Trier witch trials (1581–1593), the Fulda witch trials (1603–1606), the Würzburg witch trial (1626–1631) and the Bamberg witch trials (1626–1631). Over the entire duration of the phenomenon of some four centuries, an estimated total of 40,000 to 60,000 people were executed.

Historians and other scholars have long debated the reasons for the witch trials. The majority of historians concur that there never were any such organised group of witches. Mainstream historiography sees the reason for the witch craze in a complex interplay of various factors that mark the Early Modern period, including the religious sectarianism in the wake of the Reformation, besides other religious, societal, economic and climatic factors. Feminist and Neopagan authors have however portrayed them as either being an attempt by the patriarchal authorities to subjugate women, or as the persecution of an actual Witch-Cult, which had been pagan, rather than satanic, in nature. Neither of these have been accepted by mainstream historians who have specialised in the subject of the witch trials, such as Norman Cohn, Keith Thomas, Carlo Ginzburg, Robert W. Thurston and Brian Levack.

Numbers of executions

Ever since the ending of the witch hunt, various scholars have estimated how many men, women and children were executed for witchcraft across Europe and North America, with numbers varying wildly depending on the method used to generate the estimate. In the nineteenth century, historians were still unsure as to the exact number, for instance the German folklorist Jacob Grimm claimed that the number was simply "countless" whilst the Scottish journalist Charles Mackay believed that it was "thousands upon thousands". Within several decades, the American suffragette Matilda Joslyn Gage had claimed that nine million women had been killed in the European trials, a figure which would be repeated by a number of later writers such as Gerald Gardner, although it has since been described as having "no rational basis whatsoever" by the professional historian Ronald Hutton.

In the latter part of the 20th century, as historians began to study the witch trials in greater depth, the estimated number of executions began to be reduced, with the historian Norman Cohn, in Europe's Inner Demons (1975) criticizing claims that they were in the hundreds of thousands, calling these "fantastic exaggerations". Attempting to come to an accurate figure, the historian Brian Levack, author of The Witch Hunt in Early Modern Europe (1987), 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, for the third edition of the work (2006) he later reassessed that number to 45,000. This number was criticised as being too low by Anne Llewellyn Barstow, author of Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts (1994)—a work which was derided as un-scholarly and "largely ignored by academics" —who herself 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, 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. Table of recorded and estimated executions according to Hutton's estimates

Country Recorded Estimated
American Colonies 36 35–37
Austria  ?? 1,500–3,000
Belgium  ?? 250
Bohemia  ?? 1,000–2,000
Channel Islands 66 66–80
Denmark  ?? 1,000
England (and Wales) 228 300–1,000
Estonia 65 100
Finland 115 115
France 775 5,000–6,000
Germany 8,188 17,324–26,000
Hungary 449 800
Iceland 22 22
Ireland 4 4–10
Italy 95 800
Latvia  ?? 100
Luxembourg 358 355–358
Netherlands 203 203–238
Norway 280 350
Poland  ??? 1,000–5,000
Portugal 7 7
Russia 10 10
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

See also

In British isles

Witches of Warboys (1589–1593)• North Berwick witch trials (1590)• Pendle witches (1612)• Northamptonshire witch trials (1612)• Samlesbury witches (1612)• Witches of Belvoir (1619)• Bury St. Edmunds witch trials (1645, 1662, 1655 & 1694)• Bideford witch trial (1684)• Paisley witches (1696)• Islandmagee witch trial‎ (1711)

In France

Aix-en-Provence possessions (1611)• Loudun possessions (1634)• Louviers Possessions (1647)• Poison affair (1679)

In Germany

Trier witch trials (1581–1593)• Fulda witch trials (1603–1606)• Würzburg witch trial (1626–1631)• Bamberg witch trials (1626–1631)• Witch trial of Fuersteneck (1703)

In Scandinavia

Køge Huskors (1608–1615)• Finspång witch trial (1617)• Vardø witch trials (1621)Ramsele witch trial (1634)• Kirkjuból witch trial (1656)• Vardø Witch Trials (1662–1663)• Mora witch trial (1669)• Torsåker witch trials (1675)

Elsewhere in Europe

Valais witch trials (1428–1447)• Val Camonica witch trials (1505, 1518)• The Fairy witch trials of SicilyBenandantiBasque witch trials (1609)• Roermond witch trial (1613)• Spa witch trial (1616)• Werewolf witch trialsSalzburg witch trials (1675–1681)• Northern Moravia witch trials (1678)• Szeged witch trials (1728–1729)• Doruchowo witch trial (1783)


Formicarius (1475)• Malleus Maleficarum (1486)• Witchcraft Act 1562 (England)


Salem witch trials (1692–1693)

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Witch trials in the early modern period" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

Personal tools