The European Witch-Hunts, c. 1450-1750

European Witch-Hunts


For three centuries of early modern European history, diverse societies were consumed by a panic over alleged witches in their midst. Witch-hunts, especially in Central Europe, resulted in the trial, torture, and execution of tens of thousands of victims, about three-quarters of whom were women. Arguably, neither before nor since have adult European women been selectively targeted for such largescale atrocities.

The background

The witch-hunts of early modern Europe took place against a backdrop of rapid social, economic, and religious transformation. As we will see in the modern-day case-studies below, such generalized stress -- including the prevalence of epidemics and natural disasters -- is nearly always central to outbreaks of mass hysteria of this type. Jenny Gibbons' analysis ties the witch-hunts to other "panics" in early modern Europe:

Traditional [tolerant] attitudes towards witchcraft began to change in the 14th century, at the very end of the Middle Ages. ... Early 14th century central Europe was seized by a series of rumor-panics. Some malign conspiracy (Jews and lepers, Moslems, or Jews and witches) was attempting to destroy the Christian kingdoms through magick and poison. After the terrible devastation caused by the Black Death [bubonic plague] (1347-1349), these rumors increased in intensity and focused primarily on witches and "plague-spreaders." Witchcraft cases increased slowly but steadily from the 14th-15th century. The first mass trials appeared in the 15th century. At the beginning of the 16th century, as the first shock-waves from the Reformation hit, the number of witch trials actually dropped. Then, around 1550, the persecution skyrocketed. What we think of as "the Burning Times" -- the crazes, panics, and mass hysteria -- largely occurred in one century, from 1550-1650. In the 17th century, the Great Hunt passed nearly as suddenly as it had arisen. Trials dropped sharply after 1650 and disappeared completely by the end of the 18th century. (Gibbons, "Recent Developments in the Study of the Great European Witch Hunt".)

Gibbons' allusion to the Reformation reminds us that the clash between institutional Catholicism and emergent Protestantism contributed to the collapse of a stable world-view, which eventually led to panic and hyper-suspiciousness on the part of Catholic and Protestant authorities alike. Writes Nachman Ben-Yehuda, "This helps us understand why only the most rapidly developing countries, where the Catholic church was weakest, experienced a virulent witch craze (i.e., Germany, France, Switzerland). Where the Catholic church was strong (Spain, Italy, Portugal) hardly any witch craze occurred ... the Reformation was definitely the first time that the church had to cope with a large-scale threat to its very existence and legitimacy." But Ben-Yehuda adds that "Protestants persecuted witches with almost the same zeal as the Catholics ... Protestants and Catholics alike felt threatened." It is notable that the witch-hunts lost most of their momentum with the end of the Thirty Years War (Peace of Westphalia, 1648), which "gave official recognition and legitimacy to religious pluralism." (Ben-Yehuda, "The European Witch Craze of the 14th to 17th Centuries: A Sociologist's Perspective," American Journal of Sociology, 86: 1 [July 1980], pp. 15, 23.)

The gendercide

The witch-hunts waxed and waned for nearly three centuries, with great variations in time and space. "The rate of witch hunting varied dramatically throughout Europe, ranging from a high of 26,000 deaths in Germany to a low of 4 in Ireland." (Gibbons, Recent Developments.)

Interrogation by torture of an accused witchDespite the involvement of church authorities, "The vast majority of witches were condemned by secular courts," with local courts especially noted for their persecutory zeal (Gibbons, Recent Developments). The standard procedure in most countries was for accused witches to be brought before investigating tribunals and interrogated. In some parts of Europe (e.g., England), torture was rarely used; but where the witch-hunts were most intensive, it was a standard feature of the interrogations. Obviously, a large majority of accused who "confessed" to witchcraft did so as a result of the brutal tortures to which they were exposed. About half of all convicted witches were given sentences short of execution. The unluckier half were generally killed in public, often en masse, by hanging or burning.

Being female hardly guaranteed that one would be suspected or accused of witchcraft. As Steven Katz notes, "statistical evidence ... makes clear that over 99.9-plus percent of all women who lived during the three centuries of the witch craze were not harmed directly by the police arm of either the state or the church, though both had the power to do so had the elites that controlled them so desired." (Katz, The Holocaust in Historical Context, Vol. I, p. 503.) Nor were all accused witches female. Nonetheless, the witch-hunts can be viewed as a case of "genderized mass murder," according to Katz (p. 503). He adds: "the overall evidence makes plain that the growth -- the panic -- in the witch craze was inseparable from the stigmatization of women. ... Historically, the most salient manifestation of the unreserved belief in female power and female evil is evidenced in the tight, recurrent, by-now nearly instinctive association of women and witchcraft. Though there were male witches, when the witch craze accelerated and became a mass phenomenon after 1500 its main targets, its main victims, were female witches. Indeed, one strongly suspects that the development of witch-hunting into a mass hysteria only became possible when directed primarily at women." (The Holocaust in Historical Context, Vol. I, p. 433 [n. 1], 436.) Katz draws out the depths of this misogyny through a comparison with anti-semitism:

The medieval conception of women shares much with the corresponding medieval conception of Jews. In both cases, a perennial attribution of secret, bountiful, malicious "power," is made. Women are anathematized and cast as witches because of the enduring grotesque fears they generate in respect of their putative abilities to control men and thereby coerce, for their own ends, male-dominated Christian society. Whatever the social and psychological determinants operative in this abiding obsession, there can be no denying the consequential reality of such anxiety in medieval Christendom. Linked to theological traditions of Eve and Lilith, women are perceived as embodiments of inexhaustible negativity. Though not quite quasi-literal incarnations of the Devil as were Jews, women are, rather, their ontological "first cousins" who, like the Jews, emerge from the "left" or sinister side of being. (Katz, The Holocaust in Historical Context, Vol. I, p. 435.)

Manuscript of the Malleus maleficarum, "the most
influential and widely used handbook on witchcraft."

Manuscript of the Malleus maleficarum (late 15th century)The classic evocation of this deranged misogyny is the Malleus maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches), published by Catholic inquisition authorities in 1485-86. "All wickedness," write the authors, "is but little to the wickedness of a woman. ... What else is woman but a foe to friendship, an unescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, domestic danger, a delectable detriment, an evil nature, painted with fair colours. ... Women are by nature instruments of Satan -- they are by nature carnal, a structural defect rooted in the original creation." (Quoted in Katz, The Holocaust in Historical Context, Vol. I, pp. 438-39.) "The importance of the Malleus cannot be overstated," argues Ben-Yehuda:

It was to become the most influential and widely used handbook on witchcraft. ... Its enormous influence was practically guaranteed, owing not only to its authoritative appearance but also to its extremely wide distribution. It was one of the first books to be printed on the recently invented printing press and appeared in no fewer than 20 editions. ... The moral backing had been provided for a horrible, endless march of suffering, torture, and human disgrace inflicted on thousands of women. (Ben-Yehuda, "The European Witch Craze," p. 11.)

An elderly witch is depicted feeding her satanic "familiars" (woodcut, 1579).
An elderly witch feeds her satanic 'familiars'Many scholars have argued that it was the women who seemed most independent from patriarchal norms -- especially elderly ones living outside the parameters of the patriarchal family -- who were most vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft. "The limited data we have regarding the age of witches ... shows a solid majority of witches were older than 50, which in the early modern period was considered to be a much more advanced age than today." (Brian P. Levack, The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe, p. 129.) "The reason for this strong correlation seems clear," writes Katz: "these women, particularly older women who had never given birth and now were beyond giving birth, comprised the female group most difficult to assimilate, to comprehend, within the regulative late medieval social matrix, organized, as it was, around the family unit." (The Holocaust in Historical Context, Vol. I, pp. 468-69.) As more women than men tended to survive into a dependent old age, they could also be seen disproportionately as a burden by neighbors: "The woman who was labeled a witch wanted things for herself or her household from her neighbors, but she had little to offer in return to those who were not much better off than she. Increasingly resented as an economic burden, she was also perceived by her neighbors to be the locus of a dangerous envy and verbal violence." (Deborah Willis, Malevolent Nurture: Witch-Hunting and Maternal Power in Early Modern England, p. 65.)

One theory, popularized by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English in their 1973 pamphlet Witches, Midwives, and Nurses, proposed that midwives were especially likely to be targeted in the witch-hunts. This assertion has been decisively refuted by subsequent research, which has established the opposite: that "being a licensed midwife actually decreased a woman's chances of being charged" and "midwives were more likely to be found helping witch-hunters" than being victimized by them. (Gibbons, Recent Developments; Diane Purkiss, The Witch in History.)

Condemned female witches are burned at the stake.
Condemned female witches are burned at the stake.Overall, approximately 75 to 80 percent of those accused and convicted of witchcraft in early modern Europe were female. Accordingly, Christina Larner's "identification of the relationship of witch-hunting to woman-hunting" seems well-grounded, as does her conclusion that the witch-hunts were "sex-related" if not "sex-specific." "This does not mean that simple overt sex war is treated as a satisfactory explanation for witch-hunting, or that the ... men who were accused are not to be taken into account." Rather, "it means that the fact that the accused were overwhelmingly female should form a major part of any analysis." (Larner, Enemies of God: The Witch-Hunt in Scotland, p. 3.)

Artistic rendering of a male witchMale "witches"

Robin Briggs calculates that 20 to 25 percent of Europeans executed for witchcraft between the 14th and 17th centuries were male. Regional variations are again notable. France was "a fascinating exception to the wider pattern, for over much of the country witchcraft seems to have had no obvious link with gender at all. Of nearly 1,300 witches whose cases went to the parlement of Paris on appeal, just over half were men. ... The great majority of the men accused were poor peasants and artisans, a fairly representative sample of the ordinary population." Briggs adds:

There are some extreme cases in peripheral regions of Europe, with men accounting for 90 percent of the accused in Iceland, 60 percent in Estonia and nearly 50 per cent in Finland. On the other hand, there are regions where 90 per cent or more of known witches were women; these include Hungary, Denmark and England. The fact that many recent writers on the subject have relied on English and north American evidence has probably encouraged an error of perspective here, with the overwhelming predominance of female suspects in these areas (also characterized by low rates of persecution) being assumed to be typical. Nor is it the case that the courts treated male suspects more favourably; the conviction rates are usually much the same for both sexes. (Briggs, Witches & Neighbours: The Social and Cultural Context of European Witchcraft, pp. 260-61.)

How many died?

"The most dramatic [recent] changes in our vision of the Great Hunt [have] centered on the death toll," notes Jenny Gibbons. She points out that estimates made prior to the mid-1970s, when detailed research into trial records began, "were almost 100% pure speculation." (Gibbons, Recent Developments.) "On the wilder shores of the feminist and witch-cult movements," writes Robin Briggs, "a potent myth has become established, to the effect that 9 million women were burned as witches in Europe; gendercide rather than genocide. [See, e.g., the witch-hunt documentary "The Burning Times".] This is an overestimate by a factor of up to 200, for the most reasonable modern estimates suggest perhaps 100,000 trials between 1450 and 1750, with something between 40,000 and 50,000 executions, of which 20 to 25 per cent were men." Briggs adds that "these figures are chilling enough, but they have to be set in the context of what was probably the harshest period of capital punishments in European history." (Briggs, Witches & Neighbours, p. 8.)

Brian Levack's book The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe arrives at roughly similar conclusions. Levack "surveyed regional studies and found that there were approximately 110,000 witch trials. Levack focused on recorded trials, not executions, because in many cases we have evidence that a trial occurred but no indication of its outcomes. On average, 48% of trials ended in an execution, [and] therefore he estimated 60,000 witches died. This is slightly higher than 48% to reflect the fact that Germany, the center of the persecution, killed more than 48% of its witches." (Gibbons, Recent Developments.)

Nonetheless, in the view of Gendercide Watch, even such a reduced and diffused death-toll should be considered "gendercidal," in that it inflicted mass gender-selective killing on European women. Such killing does not need to be totalizing, either in its ambitions or its impact, to meet the definitions of gendercide and genocide that we use. Indeed, it is arguable that at no other time in European history have adult women been targeted selectively, on such a scale, for torture and annihilation.

Who was responsible?

The medieval witch-hunts have long been depicted as part of a "war against women" conducted exclusively or overwhelmingly by men, especially those in positions of central authority. Deborah Willis notes that "more polemical" feminist accounts "are likely to portray the witch as a heroic protofeminist resisting patriarchal oppression and a wholly innocent victim of a male-authored reign of terror designed to keep women in their place." (Willis, Malevolent Nurture, p. 12.)

In fact, the stigmatizing, victimizing, and murdering of accused "witches" is more accurately seen as a collaborative enterprise between men and women at the local level. "The historical record suggests that both men and women found it easiest to fix these fantasies [of witchcraft], and turn them into horrible reality, when they were attached to women. It is really crucial to understand that misogyny in this sense was not reserved to men alone, but could be just as intense among women." Most of the accusations originated in "conflicts [that] normally opposed one woman to another, with men liable to become involved only at a later stage as ancillaries to the original dispute." Briggs adds that "most informal accusations were made by women against other women, ... [and only] leaked slowly across to the men who controlled the political structures of local society." At the trial level, his research on the French province of Lorraine found that

women did testify in large numbers against other women, making up 43 per cent of witnesses in these cases on average, and predominating in 30 per cent of them. ... A more sophisticated count for the English Home Circuit by Clive Holmes shows that the proportion of women witnesses rose from around 38 per cent in the last years of Queen Elizabeth to 53 per cent after the Restoration. ... It appears that women were active in building up reputations by gossip, deploying counter-magic and accusing suspects; crystallization into formal prosecution, however, needed the intervention of men, preferably of fairly high status in the community." (Briggs, Witches & Neighbours, pp. 264-65, 270, 273, 282.)

Deborah Willis's study of "Witch-Hunting and Maternal Power in Early Modern England" similarly finds it "clear ... that women were actively involved in making witchcraft accusations against their female neighbours":

[Alan] Macfarlane finds that as many women as men informed against witches in the 291 Essex cases he studied; about 55 percent of those who believed they had been bewitched were female. The number of witchcraft quarrels that began between women may actually have been higher; in some cases, it appears that the husband as "head of household" came forward to make statements on behalf of his wife, although the central quarrel had taken place between her and another woman. ... It may, then, be misleading to equate "informants" with "accusers": the person who gave a statement to authorities was not necessarily the person directly quarreling with the witch. Other studies support a figure in the range of 60 percent. In Peter Rushton's examination of slander cases in the Durham church courts, women took action against other women who had labeled them witches in 61 percent of the cases. ... J.A. Sharpe also notes the prevalence of women as accusers in seventeenth-century Yorkshire cases, concluding that "on a village level witchcraft seems to have been something peculiarly enmeshed in women's quarrels." To a considerable extent, then, village-level witch-hunting was women's work. (Willis, Malevolent Nurture, pp. 35-36.)

These comments and data serve as a reminder that gendercide against women may be initiated and perpetrated, substantially or predominantly, by "other women," just as gendercide against men is carried out overwhelmingly by "other men." The case of female infanticide can also be cited in this regard. Patriarchal power, however, was ubiquitous at all later stages of witchcraft proceedings. Men were exclusively the prosecutors, judges, jailers, and executioners -- of women and men alike -- in Europe's emerging modern legal system.

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