Witch Hunt (Historical)
General Information

Europe (particularly Spain and Germany; England and Italy to a lesser extent)


XV- XVIII centuries

The witch trials in the early modern period, alternately known as the Great Witch Craze, were a period of witch hunts that took place across early modern Europe and the European colonies in North America between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries.

Introduction to the Witch Hunt

The trials were sparked by the belief that malevolent Satanic witches were operating as an organized threat to Christianity. 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. Belief in the reality of magic and the existence of malevolent witches was widespread in Early Modern popular culture, but it was among the educated elite that the idea of witches as Devil-worshippers developed. The Roman Catholic Church had persecuted various heretical groups during the preceding Late Medieval, and it was from that context that the Early Modern witch trials emerged. The peak of the witch hunt was during the period of the European wars of religion, between circa 1580 and 1630. The hunts declined in the early eighteenth century with the growth of the Enlightenment and rationalism among the educated elites. Laws were implemented to bring about the end of organised persecution of accused witches, although sporadic lynchings of accused witches continued beyond the Early Modern.

Over the entire duration of the phenomenon of some three centuries, an estimated total of 40,000 people were executed. Among the best known of these trials were the Scottish North Berwick witch trials, Swedish Torsåker witch trials and the American Salem witch trials. Among the largest and most notable were 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). The sociological causes of the witch-hunts have long been debated in scholarship.
KF987881 942long

"Witch" thrown on a pyre, woodcut

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.

Academic scholarship on the subject has intensified since the 1970s, allowing for a sophisticated understanding of the trials. Meanwhile, alternative perspectives have also developed; the witch-cult hypothesis held that the witches persecuted were practitioners of a surviving pre-Christian religion, and has led to the formation of the Neo-Pagan religion of Wicca. The trials have since provided inspiration for various fictionalised portrayals in literature and film.

Beginning of the witch hunts during the 15th century

The earliest known witch trials in which the accused were associated with the fully developed stereotype of the demonic witch was in the Valais witch trials of 1428, which took place in communities of the Western Alps, in what was at the time Burgundy and Savoy. Here, the cause of eliminating the supposed Satanic witches from society was taken up by a number of individuals. The Basel Church Council, which had been attended by such anti-witchcraft figures as Johann Nider and Martin Le Franc, helped to standardize the stereotype of the Satanic witch that would be propagated throughout the rest of the trials. Men who had been at the Council of Basel went on to spread the ideas regarding demonic witchcraft throughout other parts of Europe in the ensuing years.


A copy of the infamous Malleus Maleficarum, c.1487 

The development of the printing press allowed for a number of books to be published which outlined the existence of demonic witchcraft and described how to deal with it; circulating throughout the literate sectors of Western Europe, they stimulated increased interest in the subject and advocated a coherent intellectual response to it. Works published in this vein included Johannes Nider's Formicarius (c.1435), Ulrich Molitor's De Lamiis (1489), and most famously Heinrich Kramer's Malleus Malificarum (The Hammer of the Witches). At the same time, printing allowed fictional stories about witches and magicians to be spread throughout the continent, such as the tales of Dr Faustus, thereby reinforcing the belief in malevolent practitioners of magic who interacted with the Devil and his demons.

Decline of the trials: 1650–1750

Main Article: Salem Witch Trials

Whilst the witch trials had begun to fade out across much of Europe by the mid-17th century, they continued to a greater extent on the fringes of Europe and in the American colonies. The clergy and the intellectuals began to speak out against the trials from the late 16th century. Johannes Kepler in 1615 could only by the weight of his prestige keep his mother from being burnt as a witch. '''The 1692 Salem witch trials''' were a brief outburst of witch hysteria in the New World at a time when the practice was already waning in Europe. In the 1690s Winifred King Benham and her daughter Winifred were thrice tried for witchcraft in Wallingford, Connecticut, the last of such trials in New England. While found innocent, they were compelled to leave Wallingford to settle in Staten Island, New York. In 1706 in Virginia, Grace Sherwood was tried by ducking and jailed for allegedly being a witch.

The 18th century witnessed increased urbanisation and technological development in Europe, which gave Early Modern society an increased belief in its own abilities to fashion the world; this led to a decreasing belief in the existence of invisible forces affecting humanity. Belief that Satan interfered in human affairs directly had also begun to wane. Belief in demons became rare among the educated elites, and thus a belief in demonic witchcraft eroded with it. Rationalist sceptics of the trials came to the opinion that the use of torture had resulted in erroneous testimony.

Identity of the accused

The majority of those accused were from the lower economic classes in European society, although in times of severe panic wealthier and high ranking individuals were accused as well, including priests, judges and in very rare cases members of the nobility. On the basis of this evidence, Scarre and Callow asserted that the "typical witch was the wife or widow of an agricultural labourer or small tenant farmer, and she was well known for a quarrelsome and aggressive nature."

Although it was far more common for them to be the accusers rather than the accused, in certain rare cases, children were put on trial for witchcraft. For instance, at one point during the Würzburg trials of 1629 children made up 60% of those accused, although this had reduced to 17% by the end of the year. Several decades later, in the late 1660s, children in Mohra, Sweden publicly claimed that adults had taken them to the witches' Sabbath. As a result, fifteen boys over the age of 16 were executed, while forty younger children were whipped.

Interrogation and torture

Main Article: Tools of torture

Various acts of torture were used against accused witches to coerce confessions and perhaps cause them to name their co-conspirators. The torture of witches began to increase in frequency after 1468 when the Pope declared witchcraft to be "crimen exceptum" and thereby removed all legal limits on the application of torture in cases where evidence was difficult to find.

In Italy, an accused witch was deprived of sleep for periods of up to forty hours. This technique was also used in England, but without a limitation on time. Sexual humiliation torture was used, such as forced sitting on red-hot stools with the claim that the accused woman would not perform sexual acts with the devil.

The use of torture has been identified as a key factor in converting the trial of one accused witch into a wider social panic, as those being tortured were more likely to accuse a wide array of other local individuals of also being witches.

Throughout the Salem series

In the course of the series, there are solvents reference to European witch-hunt. The parents of John Hale were burned alive, the same Elders escaped the dreadful hunt and the Countess Von Marburg is one of the last European witches remained alive.


This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia (view authors).

See Also