Historiography of Witchcraft in Europe and Colonial America

Table of Content


Witchcraft refers to the use of some type of magical or supernatural powers with an intention of causing pain or damage to members of a society or on their possessions. Different communities however argue that there is good witchcraft and bad witchcraft whereby the good witchcraft is that used to heal a person from the bad witchcraft. In historical times in early modern Europe, witchcraft was seen as a huge diabolical plan against Christianity. In Germanic Europe the accusations of witchcraft resulted to large extent of witch hunts. The practice of witchcraft began long in the early centuries and is still vivid in varying settings worldwide.

Thesis statement

Witchcraft is a practice that existed in the early historical times and still exists among different societies. Nevertheless people still seem to argue out whether the practice of witchcraft is a form of deception, magic trick, mental illusion or real. It therefore remains upon individuals and societies to accept the reality of witchcraft, remain fixed at a ground not knowing whether to reject the reality or turn the reality into some kind of psychological disorder.

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In the “Devil in the Shape of a Woman” Carol F. Karlsen, tries to prove that in the historical times in Europe and the colonial America different women suffered blames and prosecutions of witchcraft depending on their economic and social status (Ericson 67). For instance he agrees that witches in the 16th century and those of the early 17th century England were poor, though they were not the poorest women but moderately poor women. In addition Carol asserts that without a prosperous husband, wealth alone could not assist a woman escape from the accusations of witchcraft (Del & Diana 27).

Looking at the research of Karlsen it makes sense that in the American colonial era women were not in a position to defend themselves much. The scope of Karlsen’s study is in the 17th century in New England which correlates the women without living male relatives to the women accused of witchcraft. Karlsen employs the statistical studies of female witches by the presence or absence of brothers or sons in the New England between 1620 and 1725. This study proves very valuable in his study as it turns out that the majority of women accused and those executed had neither sons nor brothers. Her thesis is that women from all levels of social and economic status who stood to inherit something and had neither son, brothers nor husbands were vulnerable to the accusations of witchcraft.

In Karlsen’s study, Eunice Cole finds it difficult to evaluate the class position of the women accused of witchcraft. During the colonial period it was useless to use the class indicators such as the amount of property owned, income per annum, occupation and political offices in analyzing the position of women in the society. Even though there may be less evidence it can be noted that poor women both the penniless and those who could access some resources were over represented among the New England accused. For instance Eunice Cole and Ann Dolliver were either impoverished or living at a level of bare survival at the time of their accusation (Gabor 198).

During the Salem outbreak several women married to wealthy men were arrested but managed to escape with the influence of their husbands to other safety colonies. However those who were married to moderately well off families did not escape from the prosecution though they do not seem to be as vulnerable as their less prosperous counterparts. It is clear that the economic status of a woman could not stop her from being accused of witchcraft without a husband to act on her behalf. For example Boston’s Ann Hibbens, new haven’s Elizabeth Godman and Wethersfield’s Katherine Harrison were all tried as witches despite their large estates.

In contrast to this we can say that social status, especially marital status of a woman could provide her with protection against accusations. For example Hannah Griswold of Saybrook and Margaret Gifford of Salem who were all wives of affluent men, were not taken seriously by the courts when they were accused. In addition another instance of social status is that of the widowhood. This is a case of Margaret Thatcher who despite being a widow of one of the wealthiest merchants in Boston and principal heir to her father’s extensive wealth was repeatedly accused by the Salem judges. The unusual wealth she had and her social status may have facilitated her stay out of jail in 1698, but the most contributing factor was her position as a mother in law of Jonathan Corwin who was one of the Salem magistrates (Gabor 224).

Inheriting and potentially inheriting women were not only vulnerable to the allegations of witchcraft during the Salem outbreak but right from the time of the first formal accusations in the New England up to the end of the century. Even though there were vague information about the New England’s early witches it is obvious that Alice Young, Mary Johnson, Margaret Jones, Joan Carrington and Mary Parsons all of whom were among the executed in the late 1640s and 1650s were women without sons when the accusations were lodged on them.

In the Devils Snare, we find that Mary Beth Norton proves to be a brilliant historian with a great of imagination. In her book the, In the Devil’s Snare we find a new and a very recounting story of witchcraft at Salem. The setting in this novel is very large and the cast of characters is numerous. The gossip network is fast operating but the presence of the Indian wars on the Maine boundary puts everything in a different light. The Salem witchcraft disaster by Mary Beth Norton is a book that analyses different events of human life and societies in the early sixteenth century in Germany.  In this book the Indians seems to be the contributing factor in the persecution of witchcraft which gives the Salem witch trials a new look.

Norton her book uses the resources from the court documents which reveal the testimonies and confessions from the magistrates and judges. In addition Norton uses off the record comments from the town’s people in Salem. Charles Zika also views the Erica Jong’s novel, which is a play on the association between flying and the sexual experience of female. The scope of her study indicates that witch hunt in Salem began the Maine colonists came to Essex after the two Indian wars and being afraid of the further Indian attacks they projected their fears towards the accused witches thinking that their actions were similar to those of the Indian people. Her thesis is that the Salem witchcraft crisis is intertwined with the histories of King William’s and king Philip’s war (Mary 8).

Linda Hult’s article, Baldung and the Witches of Freiburg adds to Charles study on the Fear of Flying: Representations of Witchcraft and Sexuality in Early Sixteenth Century Germany. The thoughts of witchcraft hunt in this book seem to be influenced by the sexuality in the early 16th century German paintings on witchcraft and the sexuality of women by Han Baldung Grien and the analysis of other artists. Grien’s analysis shows how the German paintings in the 16th century about women and sexuality influenced the ideas behind the witch hunts. The scope of his study is the 16th century Germany having earlier stated the analysis of Baldung paintings by Hult and how they evolved over time into the satirical stereotypes of women sexuality.

The resources used by Hult include different paintings and illustrations made by Baldung and other followers that show many stereotypes about witches that are common even in today’s society.  In her thesis Hult claims that the factors of aesthetic purpose and the subjectivity of arts do require a cautious treatment whenever any art is used to point beyond itself to larger historical realities. In addition she claims that the ridicule of women and humanity was accompanied by fear of the women, the devil who gave them power and the moral danger represented by both of them (Eric 28).

The writing of Charles Zika about a woman mounted on forked stick, a broom or a blaze through the sky don’t seem to be knew as the flying was not only historically known to represent the figure of a witch but communicated the fears about the threat of the female sexuality. The European witch-hunt between the 15th and the 17th century as claimed by Charles constituted an attempt to realize the approach of dealing with the sexuality which was aimed at developing a determined program of moral reform. This was because the European witch hunt was related to the hitting on women and their culture.

The scope of Zika’s study occurs between the 16th and the 17th century in Europe predominantly in Germany. Zika speaks of how women’s sexuality is involved in witchcraft and how this idea is described by paintings and how the picture evolved from nonsexual period to the sexual period (Eric 28). Zika uses various paintings about witches such as those from Hans Baldung Grien’s arts and an array of witchcraft paintings from anonymous authors. The study of zika’s thesis is about how the fear of women sexuality forged the basis of the European witch crisis and the flying of witches in the visual representations produced within the German cultural arena during the first half of the 16th century.

Durer and Altdorfer are some of the sixteenth century German artists who have included the association between the female body and witchcraft in their works. However this association takes the most prominent position in the oeuvre of Hans Baldung Grien. The most outstanding example in Baldung Grien’s work is his painting of 1523 which is known as the weather witches. Baldung becomes successful in establishing the association between the woman and the viewers staring at a standing woman. He tries to draw up the characteristics of sexually available unmarried woman and the wild disturbances that she brings to the nature and the moral danger associated by their sexual attractions.

The women reveal both of them as witches who are symbolically bound by the drapery. As the women seated on the goat lifts the drapery to reveal the goat as their source of power, the drapery falls down revealing her genitals thus with that association sexuality is identified as the fundamental connection in this chain of evil power. The image shows that sexuality still wreaks havoc within the society through actions of the witches.

From Charles work, women sexuality in the sixteenth century Germany, it is important to note that many of the images of sexuality and witchcraft from the sixteenth century are far more symbolic statements which equate witchcraft with sexual lust. It helps in giving a contemporary understanding of female sexuality as found throughout this period (Crowe 203).

In Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart Essex, Macfarlane looks into the witchcraft which occurred in the England over the past 120 years. Just like Zika, Macfarlane tries to show the current anthropological analysis of witchcraft and sorcery. Macfarlane’s essay looks into the activities of witchcraft throughout the 16th and the 17th centuries in Essex, England. Macfarlane historical in his work explores previous historical sources, maps showing the countries which practiced the highest accusations of witchcraft and court documents which reflect different testimonies and confessions of women accused of witchcraft. In his thesis Macfarlane urges historians to continue and advance their study on the witchcraft accusations in England to give people a further understanding of these events.

Lyndal Roper article, Witchcraft and Fantasy in Early Modern Germany looks into a story of Anna Ebeler a maid who suffered the accusations of witchcraft after she was blamed for the death of a woman she was working for. Roper conducted her study in the seventeenth century in Augsburg Germany where she comes up with a theory that many of the accused in this region had either murdered a newly born baby or a woman who had just given birth.

Roper utilizes illustrations from ‘In the case of Anna Ebeler’, in writing her article. The illustrations in the case of Anna ebeler narrates the story of Anna right from the time she was confronted by the devil to the time she confessed for witchcraft and finally to the time she was executed. In addition to the illustrations from ‘In the Case of Anna Ebeler’, Roper uses court documents which provide fro testimonies and confessions (Butler 114).

 The thesis of Roper’s claims that the thinking of people from different eras is very different and therefore, no matter how much the research is done on a particular subject it will never be easy to understand the reason for people’s actions at a particular historical time. This is evident as she uses psychoanalysis in her efforts to comprehend the people of Augsburg Germany. These efforts failed because during the sixteenth century psychoanalysis had not been invented and thus people had a different process of thinking.

Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft is an article by Boyer and Nissembaum which discusses the trials for witchcraft in Salem. It provides a clear understanding of the operations in Salem which is a town in Essex Massachusetts. This article provides an extraordinary idea that one of the largest persecutions of witchcraft in the history of America happened in this town and later disappeared suddenly.

The sources used by Boyer and Nissembaum included the town records from Salem which aimed at displaying the population, favor or disfavor towards Samuel  parries and the reverend of Salem among others. In addition boyer and nissebaun refers to Bunyan’s book, the pilgrims process which is about a man who nearly gave into the temptations of a witch, Madame Bubble but because of the companion he had with the ‘Great Heart’ he succeeded in avoiding the temptations (Ferreiro154).The thesis of boyer and Nissembaum is that the ploy put together by reverend Samuel Parris and his supporters like the Putnam family aimed at retaining the church of the Salem village became the starting point for the witch hunt.


The historiography of witchcraft in Europe and Colonial America indeed involves many historical essay of witchcraft whose scope mainly ranges between the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries. The essays are made of different stories which reflect different witchcraft accusations on different people. In addition different investigators provide insight to help explain the phenomenon of witchcraft thus their studies contribute to our understanding of witchcraft in the 16th and the 17th centuries.

Works cited

  1. Ericson, Eric. A Bibliographical and Catalogue of Witches. New York: Mayflower, 1981.
  2. Ferreiro, Alberto. Simon Magus the Historiography and customs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
  3. Del, Cervo, and Diana, Michael. Witchcraft in Europe and America: Guide to the Witchcraft Study. Woodbridge, CT: Research Publications, 1983.
  4. Butler J.O. “Witchcraft healing Historians Crazes.” Journal of Social History 18.2 (1984):56-69.
  5. Crowe, Martha J. The Prosecution of Witchcraft Suspects Millwood: KJO Press, 1971.
  6. Mary, B. Norton. In the Devils Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002.
  7. Eric, Midelfort. Witch Hunting in Germany, 1562-1684. New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1972.
  8. Gabor, Hungary. The Witchcraft allegations in Early contemporary European. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.


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Historiography of Witchcraft in Europe and Colonial America. (2016, Oct 07). Retrieved from


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