The Witches of Early Modern Europe

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The early modern European history was one of the darkest periods of humanity. Unimaginable number of victims accused of being witches died because of prejudices regarding witchcraft. The manifestations of people’s fear of witches in this period will be taken into consideration to be able to understand why the witch-hunt of the early modern period occurred.

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The Witches of Early Modern Europe


In this modern time the idea of witchcraft is far-fetched and seems irrelevant in society. In an era where most – if not all – of the things consist of either a scientific or structured explanation, the concept of witchcraft is considered a product derived from the tales and superstitions of humanity’s ancestors. The strong passionate beliefs towards witchcraft have existed hundred of years ago where it created a mass frenzy for the onslaught of witches. The reason why such thing happened is a crucial journey rooted from the beliefs of paganism and evolved into something that early societies feared, more specifically in early modern Europe.

Early modern Europe flourished between the ending years of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Industrial Revolution (1500-1700). This period of European history became the budding stage of significant development in society where human intelligence and capacity have been utilized to organize social institutions such as in politics, religion, and the arts. Early modern Europe encompassed essential stages which shaped European history where the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the early period of scientific and industrial revolution, and the Reformation occurred within this era.[1] The period of early modern Europe was a continuous flow of change where each sector of the society underwent revolutions in honing the identity of modern Europe. In the middle of a period where major changes occurred in societies, new beliefs and practices were introduced in the government, religion, and everyday routine. Some of these practices and beliefs stemmed from classical traditions and were either incorporated into the new social structures or feared by the people.

One of these beliefs that have the early modern European society grappled with fear would be the belief in witchcraft and witches. The myths and legends about witchcraft materialized the most during this period, where people perceived it as an underground reality which should be stopped. The following discussion will revolve around the idea on how this fear of witches manifests in early modern European society. Before delving into the discussion, it would be necessary to look at the historical origins of witchcraft and how it transformed as a subject of persecution in almost all countries in Europe. A chapter will be allotted to discuss where the concept of witchcraft has been derived and how it was recognized in pre-modern Europe. Subsequently, this paper will also touch on the arrival of Christian domination in Europe as the start of the intense crackdown against witchcraft, where the beliefs preached by the Catholic Church deeply influenced people’s perception thus transforming it into fear and anger towards witches.

In the hopes of providing a clear and coherent discussion of the crackdown of witches, the topics previously mentioned should provide the journey of the experiences of witchcraft in this period of European history. Analysis are embedded in to each chapters to give further understanding on how a mythical concept such as witchcraft stirred a grave seriousness in Europe where it became a focus for hundreds of years. In relations to other works made about witchcraft, its concept and practices are beyond the barriers of myth and magic. Witchcraft and the witches involved in the mad frenzy of early modern Europe were – and still are – considered a historical phenomenon.

Witch Beliefs in Pre-Modern Europe

The origins of witchcraft belief can be derived from a wide field of perspectives embedded in social, anthropological, and cultural traditions. Within the context of European history its traces can be found from different aspect of social rituals where Jeffrey Burton Russell defined witchcraft as: “a composite phenomenon drawing from folklore, sorcery, demonology, heresy, and Christian theology.”[2] Witchcraft mostly has been blamed with its association with Paganism where sorcery and magic play a major function in any witchcraft procedures. From the ancient times, the heavenly bodies and Mother Nature became tools for conducting the rituals of witchcraft. Just like our ancestors, early witches associated divine power and magical attributes to things that surround them such as the veneration for the sun and the mountain where heavenly deities communicate with mortals.[3]

Having high regard for Nature as a spiritual form of life, this particular aspect revolved into being religious in nature. Paganism is another form of religion where there is no particular God and witchcraft, having no established leader or structured ritual, has been classified under this. The concepts of spirits embodied by the creation of Nature were deeply believed and slowly, rituals have been formulated for humans to communicate with these spirits. From the early writings of ancient Greece and Rome, the manifestations of the activities of witches were first published. These activities refer to the secret societies formed to perform oracles to communicate with the spirits beyond the mortal world where participation was limited to the chosen ones.[4]

There were various classifications of witches to serve different purposes. Contrary to the early modern belief, witchcraft is utilized for the purpose of healing and as well as inflicting harm to others. In Greece, witches who specialized in herbal healing were called Pharmakis and for the Romans, witches which named as strix refers to a female who could change her form into an owl and considered as a type of vampire who kill sleeping infants.[5] As the performance of magic became more relevant in these ancient societies, the beliefs and images of witches expanded into science (such as in Alchemy), and into ordinary routines of life. From the high regard of pre-historic human, to the belief in spiritualism of nature, and to usage of magic derived from this belief, witchcraft continued to evolve as a growing social interest.

The preceding discussion talked about how witchcraft was a normal and understood aspect of ancient societies. It has depicted that in the ancient era, witchcraft has that freedom of being performed and an essential part of cultivating civilizations. Before Christianity was spread by the Roman Empire around Europe, witchcraft was practiced closely with the lifestyle of the people. As civilization progressed with nations starting to operate under sets of established laws the image of witchcraft transformed into a prohibited practice with its practitioners to be punishable by law. Witchcraft earned a negative reputation which will remain and dominate the early modern European societies.

Pre-Christian Context

 Before the dominion of Christianity reigned in most European countries, witchcraft took the turn from being a common practice in ancient times to be a crime committed which coincided in civilized stages of the ancient times. As early as 500 BC, laws against the practice of witchcraft were established most notably in the Twelve Tables – the earliest established laws of the Roman people. From here, witchcraft has been defined as similar to enchantment, sorcery, invocations of evil spirits, and other phases of black arts which have been considered as a public danger.[6]  In this context, witchcraft has been associated with different types of misfortunes such as damage in crops, natural disasters, plagues, etc. A specific law within the Twelve Tables stated in summary that:

 A man should not remove his neighbor’s crops to another field by incantations, nor conjure away his corn. For practicing incantations or administering poisonous drugs (the penalty was death)…Prophets were to be beaten and expelled from the city…those who took part in the exercise of magical and diabolical arts were to be crucified; the magicians themselves be burnt alive.[7]

Eventually, at this early history of Europe, witchcraft belongs to the same degree as the black arts and any form of divination fell under the same category. As these laws were strictly implemented, participating in any forms of magic or witchcraft have been mostly associated with minorities. This rooted from the secret societies that were established in ancient civilizations that were known for its underground activities which were thought to be conjure evil plots against the welfare of either the government or the people.

Christian Dominion

Christian teachings referring to witchcraft initially branded it as a form of superstition. However, as scriptures were being reinterpreted, the church fully embraced the concept of witchcraft as a product of evil which caused illnesses and other misfortunes due to the pact of its practitioners with the devil. Around 1484, Pope Innocent III issued a papal creed named the “Witch Bull” where witches and the black art were officially recognized as heretic deeds and should be punished.[8] The official statements and creeds penned by the Pope or any church officials became the basis for the people to develop that fear for witchcraft. Another significant work that has been published was the book entitled Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches). Written around 1486 by Dominican priests Henry Kraemer and James Sprenger, this book further described the process in which the pact with the devil is made, where witches engaged in sexual intercourse with the devils known as Incubi.[9] This particular was determined to be the primary cause of the witch-hunt which encapsulated early modern Europe. Though there were many misinformations within the published texts, the power of Christianity and the government which embodies it legitimizes its entire claim. The people in this period relied heavily on the Church’s teachings to sough an explanation and whenever there were occurring catastrophes, the society has witchcraft to serve as a scapegoat.

As previously mentioned, there was no era that gave focused on witchcraft than the period when Christianity became the reigning religion in most countries in Europe. From this dominion came the rise of the royal leadership where the power of the monarch has been bestowed by God. Nation-state building under the joint power of the Church and of the monarchy started the different notions against witchcraft which ignited the witch-hunt frenzy in the following years.[10]  The secularized monarch state became one of the primary causes of instigating a continental crackdown against witchcraft.

Since the power of the king and the queen was derived from God’s divinity, he or she became the embodiment of God much more regarded than the Pope. Monarchy has an absolute rule in all of its constituents and any forms of antagonizing the royal government were subjected to persecution. In this context, witchcraft was more associated with rebellion – a practice of people who were anti-government. The association of rebellion with witchcraft originated from a quotation in the gospel of 1 Samuel 15:23 stating that “For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft.”[11] With reference to the bible, rebellion against the monarch is a grave sin committed against God where witchcraft is considered as a tool for denouncing God’s leadership. The combined powers of the secularized monarchy and the strength of the Church’s influence prompted for the launch of the one of the most grueling event of the European history.

The Witch-Hunt

The ban against the practice of witchcraft immediately categorized it as a capital offense where the most common punishment – proven guilty or not – was death. Witchcraft became a religious and a political issue at the same time where its existence should not be allowed in the society. The witch-hunt became a tragic phenomenon where many were killed in early modern Europe. Amidst the flourishing of the logic and rational thinking the witch-hunt still became possible. From the previous chapter, it has been discussed that the published texts made by notable church personalities became the main instigator for people to be encouraged in witch-hunts.

There were earlier witch-hunts which occurred before but the height where the highest number of trials can be seen was around the early 16th century. The witch-hunt can be described as a movement to secure the powers and influence of Christianity for it was seen as a threat prior the 15th century where witchcraft was a normal part of everyday life. Another aspect is that the suspicious motives where witch-hunt was use as an instrument to cover up the flaws of the monarchical government. The concept of ‘witch-hunt’ has been defined by Gary Jensen as:

The use of prosecutorial machinery against member of a society (individuals or groups of people) based on contrived, exaggerated and/or suspect evidence in situations where a credible case can be made that the underlying motives for such a pursuit involved prejudice, disguised attempts to gain advantage, and the need to put the blame.[12]

Anyone who will be suspected as witches will be subjected to torture as part of the process of investigation. The number of victims remained as an unclear fact and studies conducted years later after the height of the hunt, scholars estimated a range of 60,000 up to 100,000 victims where Germany has the largest number of trials and about 75 percent of the victims were women.[13]

The most prominent fact upon the launch of the witch-hunt was that most of the suspected witches were associated to females. Going back to the work of the two Dominican priests, the book Malleus Malleficarum narrated full information about the definition of the witches by the Church. A passage of the book clearly indicated the attributes of the witches pertaining to women such as “old hags who didn’t weep, who were defective because of a bent rib” and beliefs such as witches can “make men impotent and devour new born babies.”[14] From this perspective, it can be interpreted that the fear of the people against the witches was the fear of the patriarch. This fear can serve as a symbolism for the insecurity from the capabilities that traditional practices pose – in which women were the major participants. In traditional culture, most women were healers fulfilling the role of the nurses, and midwives, as well as, in spiritual practices where women serve as priestesses to conduct spells for medicinal purposes.[15]

 In some ways, since this era of European history signified the budding stage of modernity, witch-hunt can be looked as a form of reaction from the new emerging world of innovations and new ideas. Spearheaded by the church, instigating the witch-hunt was one way of enforcing that religious authority should remain on top of the power to be able to conduct the moral behavior of its followers.

The church ‘needed’ an opponent. But it needed a special type of deviant opponent to redefine its legitimacy. Its (witch-hunt) purpose was to counteract and prevent change and to reestablish traditional socio-moral boundaries and religious authority. By persecuting witches, society, led by the church, attempted to redefine its boundaries.[16]

The witch-hunt cost many lives as a result of prejudices and baseless judgments impose on the suspected witches. This campaign, whatever motivations behind it, was a tremendous event in European history.


In the present time where history is being constantly re-evaluated, the witchcraft and the tragedies of the witch-hunt to humanity are seen merely as the production of human allusions of fear. Witchcraft will remain as part of mythology which became reality in the dark period of early modern Europe. The witch-hunt was indeed a tragic phenomenon in the history of western civilization. As an event which happened amidst the burgeoning stage of occurring changes, the fear for witches served as a representation of people’s apprehensions to the major cultural modification that was bound to happen after the hunt.

Perhaps it is most unlikely that such event will repeat in this modern time, for humanity has the experience of the first witch-hunt to use a guide and as a pattern for moral lesson. Just like any other event in history, this particular phenomenon should not be emulated and never to occur again. That tragedy was a clear evidence of human ignorance trapped in the conventional manipulative supervision of the people who used witchcraft as means for maintaining and sustaining self-interests. The witch-hunt was one of the earliest injustices inflicted to humanity much worse than the major world wars. The advancement of human reasoning and the wide horizons made available to the present generation should be enough for this kind of fear not to surface again in the future.

Works Cited

Barry, Jonathan., Hester, Marianne and Gareth Roberts. Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Brauner, Sigrid and Robert H. Brown. Fearless Wives and Frightened Shrews. USA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1995.

Collin, James B. and Karen L. Taylor. Early Modern Europe. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2006.

Ewen, C. L’Estrange. Witch Hunting and Witch Trails. USA: Kessinger Pubshing, 2003.

Farrar, Janet and Gavin Bone. Progressive Witchcraft. Franklin Lakes, NJ: Career Press, 2004.

Grimassi, Raven. Witchcraft and the Mystery Tradition. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Worldwide, 2004.

Jensen, Gary F. The Path of the Devil. United Kingdom: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007.

Johnstone, Nathan. The Devil and Demonism in Early Modern England. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Neusner, Jacob., Frerichs, Ernest., Virgil, Paul and McCracken Flesher. Religion, Science and Magic. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Perrone, Bobette., Stockel, H. Henrietta and Victoria Krueger. Medicine Women, Curanderas, and Women Doctor. USA: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989.

Russell, Jeffrey Burton. Witchcraft in the Middle Ages.New York: Cornell University Press, 1972.

Smoley, Richard and Jay Kinney. Hidden Wisdom. USA: Quest Books, 2006.

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[1] James B. Collin and Karen L. Taylor, Early Modern Europe (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2006) 1.
[2] Russell also stated that the best definition of witchcraft is one that recognizes change and development. Since witchcraft encompasses ideas stemming from different fields of human practices. See Jeffrey Burton Russell, Witchcraft in the Middle Ages, (New York: Cornell University Press, 1972) 23.
[3] Raven Grimassi, Witchcraft and the Mystery Tradition (St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Worldwide, 2004) 8.
[4] Ibid 10.
[5] Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone, Progressive Witchcraft (Franklin Lakes, NJ: Career Press, 2004) 18.
[6] C. L’Estrange Ewen, Witch Hunting and Witch Trails (USA: Kessinger Pubshing, 2003) 1.
[7] Ibid, 2.
[8] Bobette Perrone, H. Henrietta Stockel, and Victoria Krueger, Medicine Women, Curanderas, and Women Doctors (USA: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989) 169.
[9] Richard Smoley and Jay Kinney, Hidden Wisdom (USA: Quest Books, 2006) 133.
[10] Jonathan Barry, Marianne Hester, and Gareth Roberts, Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996) 96.
[11] Nathan Johnstone, The Devil and Demonism in Early Modern England (United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2006) 16.
[12] Gary F. Jensen, The Path of the Devil (United Kingdom: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007) 228.
[13] Sigrid Brauner and Robert H. Brown, Fearless Wives and Frightened Shrews (USA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1995) 5.
[14] Bobetter Perrone, et al., 169.
[15] Ibid, 170.
[16] Jacob Neusner, Ernest Frerichs, Paul Virgil, and McCracken Flesher, Religion, Science and Magic (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989) 237-238.

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