The Oxford Biblical Studies Online and Oxford Islamic Studies Online have retired. Content you previously purchased on Oxford Biblical Studies Online or Oxford Islamic Studies Online has now moved to Oxford Reference, Oxford Handbooks Online, Oxford Scholarship Online, or What Everyone Needs to Know®. For information on how to continue to view articles visit the subscriber services page.
Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD REFERENCE (www.oxfordreference.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2023. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single entry from a reference work in OR for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

Subscriber: null; date: 08 June 2023


The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation

E. William Monter


Conceptually defined and punished long before the Reformation, witchcraft became a serious concern throughout Christendom primarily during the confessional century (1560–1660). Although belief in the efficacy of harmful sorcery has flourished in many human societies, only in Christian Europe did such fears ever engender massive numbers of trials and executions of suspected witches, the vast majority of whom were women.

The shaping of witchcraft doctrine was a long and complicated process. At its base lay the ancient notion of malevolent sorcery, or maleficium, which was feared and punished by Greek and Roman laws. Spells—manipulating occult and evil deities by both incantations and the skillful use of physical objects to perform the sorcerer's will—populate classical and medieval literature alike. A few enlightened pagans scoffed at sorcery, while the church fathers warned that such magic was necessarily diabolic, but most people never doubted that it worked. The Christian successor states to the Roman Empire continued to criminalize maleficium because it was directly harmful to people or property. Although such trials seem to have been extremely rare before 1300, it is known that later medieval Europeans, who left more abundant records, prosecuted hundreds of people for maleficium.

Before maleficium could become witchcraft, it had to be diabolized. The notion that inexplicable misfortunes somehow proceeded from the Devil was an old Christian idea, but the process by which maleficium resulted from a formal pact between the Devil and a sorcerer developed gradually in medieval Europe. The most important precondition for the eventual diabolization of maleficium was undoubtedly the diabolization of thirteenth-century heretics. In 1233, relying on information from a German inquisitor, Pope Gregory IX issued the bull Vox in Rama, which described both the obscene forms of homage offered by heretics and the promiscuous nocturnal orgies in which they engaged afterward. Bulls by later popes, such as that issued by John XXII in 1318, reinforced the notion that religious dissenters—generally Waldensians, who, in fact, led exemplarily plain and sober lives—were really Devil-worshipers who engaged in nocturnal orgies.

There was, however, no obvious link between heretics and sorcerers. Soon after 1300 a few prominent people, including two French bishops and a deceased pope, were accused of practicing ritual magic through invocations of devils. In 1324 a prominent Irish woman, Lady Alice Kyteler, and several associates were charged with harmful sorcery allegedly performed with diabolic aid. In this, the first occasion when a group of people were tried for diabolic maleficia, a few lesser defendants were eventually burned or otherwise punished, although Lady Alice escaped. When trials for sorcery performed through a diabolic pact resumed much later in the century, defendants were no longer prominent. Two such cases appear in the earliest surviving dossier of criminal cases tried by Europe's greatest secular tribunal, the Parlement of Paris. A sorceress and her client were tortured and burned for performing love magic through diabolic aid in 1390; a similar case a year later produced an identical result.

Even with maleficium partially diabolized by 1400, the concept of witchcraft still largely lacked the notion of nocturnal flights to diabolic assemblies. Apparently such beliefs were strongest in Italy. The earliest known trials involving night-flying took place before the inquisitors of Milan between 1384 and 1390, when two women were convicted and burned for attending the nocturnal “society” of a supernatural queen called Signora Oriente. Although the goddess instructed them in magical healing and in forms of divination for theft and sorcery, there is no trace of maleficium in either trial. In Italy in 1428, before a secular court in the Papal States, the first detailed confession occurred in which all the elements of diabolism, harmful sorcery, and nocturnal flight to witches' assemblies were finally—and lethally—combined.

The first treatise describing the witch cult, Johann Nider's Formicarius, was composed during the Council of Basel in the mid-1430s, reworking information about heresy trials provided by a secular judge from Bern and a Dominican inquisitor from Lausanne. Within a decade the private secretary of the antipope elected by this council produced the first literary portrait of witches in a long French poem mistitled Le champion des dames Ladies. (The margins of an early copy contain the first drawing of witches flying on broomsticks.) By 1440 full-fledged witch trials began to be recorded in regions loyal to the antipope elected at Basel—for example, in French Switzerland and such nearby Alpine districts as Savoy and Dauphiné. At about the same time, a German-Swiss chronicler described the first collective persecution of witches in southern Switzerland, backdating the event to 1428. He claimed that more than a hundred people had been burned by judges of the prince-bishop of Sion because they had flown on chairs to wild nocturnal assemblies, where the Devil appeared in bestial form and urged them to commit maleficia.

Three points should be noted about these fifteenth-century trials. First, as Richard Kieckhefer has shown, diabolism was usually interjected into sorcery cases by ecclesiastics: 54 percent of sorcery cases tried by church courts included diabolic elements, compared with only 11 percent of sorcery cases tried by secular courts (and only 6 percent of sorcery cases recorded in vernacular languages rather than Latin). Moreover, diabolism is entirely absent from extant testimony against accused witches though frequently present in witches' confessions obtained under torture. Finally, the doctrine of the witches' sabbath emerged primarily in mountainous districts between Dauphiné and northern Italy, replete with Waldensian heretics. In some of these regions the earliest vernacular term describing witches was derived from “heretic” or “Waldensian”; in such places, where the same inquisitors tried Waldensians in 1430 and witches a decade later, women made up a small minority of suspects.

More than thirty treatises dealing with witchcraft were composed during the fifteenth century by clerics, lawyers, and philosophers, reflecting a reciprocal interplay between trial evidence and theory in their descriptions and explanations of witchcraft doctrine. In 1486, however, the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of [Female] Witches) provided a landmark in the spread of witch trials. Although it had little to say about diabolic pacts and never mentioned witches' assemblies or night-flying, the Malleus remained important for several reasons. It provided the first detailed guidebook for conducting a witch trial. Its popularity was unparalleled: it was printed fourteen times between 1487 and 1520. Although written by two inquisitors who had conducted many witch trials, it encouraged secular judges to pursue suspected witches. Last, but far from least, the Malleus (whose authors had not long before tried two men and forty-eight women for witchcraft in southern Germany) insisted by its title and emphasized in its text that virtually all witches were women.

No further editions of the Malleus Maleficarum appeared between 1520 and 1580, when a second cycle began. From the beginning of Martin Luther's revolt until the onset of confessionalization in Protestant and Catholic Europe around 1560, witchcraft trials rarely exceeded fifteenth-century levels. Officials of both church and state seemed far more preoccupied with prosecuting Anabaptists in the empire and “Lutherans” in western and southern Europe than in punishing sorcerers for diabolic pacts. Only the Devil himself settled accounts with a Renaissance magus like Doctor Faustus, who in real life wandered unhindered through Germany during the zenith of Reformation activity.

Once mainstream Protestantism and Tridentine Catholicism had begun to settle into confessional blocs, witch hunting resumed across Christendom. Luther applauded the execution of four witches at Wittenberg in 1541. John Calvin encouraged Geneva's magistrates to “extirpate the race of witches” from a rural district in 1545, resulting in eight trials and three deaths. The general resumption of witch hunting around 1560, however, took place on a totally unprecedented scale. After the final triumph of Calvin's political allies, Geneva tried about ninety witches within fifteen years (1556–1570), executing more than thirty of them. In southwestern Germany, where handfuls of incidents had resulted in the executions of only one or two witches at a time before 1560, a witch-hunting panic at Lutheran Weissenstieg in 1563 resulted in sixty-three executions. Witch trials reappeared during the 1560s in the records of Christendom's largest appellate court, the Parlement of Paris. Recorded witch trials began then in such places as the Channel Islands and parts of French Switzerland; in more remote European regions, such as Norway and Hungary, recorded trials and executions of witches began around 1570. Edicts criminalizing witchcraft were proclaimed for the first time in both newly confessionalized kingdoms of the British Isles, England and Scotland, in 1563.

By 1580, when the Malleus Maleficarum was finally reprinted and other demonologies by such well-known authors as Jean Bodin also appeared, witch hunting was enormously extensive and intensive across Europe. In three major Swedish towns witch trials became seven times more common after 1580 than before. Essex, England's most witch-ridden county, conducted more trials during the 1580s than in any other decade, as did the Parlement of Paris. Across the western edge of the Holy Roman Empire, in the great duchies of Luxembourg and Lorraine, recorded trials and executions of witches mushroomed spectacularly after 1580, as they did in Switzerland's most witch-ridden zone, the Pays de Vaud.

The heartland of witch hunting in confessional Europe, however, was the Germanic core of the Holy Roman Empire; anyone trying to grasp the true scale of this phenomenon between 1560 and 1660 must begin there. Oddly enough, the best available guide to the size of witch hunts in the old Reich (a source that remained unknown to western scholars until 1980) was assembled on orders from a leader of the Nazi Reich, Heinrich Himmler. A special branch of the SS (Schutzstaffel), with unparalleled access to archives throughout Nazi-ruled Europe, collected information on approximately thirty thousand witch trials, the vast majority of which occurred in Germanic lands during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Although this mountain of Nazi-era documentation has yet to be fully explored, some provisional conclusions about the general pattern of witch hunting in Germany and the rest of Europe can be made. First, at least twenty thousand witches probably died in the Holy Roman Empire, which included modern Austria and Switzerland. Second, more witches were tried and executed in the empire than in the rest of Christendom combined, although some witches were killed almost everywhere from Iceland to Muscovy during the seventeenth century.

Both in Germany and elsewhere a large majority (usually around 80 percent) of executed witches were female. Witchcraft was by far the most common and widespread capital crime in Reformation Europe to be strongly skewed toward adult women. Sometimes—for example in the English county of Essex or the Belgian province of Namur—more than 90 percent of executed witches were women; the highest known ratio of men in any area where there were numerous accusations can be found in the Pays de Vaud of French Switzerland, where one-third of the thousand witches executed between 1580 and 1620 were male. Notions of female inferiority were the veriest commonplaces of sixteenth-century Europe; both the demonologists and their critics shared a misogynistic streak. Women's presumed weakness of body and intellect left them few means of empowerment other than relying on the Devil and his evil spells to strike back at their enemies—or so many people thought, fearing the maleficia usually wrought by old women.

Many accused German witches died during witch-hunting panics, which were produced by chain-reaction accusations of one's “accomplices” or fellow witches seen at sabbaths, nearly always made under torture. Erik Midelfort, in an exemplary investigation of such panics (defined as episodes resulting in twenty or more deaths in one place in one year), concluded that they were socially dysfunctional phenomena that usually occurred in the smaller independent territories of the empire, especially in ecclesiastical principalities. Although there were few measurable confessional differences in the severity of witch hunts during the sixteenth century, after 1600 Catholic districts tended to be significantly worse, averaging more than twice as many executions per trial as did Protestant regions (8.6 vs. 3.5). The worst of the known witch-hunting episodes anywhere in Europe occurred in the ecclesiastical principalities of Catholic Franconia, Würzburg, and Bamberg during an especially bleak, famine-ridden phase of the Thirty Years' War (1627–1632). Once such a panic got underway, the use of extensive torture to seek out further “accomplices” made it self-perpetuating until all plausible suspects had been eliminated. Arresting prominent women and men eventually provoked a crisis of confidence in the legal machinery of witch hunting and thus the abandonment of organized persecution, but by then hundreds of witches had already died. In southern Germany six places executed more than 250 witches each, and another ten places executed at least a hundred.

Various arguments have been advanced to explain differences between Protestant and Catholic styles of witch hunting. Midelfort, working with evidence showing far greater Catholic severity in southern Germany, suggested that the region's Lutherans adopted a “providentialist” explanation for such natural disasters as hailstorms, events that often provoked witch hunts. “Witchcraft in itself can do nothing,” proclaimed Johannes Brenz, Württemburg's leading theologian, and evangelical Christians must accept God's chastisements in the spirit of Job. Catholic spokesmen, reacting against all Protestant positions during the seventeenth-century apogee of confessionalism, abandoned any providentialist emphasis. The only avenue of opposition still open to German Catholics after 1600 was criticism of witch-hunting methods. This could be eloquent and influential, however, as in the Cautio Criminalis printed anonymously at the height of episcopal panics (1631) but written by a Jesuit, Friedrich Spee.

Sometimes, as in French Switzerland, Protestant governments persecuted witches even more severely than Catholics did, and there were several solidly Protestant blocs of northern Europe where witch hunting was introduced only after the Reformation. Different circumstances require different explanations. The most influential argument comes from Keith Thomas, who suggested that post-Reformation England eliminated many traditional ecclesiastical remedies for dealing with the effects of sorcery and magic but put nothing new in their place. Pious Protestants fought witchcraft with prayer and fasting but despised exorcisms as superstitious magic. Consequently, Protestants were ritually defenseless against various forms of maleficium and easily provoked to accuse witches rather than face inexplicable misfortune with the Job-like stoicism their theologians recommended.

It is disturbing to realize that the two most powerful criticisms of the whole witch-hunting mentality (one by a Protestant, one by a Catholic) were published early in the confessional century, near the start of the age of witch panics and of the most intensive persecution. Johann Weyer's De praestigiis daemonum, printed in 1563, constitutes the most thorough challenge to orthodox witchcraft doctrine. It was also the bulkiest, virtually doubling in size from five books and 479 pages in its original edition to six books and 934 pages in its sixth and final version in 1583. Weyer, a court physician to Duke William V of Cleves in northwestern Germany, embraced a Protestant standpoint in attributing all the maleficia of witches to the “illusions and spells of demons” of his title; but his originality and significance rest largely on the medical explanations that he offered for the behavior and confessions of these accused women. What really afflicted witches, Weyer claimed, was not some imaginary Satanic pact but the real disease of melancholy. Instead of punishment, they needed treatment.

Weyer's diagnosis of witches' melancholia provoked him to extensive reconsideration of witchcraft's theological implications and legal consequences. His radicalism required him to invalidate the injunction of Exodus 22:18 against permitting witches to live on the grounds that the Hebrew text referred only to poisoners. He tried to explain how the delusions about witches' sabbaths were produced, including a discussion of hallucinogens (book 3, chapters 17–18). Weyer devoted two books to the victims of witches' supposed maleficia and how to treat them. His final section proposed legal reforms that would not only reduce or even eliminate the physical punishment of witches but also greatly increase the penalties against Faustian magicians. Weyer's tolerance of accused witches, however, was also informed by a misogyny reminiscent of the Malleus Maleficarum: women were “that sex which by reason of temperament is inconstant, credulous, wicked, uncontrolled in spirit, and (because of its feelings, which it governs only with difficulty) melancholic; [the Devil] especially seduces stupid, worn-out, unstable old women” (book 3, chapter 6).

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne's inconspicuous discussion of witches in his essay “On Lameness,” first published in 1588, contrasts with Weyer's enormous length; but its criticism of the conventional wisdom about diabolic witchcraft is no less fundamental. This skeptical jurist (and typical Renaissance misogynist) asserted that people should not be believed about their supernatural activities. After thorough questioning of an old witch who had admitted her guilt, Montaigne boasted that his judgment was not “throttled much by preconceptions” but “in the end, and in all conscience, I would have prescribed medicine rather than execution.”

Montaigne's dry voice was soon drowned out by a cacophony of new demonologies after 1580, coinciding with the reappearance of the Malleus Maleficarum. Weyer's bulky work appeared in six German translations and two French versions before Montaigne's essay of 1588, but none afterwards. The Démonomanie des sorciers, a detailed refutation of Weyer by the famous French jurist Jean Bodin, appeared in 1580; it enjoyed a moderate literary success, including translations, about equal to Weyer's. New demonologies appeared among Catholics, including those of the episcopal vicar of Trier, Peter Binsfeld (1589); the Lorraine privy councillor Nicholas Remy (1595); and the Belgian Jesuit Martin Del Rio (1599), whose work rivaled Weyer's in length and the Malleus in popularity. The most important Protestant demonology during this period was published by a monarch, James VI of Scotland, in 1597. Although Weyer was never decisively refuted, witch-hunting panics reached new peaks in many parts of Germany in the 1590s. Events eventually overtook both the German physician and the French skeptic.

Nowhere was the contrast between erudite demonology and witch-hunting practice more flagrant than in the flagship of the German Counter-Reformation, the duchy of Bavaria. Prolonged debates after a 1590 witch-hunting panic eventually resulted in the publication of Europe's most elaborate legislation against the crime of witchcraft, a forty-page edict promulgated in 1611, which remained in force for two centuries. Yet this ferocious-sounding law (for example, a year in jail on bread and water merely for consulting a fortune-teller) actually inaugurated a period of sharply reduced trials and executions in Bavaria. In 1612 a district judge who had convicted and executed nine witches was himself imprisoned, tortured, and ultimately beheaded at Munich in 1613 for employing illegal procedures in witch trials. Comparable scruples dominate the history of witchcraft cases tried before the premier Catholic court system, the Parlement of Paris (where Bodin failed to have witchcraft classified as an “exceptional” crime, for which confessions might be verified through torture), which after 1589 made repeated and generally successful efforts to restrain overzealous local prosecutors. The Bavarian case curiouslys parallels the Protestant example of James Stuart, witch interrogator and demonologist of the 1590s, who became acutely skeptical about witchcraft charges around 1610, seven years after becoming James I, king of England.

In Mediterranean Catholic lands witchcraft remained a “mixed” crime subject to either ecclesiastical or secular courts. Here three great Inquisitions—the Spanish (1478), Portuguese (1536), and Roman (1542)—claimed jurisdiction over witchcraft, with interesting results. All three were deeply concerned about any form of diabolism, especially the witches' pact with the Devil and the rituals of the sabbath, but cared little about the witches' maleficia. Consequently, relatively few suspects were denounced to these Inquisitions by frightened and angry victims of witches' spells, and extremely few witches were ever executed by any Holy Office during the age of the great hunts: none, so far as is known, by the Roman Inquisition; one by the Portuguese, in 1626; and about a dozen by the Spanish Inquisition, all between 1549 and 1610.

Most of these Spanish Inquisitorial trials were an aberration, provoked by a Pyrenean spillover from a French witch-hunting panic in 1609 and conducted without regard to the Inquisition's long-established guidelines on witchcraft. In 1538, for example, Spain's Holy Office warned its officials that they should not believe the Malleus Maleficarum, even if its author “writes about it as something he himself has seen and investigated, for … he may have been mistaken, as others have been.” The 1609 panic was soon stopped through the efforts of a skeptical inquisitor, Alonso Salazar y Frias, who conducted empirical tests of witches' salves and ointments and even attempted individual on-site, minutely detailed verifications of the confessions of witches who claimed to have attended the same sabbath. (Two of Salazar's nine groups of four witches still agreed in all essential details.) No inquisitor, including Salazar, denied that witchcraft existed. The crucial question, which had split the Spanish Inquisition's policy committee in 1526, was whether witches attended the sabbath in reality or in imagination and thus whether their diabolic apostasy was imaginary. With a few exceptions inquisitors remained skeptical about witches' flights to sabbaths, because the soul could not leave the body, and the body could not fly. Thus, they tended to treat witchcraft as superstition rather than actual heresy and to punish it mildly. Henry Charles Lea, no apologist for the Holy Office, long ago praised the “wisdom and firmness of the Inquisition” for making witch hunting “comparatively harmless” in Spain.

Even if they did not execute witches, inquisitors were nonetheless tempted to diabolize folklore. One fascinating example is the transformation of the benandanti of Friuli, originally agrarian magicians, chosen by virtue of having been born with cauls, who claimed to engage in ritual battles against witches in order to protect the fertility of the next harvest. Around 1580 the Roman Inquisition began to investigate this superstition. By 1650 benandante had become a synonym for “witch.” Without employing torture the Friuli inquisitors persuaded the boastful members of this fertility cult that they could not “go out” at night to confront witches without employing the same essentially diabolic techniques as the witches themselves used. The benandanti, however, admitted attending sabbaths only after the Roman Inquisition had adopted rigidly skeptical procedures toward investigating witches in an Instructio of 1623, so none of them ever risked a death sentence.

In their attitudes toward witchcraft, as in so much else, the Protestant states of northern Europe stood at the opposite extreme from the major Mediterranean Inquisitions. From Iceland to Estonia these northern lands continued to punish numerous cases of maleficium, but, except for Scotland, with its demonologist monarch, James VI, they paid relatively little attention to collective acts of diabolism. Historians trace the first appearance of elements of witches' sabbaths (always in incomplete forms) in England to 1612; in Sweden to 1596; and in Denmark not until 1632. In Finland, as the direct extension of a major witch-hunting panic in northern Sweden, the witches' sabbath seems to have reached the western coast (populated mostly by Swedes) around 1670. In the most remote northern areas, such as Estonia or Iceland, it never seems to have developed at all.

Most of Protestant northern Europe intensified its prosecutions of harmful sorcery slightly later than did central Europe. Denmark, where the future demonologist James VI (James I of Great Britain) first learned about diabolic witchcraft, did not define this crime until 1617, and its most important outbreak of trials immediately followed; Norway, a Danish dependency, held almost 85 percent of its 863 witch trials during the seventy years after 1617. Sweden, which punished harmful sorcery in its medieval national code, never revised these laws, and its most important witch hunt did not begin until 1668. Over 70 percent of Finland's 710 witch trials occurred in the second half of the seventeenth century. The kingdom of Scotland, whose witchcraft statute was passed in 1563 and whose first important witch panic dates from 1591, was relatively precocious and extraordinarily severe in hunting witches. Although only seventeen people were hanged in England's worst panic (Essex, 1645), almost 250 special commissions “for tryall and burning” were issued in one Scottish county in 1649—a panic resembling the very worst German cases.

Northern European court systems, rarely affected by Roman law and relying instead on accusatory procedure and jury systems, usually forbade the use of torture, thereby making German-style witch-hunting panics all but impossible. Jury convictions were not difficult to obtain, however, especially when plaintiffs alleged serious forms of maleficium. In Denmark, for example, more than two-thirds of 1,715 testimonies against accused witches involved causing illness of human begins (30 percent), deaths of human beings (16 percent), or the death and illness of cattle (22 percent). In Norway, 32 percent of about four hundred instances of maleficia concerned human illness or injury, while 22 percent involved human death, and, in a region more dependent on fishing than on dairying, more charges involved nautical misfortunes (sunken ships or sudden storms) than illness or death of livestock. In England, modern scholarship on witchcraft—concentrating on the social dynamics between accusers and accused rather than on the type of maleficia—has revealed that accused witches were usually less well-off than their accusers and had often cursed or bewitched people who had refused to give them food or lend them something. Personality also played a part: the essential witch trait, according to Christina Larner, was “a ready, sharp and angry tongue. The witch had the Scottish female quality of smeddum: spirit, a refusal to be put down, quarrelsomeness.” Protestant Europe had problems digesting the lesson of Job.

In eastern Europe, where Catholicism eventually overcame serious challenges, witchcraft trials developed even later than in northern Europe. In the best-studied region, Hungary, trials multiplied only after the Turkish occupation ended; nearly two-thirds of its 472 known executions for witchcraft occurred between 1690 and 1760. The larger kingdom of Poland apparently followed a similar pattern: more than half of its known executions for witchcraft took place between 1676 and 1725, or after its mid-seventeenth-century devastations had ended. In both lands the spread of diabolism can be traced to areas populated by ethnic Germans or to those closest to the Germanic empire.

Moreover, both kingdoms lacked any central appellate jurisdiction to mitigate the severity of local courts; wherever such courts exercised effective control, witch hunting remained within relatively narrow limits. It is extremely instructive to compare the huge jurisdiction of the Parlement of Paris—which diminished the vast majority of more than 1,200 local court sentences in witchcraft cases it reviewed between 1565 and 1640–with the ineffective appellate court system of the Holy Roman Empire, the Reichskammergericht, which emitted equally lenient sentences to those who appealed their witchcraft convictions but lacked the authority to enforce its decisions. Many other European states, such as Scotland and Denmark, had appellate jurisdictions that ruled on only a fraction of their witch trials. It is extremely rare to find a parallel to the Parlement of Paris, which as early as 1602 required that all sentences in witchcraft cases be reviewed by them and quashed all but a handful of the death sentences imposed by lower courts.

Modern research on witch hunting in Reformation Europe has uncovered much about various popular beliefs that was interwoven with the synthesis of maleficium and diabolism. Many were essentially local concerns, ranging from the British belief in animals that were “witch's familiars” and the Hungarian belief in vampires, to the belief in “good” witches, such as the benandanti and related varieties of shamans extant in eastern and southern Europe. Such beliefs merged awkwardly with official demonology. Some widespread popular concerns, such as the belief in werewolves, were deemed irrevelant by both Protestant and Catholic demonology. Other popular practices helped to provoke witchcraft accusations, as, for example, the ubiquitous folk healers and diviners—the motley army of “cunning folk,” devins-guérisseurs, and wahrsagers scattered across Christendom—who might also turn up among the accused if their diagnoses failed. A few elements of demonology, such as the Devil's mark, an anesthetic scar on the witch's body (stressed primarily in Protestant areas), gradually passed into local folklore.

The most important transconfessional phenomenon related to seventeenth-century European witch hunting, however, was the belief in diabolic possession. It proved particularly dangerous because it enabled the victim to identify the responsible witch even while displaying symptoms of bewitchment in public. Moreover, it could become a group condition, affecting children, adolescents, or communities of nuns, creating circumstances that could lead to multiple accusations and thereby to a witch-hunting panic. Some of the most famous and sinister episodes in the history of seventeenth-century witchcraft—from the accusations against the Jesuit Urbain Grandier by the Ursulines of Loudun (1632–34) to the outbreak at Puritan Salem in 1693–began in this manner. While Catholics possessed the spiritual weapon of exorcism and the supernatural power of a transubstantiated Host to expel demons, Protestants had no practical remedies for possession except prayer and fasting. Since exorcisms were not infallible, Catholics also resorted to prosecution in order to punish the witches responsible for causing such possessions.

The decline of witch hunting remains one of the most perplexing etiologic problems confronting contemporary scholarship on witchcraft. It seems obvious that no decisive new arguments were advanced during the seventeenth-century scientific revolution in order to discredit it. Protestant and Catholic authors continued to affirm its reality; John Wesley was not alone in claiming that “giving up witchcraft is, in effect, giving up the Bible.” The only Protestant clergyman with sufficient temerity to do so, Balthasar Bekker of the Dutch Reformed church, was defrocked after publishing his skeptical history of the Devil and his powers, De betooverde Wereld (The Enchanted World), in 1693. Nevertheless, the decriminalization of witchcraft proceeded apace in western Europe's leading monarchies, from Jean-Baptiste Colbert's statute of 1682 defining maleficium as either imposture or poisoning to the formal repeal of England's witchcraft statutes in 1736. Witch trials continued to be held, however, and not only in eastern Europe. In Bavaria and neighboring lands they occurred in fourteen different years between 1750 and 1775, when the last known German witch died at Kempten. The last known execution of a legally convicted witch occurred in the Swiss Protestant canton of Glarus in 1782. Elite lay culture finally ended witch hunting during the eighteenth century, an age replete with humorous portraits of lame and harmless devils and concluding with such masterful satires as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Walpurgisnacht (1808) and Francisco de Goya's Los caprichos (1796). What actually declined was the fear of the Devil and therefore of his maleficia, at least among the ruling classes of western Europe.

See also Astrology; Magic; and Women.


Ankarloo, Bengt, and Gustav Henningsen, eds. Early Modern European Witchcraft: Centres and Peripheries. Oxford, 1990.Find this resource:

Behringer, Wolfgang. Hexen und Hexenprozesse in Deutschland. Munich, 1988.Find this resource:

——. Mit dem Feuer vom Leben zum Tod: Hexenverfolgung in Bayern. Munich, 1988.Find this resource:

Cohn, Norman. Europe's Inner Demons. London, 1975.Find this resource:

Ginzburg, Carlo. The Night Battles. Baltimore, 1983.Find this resource:

Henningsen, Gustav. The Witches' Advocate. Reno, 1980.Find this resource:

Kieckhefer, Richard. European Witch-Trials, 1300–1500: Their Foundations in Popular and Learned Culture. London, 1976.Find this resource:

Klaniczay, Gábor. The Uses of Supernatural Power. Princeton, 1990.Find this resource:

Labouvie, Eva. Zauberei und Hexenwahn: Ländlicher Hexenglaube in der frühen Neuzeit. Frankfurt, 1991.Find this resource:

Larner, Christina. Enemies of God: The Witch-Hunt in Scotland. Baltimore, 1981.Find this resource:

Levack, Brian P. The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe. New York, 1987.Find this resource:

Midelfort, H. C. Erik. Witch-Hunting in Southwestern Germany, 1562–1684. Stanford, Calif., 1972.Find this resource:

Monter, E. William. Witchcraft in France and Switzerland. Ithaca, N.Y., 1976.Find this resource:

Muchembled, Robert. La sorcière au village, XVe-XVIIIe siècle. 2d ed. Paris, 1991.Find this resource:

Soman, Alfred. The Parlement of Paris and the Great Witch-Hunt. Sixteenth Century Journal 9 (1978), 31–45.Find this resource:

Thomas, Keith. Religion and the Decline of Magic. London, 1971.Find this resource:

Weyer, Johann. De praestigiis daemonum. Binghamton, N.Y., 1991.Find this resource:

E. William Monter