The varying incidence of witch hunts in time and place across

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It has been estimated that during the period of 1500 to 1700 around nine million ‘witches’ were burnt at the stake throughout the European continent. The aim of this essay is to compare and contrast different time periods and specific areas of Europe between 1500 and 1700, and critically asses how the so-called witch-craze unravelled.

From the period of 1500 to 1700 witches came to symbolize superstitious aspects of popular religion. Catholic and Protestant churchmen identified and persecuted witches as part of the campaign to acculturate the masses with ‘acceptable’ beliefs. Witch hunts peaked during the first half of the Seventeenth Century. In the south-western states of the Holy Roman Empire alone, it is estimated that more than 300 separate witch trials resulted in the execution of 2,500 people between 1570 and 1630, almost all women – in itself not surprising as church authorities and priests were all male.

Theologians and judges sought to demonstrate that accused witches embodied the kingdom of the Devil. To some extent the Catholic Reformation wanted to create the idea of a satanic kingdom of evil on earth with which to juxtapose orthodoxy. “Witches”, identified by common reputation sometimes stood accused of saying Latin prayers backward, or performing “black masses” while standing facing congregations”, instead of facing the alter, defiantly inverting the kingdom of God. One woman was accused of consuming several husbands. Often “witches were blamed for evil that had befallen villagers: a fire, unexplained deaths of animals, or a male suddenly smitten with impotence.

Most of those accused were rural, poor and single women who confronted the hostility of other villagers, particularly small town officials and wealthy peasants.

It has been noted that some “witches” confessed under the pain of torture, such as one woman in Southern France who was “scorched like a pig” and cooked alive, having been accused of spreading an evil powder while committing crimes. (Merriman, 1996, Page 135)

The total number of witchcraft prosecutions and executions cannot be determined with any degree of accuracy as through the course of time many judicial records have been destroyed or otherwise lost, while the trials of many witches were never officially recorded. Some estimates, ranging as high as nine million executions, have been grossly exaggerated. The totals have been inflated both by the claims of witch hunters themselves, who often boasted about how many witches they had burned, and by subsequent writers who have emphasized the gravity of the subject.

It has long been believed that an early Seventeenth Century witch hunt in the Basque speaking Pays de Labourd in France resulted in 600 executions, but it now appears that the actual figure was closer to eighty. In Bamberg, where another 600 witches were allegedly burned between 1624 and 1631, the totals are probably closer to 300. In Scotland, where Henry C. Lea claimed that 7,500 persons were executed for with-craft, the actual tally actually resembles 1,500. (Bonney, 1991, Page 505)

However, the Scottish Survey of Witch-craft claims to have identified a total number of 3,837 people who were accused of witchcraft in Scotland. A toatal of 3,212 are named and there are a further 625 unnamed people or groups included in our database. The Scottish Survey of With-craft proport that 60,000 people were executed throughout Europe in the “Burning Times”. (

With contradictions such as these in the number of witches killed, it is difficult to paint a clear picture of how the 2witch craze” actually took hold of certain regions in Europe.

In estimating the size of the hunt, it is imperative that the number of trials and executions are distinguished. In Germany, virtually all suspects were tried and executed, but these were exceptions to the rule. In most regions the execution rate was less than 70% and some areas such as Essex, Ostrobothinia and Geneva it was less than 25%. Only in the Pays de Vaud did the execution rate reach the severe level of 90%. (Levack, 1995, Page 18)

Brian Levack predicts that if allowances are made for the lost trial records, then the total number of persons who were actually tried for with-craft throughout Europe probably did not greatly exceed 100,000. According to Levack, half of these lived in German lands within the Holy Roman Empire. (Levack, 1995, Page 18)

In the 1930’s Heinrich Himmler organised a project to obtain information regarding persons tried for magic and witch-craft within Europe. Himmler yielded a file containing some 30,000 prosecutions, the great majority of which had taken place in Germany. Within this file some entries contain the name of more than one person, and since the records of many prosecutions are for one reason or another not included in the file, the total number of German executions could easily have been 50,000. (Palmer, 1961)

The witch hunt during the period of 1500 to 1700 varied from region to region. Witch hunts against multiple suspects were rare in England, apart from Lancaster in 1612, those in Essex in 1645 and Newcastle in 1648 were the sole instances of multiple charges, which appear to be provoked and sustained by individual witch hunters.

Different parts of Europe certainly average a higher rate of trials and convictions. It is thought that Lorraine, for example, conducted some 3,000 trials in the period of 1580 to 1630, with a conviction rate approaching 90%. Yet Geneva experienced 477 trials and 141 executions between the Reformation and the last recorded trial, and a conviction rate of only 30%. (Levack, 1995, Page 21)

Mass persecutions began to take place in the fifteenth century, and the publication of Malleus Maleficarum (‘Hammer of Witches’) in 1487 greatly increased superstition and persecution. (Tutorial Handout, 10-10-03)

It has been claimed (in the Oxford Dictionary of World History) that the last trials for witchcraft in England were in 1712 and on the continent, in Prussia in 1793. However, Palmer stated in his book (A History of Modern World) that the last known execution of a ‘witch’ took place in Scotland in 1772. This again emphasises the difficulty in the task of in estimating separate incidences of witchcraft across Europe.

Comparisons are interesting but at the same time can tell us relatively little. They are also influenced by which part of Europe is used as a comparison. A gender division of 85% women and 15% men is seen in most other parts of Europe, but in areas like Estonia, Russia and Finland the percentage of men accused is as high and in some areas higher than of women. In Iceland the percentage of men executed was as high as 90%. It is possible therefore to say that Scotland is quite similar to the rest of mainland Europe, but France and many parts of Germany, where many of the European witch trials occurred, were politically, religiously and culturally quite different from Scotland. The Scandinavian comparison should not be ignored even if it demonstrates very different patterns. (Palmer, 1961)

The reduction in the intensity of witch hunting during the first half of the Sixteenth Century was reflected in, and to some extent even caused by, an interruption in the publication of the witch craft treatises and manuals. The Malleus Maleficarum, for example, while enormously popular between 1486 and 1520 and again between 1580 and 1650, was not printed at all between 1521 and 1576. In similar fashion, none of the other Fifteenth Century witch craft treatises found a market during these years. This may explain that instead of one continuous European witch hunt, there were really two separate campaigns: an early, geographically limited assault in the late Fifteenth Century and a much more intense and widespread hunt in the late Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. (Levack, 1995, Page 18)

In conclusion then, the witch hunt that began around 1450 virtually came to an end by 1700. At current estimates, around 100,000 people were put to do death mostly by burning at the stake during this period. Around 80% of these people were women, mostly old, poor and ill-educated. There are many explanations as to why there was a witch hunt, and many of them taken on their own are somewhat unconvincing; the witch hunt was a complex phenomenon and it seems that no single cause can account for it. Any proper explanation of the witch hunt has to have an answer for why the hunt stared when it did, why it stopped when it did, why it has the specific demographics it has, why the accused were mainly, though not exclusively women, and why the charges and punishments were framed as they were.

It is clear that the incidences of the European witch hunt varied somewhat between 1500 and 1700. Although an exact figure will never be known as to how many innocent people became victim to the ‘witch craze’ it does appear that recent scholarship has tended to reduce exaggerations made by past historians, which have appeared in some contemporary accounts in continental Europe.

Although past citations to the extent of the witch hunt have been exaggerated it is reasonable to conclude that Germany had one of the worst rates for putting so-called witches to death.

The occurrence of capital punishment varied according to region, but even in the worst affected areas it appears it has been over-dramatized. At Bamberg, the number of executions for the period of 1624 to 1631, for example, seems to be nearer 300 than the 600 previously suggested. The term “Great European Witch Hunt” seems to be an exaggeration. (Levack, 1995, Page 18)

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