Wicked Witches of the West: Witch Hunts in Early Modern Europe

Accused witches were often burned alive, as depicted in this image. | Courtesy of WikiCommons

In today’s world, when someone thinks of a witch, they normally picture one of a few things: the infamous Wicked Witch of the West that was out to get our beloved Dorothy; Bette Midler’s crazy looking character in Hocus Pocus; or a sparkly, purple and black ‘Party City’ outfit that young girls wear as a sort of ‘right of passage’ Halloween costume. Some may even think back to their high school history lessons about the Salem Witch Trials during the late 1600’s in colonial America. These images, however, are drastically different from those a 15th-century European would have pictured. They would have conjured up the image of a woman who wasn’t religious, who went against social norms, who had supernatural powers, and who therefore was most definitely associated with the devil.1 These Europeans would have pictured the faces of the many women accused and killed in the witch hunts of the time that were in large part driven by skewed societal perceptions, religious fears, and hysteria.

The witch hunts in Europe occurred on a much larger scale than those that took place in Salem Village. Records suggest that the hunts began as early as the 14th century and went on until around 1650, gaining the most momentum during the late 15th century. In total, the executions of supposed witches by Europeans numbered between 200,000 and 500,000, with 85% or more of those accused of and executed for witchcraft being women.2 Additionally, around 95% were specifically poor, old, single, or widowed women.3 Based on social perceptions of the time, these numbers, quite frankly, are not surprising. It is said that “heresy evidence, a major element during the dominance of the European witch craze, was that Satan recruited servants, mostly women, by signing a pact with them and turned them into his sexual subordinates.”4 It was understood by society members that these women who made such a pact with the devil were “female witches [given] the opportunity to commit evil deeds,” and that as a result of their pact and evil-doings, “[their] souls…belonged to the devil, and these women would serve in hell upon their death.”5 Society members also understood that single, elderly, poor, and/or widowed women were outcasts, and in some cases were even thought to be living sinful lives. The perception of all women as impressionable, and the perception of certain types of women who were generally unaccepted, contributed largely to the witch craze in Europe.

Perhaps the biggest factor that fueled the witch hunts of the time, however, stemmed from the religious conflicts of the age. Fifteenth-century Europeans were extremely devout Christians, and often viewed anything different as a threat to their religion. A common belief among many was that certain people possessed supernatural powers, and at the end of the fifteenth century, pronouncements from the era’s theologians began to circulate. They suggested that those who possessed diabolical powers were witches and drew their abilities straight from the devil himself.6 These beliefs were intricate, and included details about supposed witches flying to foreign places on broomsticks to attend a witch’s Sabbath, worship the devil, create special potions, and even engage in sexual relations with the devil.7 As a result of these beliefs, assumptions and rumors began to spread, mostly whenever something unexpected or inexplicable happened, that the event had been caused by a witch. These bad events ranged from crop failures to a woman’s inability to conceive.8 Given this extreme characterization, it becomes evident that Europeans of the time took witches, their powers, and their relationships with the devil very seriously. But why? What led to the widespread fear, accusations, and killings of witches in Europe?

Title page of the 14th-century book Malleus Maleficarum, written to denounce witchcraft and promote the execution of witches | Courtesy of WikiCommons

As mentioned earlier, Europeans did not take their religious beliefs lightly, and any threats to Christianity were treated with utmost scrutiny. Additionally, because the religious wars between Catholics and Protestants occurred during the same time at which the witch hunts peaked, nothing was more concerning to a European Christian than someone who threatened their form of Christianity. British historian Norman Cohn summed up the need for Europeans to find and kill witches as “the need to create a scapegoat for an unacknowledged hostility to Christianity.”9 In this context, it may be understood that Europeans of the time were influenced–probably by the religious wars that were happening in their homelands at the time–into believing that these conflicts were a result of witches and their relationships with the devil. Other common religious beliefs that helped to fuel the fear and persecution of supposed witches included the “religious-driven conception of the relationship between demonology and witchcraft,” which elicited a belief “that the world served as a battlefield upon which an ongoing struggle between Satan and God was portrayed.”10 In a society where such a common–and detailed–belief regarding the continuous war between God and the devil was prevalent, it makes sense that rumors of witches would cause fear enough to spark the type of witch hunts that took place in Europe between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries. Furthermore, the witch hunts took place during the heat of both the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation; therefore, those who followed the Protestant or Catholic faiths were primary targets.11

It is said that Protestant authorities who searched for and prosecuted witches acted more harshly than did authorities of the infamous Spanish Inquisition.12 Catholic witch hunting leaders also went out of their way to condemn witches by publishing the Malleus Maleficarum in 1487; this document made “demonology a severe offense punishable by religious and subsequently secular authorities.”13

For these reasons, the witch hunts were widespread throughout Europe and lasted for over 200 years. Although widespread across all of continental Europe, they were generally concentrated in areas where Catholics and Protestants lived in close proximity to each other. In most cases between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, the hunts occurred in waves. Catholic lands in Germany were hit with a wave in the 1560s and 1570s, and again in the 1610s and 1620s; large waves occurred simultaneously throughout small communities within the Holy Roman Empire.14 Protestant lands affected the most were Scotland and the Swiss territory of Vaud, conducting nearly 3,000 executions combined.15 Those accused of witchcraft were made to stand trial and were, more times than not, found guilty and executed by hanging or burning.16 In some cases, accused witches were even tortured and forced into making confessions.17

Illustration depicting an accused witch on trial for her crime | Courtesy of WikiCommons

As with other targeted mass killings throughout history, it can be noted that the European witch hunts that took place between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries were largely influenced by several social and political factors. Most evident are the religious views, opinions, and hostilities that existed among European communities and peoples at the time. Furthermore, the fact that a majority of those witches accused and executed were women who were viewed as being outside societal norms suggests that they were persecuted for reasons of social standards and class influence. Overall, this dark period in European history was clouded with judgement, fear, and religion-fueled wars that–in one way or another–led to the execution of hundreds and thousands of supposed witches. Whether or not the executed were actually witches, we may never know. One thing that is almost certain, however, is that the lesson of redefining moral boundaries that should have been learned from the European witch hunts, instead went unnoticed, allowing similar persecutions to occur in the New World less than fifty years later.18

  1. Jerry H. Bentley, Herbert F. Ziegler, and Heather E. Streets-Salter, Traditions & Encounters: A Brief Global History from 1500 to the Present, Fourth, Vol. 2 (New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2016), 376.
  2. Nachman Ben-Yehuda, “The European Witch Craze of the 14th to 17th Centuries: A Sociologist’s Perspective,” American Journal of Sociology 86, no. 1 (1980): 1.
  3. Jerry H. Bentley, Herbert F. Ziegler, and Heather E. Streets-Salter, Traditions & Encounters: A Brief Global History from 1500 to the Present, Fourth, Vol. 2 (New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2016), 376.
  4. Nachman Ben-Yehuda, “Witches,” in Encyclopedia of Death & the Human Experience, edited by Clifton D. Bryant and Dennis L. Peck, Vol. 2 (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 2009), 996.
  5. Nachman Ben-Yehuda, “Witches,” in Encyclopedia of Death & the Human Experience, edited by Clifton D. Bryant and Dennis L. Peck, Vol. 2, (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 2009), 996.
  6. Jerry H. Bentley, Herbert F. Ziegler, and Heather E. Streets-Salter, Traditions & Encounters: A Brief Global History from 1500 to the Present, Fourth, Vol. 2 (New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2016), 376.
  7. Jerry H. Bentley, Herbert F. Ziegler, and Heather E. Streets-Salter, Traditions & Encounters: A Brief Global History from 1500 to the Present, Fourth, Vol. 2 (New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2016), 376.
  8. Jerry H. Bentley, Herbert F. Ziegler, and Heather E. Streets-Salter, Traditions & Encounters: A Brief Global History from 1500 to the Present, Fourth, Vol. 2 (New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2016), 376.
  9. Madeleine Jeay, “French ‘Witches’ (14th–16th Centuries),” in Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia, ed., Anne Commire (Detroit: Yorkin Publications, 2002), 774.
  10. Nachman Ben-Yehuda, “Witches,” in Encyclopedia of Death & the Human Experience, eds. Clifton D. Bryant and Dennis L. Peck, Vol. 2 (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 2009), 996.
  11. Alfred J. Andrea, and Carolyn Neel, eds., “Witch-Hunting in Western Europe: Trial by Ordeal–Witch-Hunts and Methods of Extracting Confessions,” World History Encyclopedia (Santa Barabara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2011), 880.
  12. Alfred J. Andrea, and Carolyn Neel, eds., “Witch-Hunting in Western Europe: Trial by Ordeal–Witch-Hunts and Methods of Extracting Confessions,” World History Encyclopedia (Santa Barabara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2011), 880.
  13. Alfred J. Andrea and Carolyn Neel, eds., “Witch-Hunting in Western Europe: Trial by Ordeal–Witch-Hunts and Methods of Extracting Confessions,” World History Encyclopedia (Santa Barabara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2011), 880.
  14.  H. C. Erik Midelfort, “Witchcraft,” in Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World, ed. Jonathan Dewald, Vol. 6 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2004), 223.
  15. H. C. Erik Midelfort, “Witchcraft,” in Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World, ed. Jonathan Dewald, Vol. 6 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2004), 223.
  16. Jerry H. Bentley, Herbert F. Ziegler, and Heather E. Streets-Salter, Traditions & Encounters: A Brief Global History from 1500 to the Present, Fourth, Vol. 2 (New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2016), 376.
  17. Madeleine Jeay, “French ‘Witches’ (14th–16th Centuries),” in Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia ,ed. Anne Commire (Detroit: Yorkin Publications, 2002), 774-775.
  18. Nachman Ben-Yehuda, “The European Witch Craze of the 14th to 17th Centuries: A Sociologist’s Perspective,” American Journal of Sociology 86, no. 1 (1980): 24-25.

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117 Responses

  1. And people say these days are stressful and filled with zeolites. At least we are not back in a time when Witch Hunts involving “witches” and end with a person killed for it. Something that did not help was that of the Wars of religion in Europe at the time. While also a less than fair justice system that valued repentance over evidence. So things can be worst; we could be living during the European Witch Hunts.

  2. It seems like anyone who was not a Christian was targeted to be hunted as witches and they suggested that those who possessed diabolical powers were witches and drew their abilities straight from the devil. They were targeted because the witches were to blame when something unexpected or inexplicable happened. This article is interesting it almost seems like a supernatural movie because you talk about witches and I think they are really cool!

  3. Such a good, interesting article! I had absolutely no idea that witch hunts happened in Europe, on an even larger scale than the ones that occurred in Salem or America later in history. It’s so crazy to think about how far times and perceptions have evolved. If you’re called a witch today it’s considered a compliment. I work at a Barnes and Noble and our Pagan section and tarot cards are some of our best sellers. People today can make a living off of being “witchy”, compared to being hunted down and killed horrifically between the fourteenth and fifteenth century.

  4. I have only ever studied the Salem Witch trials and this article was a great introduction towards the genocide that also occurred in Europe… I have always been fascinated by the way societies act upon threats and this case in particular is one I would say acted the most severe. I also blame it on the lack of “open-mindedness” since the majority of the witch hunting occurred before The Enlightenment, Scientific Revolution…

  5. Reading this article has opened my eyes to what the Catholic era was like in the 15th century. I am amazed that people went so far with this idea that women could be corrupt by the devil and the only way to fix the situation was to kill them off. These women mostly were innocent too and the idea of them having to endure such a gruesome death just because one person or official “saw” them do something is absolutely terrible.

  6. This article is very interesting to me because I never knew how extreme and gruesome the conflict between the Catholics and the Protestants was. They had such crazy ideals that they believed such as that witches flying to foreign places on broomsticks to attend a witch’s Sabbath, worship the devil, create special potions, and even engage in sexual relationships with the devil. These are wild assumptions that lead to the death of many innocent people.

  7. The hunting of innocent women back in the day still truly amazes me. It is crazy to think that people would slaughter one another just because of paronoia. I think it is also interesting how certain women were targeted just because they were old, single, or widowed. I hope something like the witch trials never happens again. Thank you for the information!

    Good Job!!

  8. Witch hunts and are such a sad yet interesting topic to learn about. It was saddening to read how many women were killed. Overall, this was a well-written and very interesting article! Nice job!

  9. This is a very interesting article about witch hunts in Europe during the 15th century. After reading this is makes me believe that due to the war between Christianity and Protestants many people found religion as a sensitive issue. People during that time could not tolerate anyone that threatened their teachings so many people thought that they must be working with the devil. Especially for single or widowed women it was very dangerous because they didn’t have anyone to back them up.

  10. The witch hunt era is something crazy yet interesting to learn about. So many “witches” were killed and the fact that the Catholic Church went to that extreme is concerning. I knew about the Salem Witch Trials but never really knew about the witch hunt in Europe in the 15th century. Imagine not being a witch and just coincidently fitting the stereotypes of a witch like not practicing social norms, or having religious practices, single and old so it costs you your life. This is just a great hostility to woman during that era terrifying to think. Could there not be male witches?

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