The witch hunt is definitely over in Europe

Anna Göldi’s name was cleared after the centuries. She is known as the last witch of Europe and was beheaded in 1782. See here.


1. Is it possible to say what where themain reasons why witch trials started and have continued for some centuries? And why common death sentence was to be burnt alive?

2. Victims were mainly women. Why?

3. How do see the responsibility we can probably say first of all the Catholic Church for what happened?


Robin Briggs, Senior Research Fellow & Special Lecturer in Modern History, University of Oxford

1. Witch trials began around 1400 because of a convergence between anxieties felt by the legal and clerical authorities on the one hand, and ancient popular fears of bewitchment on the other.  Giving allegiance to the Devil was the ultimate form of heresy, so the punishment of death by burning, already used for heresy, was naturally extended to this.  It should be noted that most of those burned were strangled at the stake, not literally burned alive.  In England witches were hung, while there were places where, as in this Swiss case, decapitation was the rule.  The peak period for trials in Western Europe was roughly 1580-1630, a time of serious economic hardship and social dislocation.  The elites were always in two minds about the process, and evidence of judicial malpractice was very important in leading to the gradual discontinuation of persecution.

2. No wholly satisfactory answer has ever been given.  Note that 25% of the victims were men, and they formed a majority in some areas.  There is an ancient belief in the link to women, and a whole range of theories about the differences between the sexes may have contributed to this.  Misogyny is a factor, BUT most women were accused by other women.  Witchcraft was essentially an attack on various forms of fertility, so this may have strengthened the tendency to blame women, whose natural area this was.  Women also formed a majority of the elderly dependent poor, who figure prominently among the victims.

3. The church never had a single view.  Many of the most prominent sceptics were clerics, but those who formulated the demonology were inevitably clerical intellectuals.  The mendicant orders picked up popular beliefs and incorporated them in this.  During the main persecution nearly all the trials were in secular courts, and the Spanish and Roman Inquisitions were the most enlightened courts in Europe on witchcraft!

Ronald Hutton, Professor, Department of History, Bristol University

1. Europeans, like most (but not all) human societies, have traditionally believed that people can both help and harm each other by magic, and that those who harm should be punished, as for physical harm. In practice, however, trials for it in Europe were usually rare. What made them  multiply after 1428 and peak 1580-1630 was a new belief by Christian theologians that those who used harmful magic (witches) were practitioners of a newly-appeared religion which worshipped Satan, who gave them evil powers in return. They were rarely burned alive, being mostly strangled or beheaded, but their bodies were burned in case evil still lingered in them and polluted the area around.

2.  Simply because in most areas of Europe women were believed to have innate magical powers that men did not possess. This belief is found since history began, and long before Christianity. In Iceland, Finland, Normandy and Russia, among other places, the old beliefs were different, and men were credited with greater natural magical power. The people prosecuted for witchcraft there were therefore men, although the societies were similar in every other way.

3.  We can blame Western Christianity (as opposed to that of the Orthodox East) for coming up with the idea of a satanic heresy. Catholics and Protestants, however, persecuted alleged witches with equal enthusiasm, and the areas most firmly under Catholic control – those run by the Spanish Inquisition and the Popes themselves – tried fewest people for witchcraft.

Diane Purkiss, Fellow and Tutor of English, Keble College, University of Oxford

1. You must be careful to distinguish between what ordinary people thought about witches and the witch trials. Ordinary people believed in witches for hundreds of years before Christianity, and they still do in many parts of Europe. The witch trials, however, meant that well-educat4ed and rich people also believed in them. That only happened for about 300 years (variable across different countries) and seems to have been a response to the wars of religion for the most part.

A rough narrative. A kind of intellectual army was created by anti-Semitism, designed to hate and to detect heresy, and when all the Jews were killed, expelled, or defeated it picked up on deformed folklore about witches, misunderstood it, deformed it further, and then set out to attack this other Other-in-our-midst. Then ordinary people often rushed forward with the kinds of stories they’d always believed. Protestantism made it worse because of Calvinist stress on the devil.

2. In western Europe women were nearly always the culprits for ordinary people, before the church or any other religious influence was brought to bear. This was because witch stories among ordinary people were women’s stories, about women’s matters (as culture decreed) childbirth, childcare and food production. The church was actually more willing to think of male witches than ordinary people were because its criterion was usually devil worship. Some places had more men accused than women.

3. The RC church had nothing at all to do with traditional witch beliefs and fear of witches, which predated it by millenia, but it did contribute to making them into a system of demonology, using anti-Semitism as its model. However, three caveats:

The influence of Malleus Malificarum has been enormously overstated and many inquisitors thought if was rubbish

They thought this because they were much more concerned with the Jews (it’s not that they were all moral) and they saw Jews as the threat, not witches. The Spanish Inquisition only burned two witches in its whole history.

Some studies therefore suggest that the inquisition was much more lenient for witches in eg Switzerland that eg Protestant secular courts influenced by Calvinism.

Brian Levack, Professor, Department of History, University of Texas at Austin

1. The trials began only after theologians had come to the conclusion that practitioners of harmful magic (maleficium) had made pacts with the devil and  worshipped him collectively in large assemblies known as sabbaths. By the early 15th century, this identification of magicians as servants of Satan who had abandoned their Christian faith led to the belief that witches had be to be eliminated in order to protect Christian civilization. The prosecutions, however, could not have been successful until European courts introduced inquisitorial procedure (in which judges took the initiative in bringing charges and also determined guilt or innocence by themselves) and also acquired the ability to torture suspects and thus force them to confess to deeds they had not committed. These legal changes occurred during the fifteenth century in those parts of Europe where the first trials took place (northern Italy, Switzerland, and eastern France). Witch-hunting intensified in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries as villagers increasingly attributed the misfortunes of daily life to the alleged magical practices of their neighbors and when religious zealots (both Catholic and Protestant) became determined to cleanse society of its diabolical contaminants. About 90,000 Europeans were tried for witchcraft between 1450 and 1750, and about half of them were executed. The majority of those executed were burned at the stake, mainly because they were considered to be heretics and apostates, and burning, which was a purification rite,  was the punishment usually reserved for heretics.  Most witches were not burned alive; the usual practice was to strangle them before their bodies were burned. In England, where witchcraft was considered mainly a secular rather than a religious crime, witches were hanged, just like other felons.

2. The initial accusations of witchcraft were brought by villagers who suspected their neighbors of harming them  by magical means. Women were more likely than men to incur the suspicion of practicing magic, mainly because they were the cooks who had the opportunity to brew magical concoctions and the healers who could use magical potions to harm as well as to cure. After women were accused by their neighbors and brought to court, judges and magistrates, who were concerned more with the diabolical than the magical nature of the witches’ crime,  thought it highly plausible that witches were women, since they believed that women were more likely to succumb to temptation by the devil and become his servants.

3. Catholic theologians were primarily responsible for developing the idea that witches were not only harmful magicians but also worshipped the devil, but the Catholic Church was not completely responsible for the witch-hunts. From the very beginning, secular courts were just as active as the ecclesiastical courts, including the Inquisition, in prosecuting witches,  and by the end of the sixteenth century almost all the witch trials were conducted by secular rather than clerical judicial authorities. After the Reformation, moreover, Protestants were just as eager as Catholics to bring witches to trial.

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