Throughout history children have been involved in witchcraft accusations. They have appeared as witnesses in court, and they have had to defend themselves against accusations of using harmful magic. Although both boys and girls have been involved in witchcraft accusations, girls between five and eleven years old seem to have dominated the witness stand in most of the afflicted areas. However, there were regional varieties. In some areas, such as North America, young adolescents (from twelve to eighteen years old), rather than children, were the most active in spreading rumors of witchcraft, and in the northern parts of Europe boys were as likely (if not more so) to fantasize about the witches' sabbath as girls.
In northern Spain in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, during the Inquisition, hundreds of children claimed to have been abducted by night to the witches' sabbath, where they had participated in large festivities mocking the Christian rites. They told horrifying stories about learning witchcraft and entering into pacts with the devil. Similar stories played a crucial role during the large Swedish witch trials in the late seventeenth century, and as late as the 1850s more than a hundred children created sensational headlines because of their fantasies about magical nocturnal flights to the witches' sabbath. In Germany in the 1720s a group of child witches were first imprisoned and then taken to a medical clinic for treatment, and the Salem, Massachusetts, witch trials in 1692 were initiated by a group of adolescent girls trying to divine their future by magical means.
Although the importance of child witnesses in witch trials differed both in time and location, it is evident that concern about children and child safety have been crucial. Children were supposed to be more vulnerable to magical attacks, and witchcraft beliefs have been connected to ideas about mothering, with the witch thus portrayed as the bad mother. Most accused child witches started out as witnesses claiming to be victims of magical attacks. However, it was not unusual that their testimonies were turned against them. If they showed too much knowledge about the magical flights, they could end up being charged with witchcraft.
It has been argued that children were more prone to becoming suspects in witch trials after the Protestant Reformation, which brought about a growing concern about children's original sin and their ability to commit sins. According to Lutheran moralists, children had a natural tendency towards evil. Instead of seeing children as innocent victims, authorities showed a growing tendency to place blame on those who fantasized about the witches' sabbath regardless of age. This changed after the eighteenth century introduced a new concept of childhood. Children were seen as pure and innocent and in need of adult protection from corruption and evil. Their horrifying stories about the witches' sabbath proved to be incompatible with the new notion of childhood innocence.
Some historians have argued that children's stories about witchcraft forced parents to acknowledge their children's dark emotions and fantasies. Unable to relate to their needs or explain their behavior from contemporary ideals, some parents ended up accusing their children of witchcraft. But the children who were involved in witchcraft accusations not only challenged the concept of childhood innocence, they also broke the norms regulating the relationship between children and adults. Their accusations called adult authority into question, threatening fundamental hierarchical structures.
In the 1800s children's accounts of witchcraft continued to evoke controversy. By then, the ideals of childhood innocence were so cemented that children rarely were held responsible for their fantasies. Rather, the ungodly stories about the witches' sabbath were seen as symptoms of disease or parental neglect, thus freeing the children from responsibility and ultimately defending the idea of childhood innocence.
See also: Early Modern Europe; Enlightenment, The; Theories of Childhood .
Boyer, Paul, and Stephen Nissenbaum. 1974. Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Roper, Lyndal. 2000. "Evil Imaginings and Fantasies: Child-Witches and the End of the Witch Craze." Past and Present 167: 107–139.
Walinski-Kiehl, Robert. 1996. "The Devil's Children: Child Witch-Trials in Early Modern Germany." Continuity and Change: A Journal of Social Structure, Law, and Demography in Past Societies 11, vol. 2: 171–190.
Willis, Deborah. 1995. Malevolent Nurture: Witch-Hunting and Maternal Power in Early Modern England. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Kristina Tegler Jerselius