Witch Trials, Europe

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Witch Trials, Europe

As Jared Diamond notes in his bestselling Collapse (2005), the last preserved European report about the doomed Norse colony in Greenland indicates that a man named Kolgrim was burned at the stake in 1407 for using witchcraft to seduce the married daughter of a local notable; the woman soon went insane and died. Besides illustrating that European colonists executed people for witchcraft in North America almost three centuries before the Salem outbreak, the episode also suggests that the peculiarly western phenomenon of witch trials was sex-linked but never sex-specific.

In the early twenty-first century there is considerable scholarly consensus that witches invariably were considered to possess magical powers that they used for nefarious purposes, but before the late fifteenth century they were not identified predominantly as women. Greenland's Kolgrim was no isolated incident: men were well-represented in Europe's earliest known witch hunts, forming 28 percent of the 250-plus witches tried in the Alpine valleys of Dauphiné between 1424 and 1448.

However, by the time Europe's worst witch-hunts began in the late sixteenth century, an essentially sex-linked view of witches dominated official (and invariably male) discourse about witchcraft. Although large numbers of men were still accused of this crime, witches now became coded as female—a phenomenon vividly exemplified in the title of Europe's single best-known treatise about witchcraft, the Malleus maleficarum (The witch hammer), first printed in 1486 and reprinted (always in Latin) approximately two dozen times by the mid-seventeenth century. This seminal work was a transitional document in gendering discourse on witchcraft; although the Malleus insisted vigorously that witches were almost invariably women, the (probably forged) papal bull that introduced it specified that men and women alike were guilty of witchcraft.

A century later, when witch-hunting increased dramatically throughout much of western Europe, witches were seen as overwhelmingly female. During the period of most intense witch-hunts between 1570 and 1660, women usually comprised between 71 and 92 percent of those tried and executed, including about 80 percent in present-day Germany, where more than half of all deaths occurred. Most historians agree that old, poor, widowed, and/or single women were most likely to be accused of witchcraft, although younger women charged with sexual crimes (fornication, adultery, abortion, infanticide) were also accused, particularly if they had female relatives accused of witchcraft.

Witches purportedly practiced various socially harmful forms of magic, directed primarily against young children but also raising storms that damaged crops. Witches supposedly congregated at so-called "Sabbaths" where they worshipped the Devil, feasted on bland foods, engaged in diabolical sexuality, and occasionally ate children. The Witches' Sabbath was an invention of early modern demonologists, which some historians claim reflected a prurient fascination with female sexuality. If historians generally agree that the publicity accompanying Europe's mushrooming numbers of witch trials spread this new stereotype, they disagree about the extent to which ordinary (and illiterate) rural Europeans accepted this new, learned stereotype of the witch. Popular culture continued to see witches primarily as people performing certain kinds of harmful actions called maleficia. Envy lay behind much maleficia, and envy is not sex-linked: Although women were much more likely than men to use diabolical magic in order to harm other women's young children, men were equally inclined to resort to harmful magic (as well as non-magical techniques) in order to harm their neighbor's property. Killing livestock—the second most frequent accusation in European witch trials after killing babies—was practiced by both women and men.

Despite the strong theoretical bias toward coding witchcraft as quintessentially female, thousands of men were also tried for witchcraft during the peak of European witch-hunting. Statistically, men were more likely to be burned as witches in early modern Europe than executed for heresy (an overwhelmingly male crime) during the Protestant Reformation. Research shows a very uneven geographical distribution of men tried as witches. Greenland's Kolgrim came from a colony settled from Iceland—perhaps the only part of Europe where women comprised barely 10 percent of accused witches. In a few other places—for example, seventeenth-century Muscovy and Normandy in northwestern France—men comprised a clear majority of accused witches; in Finland and Estonia, along Muscovy's western borders, and in northern France around Normandy, men represented approximately half of accused witches. Most people arrested for witchcraft in two Austrian provinces, Styria and Carinthia, were also male.

Although the kinds of men accused of witchcraft seem at first very different in Muscovy (where most were vagrants, recent immigrants, fugitive serfs, or even non-Christian Finns or Turks) and Normandy (where witches were primarily shepherds, with sizable numbers of priests and blacksmiths), they shared one important characteristic: in both places, many suspected male witches were also magical healers. Men comprised half or even more of Europe's numerous "white" witches who specialized in countering the effects of harmful witchcraft (so-called "cunning folk," curadores, Hexenbanner, Benandanti, etc.) were often male. They were arrested for witchcraft according to the widely believed notion that "whoever knows how to heal also knows how to harm."

Although the fully developed crime of witchcraft, including Sabbaths, emerged in fifteenth-century Europe, the vast majority of Europe's witch trials occurred long after the Protestant Reformation. Particularly in Germany, Protestant and Catholic scholars have waged a long and inconclusive struggle over which religious group prosecuted witches more ferociously. Germany's Protestant rulers conducted most of the early witch-hunts, but Germany's Catholic prince-bishops committed the worst witch-hunting excesses. However, extremely few witches were condemned to death in regions populated by Orthodox Christians, and none in Balkan regions controlled by the Ottoman Empire.

In the twenty-first century, most scholars would argue that types of legal systems mattered more than confessional allegiance in determining the outcome of witch trials. Most witches were tried in Roman-law courts of continental Europe by legal systems that featured public accusers, used professional judges instead of juries to decide criminal cases, and permitted torture. In northern Europe (with the partial exception of Scotland), witchcraft, like other kinds of criminal trials, required private accusers and prohibited torture. Historians have shown that, outside of panics, most people tried for witchcraft were not executed; in fact, most European women or men who reputedly practiced witchcraft were probably never even brought to trial.

For such reasons, estimates of the number of people executed for witchcraft have been vastly reduced from a still-repeated number of nine million, an early nineteenth-century estimate originally based on erroneous extrapolation from misread data. Because many judicial records have been destroyed or lost across much of Europe, we will never know exact figures. Nevertheless, it seems clear that the epicenter of European witch-hunting lay in the Germanic core of the Holy Roman Empire. Wolfgang Behringer, the leading expert in the field, estimates that more than twenty thousand executions occurred in what is present-day Germany, more than in all other parts of Europe combined. Extrapolating from this estimate, it seems likely that three out of every four witches executed between 1560 and 1660 spoke some dialect of German, and that almost five out of six lived within the boundaries of the pre-1648 Holy Roman Empire (including Switzerland, Alsace-Lorraine, and Luxemburg). About 3,500 witches were executed throughout northern Europe, including a few hundred in England (the separate kingdom of Scotland also saw many executions of witches). The kingdom of France (excluding Alsace and Lorraine) executed even fewer witches per thousand inhabitants than England or Scandinavia. Other places executed only a handful of witches, for instance only eleven in Portugal and an equal number in present-day Ukraine, and only two in Ireland. As the example of Portugal suggests, the great Mediterranean inquisitions in Spain and Italy also proved reluctant to execute witches. On the basis of such admittedly imperfect statistics, a reasonable estimate might be approximately forty thousand people executed for witchcraft within both Protestant and Catholic regions of Latin Christendom.

see also Catholicism; Christianity, Early and Medieval; Christianity, Reformation to Modern; Folk Healers and Healing; Folklore; Inquisition, Spanish; Sex, Race and Power: An Intersectional Study.


Apps, Laura, and Andrew Gow. 2003. Male Witches in Early Modern Europe. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.

Clark, Stuart. 1997. Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press.

Diamond, Jared. 2005. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Viking.

Holmes, Clive. 1993. "Women: Witnesses and Witches." Past and Present 140: 45-78.

Karlsen, Carol F. 1987. The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England. New York: Norton.

Kivelson, Valerie. 2003. "Male Witches and Gendered Categories in Seventeenth-Century Russia." Comparative Studies in Society and History, 45(3): 606-631.

Monter, William. 1997. "Toads and Eucharists: The Male Witches of Normandy, 1564–1660." French Historical Studies 20(4): 563-595.

Monter, William. "Women and Witchcraft." 2005. In Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Western Tradition, 4 vols., ed. by Richard Golden. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.

Roper, Lyndal. 2004. Witch Craze: Terror and Fantasy in Baroque Germany. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Whitney, Elspeth. 1995. "The Witch 'She'/The Historian 'He': Gender and the Historiography of European." Journal of Women's History 7: 77-101.

                                         William Monter

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