Popular Culture and Witch-Craze of 16th and 17th Centuries (Essays)

  • Created by: Chlouija
  • Created on: 20-05-19 19:09

Urban Culture (Popular Culture)

  • Population Growth + Employment = More diverse culture 
    > London grew from 60,000 in 1500 to 1 million by 1800
  • Rich Merchants + Bankers = Top of the hierarchy 
  • Young Apprentices = Bottom of the hierarchy 


  • Processions/Pageants funded by guilds
    > Danish and English monarch processed through their capital cities 
  • Pope's coronation and possesso of Rome 
  • Sharing of news by town criers 
  • Broadsides and Ballads were a means of gossip and news 


  • Musical Performances 
    > Singing of servants and purchasing of instruments 
  • Reading 
    > Printing Revolution made books more readily available 
  • Writing Letters
    > Allowed long-distance correspondence 
1 of 49

Rural Culture (Popular Culture)

  • 90% of the population still lived in the countryside 
  • Less sophisticated than urban culture =
    > Lower levels of literacy (Only village priests could read)
    > Less access to books (Printing was less popular)
    > Smaller gatherings (Taverns and Ale-Houses)
  • Festivals (e.g. May Day) allowed drinking, feasting and dancing 
    > Harvest Festival celebrated the bringing in of the harvest
    > All Hallows + All Saints marked the start of winter by honouring saints and praying for departed souls in purgatory 
2 of 49

Elite Culture (Popular Culture)

Peter Burke: "An unofficial culture or culture of the non-elite"
 > Ignores the fact that some elite did engage with popular culture 

Elite = Nobility, Landowners, Government and University Educated 
 > Had a range of cultures due to class divide 


  • Court Masque = Music, dancing, singing, acting, costumes and stages 
    > Staged by European monarchs such as Charles I
  • Used to portray political messages e.g. The Triumph of Peace [1634] 
    > Sometimes offended Puritans 


  • Elizabeth I and James I had playwrights perform at the court e.g. Shakespeare's King Lear
  • Companies performed for the monarch e.g. Lord Chamberlain's Men
3 of 49

Withdrawal of the Elite (Popular Culture)

  • Not instantaneous and didn't follow the same pattern across regions 
    > More clear-cut in France/Britain and more gradual in Southern Europe 
  • Reformation + Counter-Reformation saw popular culture as a danger to society 
    > Inversion of social order damaged the hierarchy 
  • Protestants saw Saint's Days as superstitious and pagan 
  • Enlightenment encouraged rationalism
  • Focused on refining behaviour, morality and godliness
    > e.g. Nobles stopped eating with retainers in great halls 
  • Books encouraged moral behaviour and noble expectations 
    > e.g. Castiglione's 'The Book of the Courtier'
4 of 49

Role of Church (Popular Culture)

  • Had to attend Church on Sundays + participate in Saint's Days

    > Properly respect saints 

    > Reinforce social hierarchy with processions

    > Reinforce bond of the laity and the Church

  • Believed not properly honouring saints had consequences
    > e.g. Lightening striking the Church 
5 of 49

Role of Pageants/Festivals (Popular Culture)

  • Villages celebrated 17 annual festivals as a break from monotonous life 
  • Excess before Lent also helped people upkeep abstinence 
  • Financed by guilds 
  • Misrule and Carnivals helped to regulate society as a SAFETY VALVE
    > Public could express their frustrations without directly attacking the hierarchy
  • Authorities feared not returning to the established order
    > Hard to control anger mixed with alcohol and rowdiness
       e.g. May Day Riots in London [1517]
       e.g. German Carnivals mocking Catholic Church [1520-30]
    > Symbolic anger turned into real violence against minorities 
6 of 49

Celebration of Misrule (Popular Culture)

  • Officer appointed by lot to watch over the Feast of Fools
    > Elected Lord of Misrule could command anyone to do anything 
    > Encouraged prohibited drinking, dancing and singing 

  • Participants mocked the clergy
    > Wore vestments backwards
    > Drank in churches and danced on church grounds
    > Mocked the Bible and sermons

  • Church leaders were appalled by inversion of religious order
    > Unsuccessful at suppressing them 
    > Reformers tried to outlaw the festival

  • State centralisation made secular authorities eager to stop festivals that cause an inversion of social order
    > Popular culture all but disappeared to satisfy new secular laws 
7 of 49

Female Humiliation (Popular Culture)

  • Domineering behaviour, infidelity  and a threat to patriarchal society 
    > Scolding, adultery and prostitution 

  • Taken to ecclesiastical or manorial courts
    > Humiliated in public and made to recite their crimes 

  • Parishioners took law into their own hands
    > Used Skimmingtons by beating pots and pans outside of transgressor's houses
    > Sometimes made women ride a horse backwards to show social inversion

  • Lack of jails meant authorities feared breakdown of order
    > Petty Crimes landed people in village stocks
    > People were whipped and birched in the streets
    > Ducking Stool punished scolds and prostitutes 
    > Serious Crimes got people branded
    > Murder and Treason meant public execution (attracted large crowds as a form of entertainment) 
8 of 49

Moral Regulation (Popular Culture)

  • Humiliation was used to reinforce the social hierarchy and punish transgressors
  • Crisis of Order was caused by rapid population growth, vagrancy, war and plague
    > Towns were violent; growth in rebellions, riots and vagabonds 
  • Authorities thought gambling, prostitution and drunkenness were increasing
    > Morals eventually regulated by the Church
  • Catholic Church and Council of Trent wanted stricter control 
    Pope Paul III wanted to restrict Saint's Days
       > Saw them as just an excuse to be boisterous and drunk
           > Had limited success 
  • Protestants saw festivals as pagan/associated with Catholicism 
    > Distraction from work or church-going 
9 of 49

Role of Magic (Popular Culture)

  • Coping Mechanism used for war, death and disease
    > Used prophecy and astrology to understand mysteries and how God + Satan interacted with Earth

Used as a safeguard to protect themselves (e.g. exorcisms and holy water)
 > Priests would bless crops and prayed to saints for protection 

Chanting, images, talismans and garlic to ward off evil spirits
 > Used to cope with upheavals 

Cunning Folk and Wise Women called to intervene in illness, crop failures and bewitchments
 > Mainly present in villages 

Believed to be derived from white magic to caused harm to the world 
 > Concerned countrysides as they relied on harvests for their income and had no illness prevention
 > Led to beliefs in the Pact with the Devil and Maleficium 

10 of 49

Decline pt. 1 (Popular Culture)


Reformations led to a change in attitudes
 > Protestants focused on creating a godly society, favouring modesty and sobriety 
 > Withdrew from popular culture for fear of punishment 
Reformers attacked rowdiness and promiscuity 
 > Calvinists were less tolerant than Lutherans
     > Replaced folksongs with psalms and enforced the 'official religion' with sermons
Puritain Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell banned Misrule and May Games 
Feast of Fools was restricted as it mocked the clergy 


Abandoned popular culture by 1800 as they separated from lower classes
 > Divisions were most prominent in Britain and France
The Clergy were better educated 
 > They had less in common with peasantry 
Nobility stopped eating with retainers in great halls
 > Adopted more sophisticated behaviour 
Bourgeoisie copied the nobility 
Educated Elite abandoned ideas of magic and witchcraft 

11 of 49

Decline pt. 2 (Popular Culture)


Greater availability of printed word provided a form of entertainment and spread new ideas 
 > Overall impact was fairly debatable as it did not necessarily overtake verbal storytelling 


State Centralisation made authorities eager to stop any social inversion 
Government allied with Church to encourage elite culture as it was less threatening to social order
 > Led to a wider awareness and acceptance of state affairs and political order 


European populations more than doubled 
 > Towns and trade grew, improving transport and agriculture 
Fairs declined and the entertainment industry adapted 
There was a growth in leisure facilities 
 > Businessmen saw an opportunity for profit 

12 of 49

Pact with the Devil (Growth/Decline)

  • Hunts peaked in Central/Western Europe between 1560 and 1660
     > Witchcraft became viewed as HERESY

  • Believed witches held SABBATS to worship the Devil
     > Deal was sealed by the Devil leaving a mark on the person's body 

  • Believed that witches performed child sacrifice, demonic intercourse and night flying 
     > Led to the belief that witches worked in packs and not alone, resulting in group accusations
     > Made them more of a danger to the Church 

  • Pope Innocent VIII issued the Papal Bull [1484]
     > Declared witchcraft an exceptional crime
     > Removed legal limits on torture to gain evidence
     > Ideas spread by the development of the printing press 
13 of 49

Impact of Literature (Growth/Decline)

  • Malleus Maleficarum [1487] by Heinrich Kramer Jacob Sprenger 
     > Based on Kramer's investigations of South Germany
     > Argued that witches were women who committed terrible crimes
     > Reprinted 13 times by 1520
    *Impact is, however, now debated 
  • Increase in Prosecutions could have been due to the plague 
     > Made people look for scapegoats
  • Increase in Prosecutions after 1560
     > Increase in evidence for diabolism 
     > Views confirmed by Durer's engravings and his apprentice Grien's work 
  • Peasantry were more concerned by Maleficium 
     > Depended on harvests for their income and couldn't afford disease treatments 
  • Elite were more concerned by Diabolism
     > Physical harm and political uses  
14 of 49

Religious Contribution (Growth/Decline)

  • Reformation challenged Catholic Church's key ideas, resulting in religious wars
     > French Wars of Religion [1562-98] Thirty Years' War [1618-48]

  • Martin Luther John Calvin stressed the presence of the Devil 
  • Protestants attacked superstition, paganism and magic 
     > Exodus 22:18 "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live"
  • Persecutions were most intense in religiously divided areas 
    (FranceGermanySwitzerlandPoland and Scotland
     > Created political instability and violence
  • No religious divide saw small-scale hunts
  • No direct causal link - Religious beliefs were a precondition not a driving force
     > Authorities rarely prosecuted heretics for witchcraft 
15 of 49

Unconvincing Explanation (Growth/Decline)

  • Hunting began a century before the 1517 Reformation

  • French prosecutions declined during Wars of Religion and peaked during periods of peace
  • War caused political instability and interrupted regular legal procedures 
     > Created a real enemy so eliminated the need for scapegoats
  • Dominant faith rarely accused those of another faith 
     > Witches tended to belong to the same faith as their accusers


  • Religious conflict raised concers about moral subversion
  • Religious leaders wanted rid of those who challenged social norms 
  • Prosecutors tended to argue they were doing God's work 
16 of 49

Capitalism (Growth/Decline)

  • Accusations were used by authorities to divert anger from economic dislocation
  • Capitalism emerged in towns and rural communities
     > Undermined charity
  • The rich became commercially orientated and asserted control via hunts 
  • Marxists argue hunts were intrinsic to the transition from feudalism and capitalism 


  • Hunts took place in areas with littel socio-economic change
     > Less impact than initially claimed
     > Little evidence of hunts being used to relieve anxiety
     > Village conflict didn't depend on rapid social change
     > Some areas with extreme hardships experienced no hunts
     > Difficult to support generalisations across a 2 year period 
17 of 49

Role of Women (Growth/Decline)

  • Mostly women were accused due to a misogynistic/patriarchal society 
     > Economic changes raised women's profile and challenged male dominance 
  • Many persecuted were community healers blamed for outbreak of disease
     > Elizabeth Matlock, Cambridgeshire [1566]
    Appoline Behr, Lorraine [1580]
    Gilly Duncan, East Lothian [1650]

  • Some accused were midwives blamed for the death of infants
     > Argued that male medical experts wanted to eliminate female midwifery 
  • Some accused were involved in food preparation and blamed for illnesses 


  • Some men were accused in some regions
     > 90% in Iceland and 70% in Russia
  • Women also played an active role in accusations during witch trials
18 of 49

Role of Black Death (Growth/Decline)

  • Urban people were terrified of plague outbreaks
     > They could spread easily and kill large numbers
  • They had no understanding of how to stop it spreading
     > Cities like Milan blamed witches for conjuring the plague
     > 80 people were put to death for the plague in Geneva

  • Prosecutions peaked when there was a new outbreak in the 1630s


  • Plagues in 1633 and 1636
     > Decline in witch-hunting in Germany
    > People began to accept plagues and death as a part of life 
19 of 49

Role of War (Growth/Decline)

  • Witches were burned near BernSwitzerland between 1395-1405
     > During the war against the Turks
  • Reconquest of Germany by Catholics [1620s]
    > Coincided with a large number of prosecutions
     > Land was devastated, trade was disrupted and disease was easily spread 
     > The public blamed their misery on the supernatural 
  • English Civil War [1640s]
    > Intense hunts in East Anglia, particularly under Matthew Hopkins 


  • War also caused political instability and prevented regular legal business 
  • War provided a real enemy and defeated the need for scapegoats 
20 of 49

Role of Weather (Growth/Decline)

  • A belief in weather magic and witch's ability to conjure storms 
     > Couldn't be achieved by individuals = Led to accusations against groups 
  • Deteriorating weather conditions 
     > Expansion of glaciers impacted land that could be cultivated 
        > Growing population raised famine and caused tension 
  • A tract blamed witches for weather in Southern Germany [1590]
  • Duke of Bavaria executed 63 women for weather magic [1589-91]
  • Poor weather can explain hunts in Holy Roman Empire [1600, 1611 and 1616-18]
  • Witches forced to confess weather responsibility in Franconia [1630s]
    > Supposedly discovered how to make frost 
  • Hunting peaked in 1628
    > Coincided with terrible weather, malnutrition and disease


  • Hunting began 80 years before the mini ice-age 
21 of 49

Pressure from Above (Growth/Decline)

  • States grew in power and wanted to bring territories under greater control 
     > Increased interest in religious matters and wanted to impose moral conformity 
  • Few witchcraft cases in England due to judicial centralisation 
  • High levels of persecution in the Holy Roman Empire
     > A number of autonomous territories were vulnerable to persecution
     > No central jurisdictional regulation and weak central authority 
  • A belief in magic was necessary and common amongst elite and uneducated alike
     > Theology taught the struggle between good and evil
     > Literature spread ideas of diabolism
     > Judiciary would have been unwilling to prosecute without these beliefs
     > Preachers encouraged hunts from the pulpit 
  • Without state encouragement, prosecutions would not have been possible on a large scale
22 of 49

Pressure from Below (Growth/Decline)

  • Accused were usually unpopular, antisocial and cursing beggars
     > Functionalist Purpose of removing undesirables from society 
  • Accusations began in small communities where everyone knew each other
     > Anxiety forced central authorities to take action
  • Villagers organised themselves to pressure the elites [1550-1650]
     > Peasants formed committees to investigate concerns in Germany
     > Carried out prosecutions with the help of higher authorities 
  • Those involved could settle old grudges
     > Allowed people to move up the social ladder
  • Refusal of charity caused accusatios out of guilt
     > Economic conditions made charity difficult 
  • Combined pressure from above and below made for a deadly outcome 
23 of 49

Decline pt. 1 (Growth/Decline)

  • Decline is seen as happening after 1630 but this masks any regionl variations
     > Last persecution in Netherlands was in 1610
    > Last persecution in Spain was between 1609-11
     > Last persecution in Holy Roman Empire was 1775
  • After 1630 also saw some increases e.g. Salem between 1692-93


  • Growing belief in supremacy of God stating witchcraft only occurred if he allowed it 
  • Little reference to witchcraft and no reference to Devil-Worship in the Bible
  • Believed God operated through nature and not miracles 
  • Decline in religious war and increase in toleration developed a more rational age 


  •  > Rise in prices, inflation ended, wages rose, impact of war decreased and plagues declined 
  • New elite beliefs were forced onto society 
24 of 49

Decline pt. 2 (Growth/Decline)


  •  > Limited local judges and inferior courts 
     > Paris Parliament demanded all death sentences within its jurisdiction be reviewed 
     > Holy Roman Empire courts had to consult universities for difficult cases 
  • Evidence obtained by torture was considered unreliable 
     > Abolished in Prussia [1754]Saxony [1770] and France [1788[
  • Circumstantial evidence was not allowed 
  • Those named as accomplices by other witches could not be tried
  • Less willing to accept confessions; Linked to mental illness
  • Less willing to accept evidence from children, servants and accomplices
  • Harder to convict so judges eventually just gave up 
25 of 49

Decline pt. 3 (Growth/Decline)


  •  > The physical world followed a set of rules
     > Natural and rational explanations for events 
     > Undermined the belief in the Devil's interference 
  • Scientific Revolution challenged ideas of demons and magic 
     > Better understanding of medicine and cures
        > Challeneged the idea that witches could cause disease 
  • 18th Century Enlightenment upheld beliefs of rationalism and human progress 
     > Spread new scientific ideas to a wider audience 
26 of 49

Geographical Patterns (Persecuted)

Holy Roman Empire: Most hunts in the South + West due to small ecclesiastical territories 

France: Most effected where courts were more independent e.g. Normandy Languedoc 

Switzerland: Variations due to different cantons having different beliefs and ministers of justice

North-West Europe: Small duchies gave authorities judicial freedom 

United Provinces: Little persecution as torture was forbidden and judges doubted diabolism 

Scandinavia: There were 1000 executed in Denmark 

Eastern Europe: Hunts began later but were most severe in Poland

Southern Europe: Very few executions but prosecutions common in Portugal

Britain: 500 executed in England and 1500 executed in Scotland 

27 of 49

Regional Variations (Persecuted)

  • Explained by local regulations on torture 
     > Denmark did not utilise torture and had very few hunts 
     > Holy Roman Empire allowed 3 sessions of torture a day and had severe hunts 


  • Half of Europe's population lived in Germany, France, Switzerland and the Netherlands
     3/4 of prosecutions took place here 
  • Mostly occurred in France at first but eventually occurred mostly in Germany
  • Austria and Bavaria escaped the prosecutions
28 of 49

Mass Prosecutions (Persecuted)

  • Loose political structure of the Holy Roman Empire

  • Legal affairs of small states not influenced by a central judicial system
  • Peripheral regions and a lack of central control 
  • People's mentalities e.g. Magistrates 
  • Belief in Devil-Worship
  • Use of Torture
  • Religious zeal 
  • More likely in areas described as 'cultural borderlands'
     > e.g. Ban de la Roche, France 
    > Region of great division that wanted to root out heretics 
29 of 49

Countryside (Persecuted)


  •  > More conservative than urban areas
     > Many were illiterate with traditional beliefs 
  • Cunning Men and Wise Women used to find lost items and provide love potions 
     > Use of white magic encouraged the belief in black magic 
         > Led to accusations of maleficium 
  • Village committees investigated witchcraft claims
     > Pressured authorities for witch-hunts
     > More likely to find people guilty as they lacked the objectivity of a judge 
  • Minor elites would join the committees to assert themselves and eliminate opponents 
     > e.g. Winnigen, Germany: Young men accused older elite groups to climb the social ladder
30 of 49

Towns (Persecuted)

  • Anonymity meant that accusations were avoided 
     > Exceptions included Trier [1581-95], Würzburg [1627-29], Bamberg [1630] 
        Rouen [1670]

  • Development of witch-finders created mass hysteria 
  • More elite were being accused so witches no longer fit the stereotype 
     > Authorities therefore began to question the validity of accusations 
  • Anxieties in towns were less intense 
     > Storage facilities and local authorities intervened in economic and social issues 
        > Prevented riots and famine 
  • Very few trials in urban Netherlands
31 of 49

Religious Conflict (Persecuted)

Hugh Trevor-Roper [1967]: Stated hunting was partly motivated by Catholic and Protestant determination to show godliness during times of religious conflict 
 > Suggests that the minority religion were more likely to be accused 

  • Evidence doesn't support his interpretation 
     > Catholics and Protestants didn't seek out the opposing faith 
     > Hunts started a century before the 1517 Reformation, thus before the Church split 
  • Ban de la Roche has no evidence of religious intentions 
     > Lutherans were accusing other Lutherans 
  • It was the popular demand for action against maleficium that led to prosecutions 
32 of 49

Religious Division (Persecuted)


  • More Hunts in places with religious division e.g. Germany and France
  • Religiously unified states saw very few cases e.g. Spain and Italy 


  • Trials occurred in areas with little division 
  • Holy Roman Empire shows the two faiths sharing information about local witchcraft and sending back trial escapees 
  • Few trials in Ireland and the United Provinces 
    > Opposite ends of religious spectrum 
33 of 49

Prince-Bishops (Persecuted)

  • Hunts were severe in areas of Germany ruled by Prince-Bishops
     > Trier [1581-93] associated with Peter Binsfield 
    > Würzburg [1626-31] associated with Phillip Adolf von Ehrenberg 
     > Bamberg [1626-31] associated with Johann Georg Fuchs von Dornheim 


  • Persecutions accompanied political struggles, economic disasters and involved a wide range of people from different social classes 
     > Religious affiliation had little impact overall 
     > Religious leaders were instigators but other factors determined prosecutions 
34 of 49

Social Variations (Persecuted)


  • Female stereotypes were established; likely to succumb to temptation, over-inquisitive + easily deceived 
     > Blamed for domestic catastrophes due to their occupations 
  • Walpunga Hausmannin [1587]: German midwife found guilty for killing 40 babies 
  • Believed that women could transform things e.g. raw food to cooked food
  • Males were accused when hunts got out of control e.g. 90% in Iceland and 70% in Russia 


  • Most of the accused were over 50 as they were eccentric and anti-social 
  • Elderly widows had no stable carers and had to turn to charity 
  • War left a lot of single women believed to be more likely to be seduced 
  • Closure of nunneries left them nowhere to go 
  • They had diminishing value and no contribution to the economy 


  • Blamed for domestic catastrophes e.g. children dying, bread not rising and milk curdling 
  • The need to beg to survive was criticsed during times of shortage 
35 of 49

Accusatorial System (Authority Response)

  • Required an accusation to be a formal, sworn statement that led to a trial 
     > Doubt meant that God was involved through trial by ordeal 
  • Accused were thrown in water 
     > Floating assumes guilt as pure water rejects the impure witches 
  • This was not rational and depended on divine intervention 
  • Not successful at prosecuting
     > Needed an accuser to come forward
        > Accusers feared being counter-charged 
  • Declined as there was an increased study of Roman Law
  • Needed to reduce the increasing crime rates 
     > Church were concerned by the rise in heresy 
36 of 49

Inquisitorial System (Authority Response)

  • Developed by secular and ecclesiastical courts 
  • Easier for trials to be initiated and prosecuted 
     > Judges investigated the crime
     > Judges determined guilt via interrogations
  • Higher standards of proof needed
     > Difficult to find witnesses to maleficia 
        > Only those who attended sabbats could give accounts 
  • Judges often depended on confessions
     > Encouraged through intense questioning
     > Courts acquired rights to utilise torture 
  • This led to the development of torture
     > Hunts wouldn't have been possible without this 
37 of 49

Religious Courts (Authority Response)

  • Important in regulating moral and religious life 
  • Witchcraft was a spiritual crime involving Devil-worship 
  • 1560: Secular court took over jurisdiction of witchcraft cases 
     > Feared witchcraft could cause injury and have political uses
     > States passed laws to give secular courts power to hear cases
     > Encouraged prosecutions as crime was publicised 
  • Church courts were weaker by late 16th Century
    > Only important in Spain and Italy 
     > Few prosecutions as Inquisition was skeptical 
  • South Germany saw the Church put pressure on secular powers to act 
38 of 49

Impact of Reformation (Authority Response)

Wrote demonological texts that were originally sermons; attacking charms, diviniation, healing and witchcraft
They would alert congregations to moral implications of witchcraft and emphasised the Pact with the Devil

Catholic clergy attacked superstition during the Counter-Reformation and wanted to standardise devotional practices
They tried to eliminate prayers, blessings, liturgy practices and white magic 

Practitioners of white magic was linked to black magic 
Victims could no longer protect themselves with crosses and holy water so turned to legal action 

Reformers used the power of the state to purify society and passed legislation against moral offences
Secular courts emphasised responsibility of magistrate to prosecute

Tranlated into every major European language, leading to more interpretations of Exodus 22:18
Witch in Hebrew means poisoner but was still used 
Developed apocalyptic thoughts of Devil attacking Christianity 

39 of 49

Use of Torture (Authority Response)

  • Convictions could reach up to 95%

  • Persecutions decreased when torture was restricted in 1623

  • Used in Continental Europe but not in England due to unreliability 
  • People confessed to stop the pain so there were new regulations 
     > Only to receive one session a day and could not be killed 
     > Excluded pregnant women and children 
     > Only used if a judge confirms a crime has been committed 
     > Confessions under torture were no longer used as evidence 
  • The *********; Suspended by wrists to dislocate limbs 
  • Sleep Deprivation; Favoured by Matthew Hopkins
  • Thumb Screws, Leg Screws, Head Clamps + The Rack
  • The Witches Chair; Heated by fire from below 
  • Kneeling on spiked stools with burning sculptures on the body 
40 of 49

Impact of Torture (Authority Response)

  • Confessions confirmed evidence from witchcraft treatises 
     > Increased confession rate from 40% to 95% 

  • Naming of accomplices led to mass hunts and climbing of the social ladder 


  • Legal systems began to forbid torture 
     > Spain [1614], Italy [1620], Scotland [1660] and Germany [1630]

  • Torture was only utilised when authorities had lost control 
     > e.g. England during the Civil War 

  • National courts were less severe than Regional courts 
  • Less torture in areas with strong central authority 
  • Inquisition more concerned with enforcing orthodoxy than locating diabolism 
41 of 49

Role of Denunciations (Authority Response)

  • Provoked mass panic and hysteria
  • Villagers would settle grudges or climbed the social ladder 
     > Torture led to a chain reaction by naming of accomplices 
         > Trier; 306 denounced a further 1500 and 1000 were executed 
         > Würzburg [1629]; Saw denunciation of children, bishop + chancellor 
            > Showed that denunciations impacted people of all social classes 
  • Social and Religious conflicts turned neighbours against each other 
     > Greater tensions increased denunciation rates 
  • Came from people that were thought to be mentally ill 
  • Ergot poisoning led to hallucinations
     > Possible explanation for the Salem Trials 
42 of 49

Role of Confessions (Authority Response)

  • Fear of torture caused people to confess freely
  • Sense of guilt for invoking the Devil
  • Mental instability, vivid dreams and ergot poisoning
  • Financial difficulties led to them turning to the Devil for help 
  • Fear of social isolation and communal hatred 
  • Hoped to obtain judicial leniency 
     > Lacked credibility as they told the interrogators what they wanted 
  • Bamberg drew up a list of 101 questions for interrogations 
     > Involvement of the Devil
     > Death threats from demons 
     > Oath of loyalty and receipt of a gift from the Devil
     > Naming accomplices and listing of evil deeds
     > Night flight 
43 of 49

Charges and Punishments (Authority Response)

  • Trials were the result of accusations of maleficia 
  • Peasants used alternatives before going to the law 
     > White Magic, counter-spells and drawing witches blood to nullify spell 
  • Reluctant to prosecute as it was expensive 
     > Created social divisions and feared retribution of failed prosecutions 
  • Judges required multiple witnesses and a list of previous crimes 
  • Most of Europe burned witches at the stake 
     > France, Germany, Switzerland Scotland strangled them first 
     > Sweden beheaded them first 
     > England hanged them (witchcraft was a felony not a religious crime) 
  • Not all countries adopted capital punishment 
     > England used non-capital punishment for the first offence
     > Geneva banished accused if unsure about the verdict 
44 of 49

English Trials (Authority Response)

  • Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction = Less Intense Prosecutions 
     > Skepticism about criminality of witchcraft 
  • Evidence that was indirect or spectral was questionable 
  • More moderate legal practices 
  • Determination of guilt left to the trial jury 
  • Judges not in chagre of the investigation, prosecution or conviction 
     > Managed trials to secure convictions 
  • Juries could convict on the basis of reputation and cirumstantial evidence 
  • Little mention of the Sabbat, demonic intercourse or night flying 
     > More focused on maleficium than demonic pacts 
45 of 49

Continental Trials (Authority Response)

  • Number of witnesses and nature of evidence varied in states 
     > Sweden required witnesses for capital conviction 
  • Trials were in local or municipal courts 
     > More likely to find accused guilty as they lacked objectivity of an external judge 
  • French Parliament refused to execute a witch on the basis of confessions 
  • Convictions more readilt obtained in South Germany due to little grip on lower criminal courts 
  • Appointment of witch-commissioners increased prosecutions 
     > Ignored external interference and used torture/denunications 
46 of 49

Change in Attitudes pt. 1 (Authority Response)

  • Accusatorial system replaced by Inquisitorial system 
     > Substantial background to cases before being heard 
  • Levels of proof required gradually increased 
     > Swedish Law [1593] required witnesses for capital conviction 
     > Most evidence was circumstantial/not persuasive enough 
  • Attitudes of judges changed 
     > Felt uneasy and that justice had been perverted 
     > Felt that innocent people had been condemned
  • Judges felt supernatural events had natural causes 
     > German Law Professor Christian Thomasius argued that witchcraft was a clerical invention 
  • German Jesuit Friedrich Spee von Langenfeld wrote Cautio Criminalis condemning torture 
47 of 49

Change in Attitudes pt. 2 (Authority Response)

  • Judges doubted validitiy of spectral evidence
  • Concerns about the testimony of witnesses
     > Children, criminals, heretics, relatives, servants and accomplices could not testify 
  • Central judges began to take control of local judges and weaker courts 
     > Aided centralisation of state power
     > French Parliament appealed all witchcraft cases from its jurisdiction [1624]

  • Forced confessions largely dismissed by 1700
    > Voluntary confessions were seen as a sign of mental illness
48 of 49

Legislative Developments (Authority Response)

  • Prosecutions declined due to growing legal scepticism as well as intellectual, political and religious changes 
  • Countries began decriminalising witchcraft; 
    France [1682], Prussia [1714], England/Scotland [1736], Habsburg Empire [1766], Russia [1770], Poland [1776] and Sweden [1779]

  • Some European countries such as Ireland took until the 19th Century to repeal the Witchcraft Act 
  • Strong central government meant the legal system could avoid the popular pressure for prosecutions 
  • States wanted to increase control over communities 
     > Hunts rapidly decreased as authority was asserted 
49 of 49


No comments have yet been made

Similar History resources:

See all History resources »See all Popular Culture and the Witch-Craze of the 16th and 17th Centuries resources »