The Social Context of the witch hunt

Chapter 5 of the Levack Textbook


What is driving the European Witch-hunt?

1) Intellectual developments- the shift from accusations surrounding individual witches who have committed maleficia (harmful magic) upon another person to the belief in the Cumulative Concept of witchcraft (pacts, Sabbaths, diabolism- large number of witches).  2) Legal developments- the shift away from the Accusatorial System to the Inquisitorial System- the authorities pursue witches- looking for large numbers of witches out to de-stabilise Christian society. [Link in with Intellectual developments] 3) Use of Torture- Witchcraft was a ‘concealed crime’- hence the use of torture. Torture led to mass accusations and fuelled the witch-hunt in places like Germany. 4) Regional variations- England- use of juries, no torture and strong centralised state= less accusations/executions. Spain/Italy- strong centralised states and an emphasis on reconciliation. Germany- weak centralised power structure- moral panic amongst local judiciary/use of torture/strong belief in the Cumulative concept of witchcraft.

1 of 12

5) The Reformation- intensifies fears of witches in the communities- the split in the Church led to the following, especially in Germany: Catholic V Protestant propaganda- increased panic by preaching in the belief of the Devil, who was seen as the great de-stabiliser of Christian society. Both Catholics and Protestant authorities claimed that the Devil was on the side of their religious rivals. Increase of the use of printed works using the Devil in cohort with witches Often the witch may have been responding to social and economic pressures of the time when cursing neighbours.  Importantly, witchcraft accusations allowed Early Modern societies to resolve conflicts between themselves and their neighbours and to explain misfortunes which happened in their daily lives.

2 of 12

What problems do historians face?

Trial records only show the name of the accused and occasionally the accusers but little else.

They do catalogue the maleficia and acts of diabolism the witches engaged in.

They only rarely show us how old the accused were; their marital status or occupations.

Historians may learn a limited amount of information regarding the social status of individuals especially in cases of neighbours’ disputes.

During large witch hunts, this information was rarely recorded – only allegations of devil-worship from accused witches can be found. Therefore, historians are basing interpretations on a very small sample of cases. Another problem is trying to generalize the social context over a large period of time and in numerous countries. Social contexts come more into being when accusations come from below as opposed to ‘from above’.

3 of 12

Social development

,Social conditions changed dramatically during the witch-hunting period:

Towns grew bigger; populations rose; large periods of famine and outbreaks of plague; prices rose and new moral values were introduced. (Levack p 127)

The reasons why these conflicts resulted in witchcraft prosecutions had much more to do with the changes in the nature of witch beliefs, the growing awareness of witchcraft in all segments of society, the possibility of successful legal prosecution and the impact of the Reformation than with the realities of social change. (Levack p128)

The impression historians have is that witchcraft was essentially a rural phenomenon – overwhelmingly they come from small agricultural villages.

This may be due to two reasons: the superstitious beliefs of uneducated peasants and the small size of these communities. Some historians have argued that a witch-believing peasantry was a precondition to the witch-hunts. (Levack p 129)

Many prosecutions did take place in urban areas.

4 of 12

Urban areas

These areas could not blame superstitions or close-knit communities  The prosecutions in urban areas can be blamed on the rise in popularity of political sorcery. Included in this blame was often attributed to plague-spreaders (engraisseurs) The latter became indistinguishable from witches (Levack p 131) Another urban phenomenon was the use of magic to cause demonic possession In these areas,  the political sorcerer; ritual magician; possessed nuns and plague spreaders encouraged accusations and chain reaction hunts to spread rapidly.

5 of 12

Role of gender

Evidence shows that the overwhelming majority of persons accused of witch craft were female. (75% in most regions in Europe) (Levack p133)

This suggests witchcraft was a sex-related crime. However, men could just as easily be accused. In Russia and Estonia male prosecutions were the majority

Male Witches Accusations of heresy were not gender specific Political sorcery was another form of maleficium closely associated with male witches It was only as the ritual magician transformed into a witch that gender became an issue. Female witches: Women were more readily suspected of witchcraft as they were seen as the weaker sex. Images of women were more carnal and sexually indulgent in this period. Women were believed to be driven by lust and so could be seduced by the devil.

6 of 12

Age And Gender

Wise women were central to communities but were at risk of being accused of ‘white magic’ and if a villager died this could be transferred to maleficia practice. Midwives were also at risk from accusations notably if an infant died during childbirth. Midwives were always female until the eighteenth century Midwives were then accused of demonology Interestingly the tensions arose among women  - not between men and women. The origins in  female activities help explain why the greatest number of accused were female. The stereotype we have is that of an old woman. Evidence shows that the typical witch was well over fifty, this could be because suspicion of a suspect developed over a number of years Wise women and folk healers  - occupations susceptible to witchcraft accusations- were usually older women Older women could show signs of eccentric behaviour and if senile a woman may admit guilt. There was also a deep lying male fear of the sexually experienced and independent women. These women were also believed to be susceptible to sexual temptation

7 of 12

Socio-Economic Status

There is little evidence to show which level of society witches came from but historians are fairly certain they generally came from the lower levels of society (Levack p 149)

The comments on treatises; allegations of pact with the Devil; motives for disputes with neighbours and accused were often unmarried women of no status all point to this.

They were not necessarily the very poor. Nicholas Remy (Treatise of 1595) describes them as “for the most part beggars, who support life on the alms they receive” (Levack pp149-5)

vulnerable members of society Johann Weyer wrote: “witches  are poor ignorant creatures, old and powerless” (Levack p150) The economic changes and hardships in the early modern period would have played a part in the great witch hunt. The more affluent were more willing to make witchcraft accusations rather than lose their place in society 

8 of 12

Being in economic need tempted the poor to partake in sorcery to improve their position.

High-ranking women were accused of political sorcery at the beginning of the witch hunt period or if other authorities wanted to acquire the property of the accused.

9 of 12

The Personality of the Witch

Witches had specific personality traits which led to them being accused.

They were sharp-tongued; bad-tempered and quarrelsome. (Levack p 152)

They were often the village  ‘scold’

Senile women usually show these traits and this added to their vulnerability.

A witches’ moral and religious deviance was another characteristic – evidence of this is found in church court records

Women were charged with witchcraft for crimes such as non-attendance in church; having illegitimate children; prostitution;  and abortion

Non-religious women or those who practised a non-conforming religion were often charged with witchcraft

10 of 12

Witches as rebels

Fear of rebellion was common in early modern period.

This promoted the widespread fear of witchcraft

Nineteenth century French historiography depicts witches as “rebellious peasants who gathered secretly to protest against the economic and social injustices of the world” (Levack p155) .

The general view of the time was the ‘world turned upside down’ so we can not even take the tortured confessions of witches as proving widespread protest

.As the profile of the witch went against the traditional behavioural standards of society, she can be seen as a sort of rebel

11 of 12


The period of the great witch hunt was the beginning of the modern world.

The dramatic transformations in areas such as social order; religion and economy may have produce a feeling of gloom and pessimism that historians have highlighted.

The elite and common people felt this anxiety and the educated readily believed it to be the work of Satan.

The way to restore order was to prosecute those who made pacts with him

From the view of the common person -  to accuse someone of witchcraft was to explain  a reason for the hardships they now faced and get revenge from those that had harmed them.

Witches became the scapegoats for society and by observing executions people had an emotional release from the stressful changes happening to them. The Reformation also made people more aware of the need for salvation and by accusing ‘witches’ they could obtain this moral sanctity

12 of 12


No comments have yet been made

Similar History resources:

See all History resources »