The European Witch Craze in the Early Modern Era

UPDATE:  Witchcraft is not illegal in Canada but pretending to practice witchcraft is. 

Bamberg, Germany: The Early Modern Witch Burning Stronghold

“In the center of this mania was Franconia, Germany and the witch burning stronghold of Europe, the bishopric Bamberg. During the time of the Thirty Years War (1618 – 1648), more witch trials and executions took place in this area than in any other area in Europe.”

“What is left today are the documented fates of 884 accused men, women and children. Among the papers, historians have found protocols of the inquisitions. The questions used by the inquisitors were often so comical that the accused would laugh. The demand for reports of the instances of dancing and dining with the devil, what was eaten and drunk at these parties, and who was among the other participants was at first not taken seriously. The documented torture protocols, invoices for jail stays, and invoices to the families of the executed for the wood used in the witch fire are disturbing at the very least.”

The European Witch Craze

“Most witches came to trial for the following crimes: inflicting death or disease on livestock and humans; souring milk or causing miscarriage; cursing and hurting children. Under torture, the European witch typically confessed to having intercourse with the Devil and suckling demons at her breast. The British witch usually kept a familiar – a cat, dog or toad – who spoke with her and often suckled too, leaving a distinct mark. The accused would be stripped and searched for such tell-tale marks, then tortured to extract a ‘confession’. In July 1589, three ‘notorious witches’ were hanged at Chelmsford, Essex; one of them, Joan Prentice, was later depicted as having suckled familiars, including two rat-like ferrets named ‘Jack’ and ‘Jill’. The discovery of a birthmark or extra nipple was, therefore, a key factor in determining a witch’s guilt, with or without a confession.”

Woodcuts and Witches

“This revolution in publishing coincided with what has been termed “the European witch craze”: a moral panic and collective psychosis that spread through Europe and Scandinavia during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The seed of this hysteria was planted in 1484 when two Dominican Inquisitors appealed to Pope Innocent VIII for permission to launch a witch hunt, and he responded by issuing a papal bull authorizing their efforts. Two years later they published their treatise, the Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of the Witches), which, for the first time, elevated witchcraft to the crime of heresy and justified its extermination with papal authority. Leaning heavily on the supposed papal endorsement, the Malleus Maleficarum painted a terrifying picture of witchcraft and preached the absolute necessity of vanquishing this largely unrecognized evil.”

Economists Argue That Religious Competition Drove Witch Hunts

“In an effort to woo the faithful, competing confessions advertised their superior ability to protect citizens against worldly manifestations of Satan’s evil by prosecuting suspected witches. Similar to how Republicans and Democrats focus campaign activity in political battlegrounds during US elections to attract the loyalty of undecided voters, Catholic and Protestant officials focused witch trial activity in religious battlegrounds during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation to attract the loyalty of undecided Christians.”

The European Witch Craze

“It was the Catholic Church which first discovered that the rural people thought differently, that magic and witchcraft was still practiced there. Yet it needed papal approval to eradicate it.

The papacy initially refused such permission because, according to Canon Law, witchcraft was a superstition and could not exist. Circumstances had changed, however. A feeble-minded papacy could only explain the constant crises of the 14th, 15th, 16th and 17th centuries in terms of Satan and witchcraft.”

17th Century European Witchcraft Craze Explained

“Who were these disorderly people and how did they manage to be prosecuted as witches? The first point to make is that very few of them were actually attempting to practice any form of witchcraft; they were victims, either of judicial fantasies, popular hysteria, or their own anti-social behavior. It is also worth noting that our stereotype of the witch — an ugly old woman living alone, shunned and feared by her neighbors — offers important clues about who was likely to be accused and why.”


I'm routinely overestimated.

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