The topic of the European Witch-Craze, stretching roughly between the late 15th century and the mid-17th century, is a complex topic. It’s very easy to simply disregard it as barbaric and superstitious, and, indeed, academia did exactly that until the 1960s.
That doesn’t mean you can’t find material about witch trials before 1960s. It does mean whatever you find will almost assuredly not be written by an academic, have poor knowledge of historical context, and frequently just be flat out wrong.
Economics, Warfare and Religion
Humanity doesn’t deal well with stress. The harsher life is, the harsher the culture. The time of the Witch-Craze was a time of disruption. It was the time of the Reformation, and the countries that had the most religious disagreement were the same ones which had the most witch trials. The majority f executions occurred in the Holy Roman Empire, home of Martin Luther and, thus, the Protestant Reformation. Multiple civil wars were fought over religion, killing millions.
England, on the other hand, never had a religious war. It’s only major struggle was the English Civil War, and the majority of England’s witch trials happen precisely during that period.
Spain and Italy remained solidly Catholic. The Reformation had little influence there. There were also relatively few witch trials in those countries.
Economics was all over the place in this time period. War disrupted trade and did great damage locally. Plague further complicated things. People get uncomfortable when their pocketbooks – much less the food on their tables – are threatened.
And there were social changes too. More people were moving to the quickly growing cities, where many fell into poverty as they didn’t have the skills to thrive in an urban environment. Women were taking on a variety of new roles, partly because it was necessary when men marched off to war or disease affected the workforce.
People get uncomfortable with change.
All of this expressed itself in a massive exercise of scapegoating. The world seemed to be falling apart, and we like to be able to blame our ills on something or someone. If there’s nothing to blame, there’s nothing to fix. But if you can point to someone and identify them as the problem, you can then act to remove the problem.
It’s very much like blaming hurricanes on the acceptance of gay marriage.
Why Women Were Targeted
It’s also easy to boil the Craze down to a persecution of women because so many more women than men – about 80% – were accused overall.
First, while overall the majority were women, that’s not the case in specific locations. In some places, men far outnumbered women.
Second, witches were scapegoats, and when you find a scapegoat, you target people weaker than you are. Women were less respected than men. Their word meant less. They were the easier target.
You also target people who you find less desirable for the community, or people who are outside of the norm in some way. As such, significant numbers of witches were widows, who were often very poor and also living outside the cultural norm by not being under the supervision of a father or husband.
Third, midwives, who were always women, were an easy target because of their connection with children who so often died in those days. If you’re worried abut witches and a kid or two just died, you just might suspect the midwife.
Fourth, European cultures have long associated women more often than men with magic. Consider Greek and Roman mythology. Consider the sibyls, such as the oracle at Delphi, who are all female prophetesses.
Fifth, women were seen in Christianity as the root of original sin, both because Eve committed the sin and because it was understood to be transmitted through sex and birth.
Sixth, European culture has long seen women as naturally inferior, including a lack of rationality and a tendency toward immorality. This opinion was around long before Christianity. Greek culture is full of it. Rome embraced it to a lesser degree. If someone was to fall to the wayward and immoral practices of witchcraft, logically it should commonly be a woman.
Despite the stories of people using the threat of witchcraft persecution to get what they wanted (which did happen), most accusers honestly believed themselves victims of witchcraft and the accused were guilty of working it.
There is a point when a community becomes so fearful they create mass hysteria. Any particular location could go years without any accusation of witchcraft. However, once an accusation has been made, others might start considering their own misfortunes to be caused by witchcraft as well. The solution is to find the witch responsible. And if said misfortunes continue after ridding the community of the witch, clearly there must be more witches.
In many places it was believed that witches worked together. Therefore, if there was one witch, there were likely more witches, and it became imperative to root them all out.
This is not a one-time thing. The search for Communists in America in both the 1920s and particularly the 1950s are often described as “witch-hunts,” where everyone is a suspect and the accused are largely presumed guilty. In the 1980s, the Satanic Panic swept up hundreds of supposed child-abusing Satanists, and there are those today still insisting there are millions of Satanists conspiring to pervert our children. Not a single Satanic Panic accusation led to a conviction. Few if any even made it to trial. But a lot of lives were ruined by the accusations.
What Witches were Not
The word witch gets bandied about by numerous different groups. For example, today there are self-professed witches. However, they use the word to mean one who works magic in general, not one working malevolent magic, as has been the historical definition. Things that witches were not, historically speaking:
- Good. In the 15th century, talking about a “good witch” would make as much sense as talking about a “good rapist.” The word was derogatory by default.
- Herbalists. Everyone used herbs for a variety of things, and it was completely accepted that various plants had medicinal properties.
- Wise women. Every village had its wise men or wise women. They were not called witches. Quite the opposite, in some locales they were considered experts at witch trials.
- Pagans. There were no pagans by the time of the Witch-craze.
- Actually guilty (although their persecutors generally thought they were).
- Thought of as using pentagrams. Pentagrams have had a variety of meanings in history. At the time of the Witch-Craze, they had Christian meanings, as well as meaning among some of the natural philosophers, who were highly educated men and not seen as witches.
They also totally didn’t look like this:
Not only were witches not seen as sexy; they were depicted as old and ugly or, at the very least, plain.
And they certainly didn’t look like this:
The History of Witchcraft and Demonology was originally published in 1926. The above is a very new and very…uh…creative cover for a free, downloadable version. Despite writing in the 20th century, Montague Summers (not Summers Montague) very much believed in the reality of witches and took historical material such as testimony under torture as legitimate evidence. Somehow I doubt he’d agree with this image of a witch, which seems part comic book, part CW, and part New Age.
Complete with big freaking pentagram.
For more information on the topic, check out an old paper I wrote: Causes of Witchcraft Accusations