Witch Hunt in the Era of Ansolutism

Witch Hunts

A.) The Concept of Witchcraft in the Middle Ages

The concept of the existence of witchcraft was widespread in the middle ages, but rejected by the church until, in the context of isolating and combatting the Albigensian heresy, the foundation for trials against heretics were laid (1183); in 1232 the DOMINICAN ORDER was charged with the INQUISITION; they were not only to deal with heretics, but also with witches. The inquisition trials were held in secret, the use of torture was permitted.
A number of festivities enforced this superstition, including the Alemannian carnival (Fastnacht) where women dress up as witches to symbolically expel winter. Another such festival is HALLOWEEN. Fairytales also enforced that belief, for instance the story of the convicted murderer at Wernigerode, a town located at the foot of the Harz mountains. The story went that every year on April 30th the witches from all over Germany would fly on their brooms to meet and celebrate the witches sabbath on the Brocken mountain. Our murderer was awaiting his execution on the eve of April 30th, when the burgomaster of Wernigerode came to him and offered him a deal : he would be granted amnesty, if he would climb the mountain, observe the witches sabbath, come back down and report. Fearing for his soul, he refused.

B.) Witch Trials in the Era of Reformation (1450-1560)

In 1459 a series of witch trials took place in Arras (Burgundian Netherlands). Throughout the period of the reformation, witch trials took place, both in Catholic and Protestant communities. In 1484, German inquisitors Sprenger and Kramer published MALLEUS MALEFICORUM (the witches' hammer), which was to serve as a handbook to the inquisition when it came to the interrogation and treatment of suspected witches, for centuries to come.
Emperor CHARLES V. believed in the existence of witchcraft; he gave the city of Oudewater the privilege to weigh suspected witches on the WITCH SCALE (1545); those found too heavy to fly on brooms were certified not to be witches.

C.) The Witch Craze 1560-1648

The late 16th and early 17th century, an era with high tension between the confessional camps, saw the witch craze reach an extreme; in 1583 in Osnabrück, in 1587-1593 in Trier, in 1605 in Cologne and Fulda, in 1630 in Bamberg, Würzburg and again Cologne.
The period also saw criticism of the witch craze : JOHANN WEYER (1563), AUGUSTIN LERCHHEIMER (1570), FRIEDRICH SPEE VON LANGENFELD (Cautio Criminalis, 1631) saw witches as the product of imagination. On the other hand, JEAN BODIN, a notable Huguenot lawyer, tried to prove the existence of witchcraft (1580). In England, James I. was a firm believer in witchcraft; he enacted the WITCHCRAFT STATUTE of 1604.

D.) The Decline of the Witch Craze

In 1701 CHRISTIAN THOMASIUS demanded the termination of witch trials. Duke-Elector Friedrich Wilhelm I. in 1714 in an edict established that in Brandenburg torture was not to be used without his permission. The last person to be executed as a witch in Germany died in Kempten in 1775; in Switzerland the last perceived witch was executed in (protestant) Glarus in 1782.

E.) Causes of Witch Trials

Misharvests, freak weather, diseases were often attributed to witchcraft. Witch trials also demonstrated the power of the Inquisition, and may have contributed to the success of the COUNTERREFORMATION, as heretics and presumed witches, in Catholic territories, both were tried by the same, powerful inquisition. Criticism of witch trials was, during the early and peak years, often simply silenced. As the large majority of the population had only a simple education (or none at all), superstition was widespread.
In the course of the 17th century, with religious authorities losing authority and higher education spreading, doubts in the practice of witchhunts were uttered more frequently. Witchhunts died down in areas under enlightened administration, to continue in more backward areas.

Zur Geschichte der Hexenverfolgung (On the History of Witch Persecutions), by Roibin, in German
Lexikon zur Geschichte der Hexenverfolgung (Lexicon on the History of Witch Persecution), from Univ. München, in German
The Witches Weighhouse, Oudewater
Article Jean Bodin, from Catholic Encyclopedia
Article Witchcraft, from Catholic Encyclopedia
DOCUMENTS Witchcraft Statute of 1604, from The Wiccan Historian
Sources on Wars of Religion, from Mosaic. Perspectives on Western Civilization, many of the sources on witchhunt
REFERENCE Anne Llewellyn Barstow, Witchcraze, A new History of the European Witch Hunts, London : Pandora 1995; KMLA Lib.Sign. 138.4 B282w
A.C. Kors & E. Peters, Witchcraft in Europe 1100-1700, A Documentary History, Philadelphia : UPenn (1972) 1999; KMLA Lib.Sign. 133.43 K84w

This page is part of World History at KMLA
First posted on January 28th 2003, last revised on November 15th 2004

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