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The Decline and End of Witch Hunts in Europe

Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
International Program
Lee, Yeonhwa
Term Paper, AP European History Class, November 2007

Table of Contents

I. Introduction
II. Characteristics in the Decline of Witch-Hunts in Europe
III. The Causes for the Decline and End of Witch-Hunts in Europe
III.1 Political Factors
III.2 Social Factors
III.3 Philosophical/Intellectual Factors
III.4 Institutional Factors
IV. Conclusion
V. Notes
VI. Bibliography

I. Introduction
            Exodus 22:18 states, "You shall not permit a sorceress to live." This Bible verse was the initial basis behind the trials, executions, and "hunts" organized against witches that prevailed in Europe from the late Middle Ages to the 18th century. These Witch-hunts were in response to the witch cult which had been prevalent throughout Europe well before the Middle Ages (1).
            Human beings and societies universally have been captured by fear of magic, witches, and/or other diabolical figures. The question to be answered thus is not what appealed to people of Europe to believe in such beings, but "why that belief manifested itself into the hunts and executions" (2).
            Though belief in the supernatural has always been present, manifestations of such beliefs in the form of trials and hunts became frequent during the Renaissance and culminated in the 1620s and 1630s in German-speaking areas. The practice of witch-hunts subsided by the late 17th century (3), and by the 18th century, witch trials were rare occurrences. Last trials and executions took place in various respective states in Europe in around the 18th century (4).
            The causes for the decline and end of witch-hunts are many and complex. This paper will analyze the institutional, political, social, and philosophical/intellectual factors that may have driven the era of witch trials to its end.

II. Characteristics of the Decline of Witch-Hunts in Europe

            The decline and end of witch-hunts in Europe was a gradual process that occurred over decades, as a result of multiple causes. Before we examine the causes organized into categories in detail, some general characteristics may be worth noticing.
            The factors which led to a halt in witch-trials included new social or political phenomena, legislations, a new way of thinking, etc. However, the factors also included "the absence of whatever it was that had started them in the first place" (5). Hence, the elements that developed the universal belief in the supernatural into "hunts" are intimately related to the elements that led to the end of the "hunts."
            Another characteristic of the decline of witch-hunts is that it can be divided into two phases: the first phase being the period when the number of accusations and convictions decreased and the second phase being the complete conclusion of the matter (6). The first phase may be said to have been impacted by political, philosophical/intellectual, and social factors more, while the second phase was influenced by institutional factors including legislation more. These factors will be examined further.

III. The Causes for the Decline and End of Witch-Hunts in Europe
            As aforementioned, the decline and end of witch-hunts in modern Europe was a gradual and multifaceted process. The causes can be categorized into four types of factors: political, social, philosophical/intellectual, and institutional.

III.1 Political Factors

            In the 16th and 17th century, religious conflicts of various scale and size infested Europe. Occasions of violence, wars, confusion, and instability had their origin in religion and were furthered as other issues such as politics and economy were added on. Such instances include the Dutch Revolt and the Thirty Years' War and were provoked by and after the Protestant Reformation.
            These Christian regimes where religious conflicts of confessions such as wars and rebellions were occurring, chaos permeated throughout. Central control had been broken down, with little de facto authority on local scale. This type of atmosphere and setting was where the witch-hunts were the most prevalent and severe.
            Decentralization was caused not only by religious confusion and violence, but could also be seen in periods of interregnums between regimes. This decentralization of power - or vacuum of it, even - also provided the environment for such hysterical hunts (7).
            Several cases of witch-hunts attribute their causes to the political factor. Matthew Hopkins was a witch-hunter in England, "whose career flourished in the time of the English Civil War. Though not an official title given by the Parliament, he claimed to hold the office of "Witch-finder General" during the chaotic days of the Civil War (8). The Great Scottish Witch-Hunt, which took place in 1661-1662, saw 206 people named as witches and/or accused of acts of sorcery and diabolism from April to December of 1661 (9). This was a time when England justices were replaced in Scotland, a historic event which can be interpreted as temporary vacuum of authority in the judiciary (10). In Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692-1693, over 150 people were arrested and imprisoned, with more people pursued unofficially. These years were when disputes of whether Samuel Parris should be given the position as the village's first ordained priest were tearing up the area; in a theocracy, a dispute over a minister was a dispute over political authority (11). Salem witch trials "occurred in a temporary vacuum of authority."
            The political factor theory - though it does not mean that political factors were the only driving force behind the witch-hunts - states that once authority was centralized and stability restored, the witch-hunts decreased greatly in number (12).

III.2 Social Factors

            The witch-hunts were not only about religion; a considerable part of them was played by social factors. Scholars, over the years, have compiled various records and have found similarities among the accused "witches." Most of the "witches" were vulnerable single women (13). They were women who were single, had weak financial basis, and/or lacked standing in the society. In other words, they had little to no source of protection - be it a husband, money, or social status - against accusations (14). However, as time passed and conditions improved, there were less of these women and thus, fewer women were pursued for their alleged diabolism (15).
            An example historic event that shows this pattern is the implementation of the Poor Law. The Poor Law was "the system for the provision of social security in operation in England and Wales from the 16th century." The Poor Law specifically defined the "poor" and categorized them into "the impotent poor," who could not work and provide for themselves, "the able-bodied poor," those who were capable of labor but who could not find work, and "the vagrants," the beggars. The Poor Law made provisions to offer relief and to provide materials to these people. A significant number of the vulnerable women described above fit the categories of the "poor" and were hence supported (16). The decline of witch-hunts in England can be attributed partially to this social improvement (17).
            Another social factor that contributed to the decline and end of witch-hunts involved tolerance in a society. As aforementioned, the 16th and 17th centuries saw large-scale and frequent conflicts over religious identity between and within states. However, in other parts of society in Europe, concepts such as tolerance were being spread and gaining supporters. Renowned thinkers' works such as Thomas More's Utopia (1516) advocated tolerance, and such works were disseminated. The notion behind tolerance was not that devil worship or sorcery itself was socially tolerable, but that if people engaged in such acts did not interfere with anyone or the welfare of the society, people would not chase them down (18). This behavior of society which began to spread via works such as Utopia aided the decline of witch-hunts.
            Throughout the Middle Ages and on, changes, disruptions, social upheavals, and revolutions plagued Europe in general. As Europe stepped into the 17th and 18th centuries - the transition period between Early Modern Times and Modern Times - Europe saw social enhancements and an overall stability in societies; this time period corresponds to the time period in which witch-hunts declined.

III.3 Philosophical / Intellectual Factors

            Several ideas and schools of thoughts developed during the era of witch-hunts in Europe. Some of them succeeded in convincing numerous people to abandon such irrational and hysterical practice.
            Europe experienced the Reformation and the Enlightenment on its way to the time period between the 17th and 18th centuries - when the zeal for witch-hunts began to cool off. On its journey, it saw the rise of secular rationalism. A combination of secularism, which is "the assertion that certain practices or institutions should exist separately from religion or religious belief" (19), and rationalism, which appeals to reason, persuaded Europeans to dismiss devilry. People who believed themselves to possess intellectual superiority and who upheld secular rationalism began treating the belief in diabolism and witch-hunts as nonsense. This trend began with the intelligentsia of the early Enlightenment (20). With such class of people speaking against witch-hunts, the number of hunts declined.
            Nevertheless, such philosophy and ideas did not remain within the intelligentsia. Middle class people also began accepting the concept of secular rationalism and rejecting diabolism and witch-hunts. They did so to reassure themselves of their "membership of the intelligentsia." By attacking the peasant class as superstitious for believing in sorcery and diabolism and by borrowing the ideas from the upper class and supporting them, the middle class could distinguish themselves from the lowly peasant class (21). In other words, class-consciousness helped stop the witch-hunts in Europe.
            Also, as Europeans became more familiar with medical science, it became impossible for them to carry out pursuits and executions as they had done in the past. People made accusations on various grounds; one of the most common ones was the physical evidence the accused displayed with their bodies. Moles, growths, boils, etc, were considered as evidence of connections with the devil, the devil's mark. However, as people observed such features on the bodies of persons with "unimpeachable character," such mark lost credibility as evidence. This was precisely what happened in Geneva. The devil's mark had become an acknowledged type of evidence, and surgeons of the city were given the responsibility to examine the accused. However, the surgeons began doubting their methods as they encountered people of moral reputation and impeccable nature with "the devil's mark." They concluded that distinguishing the devil's mark from marks of purely natural origin was difficult, if not unfeasible. "This made a capital prosecution almost impossible and only one witch was executed after 1625" in Geneva (22). Similar situations occurred throughout Europe though maybe not simultaneously.
            In addition, there was a gradual redefinition of the concept of the devil. As time passed, Europeans began changing the perception of the devil's power. From a spiritual being that could control events and human beings, the devil slowly developed into a figure in Christianity who had only the humble ability to tempt humans into committing sin. The lack of solid evidence of its existence also reduced the devil's authority. As people started to accept the lessened position of the devil, the matter of diabolism and witch-hunts became an entirely religious matter, whereas before, it was also a judiciary matter. Response and punishments for witchcraft became penance and reconciliation, rather than capital punishment or ostracization as had been before (23). In brief, as human's perspective of the devil diminished, only a smaller part of the society - the religious - took interest in witch-hunts, leading to its decline.

III.4 Institutional Factors

            On top of the political, social, and philosophical/intellectual factors, the decline and end of witch-hunts in Europe was completed with institutional changes. The political, social, and philosophical/intellectual changes explained above prepared the societies in Europe to codify such changes into law.
            The Witchcraft Act of 1734 in Britain redefined witchcraft so that "the traditional form of witchcraft" would no longer be considered as a legal offence. Thus, blameless people were not to get pursued but only those such as professional fortune tellers; the punishments became lighter as well (24).
            Maria Theresia, who was the Archduchess of Austria, a Queen of Hungary and Bohemia, and factual Holy Roman Empress, carried out numerous reforms during her reign (25). One of them included her "[outlawing of] witch-burning and torture in the late 18th century" (26).
            The English Act of Parliament in 1736 abolished witch-hunts, and Poland did so as well in 1776. In France, Louis XIV decreed a legislative royal edict in 1682 of similar nature (27).
            The adjustments made in judiciary institutions contributed to bring the witch-hunts to a close. In periods when witch-hunts reached their peak, such as the 1620's to 30's in German-speaking lands, the pursuits often got out of hand; there was little to no central control over the trials. Along with political stability and centralization, Europe had to go through adjustments in the judiciary: centralization of the judicial bodies. In order to achieve this, various societies allowed appeals to higher courts or required them in some areas; they also confirmed that local magistrates were properly trained for the occupation. These measures prevented the witch-hunts from furthering into a hysterical drama and gradually let them subside (28).
            Institutional touches including legislations and improvements in the judicial system concluded the second phase of the decline of witch-hunts, hence bringing the era of witch-hunts to a close. Though when institutional factors emerged in each state varied, they were the final element of the decline and end of the "witch-craze."

IV. Conclusion
            Witch trials and hunts in Europe took innumerable lives and haunted many. The hunts were the prevailing societal phenomenon back in the 16th and 17th centuries and still are a topic of research which draws much attention and interest. Especially within the realm of "witch-hunts in Europe," how the hunts developed from a readily-established belief in the existence of the supernatural other than God and how they came to their conclusion are subjects still open for studies.
            This paper examined the causes for the decline and end of witch-hunts, categorizing them into four factors: political, social, philosophical/intellectual, and institutional. A combination of these four factors decreased the number of occurrences of such trials and hunts and ultimately terminated them.
            The decline and end of witch hunts was one of the historic events in which various aspects of society collaborated to produce one result, providing the chance to live for countless people.

V. Notes

(1)      Article : Witchcraft, from Encyclopedia Britannica
(2)      Hannam 2007
(3)      ibid.
(4)      Article : Witch-hunt., from Wikipedia.
(5)      Hannam 2007
(6)      ibid.
(7)      ibid.
(8)      Article : Matthew Hopkins, from Wikipedia
(9)      Article : Secularism, from Wikipedia
(10)      Hannam 2007
(11)      ibid.; Article : Salem Witch Trials, from Wikipedia
(12)      Hannam 2007
(13)      ibid.
(14)      Barstow 1995 pp.15-29
(15)      Hannam 2007
(16)      Article : Poor Law, from Wikipedia
(17)      Hannam 2007
(18)      ibid.
(19)      Article : Secularism, from Wikipedia
(20)      Hannam 2007
(21)      ibid.
(22)      ibid.
(23)      ibid.
(24)      Article : Witch-hunt., from Wikipedia.
(25)      Article : Maria Theresa of Austria [!], from Wikipedia
(26)      Article : Witch-hunt., from Wikipedia.
(27)      Hannam 2007
(28)      ibid.

VI. Bibliography

Note : Websites listed below were visited in October and early November 2007.
1.      Hannam, James. The Decline of Witch Trials in Europe. Medieval Science and Philosophy. 2007.
2.      Article : Witchcraft., from The New Encyclopedia Britannica, Micropedia Volume 12. 1998.
3.      Article : Witch-hunt, from : Wikipedia,
4.      Article : Matthew Hopkins, from Wikipedia,
5.      Levack, Brian P. "The Great Scottish Witch Hunt of 1661-1662." The Journal of British Studies, Volume 20, No.1. 1980.
6.      Article : Salem witch trials, from Wikipedia,
7.      Article : Poor Law, from Wikipedia
8.      Barstow, Anne Llewellyn. Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1995.
9.      Kors, Alan C. and Edward Peters. Witchcraft in Europe 1100-1700: A Documentary History. Philadelphia: UP 1999.
10.      Article : Secularism, from Wikipedia,
11.      Article : Maria Theresa of Austria [!], from Wikipedia,

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