A History of the Witch Trials in Europe

By Tim Lambert

The Background to the Witch Trials

From the late 15th century to the late 18th century a wave of persecution washed across parts of Europe. Tens of thousands of people were executed for witchcraft. So what happened? Belief in magic was almost universal in the past. Almost all cultures believed that you could use supernatural means to help hunting or to make your crops grow better or make humans or animals more fertile. Magic could also be used to heal the sick. For the great majority of people who lived before the 18th century magic was an ordinary part of everyday life. To them, the world was a mysterious and frightening place. They did not know what caused disease and other natural phenomena and so they sometimes assumed there was a supernatural explanation.

However if you could use magic for good to make your crops grow better or to heal the sick then logically you could, if you wished, use magic to harm your enemies. For people who believed in magic, the thought that your enemies could use magic to harm you must have been terrifying.

Most people in the 16th century and 17th centuries believed that God had an enemy called the Devil, who was very powerful. They believed that witches made a pact or agreement with the Devil and agreed to worship and serve him. Witches then used magic to harm animals or humans. Many people believed that there were ‘fifth columnists’ who were out to cause harm. To people at the time, the thought that your neighbor might secretly be a witch must have been very frightening.

However, not everybody believed in witches. Some scholars criticized beliefs about witches. Furthermore, in some areas, large numbers of people were tried as witches while in others few, if any, were.

Witch trials were most common in Central Europe, in Germany, France, Switzerland, and what is now Belgium. Witch trials were somewhat less common in Scotland, Scandinavia, and Poland. Executions for witchcraft were much less common in England, Russia, and Southern Europe (Italy, Spain, and Portugal). Hungary escaped witch trials and executions until the early 18th century. (The Hungarians disbelieved in witchcraft but trials were imposed by the Austrians).

Furthermore, the frequency of witch trials varied over time. In Western Europe, the first witch hunts (in which large numbers of people were tried and convicted of witchcraft) were held in France and Germany in the 15th century. In the 16th century, the witch mania spread to England and Scotland. (Both the English and Scottish parliaments passed laws against witchcraft in 1563). In Western Europe, witch trials reached a peak in the late 16th century and early 17th century then declined.

However, in Scandinavia, the majority of executions for witchcraft took place in the late 17th century, later than in Western Europe. In Poland, witch trials reached a peak in the late 17th century and early 18th century, when they were declining in Western Europe. In Hungary, people were not executed for witchcraft until the early 18th century when witch trials and executions were imposed by the Austrians.

Furthermore, by no means, all the people who were tried for witchcraft were convicted. Some were acquitted. Also, not everyone convicted of witchcraft was executed. Some people were given lesser punishments such as banishment or imprisonment.

Nobody knows why witch trials became common when they did. Many theories have been put forward but probably several different factors came together at the same time.

Several books were written about witchcraft. The most notorious is the Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches), which was first published in 1486 and was written by two Dominicans, Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger.

Beliefs about witchcraft varied. Some (but not all) people who believed in witches believed that they held nocturnal meetings called sabbats. At the sabbat they did wicked things like dancing naked, indulging in orgies, and carrying out a parody of the Catholic mass. Witches were even supposed to kill babies and eat them! Most people believed that witches could fly.

According to some authorities when a witch made a pact with the Devil he touched them and left a mark (which was not necessarily visible) on their body. The mark was insensitive to pain. One test for a witch was to prick their body with a blade. If they did not flinch or bleed when pricked in a certain place then it was evident that they were a witch.

Many people believed that witches could affect the fertility of animals (very important when people relied on flocks and herds for their livelihood). They also believed that witches could make humans or animals ill or even kill them by magic. Many people believed in ‘swimming’ witches. If a witch was thrown into water the water would ‘reject’ them and they would float. If they sank they were innocent. (Although they might accidentally drown!).

In many parts of Europe, people accused of witchcraft were tortured until they ‘confessed’. If you were tortured you would probably ‘confess’ to anything to stop the torture. However torture was not used in England and after 1594 it was not used in Holland, (which is probably one reason why there were fewer executions for witchcraft there).

In England, witches were hanged not burned. In the rest of Europe, witches were usually burned but normally they were strangled first. Some people confessed without torture but that does not mean they were guilty. In recent years a number of people have falsely confessed to murder. Vulnerable people may confess to serious crimes. By no means, all people tried and executed for witchcraft were women. The majority were female but a significant minority were men.

Witch hunts sometimes ended because many people feared they were going too far and innocent people were being executed. Witch trials became more rigorous and higher standards of evidence were demanded. More and more people in the 17th century and early 18th century opposed the use of torture to obtain confessions, not necessarily because it was cruel but because it was not a reliable way of gaining information. Increasingly judges, would not accept confessions unless they were voluntary and not obtained by torture.

People also became skeptical about so-called spectral evidence. Some supposed victims of witchcraft claimed they were being tormented by the ‘specters’ of the people who bewitched them. That happened at Salem in North America in 1692 but the authorities decided that spectral evidence was not enough to obtain a conviction. As a result, the witch hunt collapsed.

Some Protestant scholars also pointed out that popular beliefs about witches had no support from the Bible. Many people believed witches existed but did not believe the more ludicrous stories about them. Most people also became skeptical about cases where witches were supposed to have used magic to kill people.

Increasingly people realized that the deaths might have been due to natural causes and they required proof they that were not. People did not necessarily stop believing in witches, at least not at first, but they became much more cautious about accepting ‘evidence’ of witchcraft realizing that many maladies and mishaps have natural causes.

The end of the Witch Trials

Eventually, however, educated people gradually stopped believing in witches and magic. In England, the last execution for witchcraft was in 1684. In Scotland, the last execution for witchcraft was in 1727. Finally in 1735 parliament repealed all previous laws against witchcraft. The new law made it illegal to pretend to cast spells or tell fortunes. In 1775 in Bavaria, Germany a woman was sentenced to death for witchcraft but she was never executed. Instead, she died in jail. The last execution for witchcraft in Europe was in 1782. A Swiss woman named Anna Goeldi was beheaded.

Last revised 2024