Saul and the Witch of Endor, 1526. Artist: Cornelisz van Oostsanen, Jacob (ca. 1470-1533). Heritage Images/Getty Images / Getty Images
The European witch hunts have a long timeline, gaining momentum during the 16th century and continuing for more than 200 years. People accused of practicing maleficarum, or harmful magic, were widely persecuted, but the exact number of Europeans executed on charges of witchcraft is not certain and subject to considerable controversy. Estimates have ranged from about 10,000 to nine million. While most historians use the range of 40,000 to 100,000 based on public records, up to three times that many people were formally accused of practicing witchcraft.
Most of the accusations took place in parts of what are now Germany, France, the Netherlands, and Switzerland, then the Holy Roman Empire. While witchcraft was condemned as early as Biblical times, the hysteria about “black magic” in Europe spread at different times in various regions, with the bulk of executions related to the practice occurring during the years 1580-1650.
|B.C.E.||The Hebrew Scriptures addressed witchcraft, including Exodus 22:18 and various verses in Leviticus and Deuteronomy.|
|about 200–500 C.E.||The Talmud described forms of punishments and execution for witchcraft|
|about 910||The canon “Episcopi,” a text of medieval canon law, was recorded by Regino of Prümm; it described folk beliefs in Francia (the Kingdom of the Franks) just before the beginning of the Holy Roman Empire. This text influenced later canon law and condemned maleficium (bad-doing) and sorilegium (fortune-telling), but it argued that most stories of these acts were fantasy. It also argued that those who believed they could somehow magically fly were suffering from delusions.|
|about 1140||Mater Gratian’s compiled canon law, including writings from Hrabanus Maurus and excerpts from Augustine.|
|1154||John of Salisbury wrote of his skepticism about the reality of witches riding in the night.|
|1230s||An Inquisition against heresy was established by the Roman Catholic Church.|
|1258||Pope Alexander IV accepted that sorcery and communication with demons amounted to a kind of heresy. This opened the possibility of the Inquisition, concerned with heresy, being involved with witchcraft investigations.|
|late 13th century||In his “Summa Theologiae,” and in other writings, Thomas Aquinas briefly addressed sorcery and magic. He assumed that consulting demons included making a pact with them, which was by definition, apostasy. Aquinas accepted that demons could assume the shapes of actual people.|
|1306–15||The Church moved to eliminate the Knights Templar. Among the charges were heresy, witchcraft, and devil-worship.|
|1316–1334||Pope John XII issued several bulls identifying sorcery with heresy and pacts with the devil.|
|1317||In France, a bishop was executed for using witchcraft in an attempt to kill Pope John XXII. This was one of several assassination plots around that time against the pope or a king.|
|1340s||Black Death swept through Europe, adding to the willingness of people to see conspiracies against Christendom.|
|about 1450||“Errores Gazaziorum,” a papal bull, or decree, identified witchcraft and heresy with the Cathars.|
|1484||Pope Innocent VIII issued “Summis desiderantes affectibus,” authorizing two German monks to investigate accusations of witchcraft as heresy, threatening those who interfered with their work.|
|1486||The “Malleus Maleficarum” was published.|
|1500–1560||Many historians point to this period as one in which witchcraft trials, and Protestantism, were rising.|
|1532||“Constitutio Criminalis Carolina” by Emperor Charles V declared that harmful witchcraft should be punished by death by fire; witchcraft that resulted in no harm was to be “punished otherwise.”|
|1542||English law made witchcraft a secular crime with the Witchcraft Act.|
|1552||Ivan IV of Russia issued the Decree of 1552, declaring witch trials were to be civil matters rather than church matters.|
|1560s and 1570s||A wave of witch hunts was launched in southern Germany.|
|1563||“De Praestiglis Daemonum“ by Johann Weyer, physician to the Duke of Cleves, was published. It argued that much of what was thought to be witchcraft was not supernatural at all but natural trickery.|
The second English Witchcraft Act was passed.
|1580–1650||Many historians consider this period, especially the years 1610–1630, as the one with the largest number of witchcraft cases.|
|1580s||One of the periods of frequent witchcraft trials in England.|
|1584||“Discoverie of Witchcraft” was published by Reginald Scot of Kent, expressing skepticism of witchcraft claims.|
|1604||Act of James I expanded punishable offenses related to witchcraft.|
|1612||The Pendle witch trials in Lancashire, England, accused 12 witches. The charges included the murder of 10 by witchcraft. Ten were found guilty and executed, one died in prison, and one was found not guilty.|
|1618||A handbook for English judges on pursuing witches was published.|
|1634||The Loudun witch trials took place in France after Ursuline nuns reported being possessed. They claimed to be the victims of Father Urbain Grandier, who was convicted of sorcery despite refusing to confess, even under torture. Although Father Grandier was executed, the “possessions” continued to occur until 1637.|
|1640s||One of the periods of frequent witchcraft trials in England.|
|1660||A wave of witch trials started in northern Germany.|
|1682||King Louis XIV of France prohibited further witchcraft trials in that country.|
|1682||Mary Trembles and Susannah Edward were hanged, the last documented witch hangings in England itself.|
|1692||Salem witch trials took place in the British colony of Massachusetts.|
|1717||The last English trial for witchcraft was held; the defendant was acquitted.|
|1736||The English Witchcraft Act was repealed, formally ending witch hunts and trials.|
|1755||Austria ended witchcraft trials.|
|1768||Hungary ended witchcraft trials.|
|1829||“Histoire de l’Inquisition en France” by Etienne Leon de Lamothe-Langon was published. It was a forgery claiming massive witchcraft executions in the 14th century. The evidence was, essentially, fiction.|
|1833||In the United States, a Tennessee man was prosecuted for witchcraft.|
|1862||French writer Jules Michelet advocated a return to goddess worship and saw women’s “natural” inclination to witchcraft as positive. He depicted witch hunts as Catholic persecutions.|
|1893||Matilda Joslyn Gage published “Women, Church and State” which reported that nine million witches had been executed.|
|1921||Margaret Murray’s “The Witch Cult in Western Europe” was published. In this book about the witch trials, she argued that witches represented a pre-Christian “old religion.” She contended that the Plantagenet kings were protectors of the witches, and Joan of Arc was a pagan priestess.|
|1954||Gerald Gardner published “Witchcraft Today“ about witchcraft as a surviving pre-Christian pagan religion.|
|20th century||Anthropologists explore the beliefs different cultures have about witchcraft, witches, and sorcery.|
|1970s||The women’s movement looks at the witchcraft persecutions through a feminist lens.|
|December 2011||Amina Bint Abdul Halim Nassar was beheaded in Saudi Arabia for practicing witchcraft.|
Why Mostly Women Were Executed
Although men were also accused of witchcraft, about 75–80 percent of those executed during the witch hunts were women. Women were subject to cultural prejudices that framed them as inherently weaker than men and, thus, more susceptible to superstition and evil. In Europe, the idea of women’s weakness was tied to Eve’s temptation by the Devil in the Bible, but that story itself cannot be blamed for the proportion of women accused. Even in other cultures, witchcraft accusations have been more likely to be directed at women.
Some writers have also argued, with significant evidence, that many of those accused were single women or widows whose very existence delayed the full inheritance of property by male heirs. Dower rights, intended to protect widows, gave women in such circumstances power over property that they usually could not exercise. Witchcraft accusations were easy ways to remove the obstacle.
It was also true that most of those accused and executed were among the poorest, most marginal in society. Women’s marginality compared to men added to their susceptibility to accusations.
Historians Approach to the European Witch Hunts
The persecution of mostly women as witches in medieval times and early modern Europe has fascinated scholars. Some of the earliest histories of the European witch hunts used the trials to characterize the present as “more enlightened” than the past. And many historians viewed witches to be heroic figures, struggling to survive against persecution. Others considered witchcraft to be a social construct that revealed how different societies create and shape gender and class expectations.
Finally, some scholars take an anthropological look at witchcraft accusations, beliefs, and executions. They examine the facts of historic witchcraft cases to determine which parties would have benefitted and why.