Witch-Hunts and Witch Trials Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Fifteenth and sixteenth century Europe saw a substantial increase in the number of witch-hunts and witch trials, after papal bulls and a flurry of published secular works and secular laws perpetuated the persecution of alleged witches that had begun centuries earlier in Europe. Witches were condemned as devilish and therefore heretical.

Summary of Event

The second half of the fifteenth century saw a significant increase in the number of individuals, mostly poor and older women, who were hunted, charged, tried, and often executed as witches. The rise in condemnations was propelled in large degree by papal bulls, the first in 1473, issued by Pope Sixtus IV, which attacked and condemned sorcery, thought to be practiced by witches. Catholicism;witch-hunts[witch hunts] Popes of the first half of the fifteenth century issued bulls, too, condemning witchcraft and magic. In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII issued the bull Summis Desiderantes Affectibus Summis Desiderantes Affectibus (Innocent VIII) , which officially sanctioned powers already exercised by the Dominican inquisitors Heinrich Krämer and Jacob Sprenger to deal with witchcraft, heresy, and other crimes. Krämer and Sprenger had alerted the pope of heresy among the rural German populations, of the work of the devil, or demonology. Witch-hunts[Witch hunts] Sixtus IV Innocent VIII Krämer, Heinrich Sprenger, Jacob Binsfeld, Peter Remy, Nicholas Bodin, Jean Sixtus IV Innocent VIII Krämer, Heinrich Sprenger, Jacob Grillandus, Paulus Weyer, Johann Bodin, Jean Remy, Nicolas Charles V (Holy Roman Emperor) Paul II Luther, Martin Calvin, John Zwingli, Huldrych Binsfeld, Peter Hans of Biberach Stoeckhlin, Chonrad

A sixteenth century wood engraving depicting a fantastical image of a witch’s sabbath. The most comprehensive summary of sabbath activities. Daemonolatria, was published in 1598 by Nicolas Remy.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

A wood engraving attributed to Renaissance German artist Hans Holbein, the Younger, depicting an “old-maid witch” in a rural setting. Older, poor women often were accused of being witches.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

Krämer (also known as Institoris) and Sprenger (also known as James Sprenger), used Innocent VIII’s bull as a preface to their own work, the Malleus Maleficarum (c. 1486; English translation, 1928), which became a best-seller and legal companion in its time and still is often read and cited. The work summarized contemporary beliefs about witchcraft, with a particular emphasis on women, as witches, and it indicated that witchcraft was a more serious crime than heresy.

Authors of the time used the printing press to disseminate quickly and widely a definition of “witchcraft” that combined maleficia (black magic) with diabolism (devil worship). Printing;mass communication In 1536, Paulus Grillandus, a judge at several trials near Rome, published Tractatus de hereticis et sortilegiis Tractatus de hereticis et sortilegiis (Grillandus) , which developed more fully the concept of the witches’ sabbath with the devil. After Johann Weyer (1515-1588), a medical doctor, argued in 1563 that witches were merely deranged women, the French political philosopher Jean Bodin replied with his De la démonomanie des sorciers(1580; On the Demon-Mania of Witches On the Demon-Mania of Witches (Bodin)[On the Demon Mania of Witches (Bodin)] , 1995), which noted that witches deserved torture because of their adoration of Satan. The most comprehensive summary of sabbath activities, Daemonolatria Daemonolatria (Remy) , was published in 1598 by Nicolas Remy, the attorney general of Lorraine, who also was involved in numerous witch trials.

Learned publications on witchcraft were supplemented by laws issued by various European states and political entities, transforming the hunts, trials, and tortures into secular affairs. This led to a substantial increase in witchcraft trials in all regions of western Europe. Beginning in 1580, mass trials were concentrated in the region of the Holy Roman Empire Holy Roman Empire;witchcraft and , where the overwhelming majority of the executions of witches in Europe took place. Law;regarding witchcraft[witchcraft]

In 1532, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V’s Lex Carolina Lex Carolina (Charles V) stipulated that black magic, or sorcery, should be handled as a criminal offense, and that witches should be put to death if any person was threatened with harm or was actually harmed through that sorcery. By 1563, laws against witchcraft were adopted in England and Scotland. England;witchcraft Scotland;witchcraft In England, however, Elizabethan law placed emphasis on maleficia rather than diabolism, and torture was allowed only with the permission of the Privy Council. In a similar fashion, Ireland passed a law in 1586 that excluded the charge of diabolism and restricted torture. Ireland;witchcraft This might explain why there were relatively fewer executions for witchcraft in England and Ireland than there were in Scotland, where the use of torture produced trial after trial between 1590 and 1592. France was the only European nation that did not issue a law dealing with witchcraft.

Trials before 1430 focused on cases of maleficia, but in the fifteenth century, the charge of diabolism first emerged in witch trials. Until 1520 trials were most common in northern Italy, southern France, the Swiss cantons, and in the Rhineland. Between 1520 and 1560, the total number of trials decreased. Mass trials started in 1580, affecting all regions of western Europe, including Scotland. Relying on the use of torture, which had been approved by Pope Paul II in 1468, trials produced confessions and further accusations. Both Protestants and Catholics supported witch trials. Martin Luther in 1539 urged that witches be burned, and witch trials occurred in John Calvin’s Geneva (1547-1560) and in Huldrych Zwingli’s Zürich (1500-1539).

In addition to religious passions, macroeconomic problems such as inflation and declining real wages after 1500 helped create an atmosphere of crisis. Often specific economic disasters preceded trials. When hail storms ruined the crop in 1562 in the Lutheran community of Wiesenstein, witch trials followed. In Trier, trials in the 1580’s and 1590’s coincided with poor grape (wine) and grain harvests. Furthermore, plague, famines, and unstable politics contributed to the climate that unleashed mass trials in the late sixteenth century. Economy;witchcraft and

Even though much of western and central Europe experienced witch trials during this period, the overwhelming majority of the trials occurred in the Holy Roman Empire. The numerous small religious and secular territories in the empire had the worst record. In Rothenburg, Germany, 150 people were executed between 1578 and 1609, and in the monastic community of Obermachtal, with a population of 350 adults, 50 witches were burned between 1586 and 1588. Unlike England, there was no strong central power that could intervene. Even the inquisitions in Spain, Portugal, and Rome created safeguards that greatly reduced the number of executions in these countries.

Between 1560 and 1660, the Holy Roman Empire, which contained only 20 percent of Europe’s population, accounted for almost 90 percent of the trials. Moreover, 75 percent of the nearly thirty thousand people executed for witchcraft during this period spoke a German dialect. The three archbishoprics of Trier, Cologne, and Mainz were responsible for one-third of the executions in Germany (and one-fourth in Europe) in the century after 1560. In addition, in Luxembourg, which bordered the archbishoprics, 150 individuals were burned between 1580 and 1599. The key official responsible for the events in Trier was Peter Binsfeld, the general vicar of the archdiocese of Trier and the author of Tractatus de confessionibus maleficorum et sagarum Tractatus de confessionibus maleficorum et sagarum (Binsfeld) (1596; treatise on the confession of witches and sorcerers). Binsfeld demanded the death penalty for the practice of magic, and he allowed children to testify against adults.

In Bavaria in southern Germany, a strong ruler was able to control the excesses of witch trials, although several hundred people were burned between 1586 and 1595. Small territories like the bishopric of Dillingen, however, held mass trials. On March 20, 1589, the local judge of Böblingen reported to the bishopric of Dillingen that a fourteen-year-old boy of Böblingen claimed that he flew with his cousins to a sabbath, where they bewitched cattle. The bishopric insisted on an inquisition by Hans of Biberach, a notorious torturer. In the end, forty-five people were accused and twenty-seven were burned to death.

Almost 80 percent of trial victims were old women, usually living in villages. They were poor and often depended on charity, or they attempted to earn a living by practicing healing crafts. Moreover, women were engaged in food preparations, and they served as midwives, two activities whereby it was thought witchcraft could be practiced.

In some areas of Europe, males made up the majority of witch-hunt victims. In Normandy, clerics and shepherds were accused of witchcraft, resulting in the execution of twenty men in 1590. In Finland and Iceland, as well as Bavaria, magic was also primarily a male occupation. One case in the mountain village of Oberstdorf, in the bishopric of Augsburg, involved Chonrad Stoeckhlin, a married horse wrangler who considered himself a healer and witch finder. He was tried, tortured, and burned in 1587. The trial soon expanded into the district of Oberstdorf, which had experienced harvest failures. It consumed the lives of sixty-eight people, representing 10 percent of the population.


The witch trials took the lives of a minimum of forty thousand people, mostly women. Three-fourths of all executions of European witches occurred between the late sixteenth century and early seventeenth century. Mass trials were inflamed by religious passions and made more acceptable by the social and economic tensions of the sixteenth century.

In the long run, only central political authority could control the witch-hunts, which had originated at the local level primarily. In the seventeenth century, trials declined in areas with strong rulers or institutions such as Bavaria, England, Spain, and Holland. Trials spread also to the English colony of Massachusetts, in what is now the United States, where, in 1648, the colony executed its first assumed witch. In 1682, King Louis XIV of France ordered an end to the witch trials, as did the rulers of Prussia in 1714 and England in 1736.

Equally important was a change in the intellectual climate produced by the scientific revolution and the growing rationalism of the seventeenth century. Moreover, the bitter Thirty Years’ War in Germany between 1618 and 1648 caused a reaction against uncontrolled religious fervor. The term “witch-hunt” has survived, though, but it is now applied to secular rather than religious persecutions.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ankarloo, Bengt, and Stuart Clark, eds. Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: The Period of the Witch Trials. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002. Geographic survey of witch trials on the Continent.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Behringer, Wolfgang. Witchcraft Persecutions in Bavaria: Popular Magic, Religious Zealotry, and Reasons of State in Early Modern Europe. Translated by J. C. Grayson and David Lederer. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Valuable for its treatment of mass persecutions around 1590 in southeastern Germany.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kors, Alan Charles, and Edward Peters, eds. Witchcraft in Europe, 400-1700: A Documentary History. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001. Collection of translated primary sources on witchcraft discourses and trials.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Krämer, Heinrich, and James Sprenger. Malleus Maleficarum. Translated by Montague Summers. New York: Dover, 1971. The standard translation. This edition includes helpful introductions to the 1928 and 1948 editions of the translated text and includes discussion of the papal bulls issued before, during, and after the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Levack, Brian P. The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe. 2d ed. London: Longman, 1995. Examines multiple causes and describes different types of witch-hunts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Midelfort, H. C. Erick. Witch Hunting in Southwestern Germany 1562-1684: The Social and Intellectual Foundations. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1972. Study of numerous small territories that constitute the modern state of Baden-Württemberg in Germany.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sharpe, James. Instruments of Darkness: Witchcraft in England, 1550-1750. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1996. Deals with the sixteenth century to eighteenth century witch trials in England.

Nov. 1, 1478: Establishment of the Spanish Inquisition

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