What were the causes of the Witch Craze in Europe, 1550-1700

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An drawing of witches from the 16th century

The early modern period in Europe is often characterized as a reason when great strides were made in science and culture. However, it was also a period of religious intolerance and mass hysteria, and this is exemplified in the witch-craze that occurred in Europe in the period from 1550-1700. At this time, thousands of people were prosecuted and executed for witchcraft or sorcery crimes all over Europe.

The origins of this Witch Craze are various and complex. This article will demonstrate that the craze's origins were class, gender, social and religious conflicts. The prosecution of witches was related to specific problems in the historical period. That alleged witches were as often as not unfortunate scapegoats or the victims of powerful religious and political processes.


At the time of the witch-craze, Europe was a deeply divided continent, and it was experiencing something of a socio-economic crisis. The population of Europe had grown, and this was putting pressure on scarce agricultural resources. Religious wars had wracked Europe from at least the mid-sixteenth century, and much of the continent had been devastated by the 30 years war and the Huguenot Wars.[1]

The witch-trials emerged in the 16th century out of an effort to persecute heretics deemed a threat to Christendom. This fear was eventually projected onto those regarded as witches. It was widely believed that groups of people served the devil and were engaged in black magic. Before the late fifteenth century, there had been no real interest in witchcraft. Still, after the publication of Malleus Malefic arum, the 1485 treatise by Henricus Institoris, there was a growth of interest in the area.[2]

A popular image of the devil in the early modern era

There had been a widespread belief in the existence of witches and the power of black magic in much of Europe as the Church's beliefs had failed to change the folk-beliefs of the country-people, who often remained half-pagan. It seems that countless people practiced folk-medicine that often involved cures and charms. These had long been tolerated by the authorities and were not considered a danger. There was a change in sorcery's legal definition during the 15th century, and sorcery was deemed to be heretical.[3]

At this time, the Christian community began to formulate a definite sense of witchcraft, and this involved Black Sabbaths, demonic worships, and black magic that harmed people and their property. This led to the uneducated rural population's folk religion and practices, becoming regarded as sorcery and associated with the Devil. This doctrinal shift meant that the people's folk religion was criminalized and considered to be demonic[4] It should be noted that some of the popular magical practices in rural areas were often malicious and involved cursing victims. This form of malignant magic was used as evidence for the existence of malevolent witches.

By the 15th century, Europe, which had been relatively open and tolerant, began to become reactionary. Those who did not follow the prescribed practices and beliefs were marginalized and often terrorized by the elite. By 1500 there was a widespread acceptance that there was a conspiracy of witches who were trying to harm Christians and even overthrow the Christian religion in league with the devil. The Renaissance is often seen as a rational cultural movement, but there was a strain of the irrational. Many leading Renaissance thinkers believed in magic and occultism, and they persuaded many of the elite to take the idea of magic and sorcery seriously.

Persecution of Witches

Once heretical groups, such as the Cathars and Hussites, had been crushed and exterminated by the Church, it turned its attention to alleged witches. In the sixteenth century, there was a series of moral panics regarding witchcraft across much of the continent. There was a clear and discernable pattern to these events. Usually, there was some incident when suspicions, often unfounded, would be raised about an individual or, more usually, group activities. Those who were on the margins of society and women were very vulnerable to the charge of witchcraft. Members of the public would make accusations, resulting in people being charged with the capital offense of witchcraft or sorcery. The secular and religious authorities investigated these allegations. Not surprisingly, these charges were based upon usually false evidence. Before any trial took place, alleged witches were tortured to extract a confession.

These trials were rarely fair, and those who were accused of witchcraft could expect a death sentence. It is unknown how many people died due to the European witch craze, but it has been estimated that at least 40,000 people were executed. Those who were found guilty of witchcraft were hung, drowned, or burned alive. It was considered necessary to kill them in a barbarous way to deter others from following their example.

The witch craze occurred in both Catholic and Protestant countries, and it was a truly Pan-European event. There were mass executions of ‘witches’ in France, Germany, Spain, England, and Italy. Some academics believe that the witchcraft craze was in two waves. The first wave was concerned with the suppression of heresy. Still, ultimately the craze became an effort to silence political opponents and dissidents. By 1650 the elite was no longer as credulous about witchcraft as before, which led to a reduction in the number of witch trials by the eighteenth century.[5]

Social Tensions

Witches being interrogated before King James VI of Scotland

There have been very many attempts to explain the causes of the witchcraft trials and craze. Anthropologists have argued that these witchcraft trials served an important function in early modern society. This era was one that was plagued by a series of disasters. Many societies were unstable, and they were regularly devastated by famine, war, and pestilence. This was also a time when the old certainties were challenged.

Many agricultural communities were destabilized by capitalism's growth and the ‘price revolution’ caused by the massive inflows of gold and silver from the Americas. This influx of precious metals led to high inflation.[6] To compound the economic problems, beginning from the later sixteenth-century Europe experienced climatic changes, a mini Ice age. Climate change led to hardship and poor harvests. It is widely believed that the standard of living in many countries fell and famines became more common.

Some studies have suggested that Germany experienced many outbreaks of witchcraft trials because it suffered greatly from war and famine. There is evidence of a direct link between those who were most impacted by war and the number of witches put on trial. This would help explain the rise in the number of accusations brought against those called the ‘consorts of the devil.’ [7]

However, there were also large-scale witchcraft trials in areas that had escaped the ravages of war. Some have argued that the trials were a form of scapegoating and that it was a deliberate policy by the elite to divert attention away from their own failings. Given the times' instability, many have argued that the trials became a form of social control. It was a way for the rich and aristocracy to control the poor during periods of war and famine could become restive.


In the middle ages, the age at which people married and had children was quite low. This had gradually increased in the decades before 1500. There was less land available because of population pressures, which led to the average age of marriage for women rising to 27. Women from poor backgrounds could not afford a dowry and were forced to remain single and live a life of celibacy. This became particularly pronounced in Protestant lands where many former nuns were expelled from their convents and left destitute. It is believed that the number of unmarried women in many areas was as high as one in four. They were often seen as a disruptive element in society because women who were not under the control of men were seen as threatening.

The growth in the literature that purported to describe witches and sorcery tended to present witches as single females. This occurred during the moral panics about sorcery, and black magic often led innocent women on the margins of society to be accused of witchcraft. Many have interpreted the accusations of witchcraft against women as an effort to control this group and to maintain the hegemony of males[8]. According to feminists, the existing patriarchy was threatened by the growth in the number of unmarried women, and the witchcraft craze was a systematic attempt to control and intimidate them.

Catholic versus Protestant conflict

The period's defining feature was the rivalry between the Catholics and the Protestants, and religious wars ravaged the continent. An eminent English historian claimed that both denominations used the witch trials to persecute their rivals in each territory. In this way, they were able to strengthen their hold over a given community.[9] There is some evidence that some groups sought to depict their rivals as witches to discredit them.

However, there is also evidence that there were still witchcraft trials, even in areas where there was no confessional conflict. Even in religiously homogenized areas such as Northern Italy, there were burnings and hangings of witches. However, there is some credence given to the theory that the persecution of alleged witches was due to the phenomenon of ‘confessionalization.’ [10]

In the aftermath of the Reformation, there was intense competition between the Catholic Church and the Protestants denominations. They sought to ensure that there was great religious uniformity among the general population. For the first time, the ecclesiastical elite was concerned with the faith and the observance of the general population. The clergy had instructions to make their congregations comply with the doctrines of the Churches. This occurred in both Catholic and Protestant territories and was designed to instill loyalty to a particular religious grouping.

One of the side-effects of this process was that anything that deviated from doctrine was deemed heretical. Many faith healers and those who practiced ‘white magic’ for fertility and good luck became suspect. They were regularly placed on trial by authorities who interpreted their beliefs and customs as sorcery and diabolical.[11]


The Witchcraft Craze in Europe lasted from 1500-1700. The period because of religious changes, became more interested in the devil and heresy. This led the elite in the Church to construct an idea of witches who were the devil's servants and who plotted to kill and harm Christians. By 1500 sorcery was deemed to be heresy, and the Church had become much more concerned about any deviant practices. Increasingly the customs and the practices of the semi-pagan rural dwellers were interpreted as witchcraft. This meant that they were extremely vulnerable to accusations of sorcery.

The factors that promoted the Witch Craze included the growing Catholic and Protestant rivalry and the need to ensure the population's religious conformity. Then there were the genuine social tensions because of the endemic warfare, inflation, economic changes, and social change. This created a situation where there was a need to control the population, and witches were used to venting popular discontent and warn the poor not to become rebellious. Women were the chief victims of the Witchcraft Craze, and this was due to social change where single women increased in numbers, which led to tensions, and these were released in widespread charge of witchcraft against unmarried females. There was no one reason for the hysteria that cost so many their lives. Rather it was often the interplay of all the above factors.


  1. Bailey, Michael D. Magic and Superstition in Europe: A Concise History from Antiquity to the Present. (London, Rowman & Littlefield, 2006), p. 5
  2. Bailey, p. 12
  3. Cohn, Norman. Europe's Inner Demons: An Enquiry Inspired by the Great Witch-Hunt. Sussex and London: Sussex University Press and Heinemann Educational Books, 1975), p. 6
  4. Cohn, p. 14
  5. Thomas, Keith. Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Century England. (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1971), p. 167
  6. Thomas, p. 111
  7. Thomas, p. 114
  8. Cohn, p. 117
  9. Trevor-Roper, Hugh. The European Witch-Craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries and Other Essays (New York: Harper & Row, 1969), p. 116
  10. Bailey, p. 201
  11. Barstow, Anne Llewellyn. Witch Craze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts (San Francisco: Pandora,1994), p. 119

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