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Witches, Witch Craze and Witch Hunt in 16th Century Europe

Updated on March 6, 2012

Witches are described as those who practice idolatry wherein they worship false gods through ‘diabolical means’ and are performed to invoked requests and desires not granted by God. Sixteenth century was the period when beliefs in the existence and persecution of witches were widely common, particularly in Europe. It was a historical period wherein there is a predominant witch craze. Protestant theologians would justify the prosecutions of these witches upon the belief that they are in violation of the First Commandment. Their accusations and teachings would even go as far as citing the Roman Catholic Church as an example of a cult that practices witchcraft (Hamilton 1990).

Sixteenth century was also a time in Europe wherein there was an influx of immigrants of people from the country side to the cities. Because the town people were predominantly peasantries: poor people, merchants, artisans, small traders, laborers, beggars, and vagrants, the increase in urban population also resulted in increase poverty and increase gap among social class between the poor and the bourgeoisie. It was also the period wherein the Roman Catholic Church was challenged by Italian Renaissance that somehow affected its efficacy to impose social control (Morris 1998). It was these social dynamics and moral panic—challenging the Catholic Church; increasing social struggles and dilemmas; increasing population and poverty; growing dichotomy between social status; and the rise of Protestantism; have lead towards widespread witch hunt during the sixteenth century Europe. By understanding the interconnected dynamics of social institutions and social constructs that provides guidelines in keeping the members of the community in line, it would be easier to understand the forces that compel and drive witchcraft.

Punishments for witchcraft in 16th-century
Punishments for witchcraft in 16th-century | Source

Moral Panic

The wide-spread Witch hunt or ‘craze’ that predominates sixteenth century was a form of social control to suppress (or invoke) moral panic. When a society is gripped with problematic and deviant behavior of its members—“the evil they do, or are thought to do,” there is a collective sentiment that serious steps must be undertaken to ensure the preservation of the social fabric. Thus, the evil threat must be addressed to repair the damage by controlling these deviant behaviors and punishing the perpetrators. Unless immediately rectified, the growing social crisis could stir up heightened emotion, anxiety, hostility, threat, and fear that could cause social panic and changes in status quo. To address moral panic, a heightened or strengthened social control is imposed. This means more rigid laws, more intense public hostility (to counter deviant behavior i.e. setting examples through public humiliation and punishment), condemnation, more elaborate rules and policies, more arrests, and more prisons. This is to efficiently address and counter the tendency of societies to be morally lax (Goode and Ben-Yehuda 2009).

Ergo, if there is a crackdown on the vulnerable members of the society—young, morally weak, questionable characters, harmful deeds, and experimenting with evil; believed to be the perpetrators, then these individuals must be made aware of the repercussions of their actions to serve as lessons to other members of the community who might think of doing the same thing. If the major cause of the problem is inefficiency to reprimand wrongdoings, then the major solution is to re-strengthen those efforts (Goode and Ben-Yehuda 2009).

By the second half of the sixteenth century, there was an increase prosecution of those accused of being a witch and practicing witchcraft. The renewed efforts to hunt down witches stemmed from the fear of an underground society of devil worshippers. The danger posed by this underground society or diabolic cult became a social concern of the integral whole. Common people viewed the threat as maleficium or harmful magic while the elite were more concerned on diabolism (Bever 2009). This common sentiment was the unifying factor between the rich and the poor to try and hunt down local witches. In this case, witchcraft had become a catalyst for unification among the members of the society by finding a common enemy rather than fighting amongst themselves needlessly.

The Catholic Church also had an impact on the belief in witchcraft and consequently, witch hunts. Pope John XXII, an ardent believer of magic, motivated and encouraged the people to not be complacent and underestimate the power of magic. He encouraged both the Dominicans and Inquisitors to be persistent and unyielding in their witch hunt and prosecute all who practices all and any form of sorcery, magic and other heretic acts on fear that witchcraft practices were rapidly gaining popularity among the people. Those people who were tried and convicted of practicing witchcraft were executed by beheading, burning, drowning, hanging, or strangulating (Ben-Yehuda 1981). Such extreme and cruel means of execution is a way of instilling fear among the people since these executions are public in nature. It serves as a warning and a reminder to those who are thinking of practicing witchcraft and intimidation to those who are doing witchcraft that the law would not go easy on them.

(Suspected) witches being hanged
(Suspected) witches being hanged | Source
Torture of a witch, Anne Hendricks, in Amsterdam in 1571
Torture of a witch, Anne Hendricks, in Amsterdam in 1571 | Source

Social Dynamics

Another reason for the wide-spread Witch hunt was the rigidity against social change. Any disruption on the status quo causes discomfort particularly to those whose powers are being challenged. According to Estes (1984), rather than associating our understanding of the witch hunts with the religious/ moral beliefs of the Middle Ages, researches must look into the emergence and rise of science and humanism. He further suggests that a medical revolution would have sparked the witch hunt.

With increasing population comes increasing chances of the formation of new diseases and epidemics that traditional medicine could not cure. For most illnesses that go uncured due to failure of the remedy associated with the medical theory, these irregular diseases are associated with sorcery and works of the devil. Earlier century physicians would not dare to suggest natural remedy, even when he knows it to be effective, when a sickness is called to be works of the devil because of fear of being branded to practice dark magic, sorcery, or witchcraft. But with the turn of the sixteenth century to seventeenth century, doctors are becoming bolder in terms of experimenting with natural cures. However, not all attempts were successful. And those who failed to deliver the expected outcome were branded witches or practicing witchcraft (Estes 1984).

There were also instances that unknown diseases could easily be explained as due to witchcraft. For instance, mental illness and seizures would be something that is very difficult to explain and failed to explain by the sixteenth century physicians. Thus, it was an easy route to assume that such occurrences would be the works of the devil or because of someone practicing witchcraft (Estes 1984).

For Ben-Yehuda (1981), the social drive to hunt down witches was partly because of persecution of women and power play in societies. During this period, women’s social status is considered inferior in comparison to their male counterpart. They are a powerless minority group that could easily be targeted for social, political, and or economic advantage. Accordingly, witch hunts are a social manifestation on the power struggle between different members within the community. In Germany, 85 percent of all witch hunt victims were women; and in Weisensteig and Rothenberg almost all of the women were accused to be witches. Furthermore, Bever (2002) believed that women in general were branded as witches because they have the strong tendency to act like one.

Women, particulalrly those from small rural villages would result to witch-like behaviors such as deliberate poisoning and calculated assault to magical practices in show of intense anger in addressing conflict resolution through intimidation. And since women do not have innate physical prowse that could challenge their male counterparts, such methods avoids physical struggle. And while most witch hunt were decisive pursuit of officials obssed with the belief of evil conspiracy, most trials were actually motivated by personal biases for power, status, and social gain (Bever 2002). In such cases, witch-like behaviors are predominant among women as a defense mechanism on their part.

The rampant and prolonged prosecutions of the accused witches as a state intervention was effective enough in minimizing witch-like practices and behaviors. And since it is the women who are most likely to resolve to this kind of ‘justice’ to resolve conflicts and issues, it helped change the perception on the nature of women. The shift from the Medieval perception of women as lustful and violent changed dramatically to the modern image of women as a sexual and gentle creatures (Bever, 2002).

Investigations have also suggests that women accused of witch craft are not only those who belong to the lower and marginalized group but also includes those important member of the society, and married women. Witch hunts in this case are self-motivated. Some accusations are due to unresolved interpersonal conflicts between poor widows, between better-off neighbors, or between the well-to-do women and their inferior counterparts (Bever, 2000). In this case, witch hunt is seen as a way for conflict resolution in the sense that the offended party would resolve to accusasion of witchcraft which was relatively easy rather than presenting a valid claim that could easily be refuted.

Through an understanding of the interconnected dynamics of social institutions and social constructs that provides guidelines in keeping the members of the community in line, it would be easier to understand the forces that compel and drive witchcraft. It also showed that witchcraft goes beyond the realm of religion and theology but actually involves social forces.

Works Cited

Ben-Yehuda, Nachman. "Problems Inherent in Socio-Historical Approaches to the European Witch Craze." Journal For the Scientific Study of Religion, vol. 20, no. 4, 1981: 326-338.

Bever, Edward. "Witchcraft Fears and Psychosocial Factors in Disease." Journal of Interdisciplinary History, vol. 30, no.4, 2000: 573-590.

__________. "Witchcraft, Female Aggression, and Power in the Early Modern Community." Journal of Social History, vol. 35, no.4, 2002: 955-988.

__________. "Witchcraft Prosecutions and the Decline of Magic." Journal of Interdisciplinary History, vol. 40, No. 2, 2009: 263-293.

Estes, Leland. "The Medieval Origins of the European Witch Craze: A Hypothesis." Journal of Social History, 1984: 271-284.

Goode, Erich, and Nachman Ben-Yehuda. Moral Panics: The Social Construct of Deviance. United Kingdom: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2009.

Hamilton, Albert Charles. The Spencer Encyclopedia. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990.

Morris, Terence Alan. Europe and England in the Sixteenth Century. London: Routledge, 1998.


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      GSD Woman 5 years ago

      I just read "Falling for the Devil" by Britt Holmstrom on Amazon Kindle. It's a very good book about early 17th C Scotland and the witch hunts. Full of history, but not short on narrative drama, I highly recommend it!

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      L Valerie 5 years ago

      There is a new e-book on Kindle called "Falling For the Devil" set in Scotland in the 17th century. Fascinating. Historically accurate with a powerful narrative.

    • WillStarr profile image

      WillStarr 6 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      And yet today, witches practice openly and we see them all over the internet. However, we no longer burn them!

      Today, it's just fine and perfectly acceptable. In fact, one of the most popular authors today, JK Rowling, is an admitted witch!

    • daryl2007 profile image

      daryl2007 6 years ago

      wow!!! So many poor innocent men and women sentence to death because of witchcraft that did not really happen.....poor