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The European Witch Craze

The Turbulent Years:
An interpretation

Keith Tankard
The Time Traveller
Updated: 14 December 2009
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The 100 years following 1546 were extremely turbulent for most of Europe. Society was in a state of upheaval, with growing inflation, increasing poverty and altering political structures. Moreover, the Protestant Reformation had managed to cement itself so that religion was becoming a divisive factor instead of a unifying one in most parts of the continent. Political upheavals would wrack the various countries, usually in religious disguise, leaving a trail of death and destruction.

It was difficult for the average person to understand the upheavals. In order to explain the travails that they were experiencing, they therefore turned to the tried and tested means: superstition. The turmoil was blamed on "witchcraft" and an increasing number of witch trials began to take place, especially in Germany and Spain.


In Early Modern times western Europe consisted of a group of states, each striving to grow by annexing other states or bringing them under some sort of control. At any given moment some states were on the offensive, trying to gain land, power and wealth while others were on the defensive, trying to preserve what they had.

The units in this competitive system are usually termed "sovereign states." In practice, this means that their rulers had armed forces to carry out their policies and could take initiatives independently of other states. There was therefore a continuous (though irregular) process of reducing the number of sovereign states by means of conquest through warfare.

There were, however, three well-organised monarchies which dominated western Europe: Spain, France and England. The Holy Roman Empire was made up of many semi-sovereign states but, under the leadership of the Habsburg Dynasty, was still a leading international competitor.

Muscovite Russia lay to the east and was, by the mid-16th century, starting the rise towards greatness. Some of the states, like the Habsburg realm, were groupings of formerly independent units that sometimes spoke different languages and were tied together almost solely by the ruling dynasty.

Warfare was not total war. It tended not to touch the lives of the common people unless they were in the way of contending armies. Armies, however, were mercenary and therefore proved a costly drain on the royal treasuries.

At the same time, the armies lived off the land and therefore destroyed the livelihood of those in the vicinity of the battles. Peace settlements never worried much about transferring populations from one dynasty to another.

There was as yet little by way of national pride, except perhaps in England, France and Spain. International Law was in an embryo stage and almost impossible to enforce. Treaties and protocol therefore lasted but a very short time.

The armed forces were therefore of great importance. Feudal armies were now a thing of the past, having made way for mercenary soldiers. The officer class, however, was still drawn from the ranks of the aristocracy and would remain so until at least the end of the 18th century. The common soldiers, however, were purely mercenary, sometimes recruited from among the poor, sometimes obtained by means of press-ganging.

Because they were mercenary, armies had nothing to do with national identity. Foreigners, especially Germans and Swiss, often fought in the English, French and Spanish armies. Organisation and equipment was still largely feudal. Because armies did not wear prescribed uniforms, it was often difficult for soldiers to distinguish friend from foe in the heat of battle, which meant that bloody massacres were quite common.

Weaponry was advancing. The idea of knights on horseback had become outdated. Handguns had been invented but were clumsy to load. Cannons were used to shoot great balls of lead, which were often unstandardised and uncalibrated, and which did not explode on impact.

The first modern navies were beginning to appear. Organisation had to be different from feudal times and so they were better disciplined and better planned. The better navies belonged to the maritime powers of the Atlantic, namely Spain, England, France and Holland.

Religion had become a new tool for military use. Up until the 15th century, when there was only one Church, European warfare had little to do with religion. Now, however, princes were able to use religion as the ultimate weapon, a sort of 16th century nuclear bomb to be dropped on unsuspecting enemies.

Because religion involved largely superstition and mass hysteria, it could be used to inflame passions against a perceived enemy. Thus basic military campaigns now became religious wars. The German princes were therefore no longer striving for independence from the Holy Roman Empire but were seeking to preserve Lutheranism from the ravages of the Catholic Empire. The Catholic French King was trying to suppress the remnants of feudal warlordism who happened to appear as Calvinists.

At the same time, some Catholic states (France) perceived its Catholic neighbours (Spain and the Habsburg Empire) as a military threat. Such countries would then pledge support for Protestant states which served to undermine the power of the threat.

In this way both Britain and France became involved in the Dutch revolt against Spain. In like manner, France backed Denmark and Sweden in the 30 Years War against the Holy Roman Empire.


By the mid-16th century Spain was probably the most wealthy and the most powerful state in Europe. It was the first state to establish a merchant marine. It was also the first the create overseas colonies, conquering almost the whole of South and Central America, as well as a large portion of North America. Immense wealth, especially in terms of gold and silver, thereby found its way to Spain.

Level-headed government should have seen Spain establish itself as a power for many centuries to come. Bad and unpopular government, however, saw this wealth dribble rapidly through the fingers of the Kings. Both Charles I (Emperor Charles V) and Phillip II undertook constant wars everywhere in Europe, draining the royal treasury. At the same time, the majority of goods had to be imported, leading to an export of capital.

Gold and especially silver was not really a blessing for Spain. The need to control and protect the trade routes and bullion market would cause continual warfare. The import of such quantities of bullion would also trigger massive inflation during the 16th century. By the early 17th Century Spain's economy had become stagnant and, coupled with a climatic change, Spain soon moved into economic collapse.

France was slowly moving towards a more centralised state. Feudal attitudes, however, were still strong in the countryside. Here the old feudal aristocracy were resisting the royal efforts to encroach upon their territory and power.

By the 16th Century a new force had come into play, namely religion. Calvinism did not take root amongst the peasantry but was strong amongst the French bourgeoisie and also amongst the feudal aristocracy.

The aristocracy in particular saw in Calvinism a means to drive a wedge between the King and the erosion of their power. Fortified country towns therefore multiplied, each defended by local armies, which presented a serious obstacle in the way of further growth of royal influence.

Sporadic warfare therefore began in 1559 and soon France became engulfed in a major civil war. Regent Catherine d'Medici, ruling for her ten-year- old son Charles IX, chose to make a major effort to destroy the Huguenot groups. Her decision had little to do with religion but everything to do with maintaining a strong kingdom for her son which the Huguenot leaders were keen to destroy.

She used cunning to gain the upper hand and the result was the St Bartholomew Day Massacre (24 August 1572). Thousands of Calvinists were dragged from their beds in the early hours of the morning and slaughtered (in all some 20 000 to 30 000 Huguenots were slain).

Yet the war dragged on until 1589 when Henri of Navarre was elected King (the first Bourbon). Although a Huguenot, he quickly converted to Catholicism and then enacted the Edict of Nantes which declared religious toleration in return for political and military concessions from the Huguenot towns.

The fact that Emperor Charles V did not immediately go to war at the outbreak of the Lutheran revolt in the 1520s ensured that Lutheranism gained a firm hold over the German states. When battle was at last engaged in the 1540s, the princes were more secure in their revolt.

The result was a virtual stalemate and the Treaty of Augsburg (1555) recorded the compromise. It was left to the discretion of the ruler of a particular state to determine the religion of that state.

Augsburg, however, held a number of problems. First, it did not recognise Calvinism and some of the other more radical Protestant sects. Second, it did not settle the problem of what would happen if a bishop in a church- state turned Protestant. An imperial decree maintained that the territory would remain Catholic but, since it was not the result of negotiation, the Protestants resented it.

Tensions lingered until 1618 when the 30 Years War erupted. Although there was an overt religious basis to the conflict, the reasons for the four wars which marked the 30 Years War were mainly political. It was the Emperor's last effort to unify Germany under Habsburg and Catholic rule. Spain, France, England, Denmark and Sweden became involved, however, and so turned a German conflict into an international one.

The war was devastating on Germany and effectively destroyed the region. All the battles took place on German soil so that its towns were sacked by mercenary soldiers, who took from them all their supplies and loot.

In one town in Bohemia (with a population of over 6 000 before the war) its population was drastically reduced (to a mere 850 after the war). Other towns were totally destroyed. It is calculated that the German population dropped by about 30 percent due to murder, destruction of agriculture, starvation, pestilence, homelessness, fire and exposure, not to mention such other crimes as rape and assault.

Politically German unity completely disappeared. She had been officially cut to pieces and its influence on European politics would remain negligible for another 200 years. It was the English, French and Dutch who would now take the lead in world politics until the states on the eastern border of Germany (Prussia and Austria) would rise slowly in power. The 30 Years War also brought to an end the so-called Wars of Religion, except for minor outbreaks in Ireland, Scotland, France, etc.


The 14th century had seen the outbreak of both the Black Death and the Little Ice-Age. The Black Death, a bubonic plague, was spread through the fleas of the black rat (rattus rattus) and wiped out roughly a third of the population of Europe. The Little Ice-Age saw temperatures drop substantially and accompanying heavy rains devastated the agricultural economy.

By the beginning of the 16th century, the population of Europe had recovered and continued to grow until the start of the 17th century, with the most obvious growth in the cities. During the course of the 16th century, however, several new diseases made their appearance. Syphilis was brought from America. Typhus was brought from the Far East.

The early 17th century saw the onset of a triple catastrophe: plague, war and famine. Outbreaks of plague were irregular and unpredictable, occurring particularly in Italy, Spain and England. It saw the population of these countries drop by about a quarter.

Add to this came constant warfare. Warfare in itself seldom has a major impact on the population of countries. But it does serve as a spreader of disease and pestilence.

This would be particularly the case with the transmission of the new diseases of syphilis and typhus, as well as the plague and dysentery. Consider, for example, that the incidents of rape were extremely high during the 30 Years war. This in itself would have created a fertile field for the transmission of syphilis.

A lowering in temperature during the early 17th century also saw the onset of another extremely rainy period in Europe. Once again harvests were badly hit and famine spread across the continent.


Hugh Trevor-Roper points out that the witch-mania arose during the Renaissance and Reformation period in what he calls the "Janus-face" of these movements, i.e. the dark side to what looked like the march in progress. The witch-mania, he says, was not a "lingering ancient superstition" but was something new, an "explosive force".

The people of the Middle Ages certainly believed in magic and witch-craft. Yet there was no systematic demonology (theology of witch-craft). Indeed the Catholic Church did its best to disperse what it saw as a superstition that was nothing more than a relic of paganism.

In the 8th century St Boniface declared that belief in witches was unchristian. The great 9th century German emperor Charlemagne decreed the death penalty for anyone who burnt someone to death as a witch. It was decreed that belief in night-flying was an hallucination. In later centuries various European rulers would declare that there was no such thing as witch-craft.

By the end of the 15th century, however, all that was to have changed. The Papacy itself would decree that witches did in fact exist. Later even Protestant reformers would accept the idea and the danger of witches and witchcraft.

Somehow the Renaissance period ushered in a new belief in witches, not in the old modified forms of the Dark Ages, but in modern mass production. Witches appeared to multiply, so that the more they were killed off, the more there seemed to be.

They were all somehow spawned by the devil and participated in bizarre supernatural activities. They anointed themselves with "devil's grease" made from the fat of murdered babies. This enabled them to slip through cracks and key-holes and down chimneys. It gave them the ability to fly at night on broomsticks and so participate in the witches' sabbat or meeting with the devil.

These sabbats became so crowded that they took on the appearance of a country fair. Witches were able to recognise their neighbours and friends who were also participating, as well as all the other demons which accompanied the devil.

At the sabbat, all danced in honour of their Dark Lord and played on macabre instruments like skulls and human bones. They kissed the devil in his many forms (under the tail if he had taken the form of a goat and on the lips if he was a frog). Then they would partake of various promiscuous exercises, having sex with the devil (proved as far as Catholics were concerned by the existence of Martin Luther who could have been born in no other way).

Around the new belief in witches there grew a codified demonology or theology of witchcraft. Various academics and monks now pondered such difficult questions as to how the devil could actually make a witch pregnant.

And just as the scholars defined the finer points of the demonology, so did the laity accept the general concept of witchcraft. After all, people everywhere and at all times readily believe what their ministers preach at them. For two centuries preachers preached against witches, lawyers acted against them, while the general population simply believed.

Yet, despite such preaching and such condemnations, the numbers of witches steadily grew. The kingdom of Satan was seen as firmly established on earth until it reached its peak of hysteria during the mid-17th century. The witch-craze thereupon died out and has scarcely been heard of since, except sometimes in East London.

The witch-craze arose in the mountain and country areas of Europe. It was especially notable in the Pyrenees of Spain and in the Alps of Germany. These were the prime areas which had lagged behind the towns and cities in terms of orthodox Christianity.

It was the Catholic Church which first discovered that the rural people thought differently, that magic and witch-craft was still practised there. Yet it needed papal approval to eradicate it.

The papacy initially refused such permission because, according to Canon Law, witchcraft was a superstition and could not exist. Circumstances had changed, however. A feeble-minded papacy could only explain the constant crises of the 14th, 15th, 16th and 17th centuries in terms of Satan and witch-craft.

The popes therefore began to lose their resolve. Indeed, many feared that they themselves had been bewitched. The Avignon pope, John XXII, therefore became the first to instruct the inquisitors to proceed against witches. For the next 1 centuries, action was taken against the so-called witches of the Pyrenees and the Alps.

Because there was now papal approval, action quickly evolved into theory. By 1450 the first books on the theology of witchcraft began to appear in Spain, declaring that witchcraft was a new heresy. This was an important evolution because it overcame the problems of the Canon Law by making witchcraft no longer a superstition which could not be acted against but a heresy which could.

Witches from all parts of Europe would now be brought to trial, both in ecclesiastical courts and in secular ones. People would be sentenced to burning by their hundreds each year. But most of the witches would be country people, brought to trial in the towns and cities. It was therefore a town-on-country violence perpetrated in the name of Christianity.

The confessions of the witches are plentiful. They all proclaim the same bizarre incidents of the Sabbat, etc., and many are testified to by reliable sources. Was there therefore an element of truth behind the confessions?

The confessions were obtained from two sources, namely through torture and by voluntary profession of guilt. Torture had been allowed in Roman law, went out of fashion during the Dark Ages but was rediscovered in the 11th Century. It was allowed in ecclesiastical tribunals especially when heretics were on trial. By the 14th century it had come into general use particularly when witches were on trial.

The witches therefore faced a barrage of questions and torture was used to exact the answers and the forms of torture were grizzly in the extreme. The fingertips and toes could be crushed in a vice. The body could be stretched on a wrack. The tender parts of the body could be pinched. There was the pulley which threw the body into the air and jerked it violently.

The Spanish boot crushed the calf until the shinbone shattered. The "Lift" raised the arms violently behind and up. The "ram" was a chair of red-hot needles and there was the bed of nails. Then there was the less complicated device of pulling out the finger nails with pliers or pushing needles beneath them.

Such forms of torture were guaranteed to get any answer from the victim. Since the questions were prepared and they were all the same, the answers also all agree. The bizarre tales of the Sabbat were therefore not the creation of the witches" imaginations but rather the creation of the inquisitors warped minds.

The so-called witches then merely had to answer yes or no, according to the answer that the torturer wished them to elicit. Furthermore, they were only too eager to accuse their neighbours of attending the Sabbats if it would relieve them of more torture. And so the system escalated and it became evident that there was an ever widening circle of witchcraft, stretching beyond even the wildest dreams of the inquisitors.

If all the witches gave their confessions under torture, then witchcraft could be instantly dismissed. There were others, however, who did give their confessions freely. It was these people who gave validity to the whole cult, for they freely admitted to all the perverse activities which the other witches had tortured out of them.

The answer, says Trevor-Roper, is simple. These are the psychopaths who today have weird visions, and believe they have been called to do strange acts. In the 16th and 17th centuries their psychopathic imaginations revolved around visions of the devil or visions of Christ.

In the latter case we have several cases of the great saints, e.g. St Theresa of Avilla, who had visions of sexual fulfilment from Christ (Agnes of God) but because their faith was seen as impeccable, they were declared saints.

Others had visions of sexual fulfilment with the devil and for that they would be declared heretics and witches. If rounded up, their guilt would overflow in free admissions of their so-called activities, much of it based on stories they had heard and which therefore substantiate the basis of the inquisitors picture.

The first phase of witchcraft as social discrimination quickly spread to the second phase where witchcraft was used to suppress political or religious rivals. St Joan of Arc, captured by the British during the 100 Years War, would normally be ransomed as a prisoner of war but her oddity allowed her to be burnt as a witch.

It was also the finest way of getting rid of unwanted fellow Christians. It was noted, for instance, that after the Reformation, most of the witches burnt in Protestant Germany were Catholic. Most of those burnt in Catholic Europe were Protestants.

Most of those burnt in Catholic France were Huguenots (Calvinists). It is also noted that in those countries where most people believed in one faith or where torture was not used in trials, there were also few witch burnings, e.g. England.

Furthermore, there were more witches burnt during periods of catastrophe and upheaval than at any other time. The witch-craze rose to new heights during the Wars of Religion of the late 16th century and again during the 30 Years War of the early 17th century. Whenever countries were reconquered by the Catholic Counter-Reformation, it was noticeable too that witch trials increased dramatically.

The witch-mania began to collapse during the late-17th century. Once the 30 Years War was over in 1648, Europe settled back into less troubled times. Although there were continual wars, they took on the nature of national wars and not religious ones. A period of religious toleration therefore took root and, at the same time, stability returned to the growing powers of France, England, Austria and Prussia.

A new spirit of religious toleration began to form. The Edict of Nantes was signed in France, granting freedom of religion to the Huguenots. Jews were tolerated in Prussia and Austria.

Witch-mania therefore became a spent force. By the 18th century (Age of the Enlightenment) writers such as Voltaire could shout against superstition and witchcraft and make believers in such superstition appear as fools.


It seems then that the witch-craze arose out of social intolerance, fuelled by superstition. It was a town-on-country violence emanating from different beliefs held by the people there.

The last legal execution of a witch occurred in Switzerland in 1782. Is it possible for there to be another eruption?

If the witch-craze had been fuelled solely by superstition, then possibly the answer would be NO. The fact, however, that it had its roots in social intolerance, then there is every possibility that it could happen again and that it does happen, and often.

Superstition is still alive and well in both Christian and non-Christian circles. Add to that superstition a healthy dose of social intolerance as well as political expediency and we have witchcraft in all its ugliness.

The prime example is Hitler's Germany which accused the Jews of sabotaging the economy. He exterminated 6 million Jews for crimes which they often confessed under torture. Idi Amin's Uganda saw the persecution of the Asians. Stalin accused the Kulak's of various crimes and some 5 million were executed.

The necessary ingredients exist in today's violence-racked villages of Kwa- Zulu Natal. It is noticeable that there is a steady rise in the number of executions of women in Kwa-Zulu Natal accused of being witches. It is also noted the continued massacre of people because of their political affiliation.

Social intolerance fuelled the great witch-craze of Early Modern Europe. Unfortunately social intolerance is still very much a part of our life today. Social intolerance caused Apartheid. Social intolerance could destroy the new South Africa. Let us hope that we can learn something from the past.

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