Were Witches treated as criminals or heretics in Early Modern Europe?

Were Witches treated as criminals or heretics in Early Modern Europe?

“The essence of witch craft was not the damage it did to other people but its heretical character- devil worship” [1] This statement made by Keith Thomas summaries much of this essay, however it generalises too much. Indeed it is true witches and witchcraft was not celebrated ,this does not mean that one can safely make such a sweeping judgement of the treatment of witches in the whole of Europe.  The ways in which witches were treated ,the intensity of witch hunts and trials differ from country to country. What has also become apparent is the format in which the trails were held. They not only change through this period  but also were different in each country. This essay concentrates on France, Germany and England’s treatment of witches. And will establish how each of the countries treats witch craft.

The idea of witches and witchcraft has never been one of ease, even Pliny spoke that a glance at a menstruating woman would tarnish a mirror[2]. But it was not until the Middle Ages that a deal with the devil was incorporated into the idea of witch craft. Though women were mostly targeted men could also be witches, it was thought that they had made a deliberate pact or had a contract with the devil. This idea was mainly brought through by the Roman Catholic Church, who then continued to write about the ways in which witches conducted themselves and how they should be dealt with[3]. Many historians argue that witches were a “tool of religious propaganda.” [4] This statement may be true, we can see the use of this in two countries England and France. We can see this in France during the religious wars. The Protestants were hunting down Catholic witches, and the Catholics were doing the same. It certainly can be seen in England through the act against witchcraft in 1563. This Act “Act against conjurations enchantments and witchcrafts” did initially go through the houses of Parliament in 1559. But its existence was over shadowed by the Act of Supremacy and the Act of Uniformity.  The Act was finally pushed through in 1563 due to an anxious time for Queen Elizabeth and her supporters., there was rumours and fears of treason. The Act allowed Elizabeth whom was Protestant, to use the witch craft as propaganda. It made her Protestant regime “display its moral purity in contrast to a decadent Catholic laxity.” [5] This not only placed Elizabeth in a stronger and a much more secure position. It also shows that anyone who was called a witch was in fact a heretic in the English men’s eyes.

Liberal rational school of witchcraft scholarship consists of late nineteenth century and early twentieth century historians. Though, like any school of thought, their opinions differ slightly. Their overall argument is “that witchcraft was an irrational delusion, the product of confessions adduced under torture[6].”  They concerned themselves with how and why judges and inquisitors could convict innocent people to confess to engaging in activities that they never concerned themselves with. Through these historians eyes the criminal justice system was “primarily a system of repression and an instrument of religious persecution.”[7]However, this ideology assumes that it was the aristocrats that would accuse someone of being a witch. Though in some cases this was true, Robin Biggs argues that witch craft was primarily used to get rid or rivals. Malcolm Gashill also argues that witches and the beliefs in witch craft illustrates the struggle for survival and authority taking place[8], in 1590 Trier in Germany saw the event of the great witch hunt. Local village communities assembled and established a witch hunting group. The problem with linking witch craft so intrusively with God means that ordinary people were generally scared of witches and what they could do. There was a common belief that bad weather and a bad harvest was the doing of witches. 1588 saw a great hail storm hit the poor urban village of Schwabsoien in Germany. They were so infatuated with the idea that this must be the work of a witch, that they were willing to sell communal forest to pay for both a witch hunter and torture. With new belief that bad things were down to witches seemed to anger some bishops, this was because people were not looking at their own sins. Instead they were blaming others and not rectifying themselves.

Joseph Hansen was an influential liberal historian. He studied witch craft prosecutions from 1258 until 1526. In these studies he found the Europe as a whole had , by the fifteenth century had  developed a complicated and formal way in which the dealt with witch craft.  Hansen’s view is not alone. A national and regional studies was set up into the prosecutions of witches during the high of witch hunts. Countries that based their laws on Roman law adopted an inquisitorial system of criminal justice. This had a direct contrast to that of the accusatory system that had strict prohibition of torture, countries such as England.

England did not place their witches through secular trials until the reign of Henry VIII . Prior to this reign witchcraft and magic was dealt with in the ecclesiastical courts. Henry changed witch craft and magic into a felony in 1545, thus it was passed to the secular trials. The statute made it clear that witchcraft was not a deal made with Satan : ““It shall be Felony to practice or cause to be practiced Conjuration, Enchantment, Witchcraft or Sorcery, to take money or to consume any person in his body, members or goods, or to provoke any…”  May other acts were passed through Henry reign. But with his death and the succession of his heir Edward VI in 1547, these acts were abolished.  His statute read “An act for the repeal of certain statutes concerning Treasons, felonies, etc.”[9] Even while witch craft was still found to be illegal, England’s participation in conviction witches was low. Only one fifth of the people on trial were convicted[10], this is extremely low. Unlike other countries extreme torture had no place in English laws. Light torture was seen to be acceptable especially if they had been accused of maleficia. The torture would  involve continuous dunking under water.  If found guilty they were treated like any other criminal and hung, some were burnt, this would only occur if they had committed “petty treason” such as murder.  It has been found that between 500-1000 people were executed. More died due to conditions in jail or mob violence, 90% [11]of these people were women this was the highest in Europe.  It is clear that though during Elizabeth I used witch craft as religious propaganda, England as a whole treated and saw witches as criminals and not heretics.

France mirror England when it came to witch craft , like England France tried their witches through secular courts and not ecclesiastical justice, France also engaged in very few witch hunts. But unlike England France was dived into different districts. Each of these districts was over seen by assemblies of magistrates. Each district had different ideas in how to deal with witches, the Parliament of Pairs, which was the court of appeal for most northern France,  did shape much of the response to witches. Many of the men in the Parliament of Paris were very sceptical of being able to prove that someone was a witch. French law made it nearly impossible to do so, the French took a very different approach of getting a confession. Floatation tests were found to be inhuman and thus forbidden. Though the French had torture chambers they were never properly used, the accused would be brought into the chamber and just be shown the tools. To be able to execute a witch the accused had to confess without being tortured, or there would have to have been an eyewitness. It is therefore plausible to conclude that France saw witches as common criminals.

Denmark seemed to do much the same as France. They made it nearly impossible to be able to prove someone was a witch. The Copenhagen articles of 1547 decree show that any accusation from a person that is thought to be dishonest. Or someone who was thought to be a witch themselves would not stand. Denmark also forbade torture, they focused on maleficia and ignored the idea of sabbat. Denmark also  used their supreme court to try witches. This therefore could be construed as they believed it was dangerous but only criminal not heretical.

“The German lands of the holy Roman Empire were the centre of European witch hunts.”[12] It was thought in Germany that extreme pain helped loosen the devils grip. This may have been why they were the most brutal to their witches, Germany has the most amount of witch trials in Europe; Brain Levack estimated it to be around 30,000. Germany followed Roman laws, though torture was limited many torturers ignored the restrains. German tortures began to get a reputation of being the most creative when thinking about ways to cause immense pain. In 1572 satanic pact  with or without maleficia was punishable by death. Before this if no harm was caused and there was no direct contact with that of  the devil. The punishment would be decided by the judge ,the judges could not decide on their own. They were obliged, especially in witch craft causes, by the imperial and local law to consult with law professors. Whom would be working for universities which were owned by the church, thus witch craft was normal seen as satanic rather than maleficia.  Thus the German law in regards to witch craft saw it as a heretic nature and not a criminal.

However, in some countries the idea of wither a witch is a criminal or a heretic was not so clean-cut. Despite Italy being the hosts of some of the earliest sabbat, witch hunts were not introduced until around 1350 even then this was only in northern Italy. Italy started trying their witches through secular courts ,it gradually started to lose its control over witch craft to the church courts. The great council of Venice in 1410 declared that cases of sacrament were to be placed under control of the church courts. But all other magic related affairs could be dealt with through the secular courts. In this light Italy was labelling its witches both criminals and heretics.

Religious propaganda and control are truly at the core of the treatment of witches and the view on witch craft. It is clear that out of all the countries German seemed to be the most infatuated and terrified by the existence of magic.  While France seem the most sceptical, perhaps not sceptical of the magic but it is fair to say sceptical of the danger of it.  England had brutal witch hunts but it is apparent that with each new monarch so the idea of witches changed. In Elizabeth’s reign it was used as a weapon, whereas Henry seems to tried and protected his subjects. Wither this is a reflection on the aristocratic believes at the time is unknown, or if Henry and Elizabeth were both using it to gain control from their subjects. By giving them something to fear but then protecting them from it, this may only be an idea but what seems to be a fact is that whilst Germany are clear that witches are heretics, the parts of Europe I have studied seem to believe that witch craft was a problem, thus having courts and witch hunts for them, but they did not see the immediate danger that Germany did. And thus saw and treated them as common criminals.


[1] Religion and the decline in magic by Thomas Keith p. 521

[2] Affect Imagery Consciousness: The Complete Edition: Two by Tomkins , S, Silvan –  p.378

[3] Religion and the decline in magic by  Thomas Keith  p.521

[4] Witchcraft historiography editors Jonathan Barry and Owen Davies p.3

[5]   Malevolent nurture: witch hunting and maternal power in early modern England Deborah Willis p.118

[6] Witchcraft historiography ‘Crime and law’ by Brian P. Levack p147

[7] Witchcraft historiography ‘Crime and law’ by Brian P. Levack p148

[8] Religion the decline of magic Keith Thomas

[9] Affect Imagery Consciousness: The Complete Edition: Two by Tomkins , S, Silvan –  p.378

[10] An encyclopaedia on early modern witch craft in Europe and America by William. E. Burns p71

[11] An encyclopaedia on early modern witch craft in Europe and America by William. E. Burns p 146

[12] An encyclopaedia on early modern witch craft in Europe and America by William. E. Burns p.112Image

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