Witchcraft as a type of black MAGIC or sorcery exists in many societies,
but the phenomenon has a special significance in western European history.
European witchcraft was unique because it combined the idea of harmful
sorcery with that of serving SATAN, or the devil (in traditional Christian
belief, a spirit hostile to God). A witch was defined by the 16th-century
French writer Jean Bodin as “someone who knowingly tries to bring about
some act through diabolical means.”
Witches were blamed for causing lingering illnesses or death to humans
and domestic animals, sending demons into people’s bodies, and destroying
crops with hailstorms. They reputedly met together at gatherings called
Sabbats, where they parodied Christian rituals, did obscene homage to the
devil, and held bizarre orgies. Because of their pact with Satan, they were
supposed to have a special mark or scar on their bodies that never bled or
hurt when pricked by sharp instruments.
The European doctrine of witchcraft was formulated in the late Middle
Ages. Just how many of the beliefs about witches were based on reality and
how many on delusion will never be known. The punishment of supposed
witches by the death penalty did not become common until the 15th century.
The first major witch-hunt occurred in Switzerland in 1427, and the first
important book on the subject, the Malleus maleficarum (Hammer of
Sorceresses), appeared in Germany in 1486. The persecution of witches
reached its height between 1580 and 1660, when witch trials became almost
universal throughout western Europe.
Geographically, the center of witch-burning lay in Germany, Austria, and
Switzerland, but few areas were left untouched by it. No one knows the
total number of victims. In southwestern Germany alone, however, more than
3,000 witches were executed between 1560 and 1680. Not all witch trials
ended in deaths. In England, where torture was prohibited, only about 20
percent of accused witches were executed (by hanging); in Scotland, where
torture was used, nearly half of all those put on trial were burned at the
stake, and almost three times as many witches (1,350) were killed as in
England. Some places had fewer trials than others. In the Dutch republic,
no witches were executed after 1600, and none were tried after 1610. In
Spain and Italy accusations of witchcraft were handled by the INQUISITION,
and although torture was legal, only a dozen witches were burned out of
5,000 put on trial. Ireland apparently escaped witch trials altogether.
Many witch trials were provoked, not by hysterical authorities or fanatical
clergy, but by village quarrels among neighbors.
About 80% of all accused witches were women. Traditional theology
assumed that women were weaker than men and more likely to succumb to the
devil. It may in fact be true that, having few legal rights, they were more
inclined to settle quarrels by resorting to magic rather than law.
All these aspects of witchcraft crossed over to the Americas with
European colonists. In the Spanish and French territories cases of
witchcraft were under the jurisdiction of church courts, and no one
suffered death on this charge. In the English colonies about 40 people were
executed for witchcraft between 1650 and 1710, half of them in the famous
SALEM WITCH TRIALS of 1692.
Witch trials declined in most parts of Europe after 1680; in England the
death penalty for witchcraft was abolished in 1736. In the late 17th and
18th centuries one last wave of witch persecution afflicted Poland and
other areas of eastern Europe, but that ended by about 1740. The last legal
execution of a witch occurred in Switzerland in 1782.
Beginning in the 1920s, witchcraft was revived as a kind of fad among
various middle-class occult groups in Europe and America. This phenomenon
was partly inspired by such books as Margaret Murray’s The Witch Cult in
Western Europe (1921), which interpreted witchcraft as a pre-Christian
fertility cult of ancient Egyptian origin. More recently the phenomenon has
been influenced by the idea that witches’ trances at Sabbats were caused by
hallucinogenic drugs. The term witch-hunt also survives to describe a
drive to punish political criminals conducted without regard for normal
E. WILLIAM MONTER
Bibliography: Baroja, Julio C., The World of Witches (1964); Monter, E. W.,
ed., European Witchcraft (1969); Thomas, Keith, Religion and the Decline of