Witch-hunts – what are myths, what are historical truths?

witches
(Photo: Wikimedia commons (Ausschnitt))

The witch-hunts in Central Europe have been engraved in peoples' minds as the sadistic persecution of women in trials where men, mostly representatives of the church, condemned the accused on the basis of absurd accusations – without consideration of exculpatory factors, without participation of the public, and without legal support for the women. Is this true? 

1. The victims were not only women

Even if it seems to be obvious: it were women, but not women alone, who fell victim to the witch hunters and judges. Between 1530 and 1730, the percentage of women was 76 percent, in some areas, for example in the domain of the Paris Appeal Court, there were even "only" 50 to 60 percent. While, in Catholic regions, up to 30 percent of those who were executed were men, in Protestant or Reformed areas (England, Scotland, Sweden or the Netherlands) that number fell to between ten and 15 percent. One of the reasons for the large number of women was that the Vulgata translation of the Bible, which was used by the Catholics, translated 2nd Mose 22:18 as "Thou shall not suffer warlocks to live", whereas the Luther translation, based the Hebrew text, said: "Thou shall not suffer witches to live." Men stood better chances of surviving the trials because, on average, they were wealthier and had more influence than women, who were mostly members of the lower social classes.

2. The persecution was not limited to special occupational groups

The persecution threatened people of different backgrounds and profession, and often totally unexpectedly. The existence of a strategic plan against special occupational groups like, for example, midwives or healers, is out of the question. The questionable thesis posed by the sociologists Gunnar Heinsohn and Otto Steiger from Bremen, who claimed that the witch-hunts had been aimed towards a systematic extermination of "wise women" like midwives, in order to wipe out their knowledge about birth control and abortion and to steer the population growth towards the benefit of the state and the church, is considered as disproved amongst historians. For example, the historian Franz Irsigler from Trier has detected ca. 800 female trial victims in the region of Trier, with only three midwives amongst them. The reasons for persecution had not so much to do with the person affected, but with the motifs of the persecutors. Amongst others, members of the nobility, judges, bishops, theologians, innkeepers, postmasters, even superiors of convents were put to trial.

If there was a special emphasis on certain groups of victims, it lay mostly on impoverished, uprooted rural people, those who ranked even below the class of the peasants. But even they were not purposefully persecuted – the persecution was a result of their life circumstances. Often, the number of persecutions increased in times of hunger. They also reflected the general uncertainty of the population on the threshold of the modern age.

3. The accusation – a versatile tool

In many cases, the accusation of having cast a harmful spell was a mere subterfuge if people could not be put to trial because of other deeds. Theft, sodomy, alcohol abuse: these causes could also result in an accusation for witchcraft. Like the judges, who sometimes freely constructed their accusations, the "tellers", i.e. the denunciators or "witnesses", tended to follow unconventional, often self-serving goals: the desire to get a divorce, the wish to be able to get a portion of inheritance rather sooner than later, the gaining of possessions from the neighbours, the satisfaction of personal revenge, the disempowerment of competitors over a business monopoly, the atonement for other crimes that had not been followed up by lawsuit. And by means of a witch trial, many a parish got rid of its pastor, who lived in a scandalous concubinage.

4. First abused, then accused of witchcraft

People with psychological wounds or problems lived a very dangerous life. Pupils in puberty, prematurely developed girls, "lugubrious" (depressive) or hysterical women, or those who complained about having been raped, members of the nobility who were pedantic with their servants: they all could easily fall under the suspicion of being the devil's paramour and casting evil spells on his behalf. There are examples of trials that had been opened to punish rapists and ended up becoming witch trials against the raped women. And mentally ill women sometimes incriminated themselves. Even if these self-incriminations were refuted by witnesses, the cases were not closed.

5. Children were convicted together with their mothers

If a mother was convicted and executed as a witch, her children easily came under suspicion. Trials against children, ending with them being tortured and executed, were not rare – allegedly, the devil did not make a difference between great and small. "Tellings" against family members were permitted and acknowledged by the courts. Children were considered as the first who were seduced by their parents. Families, in which numerous women were executed for witchcraft over the course of generations, were often found in the files.

6. The charges were anonymous, which lowered the threshold of inhibition

When assessing the trials, it must be noted that the "tellings", i.e. anonymous charges without a follow-up assessment or statements from witnesses, were one of the main reasons for the fast spreading of many waves of persecution. Especially because the "tellers" were not forced to reveal themselves publicly, an enormous number of absurd charges was filed. The tales are told by the lists of tellings, which have been preserved until today. Witch trials against single individuals were rare, because at least during the witches' sabbath the accused must allegedly have met with other witches. The sometimes public readings of confessions and of the lists of those who had been accused by the tellings did the rest. They were like an invitation to utter new suspicions. 

7. The numbers of victims were often set too high

Often, the numbers of victims were set far too high. Especially the women's movement sometimes propagated vastly exaggerated numbers. In 1974, the feminist magazine "Woman Hating" estimated the number as nine million. Historians estimate between 60.000 and 110.000 executions between 1450 and 1750 in the whole of Europe and the New World. Even under the assumption of a large number of files having been lost, the renowned researcher on witchcraft at the University of Trier, Franz Irsigler, considers the number of assassinations to have been "not considerably higher than 80.000". Others are even more reserved and assume that at least 60.000 have been put to death.

8. Protestant and Catholic witch hunters were equally industrious

The denominations did not have a large influence on the actual number of trials. The Spanish peninsula – with the exception of the Pyrenees – and Southern Italy have remained largely free of witch trials, writes the historian Gerhard Schormann. In Ireland, England, Scandinavia, and in Poland, Bohemia and Hungary there were less victims than in the heartlands of the witch trials: France, Northern Italy, the alpine countries, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Scotland. More decisive than the denominational affiliation were social and economical situations of crisis, and the presence of especially active witch hunters. In two neighbouring territories, the developments might have been working in opposite directions. It was also important whether the authorities supported or at least tolerated the witch-hunts.

9. The secular courts had an especially negative impact

Witch-hunts – a concern of the church? When the large waves of witch persecutions swept over Europe in the late 16th and 17th century, the secular judges excelled in their witch craze as much as the clerical leadership. At the peak of the witch mania, the ecclesiastical jurisdiction hardly played a role any more, compared to the secular one. "The responsibility was spread out much more broadly than the older scholarly debates, which sometimes was still influenced by the so-called "culture war", had assumed", said the scholar Franz Irsigler from Trier. Even in earlier times, the content of the Malleus Maleficarum (the "Hammer against witches") had not always been accepted without contradiction from the hierarchy of the church. The bishop of Brixen even declared that Institoris, the author of the book, had been mad. 

10. Universities assessed and confirmed many judgements

High scientific standards were applied to the witch trials, the judgements were considered to have been "scientifically valid". Generally, death sentences were verified by universities. This corresponded to a recommendation of the penal code of 1532, the Carolina ("Order issued by Emperor Karl V. for courts for capital crimes.") It inspired the involvement of law faculties, whose decisions were then accepted as legally binding. Apart from law faculties, theological faculties also compiled expertises. Most witch trials were held before the intellectual general public of their time. However, this was no guarantee for a more liberal handling of the penal law. On the contrary: the law faculty of Rinteln (Westphalia) took a very hard line against the accused women. In the law faculty of Halle there existed different factions.

11. The witch trials – a profitable business for the judges

Time and again it was all about money. Economical reasons played a more important role than sadistic or dogmatic motifs. The costs of the trials were considerable. The profit went to the judges and executors, not to the liege lords. The fundamental rule was that the accused or their families had to pay the price of the trial. If they were too poor to bear the costs themselves, sometimes the parishes or individual people stepped in to pay. The court personnel often led a comfortable life at the cost of the accused: they ate and drank well and had a good time. The expenses had to be limited by means of statutory orders (for example in Trier in 1591).

12. Persecution of witches: an activity of entire villages

As much as one may be bewildered by the witch mania, one must not forget that superstition was generally wide-spread, even in the realm of the church. It was not at all limited to those immediately involved in the witch trials. On the contrary: whole villages put pressure on the witch hunters and judges in order to get rid of certain people. Sometimes the citizens imprisoned the suspects themselves and brought them to the judges. At this point at the latest it becomes clear that the persecution of witches was a concern of large parts of the society. The witch trials were definitely a mass hysteria.