The persecution of witches is often loosely called "medieval", but in fact there were few prosecutions until the fifteenth century. The numbers of executions rose sharply in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and declined steadily thereafter.
Witchcraft was the use of magical power to harm someone. In Scotland, France and Germany, witches were often accused of associating in covens for devil worship, but there is little evidence of this.
Roughly 100,000 people were tried for witchcraft between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries: Britain, 5,000;  France, 10,000;  Holy Roman Empire: 50,000;  Mediterranean (Italy, Portugal, Spain) 10,000;  Poland, 15,000;  Switzerland, 10,000. Of those tried approximately 60,000 were executed.

Exodus 22:18 stated "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" and early-modern Christians took the injunction seriously. The Church Fathers and medieval theologians accepted the biblical teaching, but it was only in 1486 that the Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches) combined local popular beliefs on witches with theological underpining and legal procedures.

Other important works on witchcraft were published in the sixteenth century. Jean Bodin, De la démonomanie des sorciers (1586) and Martin Del Rio, Disquisitionum Magicarum Libri Sex (1599) both considered all the burning theoretical questions of the day  - Sabbaths, covens, intercourse with demons, black masses &c. - and gave judges instructions on proper procedures for establishing guilt or innocence.
Ordinary people were less concerned with theoretical questions. Those accused of witchcraft were often simply irreligious, antisocial, foul-mouthed and aggressive. Ordinary people cared about the harm they suffered from witches; the elite were frightened by the heterodox implications of devil worship.

"Moreover, it cannot be denied that the devil liveth, yea and reigneth throughout the whole world. Witchcraft and sorcery therefore are the works of the devil: whereby he doth not only hurt men, but also, by the permission of God, he sometimes destroyeth them."


Accused witches were in greatest danger when the resident elite of magistrates and the local community agreed in their suspicions. Charges were rarely successful when referred to distant central authorities or controlled by the procedures of the Inquisition. In the Mediterranean area where the Inquisition controlled proceedings there were about 10,000 trials but only about 500 executions.
The parts of Western Europe where witches were most often accused and found guilty were the Holy Roman Empire, Switzerland, and the various French-speaking areas near German and Swiss lands.

Johann Weyer (1515-88), physician to Duke William of Cleves, published in 1563 a book called De Praestigiis daemonum (On the delusions of demons). He argued that witches were simply deluded and caused no harm themselves - the Devil did all the dirty work. Weyer attacked the process of obtaining confessions by torture that was common in Continental criminal proceedings.

Another early attack on belief in witches was written by Reginald Scot. His Discovery of witchcraft (1584) was so thoroughgoing an attack on belief in any sort of demons, witch, or spirit, that its author was widely suspected of atheism. Unlike many of the attacks on belief in witchcraft in this period, Scot wrote for a popular audience, using common language and poking fun at Catholicism as well as all forms of superstition.
Balthasar Bekker's De Betoverde Weereld (1691) - translated into English in 1695 as The world bewitch'd - basically denied all demonic intervention in the world, and argued that "all those opinions concerning the devils, divinations, and witchcraft, draw their first original from the heathens."
During the seventeenth century, increasing numbers of educated men came to doubt the reality of witchcraft. This was part of an increasing skepticism about demonic possession, ghosts and many other forms of spiritual manifestation that were incompatible with mechanical philosophy.



Witchcraft was largely a rural phenomenon. Highly urbanized areas like the Northern Netherlands and the Italian city states had very few witchcraft trials. (Small German towns were something of an exception to this rule).
Most of those accused of witchcraft - about 75% - were women. The proportions of men to women varied in different parts of Europe. They were generally older women (over 50) and of the poorer classes.
Women were regarded as weaker than men, and more susceptible to the Devil's influence (ever since Eve caused the Fall). Women also worked in the areas - healing, midwifery, cookery - that were most likely to occasion charges of spells and poisons. Witchcraft was closely associated with cursing and women were more likely to lash out with their tongues where men lashed out with their fists.


Popular beliefs about witches changed little during the seventeenth century; the decline of witch-hunting came from above. Magistrates became increasingly reluctant to convict of a crime they had ceased to believe possible.
The Dutch Republic executed no witches after 1609, and held its last trial in 1659. England's last execution for witchcraft was in 1684, and its last trial (of Jane Wenham) in 1712. France had no executions after 1679. Germany and Central Europe continued a few sporadic executions during the eighteenth century. Anna Goeldi obtained the dubious honor of being the last Western European woman executed for witchcraft in Glaris, Switzerland in 1782. Two Polish women were executed as Satanists in 1792.


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