European Witch-Hunts

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Tens of thousands of people in Europe were executed for the crime of witchcraft between the thirteenth and the nineteenth century. Trials were conducted by both secular and ecclesiastical courts; by both Protestants and Catholics, with the victims being primarily women. The witch hunts were conducted throughout Europe; started and ended earlier in southwest Europe than in eastern and northern areas; and evenly spread across the Atlantic Ocean to Massachusetts. (Oster, 2004) This paper will discuss the European witch hunt. The study will include the circumstances that led to the witch hunt, its timeline and when it ended, and who was responsible.

The witch hunts of the early modern Europe took place in a time when Europe was experiencing rapid economic, religious and social transformation. The prevalence of natural disasters and epidemics is nearly always a significant cause of outbreaks of mass hysteria of that type. In the fourteenth century, tolerant (traditional) attitudes towards witchcraft began to change. A series of rumor-panics seized central Europe in the early 14th century. Some malign conspiracy (Moslems, Jews and witches or Jews and Lepers) was attempting to destroy the Christian kingdoms using magic and poison.

The Black Death (bubonic plague) caused some terrible devastation, after which rumors intensely increased. These rumors primarily focused on witches and the ‘plague-spreaders.’ Cases of witchcraft increased steadily but slowly from the fourteenth century to the fifteenth century, and in the fifteenth century saw the appearance of the first mass trials. The persecution skyrocketed at around 1550. The panics, crazes and mass hysteria occurred in 1550-1650. In the seventeenth century, the Great hunt suddenly arose and passed (Gibbson 1999).

It is estimated that perhaps 100,000 trials were conducted between 1450 and 1750. The trials ended in the execution of between 40,000 and 50,000 people, of which about 75% were women. These figures are high enough, and they explain “what was probably the harshest period of capital punishments in European history”(Briggs, p8). After 1650, trials dropped sharply and totally disappeared by the end of the 18th century. According to Briggs (p 260-61), as quoted by ( Jones 2005) the majority of accused men were artisans and poor peasants, which is a fairly representative sample of an ordinary population.

There were some extreme cases in some regions of Europe, with an account of 60 percent of the accused being men in Estonia, 90 percent in Iceland and almost 50 percent in Finland. On the other hand, 90 percent and or even more of known witches in some regions were women: these include Denmark, Hungary and England. Most of these women were disproportionately widows and primarily poor.

Who was responsible?

The European witch-hunts have, for a long time, been depicted as a part of a “war against women” that was overwhelmingly or exclusively by men, and especially those who held positions of central authority. In fact, the victimizing, stigmatization and murder of the accused “witches” is accurately seen as more of collaboration between women and men at the local level. Briggs, as quoted by Jones (2005) says that “the historical records suggest that both men and women found it easiest to fix these fantasies [of witchcraft], and turn them into horrible reality, when they were attached to women. It is crucial to understand that misogyny in this sense was not reserved to men alone, but could be just as intense among women.” He adds that most of the informal accusations of witchcraft were made by women against women, and would later leak slowly across to men who were in control of the political structures of the local society.

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