1300 to 1600

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Start of Witchcraft


Size of a Hunt

Many judicial records have been destroyed, and some trials were never recorded properly, so it is very hard to accurately judge. Some estimates, as high as 9 million executions, are grossly exaggerated. This  is partly due to the boastful claims of the witch hunters, and partly by subsequent writers emphasizing the serious nature of their topic. Detailed historical studies tend to reduce the number; there are many individual examples, but claims were made by Henry C. Lea in a 1906 book that 7500 were killed in Scotland. The figure is probably nearer to 1500.We have to be careful to distinguish between the number of trials and the number of executions. The rate of execution varied by area. In Geneva it was about 25%; in the Pays de Vaud it was over 90%. Areas like England and Scandinavia had relatively few trials. And areas like Spain had many trials for minor aspects of witchcraft which rarely resulted in executions. Overall, there were about 110,000 trials across Europe, of which just under half were executed. But there were also unofficial trials, which were more likely to end in death. Levack therefore ends up at a figure of about 60,000 executions.


Witchcraft and the Fear of Rebellion

What developments in the late medieval and early modern period led the elites who formulated and spread witch-beliefs to believe that the Devil was on the loose and recruiting large numbers of human accomplices? There were many varied apparent manifestations of demonic power during this period. The numerous calamities of the 14th Century, especially the Black Death, may have contributed. The numerous economic crises of the early modern period, the trauma of the Reformation, and the frequency of war and plague may well have played a role in convincing intellectuals such as Guazzo and Remy. These factors created anxieties in early modern communities that encouraged magistrates to prosecute witches. But if one factor above all was the basis of belief in the activity of the Devil in human affairs, it is the fears of rebellion, sedition and disorder which were held by the ruling groups in this period. It is no coincidence that the earliest descriptions of the witches’ Sabbath appeared at a time when social rebellion was sweeping across Europe in the late 14th Century. In the same way, the learned belief in organised witchcraft spread through Europe at a time of great instability, and chronic rebellion. The early modern period is one of, amongst other manifestations of social tension, one of religious civil wars and the first national revolutions of the modern period. The ruling classes fears over this were reflected in the imagery of the witch. The witch, like the Devil, was the quintessential rebel. Theologising, magistrates and authors of books on witchcraft did treat them this way. The witch was a heretic charged with treason against God. As a Devil-worshipper she was part of an enormous political conspiracy. As a lower class peasant she was trying to turn the divinely established hierarchy on its head, and rejecting its moral norms.


James I

¨   James I- Demonologies, first published in Edinburgh 1597, prompted by a treasonable plot against him which resulted in mass trails 1590-91.

¨   Dialogue between 2 Characters where the main issues about witchcraft debated-establishing unlawfulness of certain forms of natural magic and malefic magic.

¨   However James also known to intervene + save witches. E.g. 1616- 9 people hanged in Leicester on evidence of 12/13yr old boy.  James interrogated the boy + sent him to Lambeth palace to be examined by George Abbot- A B of Cant. Boy’s evidence was found to be fraudulent.

¨   Also took an interest in Anne Gunter 1606 and supposed bewitching of 6 girls in Caernavon in 1611.

¨   Therefore image of James having lust for blood unfounded.

¨   However 1620 schoolmaster named Peacock arrested for plotting to influence James by witchcraft-sent to tower and tortured.

¨   He also took a hard-line in 1605 at Huntingdon.

¨   James’ ideas on witchcraft were very much formed by his experience in 1590-1.

¨   But scepticism was developing during his reign- demonstrated by the introduction to ‘Daemonologie, seeking to convince those who doubted the existence of witchcraft.

¨   The first major theoretical work published in 1584 was ‘Discoverie of Witchcraft’ by Reginald Scot.  This severely criticised Jean Bodin, Kramer and Sprenger.  The accounts of the 1582 Essex trials were dismissed as ‘ a foolish pamphlet’.  His impetus to write the book came from attending a witchcraft trial in Rochester in 1581- disgusted.  Scot was a protestant who believed in ‘divine providence’-no room for witchcraft.

¨   There is a story that on accession to the throne in 1603 James I ordered surviving copies if ‘Discoverie’ to be burnt by the public hangman- this lacks contemporary evidence but does sum up contemporary attitude of Witchcraft hunters to Scot’s work.