Witchcraft and the Reformation

The representation of witchcraft in Reformation texts not only enthused attitudes towards magic but also encouraged religiously-motivated violence against the oppressed, evident in works leading up to the Reformation. In 1487, a book was published in Latin as the Maleus Maleficarum, usually translated as Hammer of Witches by Catholic clergyman, Heinrich Kramer. It is the best-known treatise on witchcraft, endorsing the extermination of witches as intrinsically correlated with the Christian religion, appealing to a highly religious society and becoming the second highest selling book for 200 years, behind only the Bible. In the period following the Reformation, it’s estimated that over 100,000 men and women were convicted of witchcraft. Due to the origin of the printing press in 1440, ideas and perspectives were easier to access than ever, thus spreading a hateful belief across Europe that would perhaps not have been so easily accessible a century before. It served as a guidebook for Inquisitors during the Inquisition and was designed to aid them in the identification, prosecution, and dispatching of Witches. It set forth, as well, many of the modern misconceptions and fears concerning witches and the influence of witchcraft. The questions, definitions, and accusations it set forth in regard to witches, which were reinforced by its use during the Inquisition, came to be widely regarded as irrefutable truth. Those beliefs are held even today by a majority of Christians in regard to practitioners of the modern “revived” religion of Witchcraft, or Wicca. And while the Malleus itself is largely unknown in modern times, its effects have proved long lasting. Questions are evidently raised, including why practices that had been tolerated for centuries suddenly became a threat. What brought the prosecution of witchcraft to an end, and where there any people in Europe that could ever, sincerely, be called a witch?


Before the discussion of the European witchcraft trials, it’s important to examine what came before it. The late medieval period is one where the possibility and power of magic is one that permeates the entire society, from the highest to the lowest classes. It is common to recognise three main ideas about magical witchcraft. The first is the belief in black magic, maleficium, that would harm and destroy societies, especially prevalent in fears of disease and illness. Infection would spread through villages and towns, with local people believing the sickness was sent either by God to punish, or by a sorcerer who had made a pact with the devil. Conversely, there were also ideas about individuals who could work good through magic: ‘white witches’ could heal such disease and disarray. This is predominantly evidenced in the ‘wise women’ of a local village- many people could not afford apothecaries, so wise women would act as midwives and provide others with herbal remedies to cure them of their sickness. Originating from centuries ago, the idea of witches was gendered: these women would witness the most significant powers of life (birth, death, growth), and they had the power to disrupt these events entirely, greatly concerning the men in power at the time. Their treatments also meant that the lower classes were living longer, having more opportunity to access education and gain better financial prospects, endangering the power of the wealth. Lower class women caring for a village granted them an authority that was threatening to that of a King, and to prevent this matriarchal power growing was to prevent the women from exercising such methods. Interestingly, many cunning folk and white witches were not demonised and prosecuted during the period of growing witch-trials, mostly because ‘good’ magic was in the interest of those who needed cures for disease and illness. Their execution would of be no service to common society. Therefore, there was a very longstanding set of beliefs about black and white magic that was prevalent throughout the dark ages. What really changes at this period is an essential precondition of the period of witch trials is a third layer of belief, in witchcraft as demonic and diabolic.


The witchcraft craze started before the Reformation, making Maleus partly interesting because it was written out of inquisitive experience of a failed witch panic in 1485. These witch panics came from fears that the devil was at work in the world, forming a new type of heresy that had to be attacked. What’s fascinating, is that once the Reformation occurred, witch-hunting appeared to stop. The people who had been formed by the Reformation and the counter-Reformation were the ones significantly interested in witchcraft. This begins in the 1560s but climaxed in the 1580s, uniting both Catholic and Protestant Christians in their beliefs about witchcraft. What is revealed (partly due to growth in the printing press), is that most of these beliefs are spread by Catholic Priests and Bishops in Germany, the significance of religion at the time meaning that it was wealthy Christians who controlled the freedom of information in Europe. It was believed that, in Germany, there were approximately 20,000 executions, about half the total statistics are aware of for Western Europe. Given that Catholics and Protestants were opposed in most ways, it’s interesting to compare their own reactions to the growing presence of witches and magicians. It’s especially puzzling comparing their polarising views on women, the feminine so often correlated with witchcraft. Catholics venerated Mary, whilst Protestants saw her as an example for all Christians, a vessel for human goodness. Similarly, Catholics insisted on the importance of the convent and a spiritual role for women, whereas Protestants were rapidly closing convents. Yet, they both share similar views on witches.


The Malleus Maleficarum and the witch craze that ensued took advantage of the increasing intolerance of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation in Europe, where the Protestant and Catholic camps, pitted against one another, each enthusiastically strove to maintain what they each deemed to be the purity of faith. Citizens were struggling to comprehend that there could be two ways to perceive God, and one method to understand this ideology was the impression that the devil had escaped and was wreaking havoc with humanity. Before the Reformation, the ideology of witchcraft was already being quite well formed, and so what is seen from the later middle ages into the early modern period were trials for heresy and a more centralised idea for the Catholic church links into witchcraft, mostly to do with the inclusion of the devil. This is seen in the Western Christian tradition in St Thomas Aquinas and St Augustine through the demonic coming into Christian deviance by ordinary human beings forming pacts with Satan. This idea was introduced before the Reformation, but it was this period that a monopoly for Christian truth was being divided into more of a free market of ideas between the two Christian denominations, opening a fault line in society from the top to the bottom in both popular and learned tradition.


It’s important to remember that there were preconceived philosophies of tradition that richly encompassed Reformation culture, featuring archaic ideas about magic and healing, as well as persecution before the Reformation that brought to the forefront ideas about the devil being named and causing destruction. witchcraft never means just one thing. it’s always in itself a contested definition, even from the beginning of the dark ages. It’s an area where other ideas about society, culture and religion can be united, acting as a symbolic vehicle throughout these peoples’ lives. Protestant reformers actually argued that the devil was idle during the pre-Reformation period and believed the Pope to be ant-Christ, charging through the world in order to lead ordinary Christians to their own damnation. For many radical Protestant thinkers, this, therefore foreshadowed the last days of man, motivating these groups to rapidly and successfully defeat all such evil in the world.


Meteorological conditions of the time played a very important part in this period. The early modern period was often called the ‘little ice age’ as there was an overall dip in temperatures across Europe that affected crop yields, sometimes linked with its coinciding with the witch craze. In the 1590s in England, the prosecution of witches grew immensely, corresponding with failed harvests and crops. This reduces the quality of life for most people and increased competition amongst some communities, causing tensions between neighbours that might be expressed as a witchcraft accusation, directly leading to witch hunting. At a time when people were teetering on the edge of survival, it was a logical assumption that witches could manipulate the weather, destroying harvests and thus damaging villages. One of the triggers for the persecution of witches in the German city of Trier was, in fact, a severe hail storm in the 1580s. Instead of allowing such perceived treachery to occur, people started to petition their over laws to bring prosecution against the witches that have caused such catastrophe.


Maleus Maleficarum by Kramer had a relentless drive that propelled the book’s meaning.

The concept of sorcery is characterised by the conviction that those guilty engage in six activities:

  1. A pact entered into with the Devil (and concomitant apostasy from Christianity)
  2. Sexual relations with the Devil
  3. Aerial flight for the purpose of attending;
  4. An assembly presided over by Satan himself (at which initiates entered into the pact, and incest and promiscuous sex were engaged in by the attendees)
  5. The practice of maleficent magic
  6. The slaughter of babies.


Kramer thought that there was a community of witches out to attack Christendom, believing that most sorcerers were women. The reasons for this is the suggestion that women are “prone to believing and because the demon basically seeks to corrupt the faith, he assails them in particular.” They also apparently had a “temperament towards flux” and “loose tongues”. They “are defective in all the powers of both soul and body” and are stated to be more lustful than men. The major reason is that at the foundation of sorcery is denial of faith and “woman, therefore, is evil as a result of nature because she doubts more quickly in the faith.” He writes endless misogynistic and detailed passages that describe how they hold assemblies against men, and kidnap, murder and kill children in banquets. He saw them as weak in faith, body and mind, and completely governed by their carnal lusts, more likely to be liable for seduction by the devil. Misogyny wasn’t something that was unusual in the Reformation society, and patriarchy was evident in all layers of political society and authority. Society was structured on the foundation of misogyny; there wasn’t an exact equation between women and evil, or women and witches, but there was an association based on the Biblical authority and tradition that women were morally weaker and thus vulnerable to diabolical temptation, despite 25% of the people persecuted for witchcraft being male. It wasn’t just that women were sexually open to the deductive wiles of the devil, but the idea that sexual relations with the devil, from the perspective of women, could lead to no consequences. The devil was perceived to attack fertility in the human as well as the natural world, combining superstitious thought about the destruction of the harvest. This combines fears to do with death and disease that significantly affected children and infants, fears which were at the root of all magic, terrors felt by humanity for centuries. While the text is set up like a treatise with questions and answers with intellectual authorities to appeal to, it also features extraordinary stories. The very title of the Malleus Maleficarum is feminine, the use of the feminine Latin form alluding to the idea that it was women who were the villains. These sometimes comical stories were said to have been collected during Kramer’s interrogation of witches, but also that they might have come out of popular culture. This includes a tale that seems to oppose the rule of clergymen by mocking their protective nature over the size of their genitals. The text became a mix of settling scores, heavy theology, folk tales and misogyny, trying to find a way to turn secular village people into something sinister and associated with magic. Nearly all of the accused were women and consisted primarily of outcasts and other suspicious persons such as old women, midwives, Jews, Poets and Gypsies. Anyone who did not fit within the contemporary view of pious Christians were suspect, and easily branded “Witch”, usually to devastating effect.


James V1 of Scotland wrote the famous ‘Daemonologie’, that described his fearful thoughts about black magic, including werewolves, vampires and witches. He was a man of the highest authority in Scotland, born after the Reformation and thus absorbing the daemonologies of those before him. This returns us to the question of politics and a constitutional insecurity. Behind James’ interest in magic and witchcraft, the text is about the political state, divine right kingship that James felt so strongly about during his reign in both Scotland and England, and the anxiety that centralising monarchies would be feeling in the 16th century. James was triggered to write the book by a marriage match between a Danish princess and himself. There were rumours of witches in North Berwick in Scotland who tried to sink the ship that he was on. When James found out, he took a personal interest in the examination of such witches, and to prove their magic, one of the witches whispered into his ear the words his bride said on their wedding night. The witch-hunting culture consequently wasn’t a just a folk superstition among common people, but a political debate among Kings.


Reputation was also imminent in this era, evidenced in the case of a woman prosecuted in 1671 at the age of 56- she’d been reputed a witch since the age of eleven. The representation of witches through word of mouth and oral storytelling was prevalent in an age where many people could not read or write, and reputation could be built up before an actual accusation was made. Women were perceived as sexually deviant, and yet their punishments were perverse in many ways. Some held the superstition that the devil kept powerful charms in the hair of witches, so many women were completely shaved, sexually humiliating them. Many of the persecuted confessed before any torture was inflicted on them, because of the degradation involved. Executioners at the time were ‘dishonourable’ due to their own crimes, so to be touched by him made the victim, too, dishonourable, further excluding them from society.

The witch-hunting craze continued in later centuries, evidenced in the work of witch finder Matthew Hopkins, who took advantage of the polarised political and religious divides during the English Civil Wars. Because of the dangers of such a significant war, many national legalities were discarded and significance was placed more on local authorities and justice in East Anglia where witchcraft could get out of hand. He had no official authority, but the professionals and judges that enforced law through proper procedures and trials were occupied with the legalities of the Civil War. It was an aberration, not a normal political ministry of circumstance.


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