"Explain the varying incidence of witch hunts in time and place across Europebetween 1500 and 1700".

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Dean Miller


2nd MA

Semester 1

  1. “Explain the varying incidence of witch hunts in time and place across Europe between 1500 and 1700”.

Matriculation Number: 02 203015 5

Tutor:  Martine van Ittersum

“Explain the varying incidence of witch hunts in time and place across Europe between 1500 and 1700”.

It has been estimated that during the period of 1500 to 1700 around nine million ‘witches’ were burnt at the stake throughout the European continent.  The aim of this essay is to compare and contrast different time periods and specific areas of Europe between 1500 and 1700, and critically asses how the so-called witch-craze unravelled.  

From the period of 1500 to 1700 witches came to symbolize superstitious aspects of popular religion.  Catholic and Protestant churchmen identified and persecuted witches as part of the campaign to acculturate the masses with ‘acceptable’ beliefs.  Witch hunts peaked during the first half of the Seventeenth Century.  In the south-western states of the Holy Roman Empire alone, it is estimated that more than 300 separate witch trials resulted in the execution of 2,500 people between 1570 and 1630, almost all women – in itself not surprising as church authorities and priests were all male.

Theologians and judges sought to demonstrate that accused witches embodied the kingdom of the Devil.  To some extent the Catholic Reformation wanted to create the idea of a satanic kingdom of evil on earth with which to juxtapose orthodoxy.  “Witches”, identified by common reputation sometimes stood accused of saying Latin prayers backward, or performing “black masses” while standing facing congregations”,  instead of facing the alter, defiantly inverting the kingdom of God.  One woman was accused of consuming several husbands.  Often “witches were blamed for evil that had befallen villagers: a fire, unexplained deaths of animals, or a male suddenly smitten with impotence.

Most of those accused were rural, poor and single women who confronted the hostility of other villagers, particularly small town officials and wealthy peasants.

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It has been noted that some “witches” confessed under the pain of torture, such as one woman in Southern France who was “scorched like a pig” and cooked alive, having been accused of spreading an evil powder while committing crimes. (Merriman, 1996, Page 135) 

The total number of witchcraft prosecutions and executions cannot be determined with any degree of accuracy as through the course of time many judicial records have been destroyed or otherwise lost, while the trials of many witches were never officially recorded.  Some estimates, ranging as high as nine million executions, have been grossly exaggerated. ...

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