The European witch craze started in the 14th century and lasted until the 17th century. Over this period of time there have been between 200,000 and 500,000 witches executed. 85% of those were women. The Change of the inquisition’s objectives determined the character and timing of these executions, also a big part of that played differentiation process within medieval society. Women began to occupy higher positions within European society. A part of it was the higher proportion of female leaders and their influence on the changing economic roles.

On the one hand it was a great period of time for women on the other they had to face increasing pressures from society and unfortunately, men became threatened by them therefore they put them in a worse light and highlighted their negatives.

These executions gained common acceptance within society. People developed demonological theories and studied it. Witch craft in the early period was mainly a means of allocating blame for disasters that couldn’t otherwise be explained.

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People believed that there was a war between god and the devil and devil sent witches to earth as a means of revenge and to punish the human race. Because there was no logical or scientific explanation for meteorological incidents or deaths people looked into religion. There are several questions I asked myself when researching the subject witch craze. Why did it start in 14th century? Why did it end in 17th century? Why were women the main victims? And why did people associate witches with demons?

The answers are based on numerous conclusions.

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The inquisition and the collapse of the authoritative framework of religion and of the feudal social order have determined the beginning of the witch craze. ‘ Changes in the economy, demography, and family, especially changes in the role of women- some of which were of catastrophic proportions-explain the nature of the target of the craze. The spatial distribution of the witch hunt and its termination resulted respectively from the presence or absence of all or some of these conditions in different parts of Europe ‘.(Ben – Yehuda, 1980, p.2) The last of my questions is based on mystic beliefs, scientific explorations and idealistic expectations.The religious motif is inseparable when talking about witch craze although canonical books mostly ignore the subject. In the Bible witches aren’t associated with demons at all and the supernatural world is never mentioned however, in Greece and Rome people used magic to ‘produce rain, prevent hailstorms, drive away clouds, increase wealth and the like, but were also used for evil purposes ( Ben-Yehuda, 1980, p.3).

What I think is very interesting is the way O’dea describes religion which is mentioned in Ben – Yehuda work’… the manipulation of non-empirical or supra-empirical means for non-empirical, or-supra empirical, ends…’ and magic he says is’…the manipulation of non-empirical or supra-empirical means for empirical ends’. What it basically means is that magic can be used to serve human race particularly their needs. These are crucial information we need to know to fully understand European which craft. ‘Its technological nature, its ad hoc purposes, its extremely specific goals (love potions, specific spells, love magic, and the like).’ As we can clearly see the’ witch matter’ had its roots way before 14th century when it expanded and developed. The European witch craze in the 14th to 17th century was transformed into a devilish object.

‘These changes in the conceptualisation of witchcraft are of crucial importance. Because witchcraft was regarded as a routine, day-to-day (almost personal) technology until 14th century, witches were classified as good or bad, depending on the objective of their magic. After the 14th century, a whole systematic theory was devoted to witchcraft: books were written on the subject, and experts specialised in its theory (demonologists) and practice (inquisitors, witch-hunters, and the like). This analytical shift to the new eclectic demonological theories was precisely what was needed to enable the inquisitors, and other individuals, to persecute legitimately hundreds of thousands of witches.’

People believed that witches and heretics were correlated and therefore witches and heretics were accused of the same crimes and were punished in the same way. The church played a big part in it and published many documents stating that heretics and witches are similar.’ The Catholic, Thomas Stapleton, said: Witchcraft grows with heresy, heresy with witchcraft. ‘ As we read in Ben – Yehuda book the main feature of the European witch craze was the ’witches’ sabbath’, the climax of which was a huge orgy between the devil and witches; at this time new witches were initiated. The ceremony allegedly included denying salvation, kissing the devil’s posterior, spitting on the Bible, having promiscuous sexual orgies, feasting on roasted or boiled un-baptized children’s flesh and exhumed corpses, mocking the holy sacrament of baptism, cursing the cross, and the like’.

People had a very adverse image of witches. The negative view of them as well as witchcraft and demonology completely changed the opinion of witchcraft. Witchcraft was changing from neutral technological character into a complex image of an anti–religion. They have written a few very interesting things regarding witches. which was probably based on ignorance and Christian superstition. Here are a few examples: ‘Witchcraft, the book claimed, sprang from the “carnal lust” of the witch which was an innate attribute of the female.

Witches had the power to change themselves into animals, and they could fly. They worked in secret and could only be brought to justice by extra-legal methods. The book recommended the witch was tortured first into confessing her own guilt and then again to incriminate accomplices. ‘ At that time to bring about charges it was enough for two witnesses to testify against a ‘witch’. The court accepted even testimonies of criminals and perjurers. When the witch was convicted by the judge, they were handed over to secular arm and burned, ‘to the satisfaction of the church and delight of the mob’.

Why did it happen?

There are some three major explanations based on anthropological empirical work on witch-craft. There is a functional approach, structural explanation and the third one is the analysis of the symbolic level of witch craft. The functional approach tells us about some useful functions that witch craft consists of such as the alleviation of anxiety, integration, and the creation of cohesion. The structural approach is a ‘relation network among different groups in stratified society’. Basically it is an answer to differentiated society, inequality that has arisen throughout times. The third explanation is based on the symbols, rituals and how to utilize them and trying to find out the meaning of them. Although there is many explanations of witch craft, there is no mention of religious influences on the ‘movement’, or the time that the selection of women was its aim.

The inquisition was created to pursue and punish heretics although they were doing such a good job that by the end of 1250s the Cathari and Waldenses were basically eliminated. The inquisition had to look for some other, new challenges. They started their campaign and as a result they have included witches under their jurisdiction. The first traces of witches were found somewhere in the Pyrenees and the Alps. Pope john XXII strengthened all of the fears regarding witches and in 1326 he issued ‘his Super illius specula which ‘authorised the full use of inquisitorial procedures against witches’’ , in which he says’…some people, Christian in name only, have forsaken the first light of truth to ally themselves with death and traffic with hell. They sacrifice to and adore devils; they make or obtain figurines, rings, vials, mirrors… by which they command demons… asking their aid…[and]…giving themselves to the most shameful subjection for the most shameful of ends…’ (Robbins 1959, p288).

The witch craze was gaining power throughout 14th and 15th centuries, and had its peak by the 1490s when hunting was brought into life. Their society associated the word witch with heretics therefore witchcraft was identified with heresy. Joining the dots witches, heretics, Satanists and demons were identified with evil and society turned against them. Saint inquisition was leading the fight, and an organised conspiracy against the Devil. Because nobody could predict what powers witches had, and what they are capable of doing the last resort was to kill them. ‘Europe again stank with burning flesh and echoed with the groans of tortured women’. Pope Innocent VIII had issued the notorious witchcraft bull Summis desiderantes affectibus. It has appeared as a preface to a book commissioned by the Pope and written by two Dominican inquisitors, Heinrich Kramer and Jakob Sprenger.

The Malleus Maleficarium or Hammery of witches became the official handbook of witchcraft for trial judges all over Europe. Kramer and Sprenger wrote a book that became a success. Courts all over Europe were using this book in judging witches, apparently there were thirty editions of this book before 1669. It was the first book that actually told people how to find a witch, and what signs they should look for. It defined a witch. This book connected women with witchcraft saying that’ …witchcraft is chiefly found in women…because they were more credulous and had poor memories and because…witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable…;(Sprenger and Kramer 1928, p.41-48). It has become the book of inquisition. They imposed all those horrible, brutal tortures on women. It explains the beginning of witch craft in 13th century.

We still do not know how it transformed into demonological practice. Society has gone through many economic changes. The world developed and as Penrose said the ‘15th and 16th centuries form one of the greatest phenomena of the Renaissance. These changes left unclarified moral boundaries. Urban society did not fit into the feudal hierarchy. Because Europe started trading with non-European habitants who were not Christians it sort of destroyed the moral order in the society. People were confused and lost. Also at that time there were many epidemics and diseases that killed many people.

Hence the 15th century was an amazing time of innovation, courageous thoughts and new developments but also a time of confusion and lost moral boundaries. It helped philosophers to go beyond and step into the world of magical beliefs. Demonological theories started developing in the beginning of the 15th century which were the early years of the scientific revolution. ‘ There was great preoccupation with so-called secret (or esoteric) knowledge, namely, the Hermetic movement , which’’…focused attention on… extraordinary and marvelous virtues… The aim was to grasp the hidden powers of nature and the mysterious forces…’’(Yan-Behuda 1958, p.6). That would explain why witches were correlated with demons and supernatural beliefs.

The which – hunts lasted until the end of the thirty years war in 1648 in its most brutal form, although we can find that some single trials had taken place until 1750. During that period of time nearly half a million people were executed. Most of victims were women. Apparently the most brutal witch-hunts were conducted in places where the catholic church was weakest : Germany, Switzerland and France. On the other hand it was obvious that places with a strong catholic church like Spain, Poland and Eastern Europe, witch hunts were much less significant.To summarize the witch craze actually started in the 14th century. It was the time when the inquisitors had to look for new challenges, as other choice gradually disappeared…

Europe has experienced many changes over the 15th and 16th centuries which has begun a new order that brought emotional instability and stress within the society. These were demographic and geographical changes that had an impact on the economy. People started to look for explanations elsewhere and that is how they got into the magical world. The circumstances that have arisen brought a need for changing moral boundaries in order to restore social order. The demonological theory is the answer to the emergence of an antireligious ideology. The Church has emphasized the negatives of witches and highlighted all their faults therefore it was only natural to correlate it with demons.

And finally why women? Changes that brought with it social order created new roles for women and changed women’s roles within the family. The proportion of unmarried women was evident in line with prostitution, infanticide and contraception was part of the problem. The female became a symbol of the witch and as such was pivotal to a demonological ideology. The witch craze ended as it was no longer needed. The witch craze took place in those areas where the church was weaker and the moral crisis deeper. Where there was stability the witch craze disappeared in the 17th century.


  1. Ben – Yehuda, N., 1980, The European Witch Craze of the 14th to 17th Centuries: A Sociologist’s Perspective, The University of Chicago Press. Kramer, H., Sprenger, J., 1928, Malleus Maleficarum, Kessinger Publishing
  2. Robbins, R., 1959, The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology, Bonanza Books, California


  1. Witches and the Inquisition, Available, entered [10.11.2012]
  2. Witches: Scattered Heretics Pursued by the Inquisition, Available, entered [10.11.2012]
  3. Hodges, S., 2006, Examination of Ritual Abuse Laws, Available, entered [10.11.2012]

Cite this page

The European Witch Craze. (2016, Oct 21). Retrieved from

The European Witch Craze

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