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Witchcraft: What Caused the Witch-Hunts in Early Modern Europe

Angela loves history and feels it is essential to our future to know the past—or else we're destined to repeat it.


Causes of Early Modern Witchcraft

Fear, hatred, guilt, jealousy, pain, grief, confusion, lust, and hunger are all feelings with one thing in common: They were the driving force that caused a witch-hunt amongst early modern Europeans. To fully understand what caused the witch-hunt, one must analyze the triggers behind these feelings.

Many social and religious factors triggered such emotions. Early modern Europeans were in the process of a religious reformation. Rather than calming the people, the Reformation heightened awareness of evil within the culture. As fears arose, new beliefs emerged. To combat these fears, people sought other means to fight evil, such as the benandante. Ironically, the very things people tried to protect themselves in this unpredictable setting where famine and poverty were commonplace was what increased the fear of witchcraft, leading to the death of many. The Reformation within the Church and the development of good witches with the already ingrained ideas about women and human sexuality set the stage for a witch-hunt by increasing emotions.

Witches in Europe During the Reformation

Between 1520 and 1650, the Reformation had a significant impact on European countries and how people perceived religion. Due to increasing disagreements between the community and the Catholic Church, the Church needed to reform. Although Levack highlights that few witch prosecutions occurred in the early years of the Reformation, after 1560, it “served to intensify the process of witch-hunting and perhaps helped to spread from place to place.” The Reformation became a catalyst for the witch-hunt by increasing the fear of Satan. One reformer responsible for the rise in fear of Satan was John Calvin, who stated,

…for after Satan has possessed us once and stopped our eyes, and God has withdrawn his light from us, so that we are destitute of his holy spirit and devoid of all reason, then there follow infinite abuses without end or measure. And many sorceries come from this condition.

Due to such reformers as Calvin, the early modern European believed “the danger that Satan presented to a person was both physical and spiritual… Everyone, even the holiest individual, could be deceived and ensnared by the cunning treachery of Satan.” These beliefs heightened awareness of diabolical acts causing European societies to be more willing to put accused witches on trial due to fear. Communities wanted to purify their neighborhoods by eliminating all evil, even if it meant putting their neighbor to death. They used the judicial system to advocate against any act that went against the Word of God.


History of Witches: Women Targeted

Although it was not just the poor women accused, they targeted women in general. The Malleus Maleficarum is one of the most notorious documents that reflect why early modern Europeans believed early modern women to be more susceptible to witchcraft. First of all, a woman was thought not to have any “moderation in goodness or vice,” which lent to the belief that if a woman was good, she was very good, whereas if she was bad, she was evil. This same document later backs this up by stating “that women are naturally more impressionable, and more ready to receive the influence of a disembodied spirit.” Martin de Castanega notes that “women are more subject to anger and are more vindictive.” Levack sums it up well when he states, “the common theme… is that women were more susceptible to demonic temptation because they were morally weaker than men and more likely, therefore, to succumb to diabolical temptation.”

The belief that women were not men’s equals may have been formulated as a result of Eve, the first woman in the Bible, being the one who succumbed to the serpent’s temptations. The Malleus Maleficarum backs this up by stating that,

…it should be noted that there was a defect in the first woman since she was formed from a bent rib, that is, a rib of the beast, which is bent as it were in a contrary direction to a man. And since through this defect she is an imperfect animal, she always deceives.

The one fault in this line of thinking, according to the Church, would be that God does not make mistakes. Therefore, even those who did not believe that women were a “defect” would have focused on a woman’s purpose within society: fertility and companionship for men. Unfortunately, the focus became a view that women were primarily sexual creatures.

The idea of women’s sexuality became a driving force for why accusations towards women were more common than men. The Malleus Maleficarum states, “all witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable.” Within a society that valued sexual purity, an insatiable desire for sex would have agitated the community, especially amongst the clergy. Although the question arises, whose desire provoked the accusation, the witch or the accuser? The vow of celibacy many clergymen were sworn to would have caused uneasiness around women, especially women they may have found attractive. These same feelings may have been shared by married men who found themselves attracted to someone other than their wives. As reformers projected their feelings of guilt onto the more impoverished person in society, these men would have projected their feelings, consciously or more likely unconsciously, upon women, saying that women are lustful and seductive. Since many believed that “those who are given to lust, the devil has more power over them,” women would have been more susceptible to witchcraft accusations. Also, if someone suspected a woman of having an affair, a jealous wife may have accused her. They often pointed their fingers at aging women. They used the excuse that they required carnal satisfaction since many were either widowed or had husbands who were not as capable of sexual intercourse.

The witch-hunt does not have only one cause, nor could one ever specify a specific demographic. Many things set the stage for a witch-hunt in early modern Europe. The early modern period was a confusing time. As tensions grew, so did the witch-hunts. The Reformation worked as a source to increase the pressure and awareness of evil. Because of the fear of human sexuality and preconceived notions about women, they targeted women. Through these tensions, the benandante was created with hopes of bringing order to a confusing world. In the end, the benandante was viewed much like the witches they were initially designed to stop. Although many of these factors played a role in the witch-hunts, the real culprit could most likely be human emotion.


Witchcraft in the Bible: Increased Readership

Part of the Reformation was also due to the increased readership of the Bible. During this time, scholars translated the vernacular of the Bible so the everyday person could understand it. There was an emphasis on a literal interpretation.

Unfortunately, some translations were misleading. When taken literally, they had deadly results. Levack gives the example of Exodus 22:18, which states, “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” In this passage, ‘witch’ actually meant a “poisoner or ‘someone who works in darkness and mutters things.’” Due to the literal translation, they understood the word ‘witch’ with the early modern perception of what a witch was. This understanding gave permission and even encouraged capital punishment for those accused.

With the Bible now written in an understandable language, it was studied more extensively, especially by such reformers as John Calvin. Through Calvin’s studies, he formulated the idea of predestination, where God elected certain people to go to Heaven regardless of the actions of the person themselves. Those who believed in predestination strove to appear as one of the elected few by living a pious and upright life. When someone did sin, they felt intense shame and feared that they were not one of the elect; thus, they needed to get rid of that guilt. In a society already feeling insecure due to its current failing financial and agricultural condition, they learned to relieve these feelings by transferring them to another person.

A typical example was when a poorer person begging for money. As Levack states, “by depicting the unaided person as a witch and therefore as a moral aggressor unworthy of support, he could rid himself of the guilt he was experiencing” for not lending them money. As this shows, although the Reformation began as a means to bring enlightenment, it intensified fear and guilt, increasing the witch-hunt.

Malleus Maleficarum

The Malleus Malificarum was one of the biggest attributers to Witch killings

The Malleus Malificarum was one of the biggest attributers to Witch killings

Creation of Benandante: Women Healers

The creation of benandante was another way people tried to put others at ease. Although religion was of prime importance during this time, magic had its appeal. Due to the current problems, such as a high infant mortality rate, crop failure, and illness, people sought quick answers and cures. As stress increased, many turned to those who could do magic. One such people were the benandante. However, they denied being witches and making pacts with the devil, many thought of the benandante as good witches who healed and protected the crops by going out on the Ember days to fight witches. If they were victorious, the crops would be abundant and fertile. If they lost, there would be a famine. Because crop fertility was of absolute importance for survival during this time, people were eager to believe in something that allowed them to feel that there had some control over the crops' fruitfulness. Unfortunately for the benandante, the line between doing magic to save crops and heal people began to blur with those who did 'black magic.' Some believed as Levack stated, "that those who could cure could also harm." The view of the benandante shifted because although they were good, they were witches.

Another reason for the shift was how the benandante went out in their fights with the witches. It sounded uncannily like that of a witches' sabbath. Ginzburg shows this when he describes the journey.

To these gatherings, 'some rode on hares, others on dogs, still others on sows or hogs, the long-haired kind, and also on other animals.' When they reached the church, 'both men and women danced about and sometimes ate.

This scene sounds very similar to Martin Le Franc's, The Defender of Ladies, describing a witches' sabbath. It states, "Ten thousand old women in a troop were there, as in a great assembly in the shapes of cats or goats… pleased themselves in dancing, others still in banqueting and booze." The similarities between the benandante and the witches raised many questions regarding the righteousness of a benandante.

The Terror of History: The Witch Hunts Video

A Shift in Feelings Towards Benandante

As the similarities between witches and benandante arose, feelings of resentment towards the benandante grew due to the financial burden they placed on the community. When a person desired the healing of a loved one, the benandante may agree to heal but required some payment. Even with payment, the person may remain sick. As Ginzburg states, the benandante were viewed as the “clever swindlers.” In the end, the financial drain on the community increased the ill feelings towards the benandante.

Women, especially those widowed or single, were often thought of as a financial burden on the community. It is not surprising when Levack claims that more than 75 percent of those accused of witchcraft were women. As mentioned above, some may have become beggars, causing guilt in those who could not help them out. Also, poor people were seen as easy targets by Satan. Martin de Castanega stated, “no one should consider it strange that the devil tempts poor people who desire inordinately temporal things since he did not hesitate to tempt even Christ by offering him worldly riches.” He later specifies not just the poor, but “poor women are more easily deceived than young girls are, for the devil promises them nothing will be lacking if they follow him.” Someone may target the poor if they felt that their riches were in danger of a person of lesser status. Due to the fear of endangerment, feelings of panic would arise, and an accusation of witchcraft may occur then projected back to the accuser. For instance, a poorer person may accuse a person of higher status if they felt that person had wronged them, such as in a case of someone enclosing their land that was previously everyday use.

A Witch Trial: Women were often brought to trial due to witch accusals.

A Witch Trial: Women were often brought to trial due to witch accusals.


Ginzburg, Carlo. The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Translated by John and Anne Tedeschi. (Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), 22-23.

Kors, Alan Charles, and Edward Peters. Witchcraft in Europe 400-1700: A Documentary History. Second Edition. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001), 269.

Levack, Brian P. The Witch Hunt in Early Modern Europe. Third Edition. (Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2006), 111.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

Questions & Answers

Question: Did witches really do magic?

Answer: I guess it really depends on your definition of magic. Were the witches ever the kind you see on TV, no. Could they have had powers from evil sources? I am not going to rule out that possibility. Overall though, most people accused of witchcraft, were victims of discrimination.

© 2010 Angela Michelle Schultz


Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on September 26, 2019:

Saloni, the main evidence is the writings from that time, the court records, and the laws that were made during that time. Please check the books that I used as sources, you will find written proof of such things.

Saloni on September 24, 2019:

what were the pieces of evidence that showed that witch-hunting happened in Europe? People just blindly follow what others say and hence, it's just a kind of blind faith that people are putting on... None of us seen this happening so how can one prove this as a 'reality'?

Omar on December 16, 2018:

Fascinating article! I'm currently writing a paper exploring exactly why and how women came to be the majority of those prosecuted during the witch-trials of the 16th & 17th centuries. My thesis asserts that the witch craze was ultimately grounded in a gender conflict which was instigated by religious misogyny via the works of Kramer and others, and ultimately because women were typically the most convenient scapegoats for society.

Your article & the bibliography provided have greatly assisted me in buttressing my argument with candid descriptions of how people of the time characterized witches. Thanks.

Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on December 05, 2018:

Regardless of where people believe they receive powers, I believe those type of powers come from the same source.

a on December 01, 2018:

A lot of people said they were witches and got their powers from fairies, not satan. One man said that he was a werewolf and that they were hounds of God. He said they would sitg outside churches howling they were closer to God than the priest.

Kitty Fields from Summerland on March 07, 2014:

I find it amazing how they would say that women were the lust-filled ones...interesting indeed. I think there was a LOT of motivation behind the witch trials and I really enjoyed this hub.

Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on May 22, 2012:

At their day and age, they thought they were well-educated, just as we think we are well-educated. I don't think we are all that more advanced then people back then. It's not like they were primitive.

Josh Sullivan on May 22, 2012:

I think it is important to bear in mind that we speak from a rational and learned point of view, these folk and plebeians had no such understanding, the Church and the state was essential in the portrayal of what was the norm in society and with such forceful ideas about witchcraft, the people did not know any better.

Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on December 08, 2010:

Ivy, I am glad you enjoyed my hub.

Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on December 08, 2010:

That is very true silverlady! Very good insight. I also think that it's the smallness and the familiarity with one another. Think of how people are in a high school. Same kind of concept.

Ivy on December 06, 2010:

I'm a Witch. Young one at that but i do know something. REsearching stuff and seeing other opinions helps me understand. This really enlightned me. Gave me some more backboned info to use against those people who beleive Witch = Satan. Not Mother Earth. Thank you.

Silverlady on December 05, 2010:

One of the other causes of local accusations of witchcraft against women in particular was the insular and claustrophobic nature of life in isolated villages. People did not travel far from home and, indeed could not, even if they wanted too. Most people lived their whole lives in the same village.

This inability to move from place to place led to a build-up of social tensions which in times of stress or crisis resulted in a scape-goat being sought. Persecution and destruction of the unfortunate person released these feelings and calm was restored until the next time.

Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on September 16, 2010:

Thanks! I find this topic really fascinating!

4elements on September 16, 2010:

another well researched, well written hub. You have got some serious skills. To bad those who do question and think we are evil beings aren't brave enough to even open an article that has witch or wicca, or witchcraft in the title. It may actually open their minds.Again very good. Peace to you and yours!

Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on May 31, 2010:

Thanks epigramman for the awesome compliment! I hope you had fun flying on your broom. I see you even have your familiar with you. My husband and I have two familiars. They take on a similar form as yours. In fact it's here in my avatar. This one is the lesser of two evils.

epigramman on May 30, 2010:

this is a well researched hub and quite frankly the most awesome thing I've read in some time - but it's time now to grab my broom and fly over the full moon!

Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on April 05, 2010:

I have thought that as well. I think though, part of why they had that craziness is because they were such a small community. I think sometimes, in high school, there is a similar affect, adn that's why in school years more than any other time in people's lives, there are those ostracized, rejected, persecuted. As the Internet and cars expand the world, differences are more widely accepted. Actually, I think I discuss this in one of the other articles. Not quite like this though.

Dolores Monet from East Coast, United States on April 05, 2010:

Wow. what an interesting hub. It makes you wonder, when you think how crazy those people were, what kinds of accepted cultural norms of today will be, some day, looked back on with the same feeling we have for the witch hunters.