Witch Trials In The Early Modern Period


1533 account of the execution of a witch charged with burning the German town of Schiltach in 1531

The witch trials in the early modern period were a period of witch hunts between the 15th and 18th centuries,[1] when across early modern Europe[2] and to some extent in the European colonies in North America, there was a widespread hysteria that malevolent Satanic witches were operating as an organized threat to Christendom. Those accused of witchcraft were portrayed as being worshippers of the Devil, who engaged in such acts as malevolent sorceryat meetings known as Witches’ Sabbaths. Many people were subsequently accused of being witches, and were put on trial for the crime, with varying punishments being applicable in different regions and at different times.

While early trials fall still within the Late Medieval period, the peak of the witch hunt was during the period of the European wars of religion, peaking between about 1580 and 1630. The witch hunts declined in the early 18th century. In Great Britain, their end is marked by the Witchcraft Act of 1735. But sporadic witch-trials continued to be held during the second half of the 18th century, the last known dating to 1782,[3] though a prosecution was commenced in Tennessee as recently as 1833.[4][5][6]

Over the entire duration of the phenomenon of some three centuries, an estimated total of 40,000 to 100,000 people were executed.[7]

Among the best known of these trials were the Scottish North Berwick witch trials, Swedish Torsåker witch trials and the American Salem witch trials. Among the largest and most notable were the Trier witch trials (1581–1593), the Fulda witch trials (1603–1606), the Würzburg witch trial (1626–1631) and the Bamberg witch trials (1626–1631).

The sociological causes of the witch-hunts have long been debated in scholarship. Mainstream historiography sees the reason for the witch craze in a complex interplay of various factors that mark the early modern period, including the religious sectarianism in the wake of the Reformation, besides other religious, societal, economic and climatic factors.


Three developments in Christian doctrine have been identified as factors contributing significantly to the witch hunts: 1) a shift from the rejection of belief in witches to an acceptance of their existence and powers, 2) developments in the doctrine of Satan which incorporated witchcraft as part of Satanic influence, 3) the identification of witchcraft as heresy. Belief in witches and praeternatural evil were widespread in medieval Europe,[8] and the secular legal codes of European countries had identified witchcraft as a crime before being reached by Christian missionaries.[9] Scholars have noted that the early influence of the Church in the medieval era resulted in the revocation of these laws in many places,[9][10] bringing an end to traditional pagan witch hunts.[9]

Throughout the medieval era mainstream Christian teaching denied the existence of witches and witchcraft, condemning it as pagan superstition.[11] Notable instances include an Irish synod in 800,[12] Agobard of Lyons,[13] Pope Gregory VII,[14] and Serapion of Vladimire.[15] The traditional accusations and punishments were likewise condemned.[16][17] Historian Ronald Hutton therefore exonerated the early Church from responsibility for the witch hunts, arguing that this was the result of doctrinal change in the later Church.[9]

However, Christian influence on popular beliefs in witches and maleficium (harm committed by magic), failed to eradicate traditional beliefs,[18] and developments in the Church doctrine of Satan proved influential in reversing the previous dismissal of witches and witchcraft as superstition; instead these beliefs were incorporated into an increasingly comprehensive theology of Satan as the ultimate source of all maleficium.[19][20] The work of Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century was instrumental in developing the new theology which would give rise to the witch hunts,[21] but due to the fact that sorcery was judged by secular courts it was not until maleficium was identified with heresy that theological trials for witchcraft could commence.[22] Despite these changes the doctrinal shift was only completed in the 15th century,[23] when it first began to result in Church-inspired witch trials.[24] Promulgation of the new doctrine by Henricus Institoris met initial resistance in some areas,[25] and some areas of Europe only experienced the first wave of the new witch trials in the latter half of the 16th century.[26][27]

Magic and witchcraft

Further information: European witchcraft, Christian views on magic, Medieval magic, Renaissance magic, and Shamanism in Europe

During the Medieval period, there was widespread belief in magic across Christian Europe, and as the psychologist Gustav Jahoda noted, “the new world as people saw it [in the medieval] included witches, devils, fairies and all kinds of strange beasts … magic and miracles were commonplace.”[28] The Mediaeval Roman Catholic Church, which then dominated a large swath of the continent, divided magic into two forms: natural magic, which was acceptable because it was viewed as merely taking note of the powers in nature that were created by God, and demonic magic, which was frowned upon and associated with demonology, divination and necromancy.[29] This idea of malevolent magic, or maleficarum, was mentioned by historian Robert W. Thurston, who stated that “One of the most persistent features of European world views … was the presence of humans who used magic to help or hurt their neighbors.”[8]

During the Late Middle Ages and early modern period, magical practice was roughly divided into two forms. The first of these, folk magic, was the form of popular practice widely found amongst common people, consisting largely of simple charms and spells. There were various professionals who performed folk magic in a professional capacity, including charmers, astrologers, fortune tellers, and most importantly, cunning folk. These were believed to “possess a broader and deeper knowledge of such [magical] techniques and more experience in using them” than the average person, and it was also believed that they “embodied or could work with supernatural power which greatly increased the effectiveness of the operations concerned.”[30] One of the primary purposes of the cunning folk was in removing curses and other bewitchments that their clients believed that they had suffered, and in this manner cunning folk were in most cases working actively against witchcraft, using such methods as the witch bottle in order to do so.[31]

The other form of magic was ceremonial magic, followed by those who adhered to philosophies like Hermeticism and the Qabalah. Whilst the Church disapproved of demonic magic, which was practiced by both certain cunning folk and ceremonial magicians, and condemned it in Early Medieval texts, they did little to actively suppress those that they believed practiced it, not believing them to be any significant threat to Christendom.[citation needed]

A late-sixteenth-century illustration of a witch feeding her familiars from England. A number of historians believe that the familiar spirit is a pre-Christian idea.

Various historians, notably Carlo Ginzburg, Éva Pócs, Gabor Klaniczay and Emma Wilby have theorised that many elements of early modern witchcraft were based upon, or even a continuation of, pre-Christian religious beliefs about visionary journeys that had connections with both shamanism and animism. In early modern Europe, there was often a belief that witches (and in many cases also cunning folk) were aided in their performance of magic by supernatural entities known as familiar spirits, who appeared in many different forms, usually taking the appearance of either humans or animals.[32] As historian Ronald Hutton remarked, “It is quite possible that pre-Christian mythology lies behind this tradition”,[33] an idea supported by other historians, such as Wilby.[34]

In the early modern period, it was also widely believed by the prosecutors that the witches traveled to a nocturnal meeting known as the Witches’ Sabbath where they worshiped the Devil, feasted, and committed various Christian sins. Although some historians believe that this was entirely a fictional idea created by the witch hunters, others, having studied the first hand reports given by self-professed or accused witches, have come to the conclusion that these trips to the Sabbath were genuine visionary journeys that some witches believed that they went on. Emma Wilby compares these to similar claims made in the early modern period by certain cunning folk that they traveled on a visionary journey into Fairyland, where they found an assembly led by the King and Queen of the Fairies, feasted, and danced. After making various comparisons with ethnographic and anthropological examples of shamanism in Siberia and North America, she came to the conclusion that both the witches’ Sabbath and the Fairyland journeys were visionary experiences undergone by various magical practitioners that likely had their origins in earlier, pre-Christian shamanic ideas.[35]

Some historians have traced the idea of a visionary nocturnal journey from the early modern period into earlier periods of European history that were closer to the pre-Christian era. The fact that such nocturnal journeys containing praeternatural entities have been found across Medieval and early modern Europe, from the Benandanti of sixteenth-century Friuli in Italy to the supposed werewolves of early modern Hungary[36] has led historian Carlo Ginzburg to believe that they were a part of an “ancient stratum of beliefs” in Europe, that had been found in pre-Christian paganism.[37] Indeed, historian Robert Thurston noted that in the tenth century document, the Canon Episcopi, the author (likely a Christian monk) described that there were women who, due to a trick of the Devil, had visions that made them think that they met other women at nocturnal meetings to ride in processions led by the goddess Diana across “great spaces of the earth”. Thurston notes that it was these descriptions of women’s nocturnal travels which were “clearly the cultural forerunner of the witches’ sabbath.”[38] According to these historians therefore, the idea of the witches’ sabbath, along with the similar idea of familiar spirits and the cunning folk’s journey to Fairyland, were not developments of the witch hunters but were genuine visionary traditions amongst the European populace, ones with their origins in pre-Christian religion.


The Obscene Kiss, an illustration of witches kissing the Devil’s anus from Francesco Maria Guazzo’s Compendium Maleficarum (1608).

It was also during the Medieval period that the concept of Satan, the Biblical Devil, began to develop into a more threatening form. Around the year 1000, when there were increasing fears that the end of the world would soon come in Christendom, the idea of the Devil had become prominent, with many believing that his activities on Earth would soon begin appearing. Whilst in earlier centuries there had been no set depiction of the Devil, it was also around this time that he began to develop the stereotypical image of being animal-like, or even in some cases an animal himself. In particular, he was often viewed as a goat, or as a human with goat-like features, such as horns, hooves and a tail. Equally, the concepts of demons began to become more prominent, in particular the idea that male demons known as incubi, and female ones known as succubi, would roam the Earth and have sexual intercourse with humans. As Thurston noted, “By about 1200, it would have been difficult to be a Christian and not frequently hear of the devil … [and] by 1500 scenes of the devil were commonplace in the new cathedrals and small parish churches that had sprung up in many regions.”[39]

In the 14th and 15th centuries, the concept of the witch in Christendom underwent a relatively radical change. No longer were they viewed as sorcerers who had been deceived by the Devil into practicing magic that went against the powers of God, as earlier Church leaders like Saint Augustine of Hippo had stated. Instead they became the all-out malevolent Devil-worshiper, who had made a pact with him in which they had to renounce Christianity and devote themselves to Satanism. As a part of this, they gained, new, supernatural powers that enabled them to work magic, which they would use against Christians. It was believed that they would fly to their nocturnal meetings, known as the Witches’ Sabbath, where they would have sexual intercourse with demons. On their death, the witches’ souls, which then belonged to the Devil, subsequently went to Hell.[40]


Medieval persecution of heresy

Main article: Medieval Inquisition

Whilst the witch trials only really began in the 15th century, with the start of the early modern period, many of their causes had been developing during the previous centuries, with the persecution of heresy by the Medieval Inquisition during the late twelfth and the thirteenth centuries, and during the Late Medieval period, during which the idea of witchcraft or sorcery gradually changed and adapted. The inquisition had the office of protecting Christian orthodoxy against the “internal” threat of heresy (as opposed to “external” military threats such as those of the Vikings, the Mongols, and the Saracens or Turks).

Witches by Hans Baldung Grien (Woodcut, 1508).

During the High Middle Ages, a number of heretical Christian groups, such as the Cathars and the Knights Templar had been accused of performing such anti-Christian activities as Satanism, sodomy and malevolent sorcery in France. While the nucleus of the early modern “witch craze” would turn out to be popular superstition in the Western Alps, reinforced by theological rationale developed at or following the Council of Basel of the 1430s, what has been called “the first real witch trial in Europe”,[41] the accusation of Alice Kyteler in 1324, occurred in 14th-century Ireland, during the turmoils associated with the decline of Norman control.[42]

Thurston (2001) speaks of a shift in Christian society from a “relatively open and tolerant” attitude to that of a “persecuting society” taking an aggressive stance towards minorities characterized as Jews, heretics (such as Cathars and Waldensians), lepers or homosexuals, often associated with conspiracy theories assuming a concerted effort on the part of diabolical forces to weaken and destroy Christianity, indeed “the idea became popular that one or more vast conspiracies were trying to destroy Christianity from within.”[43] An important turning-point was the Black Death of 1348–1350, which killed a large percentage of the European population, and which many Christians believed had been caused by their enemies. The catalog of typical charges that would later be leveled at witches, of spreading diseases, committing orgies (sometimes incestuous), cannibalizing children, and following Satanism, emerged during the fourteenth century as crimes attributed to heretics and Jews.

Witchcraft had not been considered a heresy during the High Medieval period. Indeed, since the Council of Paderborn of 785, the belief in the possibility of witchcraft itself was considered heretical. While witch-hunts only became common after 1400, an important legal step that would make this development possible occurred in 1326, when Pope John XXII authorized the inquisition to persecute witchcraft as a type of heresy.[44]

By the late fourteenth century, a number of “witch hunters” began to publish books on the topic, including Nicholas Eymeric, the inquisitor in Aragon and Avignon, who published the Directorium Inquisitorum in 1376.[45]

Beginning of the witch hunts during the 15th century

1533 account of the execution of a witch charged with burning the German town of Schiltach in 1531

While the idea of witchcraft began to mingle with the persecution of heretics even in the 14th century, the beginning of the witch-hunts as a phenomenon in its own right become apparent during the first half of the 15th century in south-eastern France and western Switzerland, in communities of the Western Alps, in what was at the time Burgundy and Savoy.

Here, the cause of eliminating the supposed Satanic witches from society was taken up by a number of individuals; Claude Tholosan for instance had tried over two hundred people accusing them of witchcraft in Briançon, Dauphiné by 1420.[46]

Soon, the idea of identifying and prosecuting witches spread throughout the neighboring areas of northern Italy, Switzerland and southern Germany, and it was at Basel that the Council of Basel assembled from 1431 to 1437. This Church Council, which had been attended by such anti-witchcraft figures as Johann Nider and Martin Le Franc, helped to standardize the stereotype of the Satanic witch that would be propagated throughout the rest of the trials.[47]

Following the meeting of the Council and the increase in the trials around this area of central Europe, the idea that malevolent Satanic witches were operating against Christendom began spreading throughout much of the Holy Roman Empire and several adjacent areas. According to historian Robert Thurston, “From this heart of persecution the witch stereotype spread, both through a flood of new writings on the subject and through men who had been at the Council of Basel and now went elsewhere to take up new assignments in the church.”[48] The most notable of these works was published in 1486, written by the German Dominican monk, Heinrich Kramer—allegedly aided by Jacob Sprenger—known as the Malleus Malificarum (The Hammer of the Witches) in which they set down the stereotypical image of the Satanic witch and prescribed torture as a means of interrogating suspects. The Malleus Malificarum was reprinted in twenty-nine editions up till 1669.

On December 5, 1484, Pope Innocent VIII issued the Summis desiderantes affectibus, a papal bull in which he recognized the existence of witches and gave full papal approval for the inquisition to move against witches, including the permission to do whatever necessary to get rid of them. In the bull, which is sometimes referred to as the “Witch-Bull of 1484”, the witches were explicitly accused of having “slain infants yet in the mother’s womb” (abortion) and of “hindering men from performing the sexual act and women from conceiving” (contraception).[49]

Peak of the trials: 1580–1630

The height of the European trials was between 1560 and 1630, with the large hunts first beginning in 1609.[3] During this period, the biggest witch trials were held in Europe, notably the Trier witch trials (1581–1593), the Fulda witch trials (1603–1606), the Würzburg witch trial (1626–1631) and the Bamberg witch trials (1626–1631).

In 1590, the North Berwick witch trials occurred in Scotland, and were of particular note as the king, James VI, got involved himself. James had developed a fear that witches planned to kill him after he suffered from storms whilst traveling to Denmark in order to claim his bride, Anne, earlier that year. Returning to Scotland, the king heard of trials that were occurring in North Berwick and ordered the suspects to be brought to him—he subsequently believed that a nobleman, Francis Stewart, 5th Earl of Bothwell, was a witch, and after the latter fled in fear of his life, he was outlawed as a traitor. The king subsequently set up royal commissions to hunt down witches in his realm, recommending torture in dealing with suspects, and in 1597 he wrote a book about the menace that witches posed to society entitled Daemonologie.[50]

Decline of the trials: 1650–1750

Whilst the witch trials had begun to fade out across much of Europe by the mid-seventeenth century, they continued to a greater extent on the fringes of Europe and in the American colonies. In Scandinavia, the late seventeenth century saw the peak of the trials in a number of areas; for instance, in 1675, the Torsåker witch trials took place in Sweden, where seventy-one people were executed for witchcraft in a single day. In the nearby Finland, which was then under the control of the Swedish monarchy, the hunt peaked in that same decade.[3] During the same period, the Salzburg witch trials in Austria led to the death of 139 people (1675–1690).

The clergy and the intellectuals began to speak out against the trials from the late sixteenth century. Johannes Kepler in 1615 could only by the weight of his prestige keep his mother from being burnt as a witch. The 1692 Salem witch trials were a brief outburst of witch hysteria in the New World at a time when the practice was already waning in Europe. In the 1690s Winifred King Benham and her daughter Winifred were thrice tried for witchcraft in Wallingford, Connecticut, the last of such trials in New England. While found innocent, they were compelled to leave Wallingford to settle in Staten Island, New York. [51]

During the early 18th century, the practice subsided. Jane Wenham was among the last subjects of a typical witch trial in England in 1712, but was pardoned after her conviction and set free. The last execution for witchcraft in England took place in 1716, when Mary Hicks and her daughter Elizabeth were hanged. Janet Horne was executed for witchcraft in Scotland in 1727. The Witchcraft Act of 1735 saw the end of the traditional form of witchcraft as a legal offense in Britain, those accused under the new act were restricted to people who falsely pretended to be able to procure spirits, generally being the most dubious professional fortune tellers and mediums, and punishment was light.

Helena Curtens and Agnes Olmanns were the last women to be executed as witches in Germany, in 1738. In Austria, Maria Theresa outlawed witch-burning and torture in the late 18th century; the last capital trial took place in Salzburg in 1750.

Sporadic witch-hunts after 1750

In the later eighteenth century, witchcraft had ceased to be considered a criminal offense throughout Europe, but there are a number of cases which were not technically witch trials which are suspected to have involved belief in witches at least behind the scenes. Thus, in 1782, Anna Göldi was executed in Glarus, Switzerland, officially for the killing of her infant, a ruling at the time widely denounced throughout Switzerland and Germany as judicial murder. Like Anna Göldi, Barbara Zdunk was executed in 1811 in Prussia not technically for witchcraft but for arson.

In Poland, the Doruchów witch trial occurred in 1783 and the execution of additionally two women for sorcery in 1793, trialed by a legal court but with dubious legitimacy.[citation needed]

Despite the official ending of the trials for Satanic witchcraft, there would still be occasional unofficial killings of those accused in parts of Europe, such as was seen in the cases of Anna Klemens in Denmark (1800), Krystyna Ceynowa in Poland (1836), and Dummy, the Witch of Sible Hedingham in England (1863). In France, there was sporadic violence and even murder in the 1830s, with one woman reportedly burnt in a village square in Nord.[52]

In the 1830s a prosecution for witchcraft was commenced against a man in Fentress County, Tennessee, based upon his alleged influence over the health of a young woman. The case against the supposed witch was dismissed upon the failure of the alleged victim, who had sworn out a warrant against him, to appear for the trial. However, some of his other accusers were convicted on criminal charges for their part in the matter, and various libel actions were brought.[4][5][53]

The persecution of those believed to perform malevolent sorcery against their neighbors continued right into the twentieth century. For instance, in 1997 two Russian farmers killed a woman and injured five other members of her family after believing that they had used folk magic against them.[3]

Persecution and sometimes killing of supposed witches still occurs in Sub-Saharan Africa, India, and Papua New Guinea. Saudi Arabia and Cameroon are the only countries that still have legislation outlawing witchcraft, with Saudi Arabia having the death penalty for it.


Examination of a Witch by T. H. Matteson

There were extensive efforts to root out the supposed influence of Satan by various measures aimed at the people who were accused of being servants of Satan. To a lesser degree, animals were also targeted for prosecution: see animal trial. People suspected of being “possessed by Satan” were put on trial. On the other hand, the church also attempted to extirpate the superstitious belief in witchcraft and sorcery, considering it as fraud in most cases.

Regional differences

The evidence required to convict an alleged witch varied from country to country—but prosecutions everywhere were most frequently sparked off by denunciations, while convictions invariably required a confession. The latter was often obtained by extremely violent methods. Although Europe’s witch-frenzy did not begin until the late 15th century—long after the formal abolition of “trial by ordeal” in 1215—brutal techniques were routinely used to extract the required admission of guilt. They included hot pincers, the thumbscrew, and the “swimming” of suspects (an old superstition whereby innocence was established by immersing the accused in water for a sufficiently long period of time). Investigators were consequently able to establish many fantastic crimes that could never have occurred, even in theory. That said, many judicial procedures of the time required proof of a causative link between the alleged act of witchcraft and an identifiable injury, such as a death or property damage.

The flexibility of the crime and the methods of proving it resulted in easy convictions. Any reckoning of the death toll should take account of the facts that rules of evidence varied from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and that a significant number of witch trials always ended in acquittal.

In York, England, at the height of the Great Hunt (1567–1640) one half of all witchcraft cases brought before church courts were dismissed for lack of evidence. No torture was used, and the accused could clear himself by providing four to eight “comparators”, people who were willing to swear that he wasn’t a witch. Only 21% of the cases ended with convictions, and the Church did not impose any kind of corporal or capital punishment.[54]

In the Pays de Vaud, nine of every ten people tried were put to death, but in Finland, the corresponding figure was about one in six (16%). A breakdown of conviction rates (along with statistics on death tolls, gender bias, and much else) can be found in Brian Levack, The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe (2nd ed, 1995).

There are particularly important differences between the English and continental witch-hunting traditions. The checks and balances inherent in the English jury system, which required a 23-strong body (the grand jury) to indict and a 12-strong one (the petit jury) to convict, always had a restraining effect on prosecutions. Another restraining influence was its relatively rare use of torture: the country formally permitted it only when authorized by the monarch, and no more than 81 torture warrants were issued (for all offenses) throughout English history.[55] Continental European courts, while varying from region to region, tended to concentrate power in individual judges and place far more reliance on torture. The significance of the institutional difference is most clearly established by a comparison of the witch-hunts of England and Scotland, for the death toll inflicted by the courts north of the border always dwarfed that of England.[56] It is also apparent from an episode of English history during the early 1640s, when the Civil War resulted in the suspension of jury courts for three years. Several freelance witch-hunters emerged during this period, the most notorious of whom was Matthew Hopkins, who emerged out of East Anglia and proclaimed himself “Witchfinder General”.[57] Such men were inquisitors in all but name, proceeding pursuant to denunciations and torture and claiming a mastery of the supposed science of demonology that allowed for identification of the guilty by, for example, the discovery of witches’ marks.

Interrogation and “proofs”

Burning of three witches in Baden, Switzerland (1585), by Johann Jakob Wick

The malefizhaus of Bamberg, Germany, where suspected witches were held and interrogated. 1627 engraving

Various acts of torture were used against accused witches to coerce confessions and perhaps cause them to name their co-conspirators. The torture of witches began to grow after 1468 when the Pope declared witchcraft to be “crimen exceptum” and thereby removed all legal limits on the application of torture in cases where evidence was difficult to find.[58] With the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum in 1487 the accusations and torture of witches again began to increase, leading to the deaths of thousands.

In Italy, an accused witch was deprived of sleep for periods of up to forty hours. This technique was also used in England, but without a limitation on time.[59] Sexual humiliation torture was used, such as forced sitting on red-hot stools with the claim that the accused woman would not perform sexual acts with the devil.[60]

Besides torture, at trial certain “proofs” were taken as valid to establish that a person practiced witchcraft. Peter Binsfeld contributed to the establishment of many of these proofs, described in his book Commentarius de Maleficius (Comments on Witchcraft).

  • The diabolical mark. Usually, this was a mole or a birthmark. If no such mark was visible, the examiner would claim to have found an invisible mark.
  • Diabolical pact. This was an alleged pact with Satan to perform evil acts in return for rewards.
  • Denouncement by another witch. This was common, since the accused could often avoid execution by naming accomplices.
  • Relationship with other convicted witch/witches
  • Blasphemy
  • Participation in Witches’ Sabbath
  • To cause harm that could only be done by means of sorcery
  • Possession of elements necessary for the practice of black magic
  • To have one or more witches in the family
  • To be afraid during the interrogatories
  • Not to cry under torment (supposedly by means of the Devil’s aid)
  • To have had sexual relationships with a demon (fornicating with the devil)

Legal treatises on witchcraft that were widely referred to in continental European trials include the popular Malleus Maleficarum (1487) by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, the Tractatus de sortilegiis (1536) by Paolo Grillandi and the Praxis rerum criminalium (1554) by Joos de Damhouder.


The sentence generally was death (as Exodus 22:18 states, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”). There were other sentences, the most common to be chained for years to the oars of a ship, or excommunicated then imprisoned.[citation needed]

Nearly always, a witch’s execution involved burning of their body. In England, witches were usually hanged before having their bodies burned and their ashes scattered. In Scotland, the witches were usually strangled at the stake before having their bodies burned—though there are several instances where they were burned alive. In France, witches were nearly always burned alive.[61] In America people convicted of witchcraft were hanged[citation needed] (in a handful of exceptional cases, such as that of Giles Corey at Salem, alleged witches who refused to plead were pressed to death without trial). Most of the victims were never given proper burials, since they had been convicted of witchcraft, they were no longer considered people. They were often laid in unmarked graves.

The frequent use of “swimming” to test innocence or guilt means that an unknown number also drowned prior to conviction.

In A History of Torture, George Ryley Scott says:

The peculiar beliefs and superstitions attached to or associated with witchcraft caused those who were suspected of practising the craft to be extremely likely to be subjected to tortures of greater degree than any ordinary heretic or criminal. More, certain specific torments were invented for use against them.

It has been suggested that the execution of persons associated with witchcraft resulted in the loss of much traditional knowledge and folklore, which was often regarded with suspicion and tainted by association.[62]

Numbers of executions

Ever since the ending of the witch hunt, various scholars have estimated how many men, women and children were executed for witchcraft across Europe and North America, with numbers varying wildly depending on the method used to generate the estimate. In the nineteenth century, historians were still unsure as to the exact number, for instance the German folklorist Jacob Grimm claimed that the number was simply “countless”[63] whilst the Scottish journalist Charles Mackay believed that it was “thousands upon thousands”.[64] Within several decades, the American suffragette Matilda Joslyn Gage had claimed that nine million women had been killed in the European trials, a figure which would be repeated by a number of later writers such as Gerald Gardner, although it has since been described as having “no rational basis whatsoever” by the professional historian Ronald Hutton.[65]

In the latter part of the 20th century, as historians began to study the witch trials in greater depth, the estimated number of executions began to be reduced, with the historian Norman Cohn, in Europe’s Inner Demons (1975) criticizing claims that they were in the hundreds of thousands, calling these “fantastic exaggerations”.[66] Attempting to come to an accurate figure, the historian Brian Levack, author of The Witch Hunt in Early Modern Europe (1987), took the number of known European witch trials and multiplied it by the average rate of conviction and execution. This provided him with a figure of around 60,000 deaths, however, for the third edition of the work (2006) he later reassessed that number to 45,000.[67] This number was criticised as being too low by Anne Llewellyn Barstow, author of Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts (1994)—a work which was derided as un-scholarly and “largely ignored by academics”[68]—who herself arrived at a number of approximately 100,000 deaths by attempting to adjust Levack’s estimate to account for what she believed were unaccounted lost records, although historians have pointed out that Levack’s estimate had already been adjusted for these.

Natura Naturans vs Natura Naturata

Natura naturans is a Latin tag coined during the Middle Ages, meaning “Nature naturing”, or more loosely, “nature doing what nature does”. The Latin, naturans, is the present active participle of naturo, indicated by the suffix “-ans” which is akin to the English suffix “-ing.” naturata, is the perfect passive participle. These terms are most commonly associated with the philosophy of Baruch Spinoza. For Spinoza, natura naturans refers to the self-causing activity of nature, while natura naturata, meaning “nature natured”, refers to nature considered as a passive product of an infinite causal chain. Samuel Taylor Coleridge defined it as “Nature in the active sense” as opposed to natura naturata

Spinoza's house in Rijnsburg from 1661-3, now ...

Spinoza’s house in Rijnsburg from 1661-3, now a museum (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Natura naturata is a Latin term coined in the Middle Ages, mainly used by Baruch Spinoza meaning “Nature natured”, or “Nature already created”. The term adds the suffix for the Latin feminine past participle (-ata) to the verb naturo, to create “natured“. The term describes a passive God, or more specifically, the passivity of God (Substance) when it is predicated into modes, and is contrasted with the second part of Spinoza’s dichotomy, Natura naturans, meaning “nature naturing, or “nature in the active sense”. To Spinoza, Nature and God were the same. (See: Spinoza’s God and Nature.)