Witchcraft in the Early Modern Period

Article by Chris Baker. Edited by Hamish Rogers. Additional Research by Jack Barnes.

Examination of a Witch- T.H. Mattheson

Witchcraft during the Early Modern Period saw many thousands of people innocently executed for a crime which today is regarded as a very quirky and eccentric superstition.  However, this soon changed and virtually all European nations towards the end of the Early Modern era were starting to move away from the magical phenomenon of witchcraft.  In 1782 Europe saw the last legal execution occur in Glarus, Switzerland, where Anna Goeldi was executed in 1782 after she was convicted of poisoning the eight-year-old daughter of a family she was working for.  This signified the demise of witchcraft throughout Europe, demonstrating the move from what was seen as an undeniable, severely punishable crime towards the complete opposite, an undermined mystical practice.  This drastic change can be attributed to various different factors.

The Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution were two major catalysts for change in Early Modern Europe as they drastically altered various aspects of life throughout the continent, including thoughts towards witchcraft.  The Enlightened philosophers hugely altered the way magic and superstition was perceived, and with the Scientific Revolution bringing new theories and scientific processes to the forefront of the ruling elites’ minds, they soon came to realise belief in witchcraft had no definitive evidence and it could never be proved.  Thus many started to think it could simply be a superstitious fear based on irrationality.  This led to widespread scepticism among the ruling elites.  Many ruling elites turned to enlightened philosophers, such as Isaac Newton to guide them.  He for example thought that ‘evil spirits were the desires of the mind’ showing his disbelief of witchcraft as a supernatural crime.  Other enlightened teachers stated in their teachings that there was no evidence that alleged witches caused real harm, and taught that the use of torture to force confessions was inhumane. This meant that eventually torture became less widely used throughout Europe, and in 1807, Bavaria was one of the last recorded nations to outlaw torture for witchcraft accusations. The outlaw of torture was a huge step towards humanitarianism and compassion, which followed enlightened teachings closely, and demonstrates the significance of the Enlightenment in the decline of witchcraft as torture was usually key to obtaining a prosecution.


Isaac Newton

The enlightenment also had a huge effect on the way people viewed witchcraft from a religious point of view.  Ruling elites sought to help and cure people who were accused of witchcraft instead of punishing them, and sending them for execution.  Thus after the enlightenment many saw witchcraft as a curable disease rather than as a crime, meaning less people sought prosecution and execution, causing its decline.  In addition, belief in the holy spirit and the power of the devil declined and became unfashionable.  It became increasingly fashionable, and a sign of upper-class status, to despise “enthusiasm” and “zeal”’ consequently accounting for the decline in witchcraft prosecutions.

The Scientific Revolution also seemed to dispute and disprove the foundations upon which witchcraft accusations were built upon.  For example, the Scientific Revolution saw new kinds of medical and biological processes develop, showing that it was looking to analyse unproven superstitious beliefs, such as the causes, prevention, and cures of disease.  Superstitious beliefs therefore were challenged, whereas because Scientists backed up their theories with empirical observation, Science was more credible – this meant that the decline in the superstitious belief of witchcraft coincided with the decline in prosecution.

Due to the enlightenment and a significant number of scientific experiments, ruling elites decided to change the judiciary system regarding witchcraft to reflect increased scepticism and the lack of evidence supporting the existence of witchcraft.  Despite this the law was not abandoned until 1736 in England, and instead judges often decided against punishing the accused and increasingly overturned the verdicts of juries who found them guilty.  This was because the judiciary towards the end of the Early Modern period was made up of centrally, city-trained elite lawyers and members of the ruling class whom followed the enlightened teachings, knowing nothing about local disputes and rumours which is what witchcraft accusations hung upon.  These lawyers were also used to a greater extent in the case of the defence and thus because the prosecution of a witch required two pieces of evidence and torture of accused witches became increasingly frowned upon, the well trained defence lawyers often managed to easily beat the prosecution in such trials.  These changes to the judiciary process meant that judges moved from assessing witch crimes of the accused’s morals too their actions instead.  Consequently because there was little or highly disputable evidence, more people managed to avoid punishment, which was usually execution.  These radical changes to the judiciary system were a result of the enlightenment but they were also the major reason why belief in witchcraft reduced and thus the number of witchcraft prosecutions significantly declined during this period.

Punishing Witches

Accusations also dropped because of improved social and living conditions during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  The standard of living throughout the majority of European states, particularly England and France increased dramatically.  This meant because of the increased wealth and prosperity of locals they could afford better sanitation and quality of food, and consequently the spread of disease was curbed and health generally improved.  Consequently the death rate dropped and people lived longer, thus tensions between neighbours and members of the local community were reduced because there was less need to find blame for disease or crop failure. This meant that there was less need to accuse people of witchcraft and so the number of accusations fell.

The reason why the witchcraft phenomenon declined was mainly because of the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution, which caused a huge change in attitudes towards more rational, scientific, disenchanted views of the world including beliefs in scientific theories such as the four humours theory in Biology.  These beliefs became more prevalent as they had evidence to back themselves up making them more believable.  Therefore the ruling elites quickly gave up their belief in witchcraft upon adopting influential enlightened philosophers ideals such as the condemnation of torture for false confessions.  This growing scepticism of witchcraft led to the ruling elites to change the judicial and eventually legal framework regarding witchcraft prosecutions.  Consequently it became increasingly difficult to obtain a prosecution for an accused witch as definitive evidence was now often required, meaning the desire to carry through with the lengthy prosecution process dwindled and thus the lower classes and general population moved away from pursuing witchcraft trials.  They did this because they came to realise it was very difficult to win a trial, meaning prosecutions throughout Europe during this period declined.  This demonstrates the extent to which the ruling elites and the general peasant population differed over their opinions of the social dangers and beliefs in witchcraft.

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