The Decline and End of Witch Trials in Europe
In 1684, Alice Molland was sent to the gallows in Exeter and became the last witch to be executed in England. Scotland closed its account with Janet Horne in 1722 while trials wound down across Europe. However, it would not be until 1782 that the last witch to be legally executed met her fate at Glarus in Switzerland. But by the late 17th century witch trials were already reasonably rare occurrences even in the same localities where, in the earlier part of that century, the greatest hunts had taken place. The crime itself was extinguished in France by royal edict in 1682, repealed in England in 1736 and abolished in Poland as late as 1776. However, the decline in trials and hunts did not necessarily presage a corresponding decline in the belief in witches just as their start did not correspond to any increase. Belief is a notoriously hard thing to measure, but almost all societies appear to have some tradition of witches and fear of magic has been nearly universal. The questions about witches in early modern Europe are not so much why people believed in them at that time and place, but why that belief manifested itself into the hunts and executions. The purpose of this essay, therefore, is to examine the reasons that trials for the crime of witchcraft, from being relatively common before 1650, had, across Europe, become a rarity fifty years later and had died out altogether within another century. This rapid decline and then extinction is at least as puzzling as the widespread appearance of the phenomena in the first place at the end of the fifteenth century. Witch trials only became common during the Renaissance and the fiercest hunts took place in the 1620s and 1630s in German speaking areas. Contrary to popular belief, they were not a phenomenon of the Middle Ages. Although magical belief and practice were just as common during this earlier period, they did not often lead to trials, let alone executions.
Until recently popular views of this subject were confused both by the agendas of rationalists who wanted to find examples of superstition and by neo-pagans seeking their own foundation myth. The “Burning Times”, when, according to the most extreme polemicists, nine million women lost their lives after dreadful torture, has become an essential part of neo-paganism’s self identity. They also had Margaret Murray to assure them that witches really were the survivors of the old religion that neo-pagans were continuing in the present day [NOTE]. Murray’s thesis of the existence of a pre-Christian fertility cult remains influential outside the academy but, despite seeming to have gained some support from Carlo Ginzberg’s work on the benandanti who do appear to have had some of the attributes of a religious cult, it is dismissed by noted modern authority Robin Briggs as having “just enough marginal plausibility to be hard to refute completely, yet is almost wholly wrong.” [NOTE]. This reassessment of the myth of the Burning Times has even reached neo-paganism’s own scholarship [NOTE] which is challenging the idea that the validity of their religion depends on its antiquity. Meanwhile, estimates of the total number of executions over three centuries has shrunk to about 60,000 or so [NOTE] which is of a similar order of magnitude to what the Jacobins managed in just three years of terror during the French Revolution.
There is very little agreement about the reasons for the end of witch trials and the scholars have tended each to be an advocate for their own ideas based on the study of particular localities rather than trying a more synoptic approach to bring some order to the myriad of available suggestions. It is not even clear whether we are looking for some new causes that helped end witch trials or simply the absence of whatever it was that had started them in the first place. So, if we could identify the conditions that brought about the trials, the subsequent decline might simply be explained by their later disappearance. An example of this would be the religious confusion and violence of the Reformation that had largely worked itself out after the Treaty of Westphalia in the mid-seventeenth century. It has also been widely noticed that hunts tended to take place in areas and periods where central control had largely broken down or during interregnums between regimes. For example, the activities of Matthew Hopkins took place in the chaos of the English Civil War, the Great Hunt in Scotland in 1661 when English justices were replaced, and even the Salem of 1692 outbreak occurred in a temporary vacuum of authority. When control was restored, goes this theory, the witch hunts largely ceased. On the other hand, the original causes might long since have been removed without their effects likewise disappearing so that the decline of witch trials will be brought about by entirely different means. Examples frequently cited are the rise of secular rationalism or social trends that led to the discounting of devilry. It has been suggested that witchcraft simply became too old hat for the intelligentsia of the early Enlightenment to countenance and that they were wont to sneer at such outdated nonsense so as to reassure themselves of their own intellectual superiority.
A good deal of recent work has concentrated on the social reasons for witchcraft accusations and has looked for the causes of both their rise and fall at a local level. For instance, Alan MacFarlane and Keith Thomas set out a complex web of interactions between vulnerable single women and other villagers motivated by guilt [NOTE]. They suggested that the full implementation of the Poor Laws sufficiently alleviated the situation so that the accusations ceased. While their careful research of depositions suggests they have accurately portrayed the mechanism by which social tensions manifested themselves, I do not think that they have explained why, at that particular place and time, it should be through witchcraft accusations. The era of the witch trials was one of great change and disruption but we must not forget that it was bracketed by the disastrous fourteenth century and the enormous social upheavals of enclosure and the industrial revolution. Any social explanation for witch hunts has to be specific enough to differentiate between the early modern period and those on each side of it, while also being general enough to apply to much of Europe over two centuries. The commonalties of witch beliefs are greater enough to make having lots of different social explanations for different environments unconvincing. For this reason I will be looking for general reasons for the decline that can be applied across Europe rather than seeking an individual cause for each locale.
By a witch, I mean someone who is believed to have received magical power by some form of diabolical means. The diabolical source of this power is important because the mentality of most Christian intellectuals allowed only the devil as a source of supernatural power, except of course from God, and it led witchcraft to be viewed in much the same way as heresy. The connection between diabolism and magic is found in the documents of the Christian elite including, most famously, the Malleus Malificium (1486) of Kramer and Sprenger, but has an older provenance. The straightforward dichotomy between God and the devil was already present in late antiquity with the labelling of all pagan gods as demons but once they had been seen off, the church took a more sceptical attitude. Belief in magic was considered to be a sin but consequently actually practising it was nothing more than delusion. This attitude is very much an intellectual one and reflects the continuing rejection of most forms of supernatural belief by theologians even when witchcraft was accepted. That is to say that rather than believing in the innate potency of ritual magic or in nature spirits, they insisted that God and the devil were the only possible agencies for magical or miraculous power. This was not just a question of theology but also arose from the Aristotelian paradigm of natural science that had no room for spirits, magic or other such phenomena. We should note, however, that the word ‘magic’ was also used in medieval works like the Speculum Astronomiae of St Albertus Magnus to describe certain legitimate natural practices. Later, the hermetic systems that became popular during the Renaissance did allow for spirits and angels to be summoned so consequently their practitioners were always vulnerable to accusations of devilry. This ambiguity about what was and was not acceptable remained a feature of intellectual debate throughout the Middle Ages and Early Modern period with both sides using magic to make their own polemical points. In the late seventeenth century we find Joseph Glanvill and Henry More, representing learned science and theology, defending the belief in witchcraft against occultist and radical sectarian John Webster [NOTE]. Webster is keen to deny diabolic involvement in great part because he does not want his own ‘natural magic’ to be confused with witchcraft while Glanville and More are defending the mechanistic new philosophy which, like Aristotelianism, insists all magic must be supernatural - and that can only mean God or the devil.
At a popular level, beliefs about the supernatural were far more varied and indeed, one of the only commonalties appears to be that they did not involve the devil, at least without prompting from educated interrogators. MacFarlane mentions that the devil hardly figured at all in the depositions to the Essex assizes and in other English cases, he makes few appearances even in confessions [NOTE]. Elsewhere, especially in confessions under torture, diabolic themes are much more prevalent. This seems likely to have been due to the use of torture, together with leading questions, causing the defendants to start echoing the more learned views of their prosecutors. Restrictions in space make a discussion of how witch trials started impossible here, but it seems likely that a key factor was the overlaying of the elite mentality of diabolism and its associated perversions onto the pre-existing magical beliefs and social tensions among the people. This had happened before with the heretics of the Middle Ages when much of what was believed about them came from ancient authorities rather than their actual activities. It was the combination of learned thought with real factors on the ground (as there really were heretics and people claiming magical powers) that turned deadly.
Many, but by no means all, so-called witches seem to have been healers, wise women and cunning men who previously would have been of no interest to the higher clergy or secular legal authorities. If they were brought before any authority it would tend to be the local church court that would prescribe some penance like walking around the parish wearing sackcloth. The village healers indulged in a wide variety of ritual magic, healing or mediation with spirits but they had little or no idea of any theory attached to these actions. In other words, to the lower orders, magic was a question of practice while to the elite it was something that required explanation with the devil usually the only explanation available.
The topography of the decline in trials and executions strongly suggests there were two distinct phases. The first phase, which takes place from the first half of the seventeenth century, is a large falling of in the number of accusations and a corresponding decrease in the proportion of capital convictions obtained. Thomas states that the large majority of executions in England had already taken place by 1620 [NOTE] and in Spain the Basque hunt marks the end of large scale prosecutions. Appeals heard by the Parlement of Paris after about 1610 show a large reduction in the number of capital sentences that were confirmed and after about 1630 an equally precipitous drop in the number of cases heard (even though all witchcraft cases at this time were subject to automatic appeal to Paris) [NOTE]. The pattern is repeatedly seen in almost all localities although the time scales are often different. The last hunt in Scotland took place 1661 – 2, large-scale scares continued to claim many lives in parts of Germany through the 1630s but became much rarer thereafter. This is not the end of the prosecution of witches - that continued even with sporadic outbursts of panic - but it is rather the normalisation of the crime as it fades into the background of early modern life.
The second phase is the complete cessation or abolition of prosecutions for witchcraft and this tends to take place in the eighteenth century. It can either take the form of a gradual petering out; some form of legislative act such as Louis XIV’s decree extinguishing the crime after a poisoning plot panic; or the English Act of Parliament abolishing it in 1736 [NOTE]. Often, it had become impossible to secure a conviction before the crime itself was removed from the statute book. It seems extremely likely that in looking for causes we must treat these two phases as separate events to be handled individually and that consequently we will not find any single reason for the end of witch trials.
Explaining the decline of witch trials and executions
Under Roman law, to achieve a capital conviction required a full proof consisting of material evidence, witnesses of good standing or a free confession. Torture could be used to extract a confession if sufficient partial proofs had been accumulated but the defendant had to repeat themselves after they recovered and then again in court. Even if they later retracted their confession they were not supposed to be put to the question again [NOTE]. English common law forbade the use of torture in criminal cases altogether unless with the permission of the privy council (effectively meaning only for treason) but had similar systems of evidences and proofs of witchcraft as codified by William Perkins [NOTE]. In the case of witches, material evidence was usually lacking, as the village healers did not go in for the kind of occult paraphernalia that characterised higher magic. It is also hard to see how the social interactions thought to lead to the initial accusation by Thomas and Briggs could give rise to witnesses able to say they had caught the witch casting a spell red handed, let alone flying through the air. That said, when a witness was produced before the dubious English judge Sir John Powell, declaring that the defendant had been seen travelling on her broomstick, his lordship is said to have dryly remarked that there was no law against flying (sadly the provenance of the story is doubtful [NOTE]). In short, to get a capital conviction if the proper procedures were followed was extremely difficult.
That is not to say that one could not be punished in other ways where the proof was deficient and the grounds of suspicion that could lead to the application of torture were considerably wider. Simply having a bad local reputation could land someone in a lot of official trouble. This was due to an important reform in the legal system in the late Middle Ages when the accusatio was gradually replaced with the inquisitio. To modern ears this immediately summons up images of the Inquisition although it was secular rather than clerical courts and certainly not papal inquisitors that were responsible for the vast majority of fatal witch trials. When before the Inquisition, a confession and willingness to do penance was always supposed to be sufficient to avoid the death penalty for a first offence while no such leeway existed in most secular courts [NOTE]. Instead, iniquisitio was a method of legal proceedings used in all courts outside England which dropped the dependence on an accuser to bring a complaint. The accuser (who could be punished himself if the defendant was acquitted) was replaced by an inquirer whose role was slowly taken over by professional magistrates. This inquirer was expected to investigate matters brought to their attention or the subject of rumour, and was equipped with various powers to enable them to do so. Once they had a case it was presented before a court for consideration and sentence. Provided the procedures were followed and the magistrate was fair and competent, this was a huge improvement over the system of personal accusation and trial by ordeal that preceded it.
But it is clear that during the great hunts the rules were not followed. Torture was liberally applied and the atmosphere was one of siege where it was felt the circumstances demanded extreme action. It is interesting to note that the Matthew Hopkins episode, where pseudo-torture such as sleep deprivation and ‘pricking’ was used, was the closest example to a full-scale continental witch hunt that occurred in England. The most prolific hunters tended to be lay magistrates and middle ranking clerics of some education while in the higher and appeal courts such as at Paris the conviction rate was much lower, mainly because the sense of panic was absent, torture kept to the statutory limits and evidence examined with a cooler eye [NOTE]. The actual abolition of torture took place too late in most jurisdictions to have had a significant effect on reducing convictions of witches [NOTE]. Neither was it the case that most senior judges denied the very possibility of witchcraft for if they had it is hard to see how they could have countenanced any executions at all. Rather, they were removed from the panic on the ground so they could take a more objective and professional stance. It was not just lawyers who could become more lenient as they became more expert in their subjects. In Geneva, when the devil’s mark became an accepted form of evidence, the city’s surgeons were delegated to carry out the examination. However, no doubt as a result of having seen a huge range of moles, growths and boils on patients of unimpeachable character, they simply refused to be drawn as to whether a particular lump was of diabolic or purely natural origin. This made a capital prosecution almost impossible and only one witch was executed after 1625 [NOTE].
So the reduction of witch trials from epidemic to endemic proportions requires little else than the assertion of central control over convictions to ensure the legal forms were being adhered to and that local courts could not execute people without sufficient evidence. This central control could be achieved either through allowing appeals to higher courts (or even making them mandatory) or else by ensuring the proper training and oversight of local magistrates. In particular, the strict controls over the use of torture had to be reinstated, notwithstanding the status of witchcraft as a crimen exceptum (an exceptional crime) in most states, and confessions achieved through torture treated with the necessary scepticism. In either case, this was extremely difficult during times of political upheaval, which explains the prevalence of hunts in the areas of the Holy Roman Empire most affected by the fragmentation of control up to the Thirty Years War and the same situation in France during the Wars of Religion. Although war itself distracted from witch trials as they were no longer the most pressing concern, the feelings of uncertainty and insecurity engendered by possible conflict could increase them.
At first sight, the abuse of judicial process was not so prevalent in England and a crack down on the use of torture can hardly explain anything in a jurisdiction in which torture was not used. The reasons for the hotspots of witch prosecutions in Essex and Lancashire also remain a mystery now that the theory of proxy persecutions of religious minorities has been called into question. It is ironic that English witch trials faded at much the time that a king who was personally interested in them came to the throne. The North Berwick trials and his publication of Demonologie (1597) suggest that when he became James I of England, he would have been as concerned in his new realm as he was in his old. Perhaps the events surrounding the state opening of Parliament in 1605 focused his mind on more concrete threats to the royal person. The constant danger from Spain that was present during the rule of Elizabeth, as well as fears about the succession, might well have contributed to an atmosphere that encouraged trials. The ascension of James solved the later problem as well as closing off Scotland as a bridgehead for foreign invaders. While the lack of judicial torture in England made witch prosecutions more difficult, the use of juries of laymen probably had the opposite effect. Whereas in the higher continental courts, the entire trial process, including reaching a verdict, was in the hands of professionals, in England a conviction had to be obtained through a jury of commoners (although they were landowners and burghers) who were often more credulous than the judge. The judge did have a considerable ability to influence the juror and, as he was a professional travelling around the circuit, could considerably reduce the number of convictions. In the mid-seventeenth century guides like Robert Filmer’s An Advertisement to the Jurymen of England Touching Witches (1653) and reprints of Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witches (1584) were used as guides to the evidence that took a much more sceptical line than Perkins’ effort. But the jury could also reach a verdict of guilty no matter what directions came from the bench as happened during the last successful prosecution in England in 1712 [NOTE].
Rationalism and the final end of the witch trials
By 1700, witch trials had become rare things across much of Europe although they remained reasonably common in Poland until 1725 [NOTE]. When they did occur, they excited a good deal of interest and usually ended with the liberty of the witch. The position of even the lower judiciary was now that maleficia was extremely hard to prove and it was not acceptable to accept lower standards of evidence simply because the crime was so serious. But from time to time, for one reason or another, a conviction was achieved and the statutory punishment was usually death. There were ways around this, such as the judge in England’s last case personally and successfully petitioning for a royal pardon for the accused in 1712 but even ten years after that the Scots executed Janet Horne [NOTE].
Positivist historians have long looked upon the end of witch trials as victory for rationalism over superstition. Michael de Montaigne’s scepticism about reports of witchcraft and the veracity of confessions in his essay On the Lame (1588) is a popular example of Renaissance humanism. However, closer examination of the rationalists has frequently found them to be something of a disappointment for their champions who do not share their mentality. Learned sceptics are often advocates of a mystical or hermetic point of view and are seeking to defend magic from the taint of diabolism rather than claiming that it is impossible. The best known sixteenth century critic of witch trials, Johann Weyer, was a pupil of the great neo-Platonist magician Cornelius Agrippa as well as being a radical Protestant. In his De praestigiis daemonum (1583), Weyer was completely orthodox in his belief in devils and his condemnation of almost any kind of magical practice, but just did not think it was the kind of thing that old ladies got up to. His English contemporary, Reginald Scot appears at first sight to be more conducive to the views of modern sceptics, but on closer examination his thought also turns out to be almost entirely a function of his Puritan theology [NOTE]. A century later John Webster had a remarkably similar outlook as he too is a sectarian and defender of alchemy. The argument was between, on one side Aristotelians and their heirs, the mechanical philosophers, and on the other neo-Platonists and hermetists. As we have seen, it was usually the former, with what we might call the more scientific attitude, who defended belief in witchcraft. This causes a serious problem for traditional explanations for the end of witch trials as there is almost nobody whose particular bundle of motivations and beliefs are entirely comfortable to positivist sensibilities. There certainly is a rise in scepticism as Glanville and More (who was a mechanistic Platonist and thus demonstrates the impossibility of fitting anyone’s beliefs into a neat box) are both keen to combat it but, as far as the positivist is concerned, it is not always the right people being sceptics. Likewise, Cotton Mather manages to receive both execration and exoneration for his conduct in the Salem witch trials and later his work on smallpox immunisation. Even a bona fide freethinker like Thomas Hobbes thought that it was justified to convict someone of witchcraft if they had knowingly tried to carry out malefacia even if they were incapable of it [NOTE].
The pamphlet wars give us some idea of the motivations of both sides of the argument. Defenders of the belief in witches, such as Sir Thomas Browne in Religio Medici (1634), seemed more worried about atheists than the devil. Similarly, in Saducismus Triumphantus (1681), Glanvill did not appear to be so much concerned about witchcraft being a serious threat to life and limb, especially after his careful investigations revealed rather feeble examples, but instead that a denial of the witch was a big step towards the denial of all religion. Even a hundred years later John Wesley had much the same concerns saying “giving up witchcraft is in effect giving up the bible” [NOTE]. Clearly the intention of these writers is not the same as earlier demonologists like Jean Bodin. So, while Cotton Mather’s The Wonders of the Invisible World (1693) fits the bill as a the work of old fashioned cleric, seeing devils under the bed, convinced there is a vast diabolical conspiracy that justifies desperate retaliatory measures, many of the learned defenders had a much narrower interest. Ultimately it was these learned men, who simply did not care about old women and their muttered curses, who had to be won around for the prosecutions to stop altogether. What eventually defeated the likes of More and Glanville was the same thing that has invalidated so many of the last ditch defences conducted in the name of religion. There are always a few people who become fixated on a piece of doctrine and insist that the world will be imperilled by giving it up. This happened over the movement of the earth and is happening today over women priests. But once the dogma has in fact been dropped de facto despite the protestations of its defenders, it usually becomes clear that the terrible consequences of which they warned have not come to pass and a new generation has no concerns about amending the writ to conform with practice. Essentially, most people were able to see that the church could sail serenely on despite the loss of an occasional doctrine and that its problems were rather more fundamental than just a matter of believing in witches.
While the contention of some scholars that there was a wholesale withdrawal of the elite from popular culture seems to me to be thrown into doubt by the enormous unifying effect of the English bible, it is true that certain beliefs can drop out of ‘high’ culture – especially when they become associated with vulgarity or lack of sophistication. In late seventeenth century England this happened to nearly all magical ideas as the New Philosophy became the in-thing. While actually understanding the scientific results of Boyle or Newton was beyond most people, anyone could attack the superstitions of peasants and thus reassure themselves of their membership of the intelligentsia. Just as the learned ideas about the devil were absorbed by the middling classes who then put them into practice by hunting witches, so the New Philosophy, percolating into the middle class consciousness, helped instil them with scepticism. Even those who were willing to accept the existence of witches in principle did not feel they could countenance any specific examples. As Joseph Addison wrote in the Spectator in 1711 “I believe in general that there is and has been such a thing as witchcraft; but at the same time can give credit to no particular instance of it” [NOTE].
To actually abolish the crime required more than the belief that proof was difficult to obtain. The twin pillars of witchcraft were maleficia and the pact with the devil - both aspects needed to be dealt with. Witchcraft had to be thought impossible (in the case of maleficia) and irrelevant (in the case of the pact with the devil). Belief in magic was largely absent from the elite long before the existence of the devil himself was being denied although he was becoming a spiritual being whose abilities were far more limited than they had been in the past. He could not really do anything miraculous but only foster illusions in the gullible. Eventually, his power became merely the ability to tempt Christians into sin by mental suggestion and so his threat was but a moral challenge. It is also possible that the near complete lack of any solid evidence for devil worship finally began to make itself felt and that consequently fears of a fifth column in the midst of society faded but they would reappear from time to time, most recently in Orkney and Rochdale in the 1991. Neutering Satan and turning him into a more transcendent figure is often ascribed to Protestantism although Luther himself claims he suffered many physical encounters with the devil who threw excrement at him. Whatever the causes, the devil faded from view and this turned the question of what to do about his alleged disciples into a purely religious matter.
The process was a drawn out one that should perhaps be studied in parallel with the decline of heresy and blasphemy as a crime against the state. This slowly faded as the eighteenth century wore on although there were isolated prosecutions, such as the La Barre case of 1766 in France made famous by Voltaire [NOTE]. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries there might simply have been a change in the jurisdiction for witch trials from secular to ecclesiastical courts but during the seventeenth century heresy had gradually ceased to be seen as a crime deserving temporal punishment and the church courts could no longer expect the secular arm to carry out their orders. Even in countries which retained strong church courts, most especially Spain and Portugal, sentences became lighter as the eighteenth century progressed with a return to the medieval idea of penance and reconciliation rather than punishment. The stalemate that had ended the wars between Catholics and Protestants, coupled with the fostering of national over religious identity, meant the ideals of tolerance expressed as early as Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) were finally implemented. This is not to say that atheism or devil worship were socially acceptable, but rather that if a man or woman minded their own business and kept their views quiet, nobody would hunt them down. Essentially ones private religion became a private matter and, as long as one did not cause a public disturbance, the public sphere had little interest.
Witchcraft is an imaginary crime. It has, as Robin Briggs says, a hole in the middle which demonologists were able to fill with their speculations [NOTE]. They were then able to persuade others, including the actual accused, of the veracity of these ideas. As Briggs says, after Alasdair MacIntyre, a rational thought is one that coheres with the thoughts around it and, to the mentality of the demonologists and enough of those around them, their writings made perfect sense. We do not need to call them superstitious charlatans to say that they were wrong. A defendant, accused of a non-existent crime, should expect that any effective legal process will find them not guilty and in witch trials this is eventually what happened. It remained possible that someone could (and perhaps should) be convicted if, believing they have the power, they bewitched a person who then conveniently started to ail, but this will be a very rare case.
Renaissance magicians never won their argument with the demonologists as they were both swept aside by the intellectual changes of the seventeenth century. The devil found himself relegated to the role assigned for him by Milton in Paradise Lost (1667) as a tempter who must rely on God to effect any real change. Milton also gives us an idea of the penetration of the New Philosophy, although he hardly approves of it, with his running joke about the configuration of the solar system and Raphael’s admonition of Adam for being too curious about the heavens. To the New Philosophers, the rhetorical purpose of a defence of witchcraft was completely different to that of the earlier demonologists, which shows how attitudes had already changed. Perhaps the decline of the trials taking place without the world being overwhelmed by devilry had made the issue seem less urgent. On the same note, once it became clear that most people were already sceptical about witches and this had not led to a collapse of the Christian religion, intellectuals had no further use for witchcraft except for English Tories who wanted to do a bit of Whig baiting. As moral and religious matters were assigned more to the private than the public sphere, a pact with the devil ceased to be a crime against the state and maleficia ceased to be anything at all.
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© James Hannam 2003.