Witchcraft essay

May 25, 2022 Thomas S

An outstanding essay by one of my students

From 1560-1660, it can be stated that the Holy Roman Empire under Charles V was the area in which the majority of witchcraft accusations, trials and executions took place. It was a collective state at the centre of Europe where religious tension, conflict and decentralisation was common to see. Although, it can be classified that the European witch-hunt was essentially a German phenomenon throughout the 16th and 17th centuries; the prominence of witch hunts were a common occurrence more to do with Central Europe rather than specifically the Holy Roman Empire. Witch-hunts were also an overall European phenomenon as well but in places such as the British Isles, Western Europe and the American colonies which were much more insignificant and less of a phenomenon than Central Europe.

Firstly, it can be stated that the Holy Roman Empire is where the witch hunts were most prominent and intense due to its lack of effective centralisation as well as the constant religious turmoil within the state. The beating heart of these trials were primarily in the southern part of Germany in places such as Bamberg, Trier and Wurzburg being where most of these witch hunts occurred. In Bamberg, Prince Bishop Von Dornheim was enacting his plot to establish a ‘godly state’ that would strictly persecute anyone who would dare threaten his position (aimed at targeting Protestants) which resulted in the accusations of nearly 1,000. Similarly in Trier, Johann Von Schonenburg aimed to also persecute minorities who worked alongside his appointed Jesuits and this led to mass persecutions of jewish people, protestants and witches who were all seen as threats to Catholicism during a strictly religious time. The Bamberg trials where the most executions took place, was during the time of the Thirty Years War (1614-1648) where law and order led to centralisation breaking down and this was also during the European Wars of Religion where religious identity was especially important in the Holy Roman Empire. This suspicion and need to root out witchcraft and heresy was seen in the total number executed in the Holy Roman Empire amounting to 20,000 to 25,000 executions. However, in the north of Germany such as in Bavaria there were few people persecuted for actual witchcraft due to the stronger centralisation as well as a stronger judicial system which eventually amounted to a much lesser prosecution rate than the southern heart of the Holy Roman Empire. The idea that the witchcraze throughout Europe was a ‘German Phenomenon’ is only limited by the fact that even if the most deadly persecutions did take place in the Holy Roman Empire, it was specific mainly to the south where the ‘Cultural Borderlands’ was mainly placed with deep divides between protestant and catholics communities (attributed by 1517 Protestant Reformation). Therefore, it can be argued that even if the most severe prosecutions took place within the Holy Roman Empire it cannot be generalised and it is a more specific phenomenon rather than an overall one within the state. This can lead to how Central Europe was actually more of a stronghold of witchcraft than the whole of Germany. 

Moreover, rather than the European witch hunt being more of a German phenomenon it can be argued that it is more of a Central European phenomenon instead as tensions and religious persecution was most seen prominently within the ‘Cultural Borderlands' area. In Switzerland, around 5,000 were executed and in places such as in Pays de Vaud the execution rate hit around 90%. Whereas, in places such as Geneva the execution rate was around 20% due to the strong belief of the Sabbat as well as Switzerland being the centre of intellectual ideas. Similarly in France especially in the Lorraine trials many were tried and convicted quite easily due to the limited judicial structure of Lorraine during the late 1500s and this can be attributed to how decentralised France was during this period because of the wars occurring within Europe at the time. 1,000 were overall executed in France and each of these areas in Central Europe were also bordering parts of Southern Germany where the majority of the hunts took place. This can illustrate that specifically due to the unstable nature of Central Europe it allowed it to make witchcraft more of a Central European phenomenon than a German one. Although, in countries such as Hungary which was also in Central Europe around 450 were executed which is a stark contrast to Switzerland, Southern Germany and France’s numbers. This can be attributed to the lack of western demonological theory which only came into circulation when the peak of European witch trials ended which was during the mid to late 17th century. In Hungary compared to other Central European states, an inquisitorial system was never fully adopted and it preferred to use an accusatorial system instead which led to not as many witchcraft cases being brought up due to the judiciaries limited role in personally convicting supposed witches. Although in Hungary its position was far more isolated and therefore insignificant due to its conception of western demonology being separate and less reliant on the spread of intellectual ideas than in the rest of Central Europe. In turn, it can be stated that Central Europe is where the main phenomenon of witchcraft cases took place rather than the Holy Roman Empire due to the lack of decentralisation and religious divides within the area but even this was highly dependent on the spread of Western demonological theory. 

Finally, it can also be stated that witchcraft being a phenomenon wasn't solely a Central European phenomenon as the concept of witches was much more spread out as a whole in general European society but this was much to a lesser extent. This can be seen in East Anglia where from February 1645-47 around 100 were accused of witchcraft and approximately 20 were executed by hanging and this can be attributed to the instability caused by the English Civil War (1642-1651) which further stirred up tensions between Parliamentary supported Puritans and Royalist supported Catholics. Similarly, in Spain there were about 500 executed most primarily in Catalonia where secular courts were in control leading to more sporadic hunts. This demonstrates that even outside of Central Europe there was still a phenomenon of witchcraft within Europe as these trials came out of a position of religious turmoil and superstition similar to the preconditions of Central Europe and in the Holy Roman Empire. However, England and Spain also had a strong centralised judicial system which insured limited cases of witch trials. Moreover, in places such as in Portugal and the Papal states the inquisitions that had resided within those states had ultimate religious and general authority and strictly opposed concepts such as the Sabbat or general demonological theory. This further shows that generally religious and political conflict was key in attributing to the idea of a Witch Craze Phenomenon and that if there were areas where there was a sense of peacetime or stability then there was little to no chance of witchcraft cases arising to the same degree as in Central Europe. Therefore, it can be stated that even if the witchcraze phenomenon was a part of European society, its impacts and implications were far less significant where centralisation was strong within a state such as in England before the Civil War as well as in Southern Europe as well.

In conclusion, it can be regarded that the idea of the European witch-hunt was overall a more Central European phenomenon than a German one but there were still some major hunts that occurred on the outskirts of Europe as well as in the British Isles. But these hunts were far less significant due to the fact that they had a strong judicial system that limited those who were tortured and the evidence being used to accused as well as not being implicit in religious conflict. In Central Europe, there was a much higher prosecution and conviction rate than the whole of Germany and this was mainly pinned down to the religious divides within the area as a whole.


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