The regional variations of the witchcraze in Europe 1580-1640

The European Witchcraze was undoubtedly a reflection of religious conflict, and, equally, wherever there was extensive literature available to the elite on the subject of witches there often followed a surge of witch trials. Countries, which were isolated from religious conflict and influential books notably escaped suffering and in some cases, the witchcraze could even be shaped by powerful individuals who had an interest in promoting witches as scapegoats or even geographic isolation.

Across the continent, Catholics and Protestants were tearing each other apart and secular governments divided the Protestant North and the Catholic South of the Holy Roman Empire. Wars lasting decades followed these divisions such as the Thirty Years war (1618-1648) and the French Wars of Religion (1560-1600), largely as a result of the tension following the Reformation and Counter Reformation.

The heartland of the witchcraze is centred around Germany, Switzerland and eastern France; in fact 20-30,000 of the estimated total of 40,000 persecutions occurred in Germany, the origin of the Reformation which consequently suffered the greatest struggles. At the time, the Holy Roman Empire consisted of over three-hundred different states, each with a different approach to the witchcraze, most widespread ones including Lotharingia where there were over 1000 persecutions and Wi?? rzburg which saw over nine hundred.

Austria and Switzerland but saw approximately five thousand witches tried and in Vienna especially, the witchcraze was linked to the Thirty Years War. In Switzerland, religious conflict is evident in an additional form, as there was a historic burning of Jews in this period. France’s witch trials were mainly isolated to the Pyranees and North-eastern Alps borders between 1580 and 1619 and later, around the 1630s they occurred in Burgundy, Champagne and Languedec, again following the pattern of religious tension.

In contrast, countries that escaped a widespread witchcraze usually had this lack of religious conflict in common, such as the strongly Catholic Italy and Spain, and Ireland, which was both uniformly Catholic and geographically isolated from central Europe. Likewise in Muscovy, a considerable distance from central Europe there was an absence of a Reformation and the western concept of demonic witchcraft scarcely penetrated the world of Orthodox Christianity.

An exception to this pattern is seen in Holland where the Calvinist state was largely unscathed by witch prosecution despite being very much in the forefront of European affairs. The ‘Great Capitalists of Europe’, Holland’s elite seem to be behind the absence of a witchcraze in their country, who realised that any disruption or conflict would be a disaster for trade.

In another anomaly, Muscovy’s avoidance could also be down to elite intervention, or indeed lack of, as its ninety-nine recorded persecutions are perhaps owing to the influence and tyranny of Ivan the Terrible; the elite had no need to assert their power as it was already firmly established. The elite influence over the witchcraze appears in a variety of ways. In periods of unrest, and during times where their authority was perceivably weak, they often used it as a method of asserting power and a scapegoat for reasons behind conflict.