The Salem Witch Trials of the 1690s are, perhaps, the best known example of the “witch panics” that seized Early Modern Europe and its colonies.  Despite being popularized by Arthur Miller as an analogy for the escalating paranoia and metaphorical witch hunts of his own day, they have come to represent, in the collective modern imagination, the backwards credulity of people in the pre-modern Back Then.  History, however, as it so often is, proves to be more complex than a simple “benighted, superstitious past/enlightened, sensible present” dichotomy.

Europe undeniably saw an uptick in witch trials and executions over the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, resulting in an estimated fifty to sixty thousand executions of accused witches between the years 1560 and 1680.[1]  That said, the people of Early Modern Europe were hardly of one mind on the matter.  Among the skeptics, Johann Weyer, a German physician of the mid-sixteenth century, stands out for his insistence that the vast majority of alleged witches were, in fact, “stupid, worn-out, unstable old women,”[2] and that they should be treated as mentally ill and dangerous only to themselves, rather than as criminals.[3]

The Essex minister George Gifford is another well-preserved sixteenth-century witch skeptic, who maintained that witchcraft and the fear thereof was not a failing of the mind so much as the spirit.  Witchcraft, he argued, was but “the fantasies of mans minds” planted by the Devil in those who lacked sufficient faith and trust in God’s providence.[4]  Rather than “condemn many innocent persons because you beleeve the devil, and imagine that witches can do that which they cannot do,”[5] Gifford instructed his readers to “heare the voyce of God . . . and to be armed with the faith to resist [Satan].”[6] Although they share a theological tradition, Gifford differs greatly from his New England counterparts of a century later, seeming to argue that the solution to witchcraft is not to prosecute it but to ignore it, for it exists but in the imagination.

Going further, the Reginald Scot took pains in his 1584 treatise The Discoverie of Witchcraft to expose “witchmongers” as hucksters who set out “to pursue the poore, to accuse the simple, and to kill the innocent.”[7]  Where Weyer and Gifford allowed for the supernatural, albeit in narrower forms than their opponents, Scot dismissed the fear of witchcraft, spirits, and other supernatural threats as rooted in confirmation bias, noting that random misfortune can easily but erroneously attributed to the idle curses of disgruntled town vagrants and oddballs,[8] and superstition fostered and encouraged in the gullible by unscrupulous religious authorities.[9]  Ironically, Scot’s book enjoyed a renewed popularity in the middle of the seventeenth century on account of the detailed instructions for charms and illusions he had included in order to debunk, but which would-be magicians of the Stuart era took at face value,[10] but this resurgence has brought us this most groundbreaking and comprehensive manifesto of witch skepticism.

These three cannot be taken as anomalies, but as representatives of a skeptical minority active in pre-modern European society.  Indeed, in the introduction of his 1597 treatise Daemonologie, King James I and VI cites both Scot and Weyer by name as principal purveyors of “damnable opinions,” namely “to deny, that ther can be such a thing as Witch-craft.”[11]  James himself was writing over a hundred years after Heinrich Kramer published his landmark manual on witch hunting and prosecution, the Malleus Maleficarum, in which he complained that “certain people have tried to claim that there is no sorcery in the world except in the opinion of humans, who ascribe to sorcerers natural effects whose causes are unknown,”[12] indicating that no consensus on witchcraft had been reached in the intervening century.

For all this debate, there was pressure on civil authorities to address what was believed by many of their constituents, and indeed many of their agents, to be a real danger from witchcraft.  That said, the measures taken do not typically resemble the horror stories of the witch panics of Salem, Trier, and Bamberg.  In light of the perceived danger to the “persons and goodes of the queenes subjects” from “the wicked offences of conjurations and invocations of evill spirits, and of sorceries, enchauntments, charmes and witchcrafts,” the English Parliament passed an act in 1563 formally criminalizing magic used to kill, wound, damage property, or compel any other person to do so or fall in love, as well as “to tel or declare in what place anie treasure of gold or silver should or might be found or had, in the earth or other secret places, or where goods or things lost, or stolen, should bee found or become.”[13]  It is notable that, with the exception of divining objects, the applications of witchcraft forbidden in the act are all mundanely criminal, the Elizabethan state being less concerned with strange notions than with maintaining safety and order on as many fronts as possible.  Furthermore, the text of the act stresses that its punishments, ranging from execution (by hanging, rather than the stereotypical burning) to the forfeiture of property to a year’s imprisonment, may only be meted out once a suspect has been “lawfullie convicted and attainted,” setting it in sharp contrast to the extreme examples of flash-in-the-pan witch panics.

Even with laws on the books, civil authorities were not always quick to prosecute alleged witches.  For one thing, the complaints of writers from the period suggest that the Witchcraft Act of 1563 was not especially widely or uniformly enforced.[14]  Going even further, during a spate of witch trials in the Val Camonica in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, Venetian authorities actively restrained zealous witch-hunters, arresting clerics who overstepped their bounds, dismissing the inquisitor of the region, and in some cases presaging Weyer, Gifford, and Scot by openly denying that any witchcraft had taken place at all and insisting that the people of the valley were merely simple, ignorant, but largely harmless folk.[15]

None of this is to deny that the majority of people in Early Modern Europe believed in witches.  They did.  Nor is it to deny that witch trials and witch panics occurred and led to the deaths of many innocent people.  They did.  Rather, the goal here has been to show that Early Modern attitudes towards witchcraft were not monolithic.  The people of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, just like the people of the twenty first century and every other century, were dynamic and diverse, had the capacity for critical thought, and shaped the attitudes and beliefs of their eras just as much as they were shaped by them.




Michael Lowry Lamble holds an MA in Medieval and Renaissance History, with a secondary concentration in Early Modern European History, from Loyola University Chicago and a BA in History, with minors in Classics and Religious Studies, from Northwestern University.  His academic interests include religion, conflict, and identity, as well as historical oddballs of all sorts.  In GSM-Bristol, he carries pike, fires shotte, and portions out gunpowder.

[1] Carlos M. N. Eire, Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650, (Yale University Press, 2016), 638.

[2] On Witchcraft: An Abridged Translation of Johann Weyer’s De Praestigiis Daemonum, ed. Benjamin Kohl and H. C. Erik Midelfort, trans. John Shea (Pegasus Press, 1998), 96.

[3] Eire, Reformations, 641-642.

[4] George Gifford, A Dialogue Concerning Witches and Witchcrafts, (London, 1603), 113.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid, 114.

[7] Reginald Scot, The Discoverie of Witchcraft, ed. A. Clark (London, 1665), vii.

[8] Ibid, 5-6.

[9] Ibid, 12-13.

[10] S. F. Davies, “The Reception of Reginald Scot’s Discovery of Witchcraft: Witchcraft, Magic, and Radical Religion,” Journal of the History of Ideas 74, no. 3 (2013): 393.

[11] James I and VI, Daemonologie, In Forme of a Dialogue, (London, 1603), iii-iv.

[12] Heinrich Kramer, Malleus Maleficarum, 44, trans. Christopher Mackay, vol. 2, The English Translation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 44.

[13] Witchcraft Act “An Act Against Conjurations, Enchantments, and Witchcraft,” in A Collection in English, of the Statutes now in force, continued from the beginning of Magna Charta, made in the 9. Yeere of the reigne of King H. 3. Yntill the ende of the Parliament holden in the 35. Yeere of the reigne of our gratious Queene Elizabeth (London 1594), 66.

[14]Barbara Rosen, “Laws and Punishments,” in Witchcraft, ed. Barbara Rosen (London: Edward Arnold, 1969), 51.

[15] Stephen Bowd, “‘Honeyed Flies’ and ‘Sugared Rats’: Witchcraft, Heresy, and Superstition in the Bresciano, 1454-1535,” in The Religion of Fools? Superstition Past and Present ed. S. A. Smith and Alan Knight (Oxford: Oxford Journals, 2008), 150-151.