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In the 15th century, especially after 1560, the prosecution of witches increased greatly in Europe. This Article will be investigating the main factors, which contributed to this increase.   Therefore the particular areas of interest are the Reformation that happened in Europe, the fanatical side of the religious reformists, the principality problems of Germany and the separate fractions it had in Germany and its decentralisation. Finally I will be exploring the European obsession with purity and the depiction of women and its role in the increase of prosecutions of Witches in Europe.

[1]During the 15th century, there was a transitional religious movement from Catholic Christianity towards Protestantism, in Europe. Two important people from the protestant sect were Martin Luther and Jean Calvin. They were obsessed with the devil and idealised purity. This movement towards Protestantism created different fractions within Europe which lead to many religious wars. Jean Calvin was an extremely fanatical Protestant who had very radical ideas such as “the witches must be slain”. Both the Calvinists and Lutherans set up monasteries and missionaries so were able to help who needed it and in addition enable them to spread their message[2]. Both Luther and Calvin agreed with the conduct of Witch-craft prosecution and the conduct of trials. Even the Holy Scripture also mentioned to punish witches by death “thou shall not suffer a witch to live” (Exodus 22:18) [3]. The increase of witch prosecutions in Europe was partially to blame on the Reformation[4]. One of the objectives put forward by the Reformation was to translate the Bible in a way that the people would understand. Before, the Bible was only fully understood by those who were educated and the Clergy. So, when the Bible was translated it was understood by more people. So when the missionaries from the Calvinists and the Lutherans’ were spreading their message, this increased the awareness of the presence of the devil. Eventually, this idea became strong in society as people believed that the devil could strongly influence your actions. Therefore, this shows how Lutherans and Calvinists played a role in the increase of the prosecution of witches.
Consequently, in rise of this, there was a counterreformation within Catholicism. The counterreformation was placed in order to challenge the new threat from Luther and his ilk of men; to seek out and counteract the threat from Protestants. This would have created further confusion and lead to the rise of the prosecution of witches[5].

Another interesting point to make is that the Catholic Church attempted to reconvert some sections of the European population, from Protestants, to Catholics. From the Catholic point of view, those who would not convert from being a Protestant to a Catholic were unintentionally under the influence of the early form of witches, who were supposedly trying to perform incantations and curses upon mankind[6]. Therefore, this would have most likely provided information to the local heretics and the prosecution perhaps leading to the increase in the prosecution of witches.

Furthermore, another important reason to mention is the strong influence that a certain book had on the increase of the prosecution of witches. This book was called [7]“THE MALLUES MALEFICARUM.” and was more commonly known as the ‘’hammers of the witches.” It was only printed 15 times between 1486 and 1520. However it was printed again another 19 times during the harshest witch prosecutions in Europe which was between 1569 and 1669, showing how strongly it was against witches. [8]Therefore, it could be argued that this book played a key role because it almost became a manual book for witch hunting. This enabled witch hunting to become easier so may have lead to the increase of the witches’ prosecutions as it laid the foundations for witch hunting. Therefore, guidance from this book and information combined from sorcery and the influence of the devil, made a strong case in being against witches and prosecuting them.

Another reason as to why the witches’ prosecutions may have increased is because of the increase of the number of special courts that they had in Germany. These were kept hidden from the prying eyes of the Holy Roman Empire. The purpose of these special witchcraft courts was not finding out the route of being a witch or giving them a fair trial but just a place to prosecute witches. Therefore the more special courts there were the more witches that could be prosecuted suggesting that this was another factor that lead to an increase in the witches’ prosecution[9]. The reason as to why the small courts had more prosecution of witches was because of the lack of influence from the Holy Roman Empire. Under the Holy Roman Empire it was more difficult to prosecute the witches because much stricter criteria had to be met. Whereas, in the small courts, there was hardly any influence of the Holy Roman Empire and the local magistrates were at liberty to set their own criteria.

Jonas Dillinger says, ‘If a community in a dwarf state demanded witch hunts, it would have been political suicide for the petty lord not to comply with these wishes.”[10] This quote shows a perfect example of both how intense the witch craft hunting was and how the local principality of Germany affected them socially. This suggests again how this would have affected the prosecution of the witches causing an increase to occur.

“The Holy Roman Empire of the Germany Nation was no empire at all” [11]This quote shows that the German nation was hardly a centralised state. There were many principalities and other ecclesiastical jurisdictions. So the disorganisation of the Bavarian states would have put more pressure on the surroundings and lead to the rise of more witchcraft prosecutions.

The intensity of the witchcraft prosecution in Bavaria and Eastern Baden-Wurttemberg had occurred because of the strong power that the Prince Bishops had, such as Johann Georg Fuchs von Dornheim and Philipp Adolf von Ehrenberg. Effectively, these Prince Bishops were the spearhead Trident reforming Germany[12]. They considered themselves as protectors of their domain because they believed they had a higher purpose; waging wars against the evils of the world and to fight for what’s righteous and purity of the church. [13]The Prince Bishops started to set up special courts just for the witch-hunts as special external committees[14]. The Bavarian Princes gave the new special courts special privileges and powers so that they could exercise their powers on witch prosecution trials.

So forth, in the local peasantry of Bavaria, it seems as though they were gaining importance within the society, as within that area they were given privileges such as being able to voice their concern about the witch-hunt and prosecutions going on at that time[15]. This is another strong factor because this shows an ever-changing social order of the local counties of Bavaria. It is suggested by Jonas Dillinger, that the reason why half of the witch prosecutions happened in Bavaria, was due to them being illiterate with no proper formal legal training.

[16]Wolfgang Beringer is a German Historian who specialised in witchcraft and believed in early modern witchcraft and gave a different explanation to why the witches’ prosecutions had increased. He discussed the argument about the weather change and weather magic which was thought to have started in Southern Germany around the 16th century. However the charge of weather magic was not a new case. Beringer also believed that the unstable structure and outdated agricultural practices also had minor implications towards witchcraft. [17]The agrarian economy of central Europe was largely dependent on vineyards and wheat productions. According to Wolfgang Beringer the people in Trier generally believed that the failure of crop harvests through recent years was performed by “witches and mail factors out of devilish hatred”. In all seriousness, one can see how communities within Bavaria reacted to[18] “natural” and “unnatural magic”. The weather magic played a role in the increase of the witchcraft prosecutions because people were interpreting this evidence differently as people didn’t understand the social issues at that time because there were great changes. [19]Due to all these problems happening such as weather magic and agrarian problems, this would have added to the social problems in the 1560s century and would have created more misunderstanding and psychological problems within people. This would have led to more witch prosecutions, as they would have been directly blamed. This is shown by a quote from ‘Wolfgang Beringer’ himself [20]“First, witches were held directly responsible for weather damage and crop failures’.

Also, it is important to mention that at the height of the witchcraft prosecution between the years of 1560 to 1630, this period was called the [21]“little mini ice age”. Between these years there has been evidence to suggest that there was a correlation between the occurrence of weather magic and the prosecution of witches. [22] This would have caused immense pressure in central Europe and Bavaria there would have been many social problems, such as mental illnesses, poverty and hunger[23]. In addition to this, the on-going wars happening in Central Europe would have caused immense pressure on the female population because they would have been the first to blame. For this reason half of the witches have been prosecuted and executed within Bavaria and Central Europe known as modern-day Germany. It can be argued that there was a whole community within Bavaria that rose up to exterminate all the Witches.

[24]The depiction of women and 1560 was extremely different during that time period because many of the people at the time, believed women would be easily influenced by the devil for their lust for sexual desires[25]. So forth on the implications of women got used and executed for being Witches. This played a minor role into the witch craft prosecutions in Europe but in the long run it had an affect on the way women were seen by society in and around 1560.

In conclusion, overall, there has been evidence suggesting that more than one factor played a role in contributing to the increase of the prosecution of witches during 1560. Evidence has shown the great importance that the reformation and the counterreformation played in affecting politics and religion and how for a small moment in time during 1560 , in Europe, religion had been destabilised. Some of the main regions in Europe that played a key role in the increase of witch prosecution in 1560 were Southern France and Bavaria as they had destabilised within the government. Furthermore due to the principalities of Bavaria , they had their own jurisdictions and witchcraft trials which contributed to the increase of witches prosecutions.
Finally, societies view on women was particularly demeaning especially during the 15th and 16th century era. Generally, women were portrayed as being close to the devil so were apparently more likely to be influenced towards their lusts and desires.

Some of these factors will have had a bigger impact on the increase of witches prosecutions inn 1560 whereas others may have had played a smaller role. Nonetheless, all factors combined contributed to the massive increase of the witches’ prosecution in 1560 in Europe.

Therefore it is important to critically analyse all of the arguments and evidence in order to understand thoroughly or even gain an insight to all the factors which set the foundations and lead to an increase of witchcraft heresy and prosecutions.


Oldridge,Darren. The Witchcraft Reader-Second Edition. (OXON:Routledge,2008)


Behringer Wolfgang, Orgins of the European Witch-Hunts (London:University of Bonn,1987

Dillinger,Johannes, The political Aspects of the German Witch Hunts (London: University of Pennsylvania Press,2009)

Levack p.Brian the Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe(Harlow: Pearson Education limted,2006)

Briggs Robin, Witches&Neighbours (London:Penguin Books,1996)

Levack P. Brian. The Witchcraft Sourcebook.(London:Routledge,2006)

Bragg, Melvyn .21st October 2004.In our time [Online].BBC radio  available from http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p004y2b0


[1] Behringer Wolfgang, Orgins of the European Witch-Hunts (London:University of Bonn,1987)p.22

[2]Levack p.Brian the Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe(Harlow: Pearson Education limted,2006)p.111


[4] Briggs Robin, Witches&Neighbours (London:Penguin Books,1996),p324

[5] ibid.p324

[6] Dillinger,Johannes, The political Aspects of the German Witch Hunts (London: University of Pennsylvania Press,2009)p.67

[7] p.43 Oldridge,Darren. The Witchcraft Reader-Second Edition. (OXON:Routledge,2008.).

[8] ibid,p43

[9] Dillinger,Johannes, The political Aspects of the German Witch Hunts (London: University of Pennsylvania Press,2009) p.67

[10] ibid, p.70

[11] ibidp.63

[12] ibid.p.67

[13] ibid.p66

[14] ibid.p66

[15] ibid,p.68

[16] Behringer Wolfgang, Orgins of the European Witch-Hunts (London:University of Bonn,1987)p.4

[17] Ibid, p,5

[18] Ibid p.7

[19] ibid.p.26

[20] ibid.p.26

[21] Ibid,p.12

[22] Ibid,p13

[23] ibid,p.27

[24] Oldridge,Darren. The Witchcraft Reader-Second Edition. (OXON:Routledge,2008. P.206,207

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