Saturday, 27 August 2011

Witch Persecutions, Women, and Social Change--Germany: 1560 - 1660

Burning witches, 1555.


(Read Part One and Part Two.)

Major witch hunting panics arose in the 1560s throughout Europe and were especially severe in the German Southwest. Who were the victims of this mass hysteria? Even though witches were believed to come from all social classes, the trials focused on poor, middle-aged or older women (Merchant 138). Throughout Europe, midwives and healers were particularly suspect. These "wise women" who healed with herbs were held especially suspect, as they were often older women who had astonishing empirical knowlege, which their accusers traced back to the devil (Rauer 121). Many other women were targeted, as well. Outsiders and women on the fringe of society were especially vulnerable. Fifty-five of the seventy-one accused witches executed in Rottenweil, Germany, after 1600 came from outside the community, and their execution reflected both xenophobia and "a hatred of the unusual and rootless" (Midelfort 95-96). The blatant persecution of the poor prompted one accused witch in Wiesenstieg to ask her inquisitor why rich women were never arrested (Ibid. 169). Thus, though the witch panics took different forms at different times and places, they never lost their essential character--that of a campaign of terror against lower class women in search of substinence.

The question we must ask when presented with this information is why poor women and why this period in history? To invoke such massive hunts, trials, and executions, these women must have been perceived as a major threat. Whose interests did their annihalation serve? Here, I must agree with Carolyn Merchant that the control and maintenance of the social order and women's place within it was one major underlying motivation for the witch trials (Merchant 138).

The women most likely to be accused and executed were those most visibly discontent with their socio-economic condition. They were the strident women who complained about their situations and would not conform to the increasingly restrictive sphere of femininity of 16th and 17th century Europe. Sharp-tongued mothers-in-law were accused of witchcraft by their own families. Feisty spinsters or widows who refused to remarry were frequent targets of witchcraft allegations. Midelfort cites an example of a widow accused of witchcraft being released on the condition that she live with her son-in-law and remain under his control (Midelfort 184). Another common trait found among accused witches in Southwest Germany was a melancholic dissatisfaction with marriage and conventional religion (Ibid. 92) Begging and complaining about poverty were behaviors that led very frequently to accusations (Rauer 121). In 1505, Heinrich Deichsler reports in his famous Nuernberger Chronik that Barbara, a woman from Schwabach near Nuremburg, was burned as a witch after she had borrowed money from several neighbors and failed to pay them back (Schneider 18-19). The primary personality traits of witches outlined by Kramer and Sprenger in their witch-hunting manual Malleus Maleficarum were infidelity, ambition, and lust--traits that may not have been so noteworthy a few centuries before (Malleus 47). All in all, witch persecutions appeared to focus specifically on headstrong and insubordinate women.

Once a woman was labeled a witch, almost anyone could do anything to her without fear or punishment. Legally she was damned and without rights. Even before she was arrested and taken to trial, her neighbors were allowed to take justice in their own hands. Indeed, neighbors took the lead in making witchcraft accusations--it was quite common to simply call someone one disliked a witch (Midelfort 115).

Once a witch was brought to trial, she was doomed. In Germany, torture was part of the established trial procedure and could legally last for days on end. German prison guards sometimes admitted to committing rape, extortion, and blackmail on prisoners, as well (Midelfort 107). Suspects were tortured until they confessed their participation in evil magic and sex with the devil, and named the other women they had seen at the supposed witches' sabbat. Many trial officials had lists of questions to elicit responses which would conform to established beliefs about witchcraft. Dr. Carl Ellwangen began his inquisitions by asking the accused to recite the Lord's Prayer. Then he immediately asked them who seduced them into witchcraft, how the seduction occured, why they gave in, what it was like to have sex with the devil, and so on (Ibid. 105). Torture could extract almost any confession from anyone. "When suspects proved stubborn, they were often tortured to death" (Ibid. 149). Another common trial procedure reveals the inquisitors' obsession with sexuality. Women were stripped, shaved, and pricked with bodkins all over their bodies in search of supposed witch marks, or searched for signs of intercourse with the devil. In Germany, it was not uncommon for an accused witch's property to be confiscated, with Church and secular authorities receiving their share (Ibid. 178). Because accused witches were tortured until they gave the names of others they had allegedly seen at the sabbat, the more intensely witchcraft was persecuted, and the more numerous the alleged witches became. Thus, the trials and accusations escalated (Trevor-Roper 97).

On a social level, witch persecutions could not only be used to weed out the most troublesome of the undeserving poor, but they also produced a general atmosphere of paranoia and disunity among the population. Even those who consulted accused witches for healing or other services risked becomong suspect (Larner 9). The accused witch served as an example to other women as to how they would be treated if they did as she did. This, of course, helped enforce new moral and religious codes (Ibid 102). For this reason, witch hunting can be viewed as one of the most public and effective forms of social control to evolve in Early Modern Europe (Ibid 64). Witches made convenient community scapegoats for communal misfortunes such as plagues and famines (Midelfort 121). The peasant population focused their anger and resentment at members of their own peer group rather than the ruling classes who exploited them. Thus, the witch persecutions undermined solidarity and cooperation among peasants and were instrumental in curbing rebellion. In Southwest Germany, the great witch trials began not long after the Peasant Wars.

Why were such extreme measures of social control necessary? What was taking place in society at large that caused poor and elderly women to be viewed as such an enormous threat?

The period of 1560 to 1660 was one of drastic economic, religious, and social change. This period witnessed the dissolution of the last remnants of a feudal agrarian and domestic economy in favor of a capitalist market economy (Hobsbawn 5). But for this new order to succeed, the old feudal tradition, in which peasants controlled production and were guaranteed subsistence, had to die. This transition was particularly hard on women. Formerly, in the domestic economy, the workplace was the home and women were active in cottage industries. However, the transition to working in outside the home made participation in this economy more and more difficult for women. Over this period, women were forced out of the guilds and the professions in which they could maintain economic independence. Increasingly they were forced into a narrowly domestic role. By the 16th century, the only opportunities for women to earn a living were in menial servant and labor occupations (Hoher 17). Often this sort of work was so low paid that women wandered penniless and homeless in search of better conditions (Ibid. 18).

Furthermore, by this time, even such traditionally feminine occupations such as healing and midwifery were being taken over by men. In the Renaissance, the trend among the wealthy was to have a university-educated physician at their disposal. After the advent of Paracelsus, the famous medical doctor, only men were officially allowed to practice medicine. Paracelsus himself explained that God granted the educated physician all the arts and faculties most beneficial to serve others and that the doctor must be a true man and not some ignorant old woman (Rauer 109, paraphrasing "So spricht Paracelsus"). Male medical practitioners went so far as to push women out of midwifery. Eucharius Rosslin, author of the foremost "midwife" book, Der Schwangererfrawen und Hebammen rossgarten complained that midwives' supposed incompetence, laziness, and lack of education resulted in high infant mortality. He even denounces them as murderers:

Ich meyn die Hebammen alle sampt
Die also gar kein Wissen handt.
Dazu durch yr Hynlessigkeit
Kind verderben weit und breit.
Und handt so schlechten Fleiss gethon
Dass sie mit Ampt eyn Mort begon. (Ibid 123)

Women in the Renaissance not only faced an economic crisis. Their sexual and social freedom was being severely restricted, as well. Unlike the Middle Ages, the Early Modern Period offered practically no alternative to the wife-mother role. By the 16th century, the beguinages were gone. Women hermits and vagabonds risked being accused of witchcraft. Due to the Reformation and Counter Reformation, even convents had grown smaller in number and the nuns who lived there experienced increasing restrictions on their mobility and contact to the outside world. At the same time, both Catholic and Protestant Churches were tightening moral strictures to produce a puritanism unheard of in the agrarian society of the medieval period. Church officials on both sides of the faultline of the Reformation wanted to have iron control over the moral behavior of the populace. Traditional seasonal festivals, hedonism, and sexual licentiousness all smacked of ungodliness and were no longer to be tolerated. Control over female sexuality was especially emphasized. Religious offences were now punished in secular courts and in public shaming rituals. For this was a period of great religious insecurity. The cut-throat competition between Catholics and Protestants resulted in sectarian and ideological warfare, with each side trying to terrorize the local population into submitting to their orthodoxies (Reuther 104). The witch trials' obsession with female sexuality reflects this puritanical attempt to control women's lives. Tightening religious strictures and the new economic system complemented each other--they both attempted to bring the rebellious, hedonistic peasant population under control of Church and secular authorities. The witch persecutions were symptomatic of a new totalitarianism (Rauer 123).

The ideal housewife, circa 1525, by Anton Woensam.


Hobsbawn, E.J., "The Crisis in the Seventeenth Century," Crisis in Europe 1560-1660, Trevor Aston, ed., Routledge, London, 1983.

Hoher, Frederike, "Hexe, Maria, und Hausmutter--zur Geschichte der Weiblichkeit im Spaetmittelalter," Frauen in der Geschichte, Vol. III, Kuhn/Rusen, eds, Paedagogischer Verlag Schwann-Bagel, Duesseldorf, 1983.

Institorus, Henricus, Malleus Maleficarum, Benjamin Blom, Inc., New York, 1970.

Larner, Christine, Enemies of God, John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1981.

Merchant, Carolyn, The Death of Nature: Women Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution, Haeprer & Row, San Francisco, 1979.

Midelfort, Erik, H.C., Witch Hunting in Southwest Germany 1562-1684: The Social Foundations, Stanford, 1972.

Rauer, Brigitte, "Hexenwahn--Frauenverfolgung zu Beginn der Neuzeit," Frauen in der Geschichte, Vol. II, Kuhn/Rusen, eds., Paedagogischer Verlag Schwann-Bagel, 1982.

Schneider, Joachim, Heinrich Deichsler und die Nuernberger Chronik des 15. Jahrhunderts, Wissenliteratur im Mittelalter, Vol. 5, Reichert Verlag, Wiesbaden, 1991.

Trevor-Roper, H.R., The European Witch-Craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, Harper & Row, New York, 1969.


  1. Great post. I thought you might like my machinima animation about The Wise Woman, The Witch
    Bright Blessings ~

  2. I'm studying this time period and thank you so much for this article, it helped me so much!

  3. Thank you so much, Ellie! Glad the post was helpful. :)