Witch-hunts in Europe

Kuva: Rosa Grene


Witch-hunts were full blown in central Europe in the mid 16th century, and slowly from there the hysteria migrated north, and finally reached Finland (or Sweden then) in 1660.

The hunt for witches in Sweden didn’t first arise from the church, but as a mass hysteria amongst worried citizens who claimed that women were meeting Satan himself and taking part in lewd parties in his mansion in Blåkulla. Perhaps the strangest occurrence was that the accused women would sometimes tell people about having sex with the devil in his mansion too. In Finland and Sweden, hundreds of accused witches were executed. The largest number of witch trials happened in Finland in 1670, and it was only after 1660 were more women tried in Finland than men. 

In 1970, feminist historians claimed that witch hunts were a measure taken to eliminate women who were strong, different, and sexual. With the trials, women were regulated and controlled. The hunts defined what a woman should be like, look like and act like. Even though historically not every trial followed this form and the theory has since been criticized, it didn’t stop the idea from resulting in witches slowly becoming feminist icons.

In the 1990’s productions like Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Charmed hit the screens, showing witches in a new empowering light, and today witchcraft is alive and well, if one is to believe social media. Though an increasing number of men and non-binary people also call themselves witches, the movement appeals especially to women, who have found solidarity and sisterhood through ritual practices and identification as witches. This was especially visible during Trump’s rule in the US: women around the world felt unheard and just as persecuted as during the height of the witch trials. Strong female role models in the public eye took to social media platforms and announced hexing, spells, and unity. There are 7.7 million posts only on Instagram hashtagged #witchesofinstagram. Today’s social media witch doesn’t necessarily have to practice witchcraft, be into crystals, tarot or candles. Calling oneself a witch might have to do more with the tragic history of witches and their status as feminist icons. By identifying as a witch women can emphasize not accepting the societal norms set for women, and anyone is free to join.

General information and background 

But the image of witches has not always been like that: strong and powerful women. In fact, being a witch in Western societies during the Medieval time but also until the early modern time (1450-1750) meant something completely different. Women (but in a smaller amount also men) accused of being witches were seen as being in alliance with the devil, attacking other people and being capable of evil magic. Therefore, witches had to face persecution, trials, torture and death. Referring to these times, the term witch hunt is the common expression to use. But why did those witch hunts happen at all? Who were the people hunting witches? Who were those witches and why were they mostly women? The answers, as in so many other cases, are rather complex.

Nevertheless, one essential reason has to be explained because the use of the words devil and evil apparently establish a connection to a religious context. In Christian theology there had been a duality between devil and God as well as between good (God’s work) and evil (devil’s work). Indeed, during these times it was feared that witches would destroy societies who believed in Christianity. In the Christian worldview fears about evil magic and long-held superstitions were omnipresent. Clergy did not preach mercy for the accused witches but demanded rigid punishment. And it probably was no coincidence that the manual which explicitly described how to recognize and deal with a witch was written by an inquisitor. This work, called the Malleus maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches), was published in 1486 and was highly influential and reprinted several times.

One may wonder then, if these witch hunts primarily were a conflict between the so-called witches and Christians or rather Christian churches. The following will show exemplarily that there indeed was a huge conflict between Christians and the so-called witches or pagans. But seeing witch hunts primarily as a religious conflict would be too short-minded. Also, political leaders saw witches as a danger, as did people from lower classes who wanted their leaders to punish witches. A concrete example for non-religious reasons to accuse someone as a witch was that midwives were a threat to established male medicine structures. Therefore, denouncing these women as witches was less because of a religious belief but more a political and practical means to maintain male power.

The reasons for witch hunts cannot be reduced to only a religious conflict. But yet, religion played an important role as well as the fact that mostly women were accused of being witches.

Gender situation in Europe

What was the position of a woman in 17th-century Europe? In the Christian tradition of Western Europe, it was a common rhetoric that women were descendants of Eve and consequently carried Eve’s guilt. In the image of a woman, the womb and motherhood played the central role. It was thought that there is something wrong with a woman if she doesn’t hope to become a mother. Abandoning a child was a truly despicable act. Some historians interpret that witch hunts became justified in Europe in the 17th century, when states prosecuted many new crimes. Such crimes included begging, blasphemy, murder of a child, and sexual misconduct and witchcraft. Of these, witchcraft and murder of a child were crimes that led to a death sentence. 

What explains the high proportion of women accused of witchcraft? There is no unequivocal answer to this, but proposed explanations have included misogyny and women’s lower position. Witchcraft was practiced by both men and women, but women were more often accused of black magic.

Gender, and the role of women in particular, has long been of interest in witch hunt studies. Feminist history studies have also focused attention on gendered power relations and the debate has raised critical ways of looking at male witches and masculinity. In the scientific community, witchcraft is increasingly seen as a part of the early modern history of religion, not so much as the opposite of religion. According to Sarah Feber, one contributing factor behind the witch hunt is the conflict between the Catholics and the Huguenots. Religious tensions between Christian and indigenous religions, as well as disagreements between competing Christian factions, strengthened the rhetoric of witchcraft.

Witches Sabbath, Francisco de Goya (1746-1828.)

Witchcraft and gender in early modern Finland

In the 100,000-200,000 trials and 40,000-60,000 executions across Europe, the disproportionate number of female victims is often stressed. Recent scholarship on witchcraft and early modern witch trials have however revealed a more nuanced picture – the gender ratios previously proposed are by no means as universal or uncontested as believed. At certain times and in certain places, men tried for witchcraft outnumbered women. This was the case both in some areas in Central Europe, namely Normandy and Burgundy, as well as in the northeastern areas such as Estonia, Finland, and Iceland (where men outnumbered women 9 to 1).

Of all the witch trials in Finland in the period 1550-1800, the majority of those accused and sentenced for witchcraft were male. Even within Finland there was a degree of geographical variation however – male witches are more commonly found in court records from the eastern area of Finland, but they were not uncommon in the west either. There is also a fluctuation of gender ratios over time, with a clear majority of male witches in the late medieval/renaissance era, a relatively sudden shift towards more women accused after the 1660s, and a male majority again in the early to mid-1700s. These numbers and comparisons are not entirely reliable, as researchers have used different criteria, samples and time spans in their investigations into the period of witch trials, both in Europe and in Finland. Nevertheless, the difference in gender ratio to the Central European female majority is striking, and though interest and research in the field has increased steadily, no easy explanation has been found for it. One cannot blame judicial praxis, as very similar judicial systems to the Swedish one (to which modern-day Finland belonged at the time) existed geographically nearby in Denmark-Norway, but produced different gender patterns. Finland also shared the religious denomination of its western neighbours, but not their gender patterns regarding witchcraft accusations. By contrast, fairly similar gender ratios to those found in Finland were also seen in Russia, which had a very different legal and religious system.

The answer must be sought elsewhere. A few key differences, in addition to the gender difference, can be observed between Finnish witch trials and their European counterparts: Finnish witch trials were not mass trials, torture was rarely employed, and dealt more frequently with interpersonal conflicts. They also very rarely featured the motif of the witches’ sabbath, a feast or dark mass where witches would gather en masse to worship the devil. There did not seem to exist in the public consciousness an idea of a congregation of witches who all knew each other and could, under duress, be forced to reveal the identities of their co-conspirators. Since the accused were not expected to be able to implicate others, instances of guilt by direct or implied association were reduced. It is also possible that the Finnish understanding of magic differed somewhat from its European counterpart – magic was understood as commonplace, spells could be cast by anyone, and any swear words or insults hurled in the heat of an argument could thus be interpreted as curses and blamed for any subsequent harm.

An earlier, non-Christian or pre-Christian shamanistic tradition has occasionally been suggested as the root of the Finnish association of witchcraft with masculinity, and Marko Nenonen argues that “noita” (Finnish for witch) originally referred to someone who falls into a (shamanistic) trance. While there is evidence of shaman witches specifically from Lapland being renowned for their powers, there is very little evidence of such people ever being put on trial for witchcraft. While there was clerical opposition to shamanistic practices and Finnish folk beliefs in Lapland, this opposition is not reflected in incidence of witch trials or other court proceedings involving practitioners. In fact, the incidence of witch trials in Lapland was low in general and even fewer involved shaman witches. These figures were also very rarely referenced in theological dissertations of the time, which otherwise abound with descriptions of spells, witchcraft and heresy. The figure of a shaman-like cunning man, tietäjä (lit. “the knower”) doesn’t appear in court records until the end of the 19th century, it is likely that he is absent not because the archetype sprung out of nowhere in the 1880s, but because this type of landless, itinerant magician-for-hire often belonged to the very lowest strata of society, and 17th century courts rarely dealt with the affairs of the very poor. It thus seems unlikely that this shamanistic tradition had any great impact on the early modern witch trials

Instead, the men accused of witchcraft were primarily wealthy, or at least comfortably well-off, farmers or townspeople, whose position in their communities would have made them visible and potentially the target of others’ envy. Until the 1660s, benevolent witchcraft was not prosecuted by the courts, and it is notable that it was only once benevolent magic became punishable that the ratio of women started to increase. As protective household and cattle magic were easier to prove than more vague alleged witch-caused injuries or (male) hunting magic done out in the woods away from the prying eyes of neighbours, it is possible that female magic became an easier target around this time. It is worth noting that the most common sentence passed was for benevolent magic (“taikuus”), levelled at women, and punished with a heavy fine. Men were more often charged with malevolent magic (“noituus”), for which the punishment was more severe. Here, a gendered assumption of who is more likely to cause others harm may be at play, especially as the men accused of malevolent magic frequently had prior convictions for violence and drunkenness.

Finnish witch trials occurred later than in Central Europe, and Nenonen attributes this less to the slow travel of new theories regarding the nature and activities of witches, and more to the evolution of an increasingly efficient central government and judicial system. Once the most difficult years of war were over, that system was freed up to deal with interpersonal quarrels. As Nenonen states, “The central government was increasingly interfering in matters that earlier had been outside its supervision. As a result of its imposing new controls and punishments in the fields of adultery, fornication and magic, entirely new areas of people’s everyday lives became the target of active social development and political regulation.”

The end of witch hunts

Prosecutions and executions for the crime of witchcraft declined and eventually came to an end during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The decline occurred in all European countries where witch-hunts had taken place. End of witch-hunts takes place around the same time as the Enlightenment, thus it is reasonable to believe that the new philosophy and cartesianism played the main role in releasing people from the fear of being convicted. But was this really the case? 

There can be three explanations addressed for the ending of witch-hunts: changes in the witch beliefs of the educated classes, efforts of governments to control the administration of local justice, and changes in criminal procedure. For example the British statute of 1736 modified their law by making it an offence to “pretend to exercise or use any kind of witchcraft”. At this point the prosecutions had already declined. But the word “pretend” tells us about the understanding of witchcraft; it was no longer a question of actually working for the devil but pretending to do so. This so-called white magic was just as bad as black magic in the minds of theologians, but not nearly as heavily persecuted in practice.

So instead of naturalistic philosophy and the upper class, the decline of witch-hunts seems to originate where it started; the lower status groups, that had been the ones to report witchcraft allegations to authorities. More than philosophy, the shift of witchcraft’s meaning was influenced by theology. Mainly in Lutheran sources it was stated that God would never allow the Devil to give people supernatural powers. People no longer trusted the devil to have such impactful powers. Decline of witch-hunts was not a result of one or two things. In addition to the re-reading of Christian texts, the real wages were rising, financial weight of the trials were falling on the communities and fear of convicting the innocent grew. Criminal procedures were more more controlled by the administratives and somewhere there witchcraft was no longer observed as an acute threat to Christian religion. 


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Writers: Laura Deigner, Pia Judd, Hanna Kuparinen, Sasha Linder, Enja Seppänen