Salvation and Scapegoating: What Caused the Early Modern Witch Hunts?

The American and European witch hunts of the early modern era had a significant impact on Western society’s history, politics, and culture. What caused them?

Oct 14, 2021By Katie Brown, Current PhD Biblical Studies, BA Classics and Religion
salvation scapegoating witch hunts
Witches at their Incantations by Salvator Rosa, c. 1646, via the National Gallery, London; with The Weird Sisters by John Raphael Smith and Henry Fuseli, 1785, via The Metropolitan Museum, New York


In the spring of 1692, two young girls from a seemingly inconsequential village in the Massachusetts Bay Colony began to display increasingly disturbing behavior, claiming strange visions and experiencing fits. When a local doctor diagnosed the girls as suffering from the malevolent effects of the supernatural, they set in motion a series of events that would irrevocably alter the course of American cultural, judicial, and political history. The ensuing witch hunt would result in the executions of 19 men, women, and children, along with the deaths of at least six others, and the suffering, torment, and calamity of an entire community.


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Trial of George Jacobs, Sr. for Witchcraft by Tompkins Harrison Matteson, 1855, via The Peabody Essex Museum


The story of that peripheral village is one that has lodged itself into the cultural mindset of people everywhere as a cautionary tale against the dangers of extremism, groupthink, and false accusations, perhaps calling to mind Arthur Miller’s The Crucible or Cold War era McCarthyism. It would, over time, grow to be synonymous with mass hysteria, panic, and paranoia, referenced by those who believe themselves to be victims of unjust persecution; Salem. From 1993 Halloween classic Hocus Pocus to American Horror Story: Coven, the witch hunts that ensued from such simple origins have captured the imagination of many artistic minds over the past 300 years, making it perhaps one of the most famous events in American history.


But the events surrounding the witch trials of Salem in 1692 were not in any way unique or isolated. Instead, they were just one very small chapter in the much longer story of the witch hunts that took place all across Europe and America in the early modern period, with the European witch hunts reaching a height between 1560 and 1650. It is nearly impossible to determine a correct estimate of how many people were tried and executed for witchcraft during this time. However, the general consensus is that the witch hunts spanning the two continents resulted in the deaths of between 40,000 and 60,000 people.


What happened, we should ask, that enabled such widespread, fallacious, and at times frantic persecution and prosecution to take place?


A Prelude to the Witch Hunts: A Shift in Attitudes Towards Witchcraft

walker 1892 library congress witch execution
The Witch No. 2. by Geo. H. Walker & Co, 1892, via the Library of Congress

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It’s hard to imagine that there was once a time when ‘witches’ were not seen as cackling women with pointed hats, black cats, and bubbling cauldrons. Prior to the beginning of the early modern period, before the devastating impact of the Black Plague transformed European institutions and the political dynamic of the entire continent, many people throughout Europe may have believed in magic. Those who did believe saw witchcraft as something to be availed of at best and dismissed at worst. It certainly was not deemed to be a threat, even by the leaders of the Catholic Church, who simply denied its existence. As just one example, the king of Italy, Charlemagne, dismissed the concept of witchcraft as a pagan superstition and ordered the death penalty for whoever executed someone because they considered them to be a witch.


These beliefs changed drastically, however, towards the end of the Middle Ages, as witchcraft came to be associated with heresy. Malleus Maleficarum, first published in 1487 by Heinrich Kramer, was a major influence on this attitude shift. Among others, it argued that those guilty of witchcraft should be punished, and equated sorcery with heresy. Many historians see its publication as a watershed moment in witch-hunting history.


As a result of such ideas, by the late 15th century, witches were considered as followers of the Devil. Christian theologians and academics entwined together the superstitious worries people held about the supernatural with Christian doctrine. Also, the clergy in authority expounded punishment, rather than penitence and forgiveness, for those deemed witches. In essence, these infamous witch hunts took place because people came to believe that witches conspired to destroy and uproot decent Christian society.


A Multicausal Approach

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Witches’ Sabbath by Jacques de Gheyn II, n.d., via the Metropolitan Museum, New York


What took place in Western society to allow for the popularity of the Malleus, and for such a drastic shift in attitude towards the very existence of witchcraft? A combination of multiple different forces came together to create the circumstances in which these witch hunts took place, so there are numerous reasons to consider. Most of the factors influencing the widespread witch hunts over the course of the early modern period can be summarized under two headings; ‘salvation’ and ‘scapegoating.’


Salvation in the European Witch Hunts


In the early modern period, Protestantism emerged as a viable challenge to the Catholic Church’s firm hold on the Christian population of Europe. Prior to the 15th century, the Church did not persecute people for witchcraft. Yet, following the Protestant Reformation, such persecution was widespread. Both the Catholic and Protestant churches, striving to maintain a tight grasp on their clergy, each made clear that they alone could offer a priceless, invaluable commodity; Salvation. As competition flared up following the Reformation, churches turned towards offering salvation from sin and evil to their congregations. Witch hunting became a prime service for attracting and appeasing the masses. According to a theory posited by economists Leeson and Russ, churches across Europe sought to prove their strength and orthodoxy by relentlessly pursuing witches, demonstrating their prowess against the Devil and his followers.


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An auto-da-fé of the Spanish Inquisition: the burning of heretics in a market place by T. Robert-Fleury, n.d. via The Wellcome Collection, London


To prove that the promise of ‘salvation’ served as a reason for the sudden flare-up of witch hunts during this period of religious turmoil, we only need to look to the notable absence of witch trials in Catholic strongholds. Countries that were predominantly Catholic such as Spain, did not endure the scourge of witch-hunting to the same extent as those that experienced religious unrest. However, Spain did witness one of the largest witch trials on record. The notorious Spanish Inquisition formed due to the Counter-Reformation focused little on pursuing those accused of witchcraft, having concluded that witches were much less dangerous than their usual targets, namely converted Jews and Muslims. In counties divided along religious lines, such as Germany, however, there were many trials and executions. Indeed, Germany, one of the central countries of the Protestant Reformation, is often referred to as the focal point of the European witch hunts.


It would, however, be incorrect to suggest that witch-hunting was something wielded against one’s opponents during the many cases of civil unrest ignited by the Reformation. When they did accuse witches, Calvinists generally hunted fellow Calvinists, whereas Roman Catholics largely hunted other Roman Catholics. They simply used accusations of witchcraft and magic to prove their moral and doctrinal superiority over the other side.


Scapegoating in the American and European Witch Hunts

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The Witch by Albrecht Durer, circa 1500, via The Metropolitan Museum, New York


This unrest also contributed to the witch-hunting hysteria in another way. The breakdown in the social order during the various different conflicts of this period added to the atmosphere of fear and led to the inevitable need for scapegoating. The early modern period was a time of calamity, plagues, and wars, while fear and uncertainty were rife. With tensions running high, many turned to inculcate the more vulnerable members of society. By directing blame for misfortune upon others, various populations across Europe succumbed to the mass panic and collective fear ignited by those in authority. While any number of marginalized groups could, in theory, have served as a scapegoat, the shift in attitudes towards witchcraft as heresy created the conditions that allowed populations to turn upon those accused of witchcraft instead.


The effects of conflicts such as the Thirty Years War were exacerbated by the drastic ‘Little Ice Age’ with which they coincided, especially in regard to the European witch hunts. The Little Ice Age was a period of climate change characterized by severe weather, famine, sequential epidemics, and chaos. Where previously it was believed no mortal could control the weather, European Christians gradually came to believe that witches could. The drastic effects of the Little Ice Age reached a height between 1560 and 1650, which happened to be the same period in which the number of European witch hunts reached their height. Through works of literature such as the Malleus, witches were broadly blamed for the effects of the Little Ice Age, thus becoming a scapegoat across the Western world.


In this way, the socio-political changes caused by climate change, such as failed crops, disease, and rural economic poverty, produced the conditions that enabled witch-hunting to flare up.


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The Weird Sisters (Shakespeare, MacBeth, Act 1, Scene 3) by John Raphael Smith and Henry Fuseli, 1785, via The Metropolitan Museum, New York


The North Berwick trials serve as one of the more famous examples of witches being held responsible for bad weather. King James VI of Scotland, a monarch notorious for his role in Scotland’s witch-hunting craze, believed that he had been personally targeted by witches who conjured dangerous storms while he sailed across the North Sea to Denmark. Over seventy people were implicated as part of the North Berwick trials and seven years later King James came to write Daemonologie. This was a dissertation that endorsed witch-hunting and is believed to have inspired Shakespeare’s Macbeth.


Scapegoating can be viewed as the main reason behind the American witch hunts. While the European witch hunts had more or less declined by the mid to late 17th century, they increased in the American Colonies, particularly in Puritan societies. The Puritans were marked by inflexibility and extremism. In the 16th and 17th centuries, they left Britain for the New World to establish a society that, they believed, reflected their religious beliefs.


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The Puritan by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, 1883–86, via the Metropolitan Museum, New York


The settlers of New England faced innumerable struggles and hardships. Poor agricultural success, conflict with Native Americans, tension between different communities, and poverty were not what the Puritan communities envisioned when they set out. They viewed their difficulties through a theological lens, and rather than attribute the blame to chance, misfortune, or simply nature; they thought that they were the Devil’s fault in collaboration with witches. Again, the so-called ‘witches’ made for the perfect scapegoats. Anyone who failed to subscribe to Puritan social norms could become vulnerable and villainized, branded as an outsider, and cast in the role of the ‘Other.’ These included those that were unmarried, childless, or defiant women on the fringes of society, the elderly, people suffering from a mental illness, people with a disability, and so forth. Upon these people, the blame could be laid for all hardships endured by Puritan society. Salem, of course, serves as the perfect example of this fanaticism and scapegoating taken to the extreme.


Why Do the Witch Hunts Matter?

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Witches at their Incantations by Salvator Rosa, c. 1646, via the National Gallery, London


The Reformation, Counter-Reformation, war, conflict, climate change, and economic recession are all some of the factors that influenced the witch hunts across the two continents in various ways. They were a wide cultural, social, political phenomenon. However, it must be taken into account that different regions experienced a flare-up of witch trials for a variety of localized reasons. Local feuds, for example, could prove detrimental to communities, as neighbors and families turned against each other and condemned their rivals to the pyre and the gallows.


Studying the American and European witch hunts today serves as a reminder of how hardship can bring out the very worst in people, turning neighbor against neighbor and brother against brother. The inevitable need for a scapegoat, for someone to hold accountable for misfortune, seems to be ingrained in the human psyche. These witch hunts warn against collective thought and unjust persecution and even to this day provide a useful and relevant metaphor for all those who believe themselves victims of unjustified outrage.

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By Katie BrownCurrent PhD Biblical Studies, BA Classics and ReligionKatie is a postgraduate research student in Trinity College Dublin, where she also received her Bachelor's Degree in Classical Civilisation and World Religions and Theology. She is a tour guide in Glasnevin Cemetery Museum, a popular historical site in Dublin, and a published fiction and non-fiction writer. While she enjoys any topic relating to history, culture, and the humanities, she is most interested in Ancient Greece and Rome, the Ancient Near East, Irish history, colonization and de-colonization, Jewish and Christian history, and the Early modern period.