Fear, Misfortune, Heresy: The Witch-Craze in Germany

Ryan Freligh

Ryan Freligh

The idea of the witch and her (his) craft, is something that has been seen as far back as antiquity, if not even before that.

The belief that one has the ability to manipulate the world around her supernaturally, (I use her here, being that most of the accused were indeed female,) through the means of certain rituals or hidden knowledge has always existed. The concept of witch-hunting or the persecution of supernatural individuals has origins that are just as old as this concept, itself.

In the context of Europe, we see examples of this in Greco-Roman and early Germanic cultures through witch cults and pagan groups, which eventually become affiliated with heresy during the middle ages and connections with the devil thereafter. It is clear that many of the per-Christian, pagan practices: the Celtic all hallows eve, and polytheism of Ancient Greece/Rome as example, have survived despite the spread of Christianity on some level, at times as mere tradition in folklore, and thus have been considered threats to the Christian Church.

Russell Burton explains in his work: ‘Witchcraft in the Middle Ages’, that the gods and spirits of antiquity are being thought of more and more as humans with supernatural powers creating the concept of the Witch, as we know it (Burton, 50). During the Late Middle Ages, the idea of witchcraft begins to be connected with heresy. Burton accredits this mainly to the strictness of Roman law. Hereafter, the persecution of witches becomes stronger. Later, in the Frühneuzeit, we will see that heresy and witchcraft grow closer in relation, or at times, become one in the same in certain parts of Early Modern Europe (Burton, 167).

In the regions making up modern-day Germany, a rise in the persecution of witches occurs along with the dawn of the Early Modern Period. However, being that Germany is not yet a unified state, each region deals with witchcraft and heresy quite differently. Through this period, the South West of Germany in cities such as Rottweil, Württemberg, Baden-Baden, and Horn, becomes an epicentre for witch-hunting and persecution. It is in this region, from which I will be drawing social, political, psychological, and folkloric causes of the Witch-Craze that overtakes Southern Germany from the 14th century until the end of the 17th century.

In order to properly analyse the expansion of witch persecutions in Germany at this time, one must first comprehend the political, religious, and economic factors that play large roles during the period. At the beginning of the Early Modern Period, in Germany as well as most of Western Europe, the effects of a deteriorated Medieval Society were at play and the Church was becoming more and more desperate to keep its hold on these regions. This was done by bringing forth fears of witches and demons which would influence the impending “Witch-Craze” (Burton, 167). In fact, over the next three centuries, a wealth of new folklore regarding witches and witchcraft would come into being due to these fears and superstitions: The flying witch, Sabbaths, pacts with the devil, etc.

In the 14th century, the political situation in Germany was particularly unstable; most regions were governed by smaller groups and we find that cities in the same geographical region would handle the idea of witchcraft quite differently. Geographically, Burton explains that the German witch-craze was thought to have originated in the Alps. Although we do see remnants of this, it was the South of Germany where we find more records of both Heretics and Witches. It is thus likely that the craze began in the south.

Life in Early Modern Germany was not easy; this period was full of plagues such as the Black Death, famine, and wars like the 30 Years War and the German Peasants’ War. Standford notes in his book: ‘Witch Hunting in Southwestern Germany, 1562-1684’, that the Black Death clearly had an influence on persecutions at the end of the 14th century (Stanford, 75). At times the plague was even thought to be caused by witches.

Because of these harsh aspects of everyday life, the people sought something or someone to blame. With the help of the church, demonologists, and inquisitors, Witchcraft and its practitioners quickly became the scapegoat, where in earlier times, Lepers and Jews were blamed for such misfortunes. However, with a lack of supernatural knowledge and the limitations of who could be accused of being either a Jew or a leper, we see the convenience that came from attributing this misfortune to witchcraft, demons, and witches. These accusations could be aimed at anyone.

This Period was also a time of growth and expansion in Continental Europe; cities began to grow immensely due to a drastic increase of the European population. In the Middle Ages, these factors were somewhat stagnant. With overpopulated towns and cities, several years of failed harvests, and illness, a very anxious atmosphere was bound to also grow (Levack, 127). Because of tensions rising in these growing communities, could one attribute these factors to the start of the Witch-Craze we see at this time in Southern Germany?

According to Brian Levack’s book, ‘The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe’, this may have not been the case. We actually find that these growing cities, changing with new theological and daily-life philosophies were not the most conducive environment for witch persecutions. In fact, Levack explains that it was mainly the rural communities that maintained the remnants of a medieval society. Although persecutions did occur in many of the larger, transforming areas, many witch hunts occurred in these rural, traditional settings. (Levack, 128).

It is possible that the misfortunes of life in this period, along with the influences of the Religious Reformation were catalysts for the growth of witch hunting in these surviving Medieval Communities; smaller, rural towns. In terms of Southwestern Germany, we can see that the growth of the Witch-craze is likely not attributed, at least in its entirety, to the mere fact that Europe was growing and changing at this time.

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