Witches, fairies, demons, and spirits have not always been mythical creatures that modern societies often depict. Based on theological and intellectual ideas that the brightest minds of the time supported, the supernatural was intrinsically connected to the very reality in which early modern people lived.
Scholars published numerous works to educate the masses in hopes of saving them from falling victim to the devious nature of demons and fairies. Preachers gathered their flocks of parishioners and lectured on the importance of not giving in to baser desires and making bargains with supernatural beings that would only end in damnation. To any early modern society, the supernatural was neither something to be taken lightly nor tested.
For much, if not all, of the Continent, witchcraft and its uses was not an unfamiliar concept, nor was it kept in any form of secrecy. Since the second century, the label of witchcraft, or paganism as it was better known during that time, was attached to small sects of Christian communities within the Greco-Roman world that refused to follow traditional religious practices.
Accused of holding secret meetings in which babies or small children were ritually slaughtered to their “pagan” god, and later their remains devoured at lavish feasts while unthinkable acts of sexual deviance happened around the dinner table, these unfortunate Christians found themselves the forefathers of the birth of early modern witchcraft.
As the minority, regardless of the actual practices Christians partook in during their religious meetings, their acts were seen as a threat against the dominant religion. This theme would be repeated over and over again throughout the history of witchcraft.
In the medieval era, Christians found themselves, members of the leading religion of the land, no longer regulated to minority status. Much like the Romans and Greeks, Christians were quick to label outside religions, as well as offshoots of their own, as pagan and heretical. Unlike their counterparts, however, the Christians made a direct connection between witchcraft and Satan, or the Devil.
With increasing fears that the end of the world was fast approaching, the Devil, depicted as an animal-like being that sometimes resembled a goat or human-esque goat with horns, hooves, and a tail, became the most prominent being in ushering at the end of days.
His loyal followers, demons known as the incubi and succubi, stood at the ready to entrance greedy and materialistic humans who quested for power beyond their means.
Those who did not follow the true Christian religion were swiftly thrown into the league with the Devil, and the Devil became a mainstay in both the Christian religion as well as within witchcraft.
During the centuries following the introduction of the Devil, witchcraft began to play a more prominent role in the daily lives of the average citizen.
Many early modern communities housed professional and semi-professional practitioners of folk magic in order to cure disease, foretell the future, locate lost property, create serums and tonics, and provide a variety of other services.
Many of these folk healers and magic practitioners traveled to neighboring villages and towns, peddling their services for a small but manageable fee. Both versions of witchcraft–the malevolent as well as the benevolent–were nothing outside of the ordinary for Continental society, but some believed witchcraft required an immediate response.
There was abundant literature depicting witches and witchcraft in medieval Europe, and the literature would have been commonplace in both public and private life.
With the development of the printing press, literature depicting demonic witchcraft became much more accessible, allowing for wider circulation within the literate sectors of European society.
Famous stories, such as Homer’s ‘Odyssey’, a treasured classic for the upper echelon of society, and fairy tales illustrated the power and range of witches, warning the public against wronging those in possession of magic.
The image of the witch was further supported by the publishing of ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ by German Catholic clergyman Heinrich Kramer in 1487.
Organized into three parts, the ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ sought to prove the existence of witchcraft, the harm that was inflicted due to those practicing witchcraft, and the proper steps in prosecuting, convicting, and executing a witch.
Even though the ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ was condemned by the Catholic Church three years after its publication for its unethical procedures and contradiction of Catholic theology, the ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ became one of the regularly cited handbooks for the secular Continental courts during the early-sixteenth-century. Published over twenty-nine times in the course of a century, the ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ became one of the leading books on witchcraft.
Becoming a more prominent issue in the fourteenth- and fifteenth-centuries, witchcraft on the Continent took center stage as the Christian Church, bent on eradicating pagan and popular beliefs within its congregation, shifted its attention to strengthening religious connections between witchcraft and Satan.
At a time when the earliest forms of the Continental Protestant Reformation were taking hold, the church became the main battleground to obtain power.
Through the Reformation, Protestantism became the dominant religion in many countries. Protestant churches became centralized within states and came into direct contest with Catholic countries that did not reform to Protestantism.
For each religion, the “need to discipline members who failed to meet confessional norms created a climate in which overt repression of religious deviance increased.”
Regardless of the church or religion, witchcraft was a religious deviance that could not be tolerated.
Folk healers who had seen financial gains from selling their services were instantly targeted as witches, as well as those who fell outside of the religious norm.
Labeled as Devil-worshippers who had eagerly renounced God, these perceived Satanists and pagans no longer received their powers from God or the natural world, but had received magic from the darkest of forms.
Through this connection, the church was able to establish a foothold in trying accused witches for the act of heresy and maleficium (harm committed by magic), and effectively secured the authority to try the accused outside of secular courts due to it being classified as a religious matter rather than a political one.
This shift would be front and center during the peak of Continental witch hunts during the sixteenth century. Many of the Continental outbreaks were fueled by the peasants and further driven by the support of local powers (namely, the local Church).
Germany, more specifically central and southern Germany, became the epicenter for some of the largest witch hunts and prosecutions that history had ever seen, followed closely by France and Switzerland.
Following the Church’s adamant advice that no witch should live, these countries quickly set about finding, trying, and executing anyone who could have possibly been a witch.
Denmark, following the same pattern as its southern counterparts, also began convicting witches, and burning them at the stake when they had been found guilty.
Over the course of 300 years, more than sixteen Continental states took part in mass witch hunts and trials, with over 36,000 witches executed.