The extent of the witch craze

The war against witches reached its peak between 1580 and 1660, and officially ended on June 17, 1782, when the last execution took place in Switzerland. The hysteria raged mainly in France, Germany, and Switzerland, but also extended throughout western Europe, into pockets of northern and eastern Europe, and eventually to the American colonies in New England. Spain was one of the few countries not associated with the witch-hunts because Spanish officials did not believe in witchcraft as defined by the Malleus. In Spain "witches" were apparently dealt with by being locked up in convents. It is difficult to establish the number of people who were killed in the anti-witch campaign because many died in jails from torture and starvation and were not recorded in official execution counts. Estimates based on compilations of regional figures throughout Europe range anywhere from 100,000 to 9,000,000. The majority of those killed were not necessarily followers of the old religions but Christian men, women, and children who had been wrongfully accused. On average, 80 percent of the accused were women and 85 percent of those actually executed were women. Most men who were accused were either related to women who had been tried, or they had criminal records implicating them in other crimes against the church and state.

Records from specific regions help illuminate the full magnitude of these events. The most horrific and extreme measures were taken in Germany. At the start of the seventeenth century the ruling prince of western Germany established a huge team of prosecutors and torturers equipped with special buildings and devices made specifically for torture. In the city of Bamberg, for instance, officials burned nine hundred witches in the first half of the century alone. Three hundred of the victims were under the age of four. In the village of Langendorf all but two women were arrested as witches. Two other German villages were left with only one female inhabitant each. Records show that in nearby Alsace, a province in France, a total of five thousand people were burned during the witch-hunts.

England had its moments of severity as well, particularly after 1604, when King James I (1566-1625) passed a law that officially prohibited pacts with the devil. James stated publicly that out of every twenty-one witches, twenty were women, thus contributing to a focus on women as targets. In one case, after a particularly severe winter the Bishop of Treves executed the inhabitants of an entire village because he could not determine who was a witch. He decided to let God be the judge. Another Englishman named Matthew Hopkins made a fortune hunting down witches because he got paid for each conviction, not just for the number of accused. He was renowned for his intense torture sessions (before torture was outlawed in the country) and was single-handedly responsible for over 230 "convictions."

Although there were some vocal opponents of the witch craze throughout Europe, very few survived their own outspokenness. Most were considered guilty by association and were virtually powerless against the enormity of the campaign. By the end of the seventeenth century, however, two factors brought the persecutions to a halt. First, officials were running out of victims: so many people had been killed that entire regional populations had been altered. The high number of executions began raising concerns about the need to slow down. In response to the atrocities in Bamberg and other areas of Germany, Ferdinand II (1578-1637), the Holy Roman Emperor, issued a decree to stop the killings. Other officials slowed down the mechanisms of the campaign as they began to realize it was no longer necessary: in a sense, the war had been won and it was not particularly profitable to carry on the hunt. Another factor that helped grind the machine to a halt was a new European ideology (system of beliefs about the individual's place in society) that envisioned a more rational and ordered universe. This shift in thinking eventually led to the era called the Enlightenment that began in the eighteenth century. By then past history was dismissed as having been the result of irrational, ancient superstitions. People moved forward into a new age, choosing not to look back.

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