Regional Variations

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Any discussion of the general pattern of witch-hunts for all of Europe is complicated by the degree of regional variance in levels of concern and responses to this crime in the 16th and 17th centuries. Although the basic idea of witchcraft was accepted in almost all European lands, including colonial possessions overseas, nevertheless there were important differences in the acceptance of certain aspects of the witch-stereotype, and certainly in the patterns of prosecution that fear of witches created. Central Europe was without a doubt the heartland of the witch-hunts. The lands of the German Empire and the Swiss Confederation experienced the greatest overall numbers of witch trials and also the most severe panics and largest hunts. Yet even within this region, because of the political fragmentation of the Empire and the independence of the numerous Swiss cantons, significant geographical variations in the level of witch-hunting were evident. In general, Switzerland and the southern and western regions of the German Empire, where political fragmentation was highest and there existed numerous small and essentially autonomous states and legal jurisdictions, saw the most severe hunts. In the northern and eastern parts of the German Empire, including the large southeastern region of Bavaria, where political entities were larger, witch-hunting was significantly less severe.

Similarly in France, at the time the largest unified state in Europe in terms of population, many thousands of witch trials were conducted in the 16th and 17th centuries, but accusations and especially executions for the crime of witchcraft, measured per capita, were far lower than in the smaller states within the German Empire. In France, too, there were major variations in the intensity of witch trials from region to region. Overall, far more witch-hunting took place on the fringes of the country than in the central regions, or more accurately, than in those regions that were more firmly and fully under the centralized control of the royal government in Paris. Across Europe, this pattern would hold. In those regions that had large, centralized legal bureaucracies, witch trials were less frequent and large-scale hunts, involving dozens or even hundreds of trials, were extremely rare. Larger-scale bureaucracies tended to be more careful in their conduct of trials and to focus more on matters of legal procedure, such as proper application of the restrictions on the use of torture. This in turn significantly reduced, although by no means eliminated, convictions for witchcraft and worked to prevent individual accusations from sparking major hunts. In regions of greater local legal autonomy, on the other hand, magistrates were often more careless in their adherence to proper legal procedures and were more likely to be swept along by the level of panic that could be generated in a community when one or more serious accusations of witchcraft were made.

In the British Isles, England had some episodes of severe persecution of witches, but overall the level of witch-hunting was lower than on the continent. For various reasons, continental notions of diabolism—the idea of a conspiratorial cult of witches gathering at nocturnal sabbaths and worshiping the devil—never gained as much acceptance in England as elsewhere in Western and Central Europe, and many witch trials focused only on the practice of maleficium. In addition, England had never fully adopted inquisitorial procedure, and most especially torture was extremely limited under English law. These factors worked to keep the intensity of fear over witchcraft and the level of witch-hunting down. Scotland, by comparison, where notions of diabolism gained a wider credence and where the central government was less able to enforce restrictions on the use of torture, experienced more major witchhunts, although the overall intensity was still not as severe as in Central European lands. Also the British colonies in New England experienced more severe witch-hunting (again per capita) than in the mother country. Here, concern over witchcraft was deeply enmeshed with broader Puritan concerns over morality, temptation, and the power of the devil.

In Northern and Southern Europe—Scandinavia and Mediterranean lands—the persecution of witches was relatively light, although some large-scale hunts certainly did occur. In Spain and Italy, perhaps somewhat ironically, this reduced intensity was primarily a result of the existence of the Spanish and Roman Inquisitions in those lands. Although ecclesiastical inquisitors had been among the first to develop the notion of diabolical witchcraft, in the 16th and 17th centuries the Spanish and Roman Inquisitions were large, centralized, bureaucratic organizations. As such, they exerted the same restraint on witch trials as other centralized legal bureaucracies elsewhere. In the lands of Eastern Europe, witch-hunting came late and also endured later than in western lands, with the most severe hunts in many regions only coming in the early 18th century. Here, too, however, there were significant regional differences. The only eastern state to experience major hunts on the scale of some of those in German lands was Poland. Hungary had fewer witch trials, although still a significant number. Further east, in Russian lands, witch-hunting was very late and very limited. Among other factors, the Eastern Orthodox Church never operated under the same model of intense diabolism as was present in both Catholic and Protestant lands to the west.

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