The judicial prosecution

It has been estimated that during the Early Modern period, around 100,000 people were executed in Europe accused of witchcraft, half of which were in the Holy Roman Empire1. These executions were not therefore evenly spread across the continent, with some areas witnessing epidemic, intense witch-hunts (such as Germany, Switzerland and Poland), whilst others experienced relatively few trials in comparison (like in England, Scandinavia, Italy and Spain).

Furthermore, variation in judicial prosecution occurred over time, with the worst panics arising in the 1590s, 1630s and 1660s. Most historians agree that 'there is no mono-causal explanation'2 for this variation, and that it must have been a result of several factors. For high levels of judicial prosecution to be experienced in a region, it has been suggested that certain preconditions had to exist: – Authorities had to believe that witches belonged to a heretical sect, where compacts with the devil had been made giving them evil powers that threatened the community.

Also, judicial systems were usually autonomous and not under central control, torture was applied to gain confessions and the Reformation or Counter Reformation had made the area particularly strict in its enforcement of Christianity3. These traits could all be seen in Germany, suggesting it would have experienced higher judicial prosecution levels than countries such as England that did not have all of these preconditions.

In some areas in Europe, the demonological view of witchcraft – that 'magical practitioners owed their powers to the devil'4 – was widely accepted. It had originated in Switzerland in 1400, and was an idea held initially by theologians. The view spread throughout much of central Europe influencing the beliefs of the elite, especially judges and magistrates, because it circulated via publications that only they (the literate) could read.

The Malleus Maleficarum was one such publication 'that contained enough information drawn from judicial experience, and enough theological citation and argumentation to make it appear to be authoritative'5. The belief that witches had made a compact with the devil was therefore overwhelmingly accepted in the Holy Roman Empire, as well as in other areas to a lesser degree, such as Scotland. In places where this definition was given for a witch, there was ultimately an increased prosecution level, as it was judges and magistrates who had the power to try, convict and punish the crime.

In Wurzburg in Germany for example, 900 people were executed, and in Scotland the North Berwick Trials were based largely on the accused having made compacts with the devil6. The Scottish belief in demonology also shows how the 'zeal for prosecuting witches was infectious'7, as it was an idea brought back from Denmark by James VI. In countries that did not accept the demonological view of witchcraft, judicial prosecution can be seen as significantly reduced.

In England for example, demonical literature took a long time to circulate, and even when it did it failed to fall on fertile ground. This meant that the elite in England did not see accusations of witchcraft on the basis of people having compacts with the devil, or meeting on the sabbat; in fact people couldn't be tried for demonical acts until after the 1604 statute was passed. Instead, they were tried for maleficium (mysteriously harming or injuring people), which was a popular belief rather than one held particularly by the elite8.

A similar scenario can be seen across much of Scandinavia. As a consequence judicial prosecution was seen in lesser numbers, as it was the elite that had to believe in what the accused was being charged with, in order to gain a conviction. Despite ideas and publications linking witchcraft to the devil originating with the papacy in Italy and Spain, diabolical apostasy was not a widespread belief amongst the elite and the inquisitors there, and therefore prosecutions remained very low.