Ten General Historical Theories about the Origins
and Causes of the Witch Hunts,
Like the Holocaust/Shoah/Final Solution (the attempted extermination of Jews and others by the Nazis in the mid-20th Century), the Witch Hunts demand some sort of explanation.
The "theories" for the causes of the Witch Hunts listed below are drawn from what various historians have suggested. They are called theories, because they are based on reasonable information (or were, when they were first proposed), and make some sense in explaining the phenomena. Each theory below describes the main idea briefly, and after "BUT" lists some of the problems in applying the theory to witch hunts.
None is perfect, some are better than others, and a few are now supported by
only few historians. Some better explain certain hunts in specific places during
limited periods. No one explanation or theory will suffice to explain all Witch Hunts in Europe from 1400 to 1800. To understand the Witch Hunts in their totality, we must keep all
of the theories in mind, and even look for more still. Multiple causation is merely common sense. Any historian who tries to apply one cause to the hunts, or even perhaps to just one hunt, is being too simplistic.
1. Illness Theories: These are variously related to physical and mental conditions of people involved in the hunts. According to a Mass Hysteria Theory, peasants went a little wacky, becoming clinically neurotic and even psychotic, and in a group panic went after the witches. According to a Delusion Theory, credence given to childrens fantasies and psychosomatic illnesses are some sources for the panic. Further, a Disease Theory suggests syphilis or ergotism (caused by mold on rotten bread) as causes for mental instability. Similarly, Drug Theory suggests that the effects of consuming bad mushrooms, herbs like deadly nightshade or henbane, or bufotenine from the skin of some toads could have affected peoples minds.
BUT, it is hard to explain how so many people, even in one area, could become seriously ill or disturbed all at once. Additionally, an important characteristic of the witch hunts were their systematic organization by ruling elites and government officials, not some chaotic outbreak.
2. The Geographic Origins Theories: The Witch Hunts originated in specific locations, for example first in mountainous regions of the Alps and Pyrenees or out of economic differentiation between regions which were normally self-sufficient suddenly caught in new competition because of the commercial revolution.
BUT these explanations are contradicted by counter examples (regions where the lowlands first hunted and then spread to the hills), or the difficulty of quantifying economic differences.
3. The Greed Theory: Elites initiated the hunts in order to confiscate property of others.
BUT many persecuted people did not have much wealth. And, in many hunts property was not confiscated, even from very wealthy targets.
4. The Religious Rebellion Theories: These theories are of two kinds:
A. First, the Satanic Religious Rebellion Theory: devil worship actually existed, in particular as a subversive attack on the ruling Christian order. Early historians of witchcraft, such as Jules Michelet (1862) or Montague Summers, take the tortured confessions of witches at their word.
BUT no credible evidence supports the existence of any actual Satanic cults before the 19th century. See Myth #8.
B. Second, the Pagan Religious Rebellion Theory: Certain forms of worship from the ancient world continued through the Early Modern period and was misinterpreted by the Christian hunters as Satanic. This theory was formulated by the Folklorist Margaret Murray (The Witch-cult in Western Europe (1921), The European Witch Cult (1926), The God of the Witches (1960)), who said worship of the horned god Janus or "Dianus" was focus of pagan continuity into modern times. It could be called the Murrayite Theory, and it remains popular in Neo-pagan circles.
BUT no credible evidence reveals the survival of much paganism or any organized fertility cults, beyond common superstition and simple folk traditions. Professional scholars have largely discredited Murrays work. See Myth #8 and Myth #10.
5. The Confessional Conflict Theory: Reformation and its resultant fights between Protestants (mainly Lutherans, Calvinists and Anabaptists, as well as Anglicans) and Roman Catholics led each to use witchcraft to attack one another.
BUT adherents of one branch of Christianity only rarely used the accusation of witchcraft specifically to persecute someone of another branch. Usually the Witch Hunts were carried out by people of the same type of Christianity as the victims. See also Myth #2.
6. The Disaster Theory: As actual misfortunes struck (plague, famine, war, storm), people blamed supernatural forces and found scapegoats in witches.
BUT many persecutions were done during times of relative peace and plenty. Further, many such troubles were not new to early modern Europe, but have been endemic throughout history. Thus, why were "witches" to blame, and not other common scapegoats (Jews, Sodomites, deviants, foreigners) or other supernatural forces (such as demons without the aid of human witches)?
7. The (Mistaken) Conspiracy Theory: In the Late Middle Ages, religious elites created a new, and mistaken, intellectual framework out of Christian heresy and theology concerning demons. They linked the idea of witches to an imagined organized sect which was a danger to the Christian commonwealth. Thus authorities sincerely believed in and acted against this Satanic threat, even though it did not really exist.
BUT how could a rather minor idea, with so little supporting evidence, lead to such enormous efforts by so many people, especially those with little to gain?
8. The Social Control or State-building Theory: Early modern governments exploited the fear of witchcraft in order to centralize authority, increase bureaucratic jurisdiction, impose cultural uniformity, and dominate the Church. The hierarchy may have believed in witchcraft or not, but a dangerous conspiracy provided the premise for expanding government intervention. This theory has a certain similarity to The Church Oppression Theory, popular in the 19th century but held by few today, according to which the Church fraudulently invented witches so as to crush its opponents and grow rich.
BUT why should witchcraft be the specific target in these years? And why should the hunts be so vicious, and as a result cause such disturbances in the state? And the theory gives too much credit to the elites over the "ignorant" masses.
9. The Social Functionalist or Social Accusations Theory: Witch accusers acted on a psychological need to blame others for their own personal problems. Drawing on functionalist anthropology, psychology and post-modernist criticism, supporters of this theory argue that witch hunts were therapeutically beneficial for society, since they defined what was right and wrong and rid society of its troublesome marginalized folk, like the old and the poor. Thus the hunts functioned to reinforce and define social boundaries of moral and acceptable behavior.
BUT these theories do not take into account motives of individual accusations (such as local feuds and grudges), and contemporary explanations of those involved (the religious and political context). And why should the hunts be so vicious? And again, why should witchcraft be the specific target in these years?
10. The Misogyny Theory: The Witch Hunts embodied a social hostility toward women. Such theories are often tied with popularizing feminist writers, who might also see in witchcraft a source of empowerment for women. Indeed, the ongoing subordination of women, womens connection to folk-magic and healing, and changing views of womens social and economic place in Early Modern Europe were important factors in the hunts. The majority of accused and executed were female, yet also old, living alone (whether widowed or spinster), and poor.
BUT, such theories exaggerate the proportions of women involved and the extent to which women were the focus. See Myth #4. Men in some witch hunts were the majority of victims; and some hunts persecuted children of both sexes.
If you use any information from this page, be sure to properly cite it, for example using the following format:
Pavlac, Brian A. "Ten General Historical Theories about the Origins and Causes of the Witch Hunts," Prof. Pavlac's Women's History Resource Site. (June 6, 2006). URL: <http://departments.kings.edu/womens_history/witcherrors.html> (date accessed).
Witch Hunt Select Bibliography
Below is my brief selection of some books in English that are especially valuable and sound in trying to understand the Witch Hunts. I would suggest that the reader/researcher always be wary of books that lack a scholarly apparatus (footnotes or endnotes), accept uncritically the worst accusations of feminists or atheists, and/or suggest that witches actually existed.
Barry, Jonathan, Marianne Hester and Gareth Roberts, ed. Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe. Past and Present Publications. Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Breslau, Elaine G., ed. Witches in the Atlantic World: A Historical Reader & Primary Sourcebook. New York: New York University Press, 2000.
Klaits, J. Servants of Satan: The Age of the Witch-hunts. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1985.
Farrington, Karen. Dark Justice: A History of Punishment and Torture. New York: Smithmark, 1996.
Kors, Alan Charles and Edward Peters, ed. Witchcraft in Europe 400-1700: A Documentary History. 2nd ed. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.
Levack, Brian P. The Witch Hunts in Early Modern Europe. 3rd ed. London: Longman, 2007.
Levack, Brian P., ed. The Witchcraft Sourcebook. London: Routledge, 2004.
Oldridge, Darren, ed. The Witchcraft Reader. London: Routledge, 2002.
Pavlac, Brian A. Witch Hunts in the Western World: Persecution and Punishment from the Inquisition through the Salem Trials. (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2009).
Russell, Jeffrey B. A History of Witchcraft: Sorcerers, Heretics and Pagans. London: Thames and Hudson, 1980.
Scarre, Geoffrey. Witchcraft and Magic in 16th and 17th Century Europe. Studies in European History. London: Macmillan Press, 1987.
Wiesner, Merry E. "Witchcraft," pp. 218-238 in Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
See also an annotated bibliography.
The world-wide-web/internet, bookstores, and libraries are full of all sorts of information about witches. Too much of what is written about the history of allegedly demonically empowered witches and witchcraft is inaccurate, silly, and incorrect. As someone who believes in the beneficial power of knowledge, I am trying to present some of what professional historians do know about witches. See also the commentary for Myth #8.
I am basing the above debunking of myths and correction of errors on research for my college on the witch hunts and my book, Witch Hunts in the Western World: Persecution and Punishment from the Inquisition through the Salem Trials. For more information, see my syllabus, the bibliography above, other information on linked webpages, and my personal homepage.
Ten Theories about the Causes of the Witch Hunts