Witchcraft in early modern Germany

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2004 27 Pages

History Europe - Other Countries - Middle Ages, Early Modern Age


List of contents

1. Introduction

2. Definition of ‘witch’
2.1 Historical
2.2 Linguistic
2.3 Etymological

3. The Malleus maleficarum
3.1 The authors and their idea
3.2 The content

4. The social context
4.1 The accused of witchcraft
4.2 Reasons of witchcraft accusation

5. The witch-hunts
5.1 Preconditions
5.2 Development
5.3 The end of the witch-hunts

6. Conclusion



1. Introduction

‘Witch-hunting is seen as something pathological, a disease infecting like a plague the body of the communities in witch it raged.’[1] With these words the historian Bob Scribner described witchcraft and witch-hunts. They are defined as something negative and pathological and it is obviously that witchcraft could easily emerged because of the traditional beliefs rooted in the early modern society of Germany. Witchcraft and witch-hunts emerged in this period and made the population susceptible to the carrying out of denunciation and elimination of innocent people. The population had been easily influenced by the authorities like magistrates and their fellow citizens.

In the following discussion/passage, witchcraft and witch-hunts concerning the early modern Europe will be less prominent rather than the study about witchcraft and witch-hunts in early modern Germany. In particular the main focus will stress on the south of Germany because it was the centre of witchcraft and witch-hunts. In addition to that some examples will be mentioned to show special witchcraft and witch-hunt cases.

First it will be examined how the term ‘witch’ is defined shown in a historical, linguistic and an etymological way. Then the two authors of the Malleus maleficarum [2] and their ideas about witches and witchcraft will be mentioned. In the forth chapter the social context shall be examined. In this passage the accused shall be represented and the reasons which led to their accusation. In the last chapter the witch-hunts in early modern Germany shall be represented.

It keeps the question in what way the witch-hunts increased during the early modern period and which reasons contributed to their decline. Furthermore it should be bring out who was accused for witchcraft and what led to their accusation? Which reasons were fundamental for the accusation of certain people, especially women? At that period Germany was part of the Holy Roman Empire which lacked of juridical power and had no control over its own territories.[3] Also the early modern period was a time of considerable changes in economy, politics and even within the society in particular concerning the role of the woman. So the question remains whether witchcraft was linked to the changing female role in early modern Germany or was it only the result of a lot of different political, economical and social changes in the early modern period?

2. Definition of ‘witch’

2.1 Historical

The term ‘witch’ is a collective term which is based on traditional magic and ghost beliefs. Its special meaning concerning the base of the later witch persecutions and witch trials was developed by the theology of the medieval church. The contents of the term ‘witch’ were defined and determined by the ecclesiastical and national legislation and first summarised and determined in writing through the heretic inquisition.[4] By the 1480s the new definition was done and was recorded in the later Malleus maleficarum published in 1487. This written treatise which defines the modern witch and witchcraft will be nearer explained in the next chapter.

The portrait of the early modern witch differs a lot from the traditional definition founded in the Middle Ages. At that time a man was normally involved in making a pact with the devil, not a woman. But after the new definition the cult of other deities or the so-called Sabbath meetings were ascribed to women.[5]

So there are four characteristics which define the modern witch. The first and the second characteristics are founded in the medieval theology like the sealing of a pact with the devil by copulating with him and the heresy that means the cult of other deities. The other two characteristics like using magic to harm others, flying through the air at night and transformation into an animal were rooted in folk beliefs of different people.[6] Because of the long duration and the wide diffusion of the witch tribes throughout the Holy Roman Empire and even over and above this region, the theological meaning of the term was accepted by the population.[7]

Before the fifteenth century all these four characteristics were attributed to the adversaries of the church like the heretics or other non corresponding groups.[8] In the sixteenth century new developments like the invention of the printing and the woodcut arose and changed the society. Some vernacular literature emerged, so even the not so well educated classes could make profit of those writings and also the emerge of a literate and of a better educated urban artisan class led to a general and large circulation of those writings.

2.2 Linguistic

The church or better the theologians had not chosen a very specific word for the new term and so a lot of different new names emerged, rooted in the German or Latin language. They coined new names like haeretici fascinarii, Valdenses idolatrae or strigimagae or they adopted some old simple names like lamina, striga or maleficia depending on the demonic, magic or heretic meaning of the term.[9] But also some German terms like Unhulde and Zauberin were used to express the new term for the modern witch.[10] During the sixteenth century the German term for ‘witch’ has pushed back all other magic or demonic words concerning this term on German and Nordic territory. The German terms for ‘witch’ like Unhulde, Zauberin and the Latin terms lamia or maleficia lost their special distinction and were now all a collective term linked to the modern witch.[11] The word Unhulde for example was used in the middle Ages as an evil spirit in Nordic mythology, the word Zauberin referred to a sorceress to invoke spirits to perform magic, lamia was rooted in ancient mythology and then during the Middle Ages it referred to the night-flying spirits of folk beliefs. Finally the word maleficia was originally only connected to sorcery.[12] The German term for ‘witch’, Hexe was now the generic term for the modern witch and found its wide spreading during the fifteenth century when the witch prosecution began in the South of Germany and reached the North.

2.3 Etymological

During the fifteenth century the term Hexe became the most common German word for witches. The term derives from Old High German hagazussa which characterises a female spirit in Nordic mythology who straddled the fence (“Zaunreiterin”). The basic notion of the term hag is fence, that one of zussa is woman.[13] Therefore it was clear that the person who straddles the fence was clearly defined as a woman. During the Middle Ages the term hagazussa had several derivates like hazesse, hazus and hezze. There were besides a lot of different meanings for this term. It could stand for a female comedian, a promiscuous woman and for cannibalistic, night-flying female spirit.[14] While the first connotation is positive, the two others are described more negative.

The term hagazussa and its derivatives were not often used during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries but became modern during the fifteenth century because of the first witch hunts appearing in Switzerland. Words like Hex, Heckse and Haxe were used to define the modern witch in some German-speaking areas, particularly in the region of Constance. But concerning the other part of South Germany, the term was not often used during this time especially in trial records.[15] Although not often used in such trials the term Hexe was utilised in some early modern treatises like in the Malleus maleficarum.

3. The Malleus maleficarum

3.1 The authors and their idea

The authors of the treatise the Malleus maleficarum, published for the first time in Straßburg in 1487, were the two Inquisitors Heinrich Kramer (Insistoris) (1430-1505) and Jakob Sprenger (1436-1495).[16] Primarily the work was written by Kramer, Sprenger was his assistant. They came from the order of Preachers, that means they were both erudite, conservative Dominicans influenced by their order and the Catholic Church in Rome by the appointment as papal Inquisitors for Southern Germany.[17]

Heinrich Kramer was a demonologist and he was already very engaged in controlling other non corresponding groups like the heretics, inspired by the theological and political views of his order. That is why he propagated since his appointment as German Inquisitor a very active witch persecution in the name of several dioceses in Southern Germany. But his very radical activity and attitude were refused.[18] Because of this he went to Rome in 1484 where he obtained the papal bull of Pope Innocent VIII (1432-1495) Summis desiderantes affectibus which authorised him the necessity/occasion/reason of the witch Inquisition.[19] On

this point it has to record the fact, that the Pope did not make any differentiation in his bull between the sexes while Kramer will profit of this bull to change it after his own ideas that the witch has to be a woman.[20] With this idea he went back to the German-speaking area and tried to stage a witch persecution in Innsbruck in 1485. But this attempt was failed because the authorities, the Bishop, did not support him. Vexed by this failure of the conviction of alleged women he found the motive of writing the Malleus maleficarum with the participation of Sprenger.[21] The so-called “Hexenhammer” in German, or in English ‘The Hammer of Witches’ was an encyclopedic handbook on witchcraft and established the first gender-specific definition of the modern witch as a woman and not men. Kramer and Sprenger were the first to raise harmful sorcery, witch involved witchcraft, to the criminal status of heresy.[22] Maleficium for harmful sorcery was originally used in secular law to describe folk magic damaging to people or property. It could also refers to ‘female evildoers’[23]. They chose this term maleficia to describe the modern witch because maleficium was her main activity.

The manual engaged/caused a phenomenal interest and success among the population particularly the most erudite classes because it was written in Latin. Also the invention of printing attributed to its popularisation and the treatise was one of the most reprinted works with most of its editions published in Germany.[24]

Some historians asked themselves about the nature and the target of this popular work, which was valid for the early modern witch-hunts in Germany and elsewhere and on which everybody could refer on and could take it as textbook to find the alleged witches and to guide her to her conviction. So the historian Robin Briggs mentioned that the authors were women-haters and that their text was peculiarly mysogynistic.[25] Even George Parrinder talked about ‘one of the wickedest and most obscene books ever written’.[26] The textbook, so he mentioned was produced to give a procedure of the witchcraft trials and to put an end to witches and their heresy.[27] The handbook perfected the prosecution of those people accused of witchcraft and it was a perfect justification for those who used it. They had besides the papal recognition so they were allowed to act at their own discretion.

They wrote their manual in three parts. These three separate parts explain the nature of witches, the harm they do, and the best way to prosecute them.[28] The first two parts describe the activity of the witch while the third part elaborates some norms for the witch trials. The Malleus maleficarum was especially written for educated audiences like priests and judges to give them useful instructions how to put a witch on trail.[29] They insisted in torture of the witches and if they have been condemned they were handed over to the secular power to be burnt alive on the stake. On the basis of this written statement the radical and violent attitude of both of the authors even against women is obviously. Both of them justify having written the Malleus maleficarum by saying that they were afraid about the welfare of mankind and that they wanted to convince those people who doubted about the malice of witches.[30] Kramer and Sprenger were ‘redefining the witch in a way that set stage for the great wave of witch hunts that followed’[31], argued Sigrid Brauner. But how was the witch redefining and who could be accused in particular as a witch? This question will be closer examined after a short contemplation to the content of the Malleus maleficarum.


[1] B. Scribner, ‘Witchcraft and judgement in Reformation Germany’, History Today 40 (1990), p. 12.

[2] H. Kramer and J. Sprenger, Malleus maleficarum, ed. And trans. M. Summers (London, 1928; repr. 1948)

[3] See B., P. Levack, The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe (London/New York, 1987), p. 177.

[4] See L. Weiser Aall, “Hexe” in H. Bächtold-Stäubli (ed.) Handwörterbuch des deutschen Aberglaubens, vol.3 (Berlin, 2000), pp. 1827-1828.

[5] See S. Brauner, Fearless Wives and Frightened Shrews: the Construction of the Witch in Early Modern Germany (Amherst, 1995), pp. 7-8.

[6] See Weiser Aall, Handwörterbuch des deutschen Aberglaubens, p. 1828.

[7] See Weiser Aall, Handwörterbuch des deutschen Aberglaubens, p. 1828.

[8] See Brauner, Fearless Wives and Frightened Shrews, p. 8.

[9] See Weiser Aall, Handwörterbuch des deutschen Aberglaubens, p. 1834.

[10] See Brauner, Fearless Wives and Frightened Shrews, p. 121.

[11] See Weiser Aall, Handwörterbuch des deutschen Aberglaubens, p. 1834.

[12] See Brauner, Fearless Wives and Frightened Shrews, pp. 122-123.

[13] See Weiser Aall, Handwörterbuch des deutschen Aberglaubens, p. 1838.

[14] Brauner, Fearless Wives and Frightened Shrews, p. 121.

[15] Brauner, Fearless Wives and Frightened Shrews, pp. 121-122.

[16] See Brauner, Fearless Wives and Frightened Shrews, p. 31.

[17] See Brauner, Fearless Wives and Frightened Shrews, p. 31; see G. Parrinder, Witchcraft. European and African (London, 1958), p. 23.

[18] See W. Behringer, Hexen: Glaube, Verfolgung, Vermarktung, 2nd edn (Munich, 2000), p. 41.

19 See Levack, The Witch-Hunt, p. 149.

[20] See Brauner, Fearless Wives and Frightened Shrews, p. 6.

[21] See Behringer, Hexen, p. 42.

[22] Brauner, Fearless Wives and Frightened Shrews, p. 33.

[23] Brauner, Fearless Wives and Frightened Shrews, p. 34.

[24] Brauner, Fearless Wives and Frightened Shrews, p. 7.

[25] See R. Briggs, Witches and Neighbours: the Social and Cultural Context of European Witchcraft (Oxford, 1996), p.259.

[26] Parrinder, Witchcraft, p. 23.

[27] See Parrinder, Witchcraft, p. 23.

[28] See Brauner, Fearless Wives and Frightened Shrews, p. 32.

[29] See Weiser Aall, Handbuch des deutschen Aberglaubens, p. 1841.

[30] See Weiser Aall, Handbuch des deutschen Aberglaubens, p. 1841.

[31] Brauner, Fearless Wives and Frightened Shrews, p. 3.


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Witchcraft Germany Hauptseminar Gender Society Early Modern Europe




Title: Witchcraft in early modern Germany