Witches in Sixteenth-Century Germany: The belief in witches, what they were accused of and why

Keywords: Malleus Maleficarum, infanticide, metamorphosis, witchcraft, Witchcraft in sixteenth century, What caused the witch craze in Europe, Witch hunt in Europe, Witch trials

Early modern Europe is known for its climate of fear as highlighted by the moral panics surrounding the witch trials (Roberts and Naphy, 1997, p. 1). Repeated war and death from disease and famine, fostered conditions for superstitious beliefs (Zika, 2007, p. 5; Bartrum, 1995, pp. 9-10). Accusations against witchcraft was usually the product of neighbours incriminating neighbour for their misfortunes including loss of livestock or even children (Sidky, 1997, p. 233; Lea, 1957, p. 231). Germany was at the centre of the witch persecutions in early modern Europe. The majority of witch trials took place in the German-speaking territories of the Holy Roman Empire. At least a third of the estimated individuals accused of witchcraft in Europe were derived from German-speaking lands. This equated to between 30,000 and 45,000 executions within the Germanic region (Robisheaux, 2013, p. 179). The publication of Malleus Maleficarum (‘Hammer of Witches’) (1486) by German Dominican inquisitors Heinrich Kramer (c. 1430-1505) and James Sprenger (c. 1436-95) promoted the idea that witches were abound in the German lands. Its popularity and influence are shown in the approximately thirty editions that were published between 1486 and 1669 (Williams, 2007, p. 769). The witch panic in Germany followed European trends and peaked around 1580 and 1590, along with latter peaks in the seventeenth century (Brady, 2009, p. 337). These periods coincided with the ‘Great Famine’ during the 1590s due to climatic shift, as well as famine and disease that spread due to the Thirty Years’ War (Waite, 2013, p. 502; Trevor-Roper, 1968, p. 145).

Anonymous, A broadside on witchcraft in the Bishopric of Trier and elsewhere, c.1600,
Etching, 233 x 290mm,
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Pope Innocent VIII’s Summis disiderantes affectibus (‘Desiring with supreme order’) of 1484 was published on the insistence of Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger who stated that people had deviated from Catholicism and practiced sorcery in ‘Mainz, Cologne, Trier, Salzburg, and Bremen’ (Waite, 2013, p. 43). These were also the same regions that saw the greatest number of witch persecutions and burnings (Williams, 2007, p. 770). The Canon Episcopi (Cannon 11B) (c.900), denied the reality of witches (Canon Episcopi cited in Kramer and Sprenger, 2009, p. 100). However, in publishing Summis disiderantes affectibus and including it in Malleus Maleficarum, Kramer and Sprenger essentially overruled the Canon Episcopi. This point was underscored by Kramer and Sprenger stating: ‘Whether claiming that sorcerers exist is such a Catholic proposition that to defend the opposite view steadfastly is altogether heretical’ (Kramer and Sprenger, 2009, p. 91). No book during the early modern period did more to promote the belief in witches and was recognised by being given papal legitimacy by including the Summis disiderantes affectibus (Kamen, 1998, p. 270). Suddenly, denying witchcraft was heresy, spiralling into suspicion of any signs of otherness.

The concentration of witch persecutions could further be a product of Catholic religious zeal within the region (Linder, 2008, p. 124). Mainz, Cologne, Trier, Salzburg, and Bremen remained under Catholic influence during the sixteenth century (Brady, 2009, p. 16). Protestant authors generally avoided the most sensational aspects of witchcraft, including metamorphosis (Clark, 1997, p. 528). Catholic reconquests are correlated with increased witch persecutions (Trevor-Roper, 1968, p. 145). Catholic territories driven by Counter-Reformation moralism was connected to wide-scale witch persecutions and thus rooting out non-conformity (Rowlands, 2009, p. 11). However, while noting the connection between Catholicism and witch persecution, Bengt Ankarloo and Stuart Clark stipulated that this connection was far from conclusive. They provided examples of Protestant rulers who were more severe in the persecution of witches (Ankarloo and Clark, 2002, pp. 10-11). Württemberg and Saxony are notable exceptions (Schulte, 2009, pp. 51, 56). R. Po-chia Hsia noted that there were fewer witch trials in areas where there was greater political stability, which is a plausible explanation for the contradiction (Hsia, 1989, p. 160). Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks further notes that prince-bishoprics, such as Bamberg and Cologne had the highest level of witch executions as a way to show their piety and authority (Wiesner-Hanks, 2006, p. 392).

Old poor women, as the most marginalised members of society, were most often accused of witchcraft (Bailey, 2013, p. 150). This is because older, widowed women could be seen as a drain on society. Of the hundreds and thousands of witches killed, it has been estimated that between 75 and 90 per cent were female. However, the proportion of male witches convicted of witchcraft differed considerably across different parts of Europe (Brauner, 2001, p. 5; Rowlands, 2009, pp. 6-7). Martin Luther translated the Vulgate Bible in 1529, which changed the masculine maleficos to the feminine maleficas. Erik Midelfort was certain that this change in translation contributed to the concentrated attack on female witches during the late sixteenth century (Midelfort, 2013, p.14). The beginning of the witch hunts saw slightly more males charged than women (Brauner, 2001, p. 6).

Hans Baldung, The Witches’ Sabbath, 1510
Woodcut, 373mm x 257mm
© The Trustees of the British Museum

The witch was a monster in the female form. This was, in part, the result of women already being regarded as sub-human and closer to animals than man. In this way, the female body was regarded as a monstrosity. Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) viewed women as imperfect men (or less developed humans), a view that still held sway during the Renaissance (Women were a ‘deformity, but on which occurs in the ordinary course of nature.’ Aristotle, 1943, p. 460 (Book IV, vi). However, this feminist interpretation of Aristotle is a point of contention. Theorists continued to debate whether women were indeed human during this period (Kosman, 2010, pp. 147-68). One work by Clive Hart published in Germany in 1595 argued that women were not human (Hart, 2004). This sentiment was espoused in Malleus Maleficarum, which helped bring about a clear definition of the ‘female’ witch during the sixteenth century. It stated that a woman’s defects derived from her original shaping, formed from the curved rib of man that is ‘twisted and contrary’ in a way that made her into an ‘imperfect animal (Kramer and Sprenger, 2009, p. 165).’ It was not just the female’s body that was a monstrosity but also her sexuality, which was a preoccupation of the late fifteenth and sixteen centuries (Zika, 2003, p. 238).

Albrecht Dürer, The Witch Riding Backwards on a Goat, c. 1500-1501,
Engraving, 11.5 x 7.0 cm,
The British Museum

The witch trials demonstrated fear of the power of women’s sexuality. The female witch was understood to be a product of woman’s excessive carnal lust who were affiliated with fornication and orgies with the Devil. This made them more susceptible to falling prey to his influence (Oldridge, 2009, p. 165). It was believed that the pact with the Devil was sealed with intercourse (Kwan, 2012, p. 510). The belief that women were more likely to succumb to temptation dates to the Old Testament with Eve’s original sin in the Garden of Eden leading to the fall of mankind (Ruff, 2001, p. 35). During the early Renaissance, Kramer and Sprenger argued that women’s sexuality made them more prone to witchcraft and whose obedience to the Devil included ‘a relationship with him alone (Kramer and Springer, 2009, p. 165).’ Witches were frequently depicted in sixteenth-century German prints as naked with long flowing hair symbolising their sexual impropriety like in Albrecht Dürer’s, The Witch Riding Backwards on a Goat, (c. 1500-1501) (Zika, 2007, p. 12). Witches accused of hypersexuality and sexual relations with the Devil played on the theme of the over-assertive female. The theme of a domineering woman in sixteenth-century German prints reflects the fear of being overpowered or cuckolded by women (Grössinger, 1997, p. 121). The greater physical strength of man was thought to make a woman’s natural place as passive and subservient (Milliken, 2012, pp. 16, 18-9).

There was a shift in the representation of witches as peasant ignorant ‘rustics’ to an organised conspiracy. As sixteenth-century witches were believed to be aligned with the Devil it was thought that they sought to corrupt the true faith of Christendom (Bailey, 2013, p. 198). Witches were conceived as the antithesis to proper moral and social order. The belief in this conspiracy is further reflected in mass executions of witches in Germany from 1580 (Oplinger, 1990, p. 39).

The Jewish community were previously used as a scapegoat for the murder of children (Oberman, 1996, p. 22). After the Jewish community was decimated within the German-speaking territories of the Holy Roman Empire, a new conspiracy was created by targeting other marginalised individuals as a scapegoat. Authorities including law-makers, magistrates and churchmen created the idea of the diabolical plot against society caused by witches in the service of the Devil (Sidky, 1997, p. 147). Witches were therefore accused of killing and devouring children (Kramer and Sprenger, 2009, p. 27). The obsession with infanticide during this period was reflected in stories and pictorial representations of Jews, witches, Turks, and others abducting and killing children and sometimes eating them or cooking them for magical potions (Lewis, 2016, p. 82; Grössinger, 1997, p. 131; Wheatcroft, 1993, p. 25. Arnds, 2015, p. 72). Girolamo Cardan in De Subtilitate (Basel, 1557, p. 500), for example, listed exhumed bodies of babies as one of the ingredients of witches’ ointments (Oates, 1989, pp. 304-364).

An anonymous seven-page pamphlet published in 1589 in Cologne describes the acts of sorcery in that year in the German territories. The pamphlet includes stories of witches murdering many children in 1589. A witch in Mergenthal, eastern Germany, was said to have killed eighty children over forty years (Anonymous, 1589, p. 3). Although she was not said to be a midwife, the text read: ‘there were no pious midwives to be found around Mergenthal for ten miles, for they all were witches (‘es were keine fromme hebamme umb Mergenthal/ auff zehen meilen zu finden/ dann es alle hexen weren.’) (Anonymous, 1589, p. 4) The pamphlet further stated that eight witches were executed in Swabia for the murder of over a hundred and forty children. Again, the pamphlet mentions two of the witches were midwives (Anonymous, 1589, p. 4). The link between midwives, witches, and the murder of children had at least been established by the time Malleus Maleficarum was printed (Kramer and Sprenger, 2009, p.27). However, David Harley argued that the number of midwives accused of witchcraft was minimal (Harley, 2001, p. 49). This is not to say that there was not a connection made between midwifery and witchcraft amidst the popular imagination. The pamphlet contextualised the fear of sorcery as well as the considerable fear over the loss of children in the year 1589.

Kramer and Sprenger gave the belief in witchcraft validity and as a result, the possibility of powers of transformation. This was supported by the statement in Malleus Maleficarum that through the help of the Devil, sorcerers could transform into wolves. Although this was despite later assertions that such metamorphosis could not exist without the will of God (Kramer and Sprenger, 2009, pp. 100, 201-02). It was surely no coincidence that the same region that was suspected of sorcery would later witness high rates of witch persecution and werewolf accusations. As Kramer and Sprenger were natives of the Rhineland, their examples of witchcraft were also drawn from this region, thus making western Germany particularly suspect (Trevor-Roper, 1969, p. 105). The wolf had a special bond with the witch in early modern Europe that surpassed the belief that they could transform into wolves. Witches were also thought to ride on wolves to the Sabbath and those called Wolfbanners could magically instruct wolves to attack people (Schulte, 2009, p. 226; Schulte, 2009, p. 58).


Anonymous, Warhafftige und erschreckliche beschreibung von einem zauberer (Stupe Peter genandt) der sich zu einem wehrwolff hat können machen welcher zu Bedbur vier meilen von Cölln gelegen ist gerichtet worden den 31. October dieses 1589. jahrs was böser thaten er begangen hat. Auch wei man hin und wider viel zäuberschen verbrandt hat in diesem 1589. jahre was sie getrieben und bekandt haben männiglich zur trewen warnung geestellet, Köln, Nikolaus Schreiber, 1589 Ankarloo, Bengt and Stuart Clark, Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: The Period of the Witch Trials, volume 4, London: The Athlone Press, 2002.

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