To understand witchcraft persecution in the early modern period, or any topic in history, it’s useful to combine two spyglasses to get a broader scope, or use binoculars if you will. Witchcraft persecution in the early modern period was rampant across the world, but we’ll be directing our attention to two places–Germany, the Holy Roman Empire in Europe, and Guatemala, the Spanish Catholic colonial society in Central America–specifically.
After I do more research I’d love to talk more about medieval witches versus fantasy witches, but today we’re just going to talk about the very real persecution of witches in the early modern period. Get prepared because things get cringy. Now, let’s begin…
Persecution of Witchcraft in Early Modern Germany
Marchtal, a rural community in Swabia governed by a Catholic monastery, from the 1590s to the 1670s, faced some of the grimmest witch panics history has to offer, with one well-studied Ursula Götz losing her head in 1627. Other areas of early modern Germany saw similar witch panics. Each area also saw differences in the way witches were persecuted. Marchtal, Nördlingen, Augsburg and Würzburg are areas worth studying here because they each tell something different about the persecution of witchcraft in the early modern period. But before one can understand why witch panics looked different depending on when and where they occurred in Germany, we must first understand the local political climate of the time.
Like it can be today, witch persecution was a widely known topic of debate in early modern Europe. Nicholas Rémy (lived 1530 to 1612), even though he was responsible for over 800 witch executions in Lorraine, was only a rare kind of witch-hunter because he strived to give his victims a proper Christian death to save their souls after they confessed rather than simply damn them to burn at the stake which was the normal custom (Roper, 21-22). He wrote Demolatry, a popular book in early modern Germany. Another odd-thinker was Friedrich Spee (lived 1591 to 1635), a Jesuit who wrote Cautio criminalis. He tried to convince his colleagues that torture was not a proper way to get a truthful confession, but torture-induced witch confessions continued in Germany nonetheless.
Politically, Germany in the early modern period was a hodgepodge of principalities and prince-bishoprics, united under the confederation of the Holy Roman Empire, ruled by the Habsburg family. In 1500 AD, the Holy Roman Empire had roughly 2,500 sovereign polities, some being the size of a university campus; by the French Revolution roughly 1,000 sovereign polities existed (Koch). In the Electorate of Cologne under Ferdinand of Bavaria alone, 2,000 witches were executed between the years 1612 and 1637; 600 witches in Bamberg under Johann Georg Fuchs from 1623 to 1633 (Roper, 15). All this occurred after the Protestant Reformation and during the Catholic Counter-Reformation which was a root cause of the Thirty Years War (war lasted 1618 to 1648).
Germany at this time, even before the Thirty Years War ravaged many parts of its landscape, was in economic distress, partly due to the “little ice age” which began in the late 1500s and lasted to 1630 (Roper, 19-20). Famine was a normal part of life, and the culture in Germany was, in today’s standards, sexist toward women, but these two factors were true for much of Europe throughout the Middle Ages. The religious strife between Protestants and Catholics is the one unique factor that allowed wide-spread witch hysteria to happen when it did and not during other times in history (Koch). Calvinist Scotland, Catholic Italy, Lutheran Sweden and other large, united proto-nations had witch hunts of their own but not to the same white-hot extent that compartmentalized Germany witnessed, because the Holy Roman Empire was an entrepôt for religious strife due to its many independent states.
Despite the differences between Lutherans, Calvinists and Catholics at the time, these religious factions had many similar beliefs about witchcraft. Each Christian religion had their own demonologists who all studied the pre-Reformation work of Heinrich Kramer. The English Protestant demonologist Reginald Scot wrote his The Discoverie of Witchcraft in 1584. In the 1590s, the Catholic demonologist Del Rio wrote his Six Books of Investigative Magic. And then there was the Calvinist demonologist Christoph Zimmerman, who after balking peasants for their use of magic awoke from a mental collapse to find that peasants had ironically used magic to speed his recovery (Roper, 38). The Jesuit demonologist and suffragan Bishop of Trier, Peter Binsfeld, too, preached heavily on the topic of witchcraft before he died in 1598 (Roper, 64). These demonologists, despite their religious and geographical differences, all believed in witches. However, the stories they wrote, designed to capture a niche audience, focusing on the more horrifying aspects of contemporary superstition, were often more elaborate than the stories “real” torture-induced witches confessed to.
A common belief in witches was not enough to re-unite Christendom. Tensions between religious factions created a blame economy in many parts of Europe, and in Germany in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, with a lack of Jews to blame due to the pogroms of the Middle Ages, another scapegoat or easy answer was needed to explain declines in fertility during the little ice age (Roper, 40-43). Of course, the witch became the target in many areas, especially in southern Germany after Charles V’s Imperial Law Code, the Carolina, made witchcraft illegal throughout the Holy Roman Empire in 1532 (Roper, 20). But Charles V’s Carolina gave little direct instruction for how to go about trying witches, which is why early modern persecutors across Europe relied on Kramer’s medieval Malleus Maleficarum (written 1486). The Maleficarum, which was also known as Hexenhammer (The Hammer of the Witches) gave such instruction for witch-hunters as to carry “salt consecrated on Palm Sunday” (Roper, 21). Kramer’s work also inspired the famous Jean Bodin who wrote the Démonomanie des sorciers in the mid-16th century.
In the case of rural Marchtal, where childrearing, farming and keeping livestock were regular parts of life for its relatively smaller population, Catholic witch-hunters were obsessed with drawing anti-fertility confessions out of their torture victims. Often witch trials in Marchtal circled around stories of dead children, animals and crops, plus they included less detail compared to confessions in Würzburg where tortured witches more often told detailed stories about fornication with Lucifer (Roper, 85-86).
Witches committing fornication with Lucifer is a theme that spread across much of Europe in the early modern period. Apparently, the Devil would appear to a woman as a well-dressed man slightly above her rank in society and would offer marriage alongside enough money for a worry-free life, which was alluring if she was widowed, unmarried or seeking to escape an abusive husband (Roper, 84). But to marry the Devil in a rural countryside was easier than in Würzburg, a large Catholic territory in Franconia with a city at its center. This is because the Counter-Reformist bishop-prince of Würzburg, the famous witch-killer Julius Echter, promoted a marriage system traditional to the Council of Trent, which meant a priest needed to be present and banns needed to be read in order for any marriage to be legitimate (Roper, 84). This made it harder for the Devil to seduce women into marriage in Würzburg because he had to trick them. One Hohenberger was duly tricked nonetheless only to find that the Devil had betrayed her, ruining her life and spoiling all her fertility (Roper, 84).
Every place where witches were routinely executed on a massive scale had their own high-status figure who was largely responsible for urging the executions to continue for the fight against Satan. In Augsburg, Gottlieb Spitzel, a radical Lutheran Pietist, caused doubt in the power of his religion for failing to exorcize Regina Schiller because he was not Catholic (Roper, 34-35). Despite Spitzel’s hard work, only seventeen witches were executed in Augsburg over a course of seventy years (Roper, 19). Compared to the countryside, witches in cities were wealthier and the commune paid for lavish feasts to celebrate their execution. In 1590, 15 gulden was spent on one such banquet in Augsburg (Roper, 63). This tradition may have been due to all the riches cities obtained through hunting wealthy witches. Würzburg alone had confiscated 100,000 gulden from witches by 1629 (Roper, 62). Interestingly, in late 17th-century Augsburg, some well-to-do witches had the pleasure of not being humiliated by the executioner’s touch and received death by sword, but others whose crimes were heinous got mutilated by the executioner before being burned alive (Roper, 65).
Augsburg was the largest city in Germany during the 17th century. 50,000 people lived together bi-confessionally there, which meant both Protestants and Catholics shared the same walls (Koch). A late bloomer to the witch panic, Augsburg’s witch trials did not begin until 1625 and continued on into the 18th century when “Godless children” were believed to be brought into the Devil’s fold by evil women, though by the 18th century executions and witch trials in general were less frequent across Germany and often these Godless children were freed after incarceration (Roper, 33). The surrounding countryside of Augsburg began trials as early as 1586 and 150 witches were executed there (Roper, 33). Interestingly, 75-80% of executed witches in Europe were women, the rest being men and children, even though places like Normandy and Switzerland had surprising bouts of mostly male witch executions (Roper, 18).
In 1618, Julius Echter built a jail in Würzburg specifically for witches (Roper, 49). A grand total of 1,200 witches were executed in Würzburg, as Julius Echter’s legacy was continued by other like-minded men such as Bishop Johann Gottfried and Ehrenberg (Roper, 19). Out of these 1,200 deaths, only 20-25% of them were male, whereas in Augsburg one out of seventeen witches were male (Roper, 32).
In Nördlingen, a medium-sized Protestant town facing much inequality in wealth, only one out of thirty-five victims were male; in Marchtal, two males out of fifty-six (Roper, 32). Lutheran Nördlingen had a population of 7,000 to 11,000 in the 1580s, with roughly 500 people living in the countryside, and their witch panics ran through the years of 1589 to 1594 (Roper, 37). Although prior to these panics, the Catholic Counts of Oetingen-Wallerstein had engaged in a bout of witch hunts in the nearby countryside, setting up an atmosphere for witch hysteria in the area (Roper, 37). Nördlingen had a strong arm of authority to organize their witch trials, and the victims were mostly elites of society, which is partly why the trials ended relatively soon there compared to other territories in the empire like Marchtal where the typical victim was poor. During Nördlingen’s witch panics, the mayor was one Johannes Pferinger and he had a dozen councillors to interrogate witches in strict rotation cycles, including the well-known doctors Wolfgang Graf and Sebastian Röttinger (Roper, 36). One result of such an organized system for trying witches was that eighteen women who refused to confess were set free as innocent (a rare thing to happen), including the famous Maria Holl who suffered through sixty-two bouts of torture (Roper, 50). Another well-studied victim of Nördlingen’s witch hysteria who ended up dying as a result of torture was the midwife Barbara Lierheimer who in 1590 confessed to eating a child’s foot at a banquet (Roper, 69).
Nördlingen’s obsession with cannibalism was revived from an older belief that Jews would eat Christian children and use their blood for holy rites, as the anti-Semitic expellings of 1304 and 1507 had seen that there were few Jews to point fingers at after the local fear of cannibalism refused to leave, too (Roper, 74). As far back as 1478, one Else Schwab had been accused of eating exhumed children (Roper, 73). Similar to how cannibalism in Nördlingen was a transmutation of assumed Jewish ritual, grave desecration was a reverse of childbirth, as the witches’ Sabbath itself was an inversion of the proper Christian mass (Roper, 78). These fears were true for much of Europe, but one thing unique to Nördlingen was the conspiracy that witches were banqueting in secret cellars under the Wine Market Square (Roper, 71). During the panics, no one in Nördlingen was safe from accusation. Unlike most witch trials in Europe, Nördlingen saw that wealthy daughters and widows of councillors were persecuted, as well as the widow of a mayor (Roper, 79).
As seen here, the history of a location can be a major factor in what witch persecution can look like. Despite the common empire-wide belief in witchery, the persecution of witchcraft looked different from location to location. Five outstanding details play a prominent role in shaping the appearance of early modern witch persecution in Germany: the year panics began, the persecutors’ stereotypical victim, the obsession of the interrogators during torture, the stories condemned witches told about the Devil, the total number of executions. These differences derive from five important factors: whether the secular or ecclesiastical arms of law are strong or weak, whether the population was small or large, whether the location was rural or urban, whether the majority of people were Catholic or Protestant, whether the inequality in wealth was high or low. The disturbing political climate in early modern Germany certainly made an eclectic mix of all these details and factors possible, resulting in many unique cases.
Witchcraft Persecution in Colonial Central America
Encompassing today’s Nicaragua, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, Chiapas and Guatemala, colonial Central America from the late 17th to early 18th centuries was a place that witnessed a worrisome bout of witchcraft persecution, although the persecutors writing to Inquisition officials at the time called these witches “mujeres de mal vivir” (women who live evil lives). But who exactly were these witches and why did the Inquisition focus much effort in persecuting them in the late 17th and early 18th centuries? Before a conclusion to this question can be reached, some foundational history needs to be covered alongside case studies.
In our period, Santiago de Guatemala was the capital city of colonial Central America. Steadily since the 1550s Santiago witnessed an increase in mestizaje (race mixture) which was a full-blown reality by the 1650s, and a population of 39,000 was reached by the late 17th century (Few, 22). This mixing of races and cultures resulted in curious accusations. In 1676, Bishop Juan de Ortega arrived in the capital and became upset by all the low-cut dresses women were wearing and soon banned all women from wearing such attire (Few, 28). Like-minded Catholic authorities also frowned upon elite women for drinking chocolate beverages in church, as these women would arrive with cushion-toting slaves to fan them from the heat (Few, 28-29). Nuns, too, were guilty of drinking chocolate during the confessional (Few, 29), and hot chocolate drink was a major source of concern for witchcraft persecutors.
But hot chocolate drink was widely consumed by the majority of people in Central America, pious Catholic men included, and for female sorcerers this was very good news. Bewitching chocolate drinks with powdered ritual objects was easy due to the beverage’s dark color and grainy texture (Few, 54-55). Female healers who practiced bewitching chocolate drinks lived a culture unique to colonial Central America, sharing a superstitious belief-system that grew out of converging Spanish, Native and African cultures, and it was not uncommon for these female healers to threaten men, purely Spanish Catholic men who possessed the precondition of believing that witches could make pacts with the Devil, with magical powers that would cause bodily illness (Few, 71).
These casta (mixed-race) female healers, from the Catholic male point of view, were frowned upon for a reason other than consorting with the enemy of God. In 1477 the Spanish crown established the Protomedicato, an institution that regulated the quality of medicine, and in 1525 this institution was increased to Mexico City (Few, 71). Despite this, Guatemala didn’t have any legally trained doctors until the late 16th century, which gave casta female healers a prominent role in local communities even though they were legally not allowed to practice pagan medicine, especially in Santiago’s racially-separated hospitals established through the mid-16th to mid-17th centuries (Few, 72). After 1646, only doctors with university degrees were legally allowed to practice medicine in New Spain (Few, 71).
A plague epidemic in New Spain that lasted from 1686 to 1687 saw the unfortunate effects of having a dearth of licenced medical practitioners, especially as the local hospitals could only host a very small amount of patients compared to today’s hospitals, and so the church stepped in to assist, hosting Catholic processions through the streets of Santiago to, as they believed, counteract the sorcery of the Devil with the ambivalent blessings of God (Few, 73-74). After all, even the Mayan and African peoples themselves believed healers in their variant cultures were capable of casting such epidemics on mankind, as the power to confer benevolent magic came in tandem with the power to confer malevolent magic (Few, 74-75).
One reason why these female healers were able to get away with illegal practice of medicine is because many of them lived in the barrios (neighborhoods) of Santiago and away from the eyes of Spanish Catholic men. In 1549 these barrios were privileged with Native self-rule with each one having a cabildo (municipal council) which included an alcalde (mayor), a regidor (alderman) and alguacil (constable) (Few, 21). These extramuros (outside the walls), self-ruled Native barrios, however, were still monitored by Spanish officials and didn’t have authority over criminal cases that included Spaniards (Few, 21). This wasn’t the only form of racial segregation Santiago withheld.
Santiago was the city of two republics, one republic being Native and the other Spanish, which forced the locals to operate within a racial hierarchy, partly to lessen Spanish abuse of Native slaves but mostly to ensure the expected Native tribute and forced labor (a mandatory labor separate from slavery) (Few, 16-18). Even though Inquisition officials were only consulted for sorcery-related conflicts during extraordinary circumstances, increasing regulation of women’s behavior became an interest of the Inquisition when José de Oviedo y Baños, the head of the Guatemala Inquisition in the 1690s, said there wasn’t enough jails to house all the “shameless women” who were deviant to Catholicism, and aptly to the beat of those words one hundred women in the area, mostly free mulatas, were targeted for religious deviancy between 1650 and 1750 (Few, 9, 29).
Promptly so, starting in the 1680s, more jails were built in New Spain, where-when the El Niñado hospital in Santiago began to participate in housing females accused of sorcery as early as 1643, and in 1691 a jail specifically for housing religiously deviant women was constructed in the city (Few, 31-32).
While most male-dominated healing practices faced few persecutions by officials, elite Spanish women, too, escaped the goat-footed persecution for deviant healing practices, for the true scapegoat was casta women unlike doña Magdalena, an elite Spanish woman who was given much leniency by the male officials because she claimed to be a pious Catholic (Few, 37-38). Like many less-fortunate casta women in Santiago who clearly weren’t pious Catholics, the Spanish Magdalena was accused of consulting the infamous pagan sorceress Gerónima for Devil-induced infanticide potions (Few, 37-38). Magdalena was also allowed to send letters to friends via priests (Few, 39).
The sorceress Gerónima was persecuted during the heyday of witchcraft persecution in Santiago. From 1680 to 1720 Inquisition officials increasingly helped along the persecution of magical crimes, curses and pagan healing, whereas before the institution had focused more so on cases of blasphemy, bigamy and cohabitation (Few, 30).
The history of the Inquisition in Guatemala begins politically. Papal bulls established the Inquisition in New Spain in 1521 and 1522 (Few, 10). Then, in 1571, King Philip II personally established a reformed Inquisition for New Spain based out of Mexico City, the so-called Mexican Inquisition, alongside a second Inquisition, the Proviserato, which dealt solely with newly-converted Natives (Few, 10, 18). Because of a shared Spanish Catholic point of view colonial officials working out of these institutions had little concern with male sorcerers, let alone male beef-sellers, as women dominated bread-baking, tortilla-making and urban beef-selling in and around Santiago, and some of these women also performed passed-down pagan rituals of malevolent and benevolent magic (Few, 11, 24) All the while Native men faced little suspicion of deviltry by colonial rule, mainly because they were more associated with bloodletting, a practice Europeans were used to, and partly because legendary Mayan male sorcerers were famous for feats in battle (like the Quetzal or Izquín Najaib) and here this male-favoring, Spanish Catholic political arm-of-power in Santiago didn’t legalize the female-dominated practice of urban beef-selling until 1681, an act that shared power with female pagan healers who sold sorcery out of their shops (Few, 24, 59-60, 88). Therefore, unsurprisingly, in 1703, after female beef-sellers had risen to create their own guild, selling meat in the streets of Santiago was once again illegalized (Few, 24-25). Whether or not this passing of law was a consequence of male fear of female sorcery does not matter in trying to explain why casta women in Santiago were targeted by Catholic men in general. However, male fear of casta women using magic was certainly commonplace in New Spain.
In 1704, the priest Padre Quevedo was allegedly attacked by two female sorcerers in his home at night (Few, 45). Notice how the accuser is conveniently male, likeminded to the accusers who attended María de la Candelaria who vomited up strange ritual items for a course of three years (Few, 49). This is because the sexuality of women, too, not just their political-standing and religious-practice, was monitored and adjusted by Spanish Catholic men. Catholic power-holders in Santiago were flaunting the Council of Trent and forcing Christian marriages upon Natives (Few, 45). From the male Spanish Catholic point of view, Native women performing the rituals of their indigenous religions were seen as pagan Devil worshippers. And since women in general were less literate than men because they were not allowed to attend universities in this period, most letters sent to Inquisition officials by lay people accusing others of sorcery were written by literate men who possessed this Spanish Catholic point of view.
Unlike the male-dominated practice of bloodletting, midwifery was seen as a preternatural service in Spanish colonial culture (Few, 88, 94). Midwives were “both practical and religious specialists who mediated between the natural and supernatural worlds” (Few, 94). Therefore, it is highly inconvenient that pregnant women were also believed to be more susceptible to magical spells, because rivalries between mothers and midwives would often lead to public disputes and sorcery accusations (Few, 95).
In the smaller communities around Santiago, and to some extent within the city itself, rivalries and child births were highly public affairs (Few, 99). This explains why Inquisition officials, with their desire to reform deviant behavior in Spanish colonial society, would take the opportunity to get more involved in community affairs. Local communities would get highly involved in sorcery accusation disputes as rivals blamed everything from disease to stillbirth on each other, commonly believing their respective rival purchased the services of a sorcerer out of jealousy or spite (Few, 99). By now, in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, sorcery that had been designed to end rivalry was exacerbating it, which meant some public affairs could no longer be solved by local female healers so easily. Instead, aggravated thereby, the Inquisition found a great opportunity to reclaim their authority over public matters by stepping in to take control over community affairs and replace the authority of female sorcerers at a local level (Few, 99). For the Inquisition to take a sudden new approach to dealing with communities at a local level must have been easier thanks to the common belief that female sorcerers had caused the recent plague epidemic of 1686 to 1687.
While it was casta female healers who were more often the targets of sorcery persecution by Inquisition officials, it was not poor casta women in general. While racism may have been a factor in explaining why mainly casta women were persecuted, economics was definitely a factor. It was not uncommon for a female healer to make a comfortable living selling their services in Santiago, and many persecuted for sorcery had rich belongings like jewelry, silk and houses confiscated (Few, 103). Moreover, much like how male trade specialists of the period climbed from apprentice to journeyman to master, there were “master” female sorcerers according to Inquisition records; however, while a real master aided his apprentice with useful knowledge, a young female sorcerer became corrupted by an older, deviant woman (Few, 104).
In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, while cases of many sorts were increasingly being brought to the Inquisition’s attention, cases of “economic sorcery” became more prevalent (Few, 106). As the population of Santiago grew, so too did the population of people seeking financial comfort. Bereaved and desolate believers were increasingly consulting well-off sorcerers for magical, wealth-granting spells (Few, 106). Increasing poverty must have played a role in people becoming more vulnerable against the lure of supernatural ways of increasing revenue, no matter how unorthodox these ways were, and pagan supernatural beliefs were clearly spreading within the population. As a male priest spread the Spanish Catholic religion through the streets of Santiago with his preaching, so too did the deviant female healer spread her pagan beliefs about so-called sorcery. Meanwhile, casta females dominated the practice of spreading rumors and gift-giving in and around Santiago which undermined the Inquisition’s power in getting their word across to the broader people at a local level (Few, 132).
Overall, a dangerous dance of gender dynamics hit Spanish colonial culture in this turning of a century when Spanish Catholic men didn’t idly sit by while spreading rumors, illegal profits and magical spells were cast by pagan casta women. Such deviant behavior was against the Spanish Catholic rule in Santiago’s colonial society, let alone induced by the powers of the Devil.
Few, Martha. Women who live evil lives: gender, religion, and the politics of power in colonial Guatemala. University of Texas Press, 2002.
Koch, Matthew. History 385A: Witchcraft and Its Persecution in the Early Modern Atlantic World. 31 Jul. 2019, University of Victoria, Victoria. Class lecture.
Koch, Matthew. History 385A: Witchcraft and Its Persecution in the Early Modern Atlantic World. 6 Aug. 2010, University of Victoria, Victoria. Class lecture.
Koch, Matthew. History 385A: Witchcraft and Its Persecution in the Early Modern Atlantic World. 7 Aug. 2010, University of Victoria, Victoria. Class lecture.
Roper, Lyndal. Witch craze: Terror and fantasy in Baroque Germany. Yale University Press, 2004.