Childhood Studies Historical Approaches to Child Witches
by
Liv Helene Willumsen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 March 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0156

Introduction

“Historical Approaches to Child Witches” is a bibliographical survey of research literature related to children involved in witchcraft trials. The main emphasis is on children accused of witchcraft in the Early Modern Period in Europe and Colonial America. In addition, some references are included dealing with children as witnesses as well as victims in witchcraft trials. Bibliographical references to the topic of children who allegedly were possessed by the devil have not been included in this bibliography. Chronologically, children were accused of witchcraft throughout the period of witchcraft persecution. There were early cases from the late 16th century and the early 17th where children were believed to be witches and were accused of witchcraft, particularly in Germany and Spain. However, the bulk of children involved in witchcraft trials are found at the end of the witch-hunt, during the late 17th and early 18th centuries. In this late era of the witch-hunt, we find several witchcraft panics, linked witchcraft trials taking place during a concentrated period of time, where children were involved, for instance in Scandinavia and in Colonial America. However, the increasing tendency was that trials involving children were sent to courts of appeal, as the juries in local courts found these cases difficult. From the late 17th century, skepticism made itself felt as to the possibility of regarding witchcraft a crime, and courts of appeal acquitted many children accused of witchcraft. The notion that children were sacrificed to the devil by their mothers is presented already in 1486 in the demonological treatise Malleus Maleficarum by Jacob Sprenger (b. 1436–d. 1496) and Heinrich Kramer (b. 1430–d. 1505). The ideas about children possibly being witches were not discussed more thoroughly until Peter Binsfeld gave out his demonology in Trier in 1589. He argued for torture to be used to bring children below fourteen years of age to confess to witchcraft as well as for taking children’s denunciation of adults seriously. Ideas related to children being ensnared by the devil had by 1662 found its way even to the district of Finnmark in northern Norway. In a panic taking place in 1662–1663, the confessions contained notions about a pregnant woman carrying a devil, not a child, the devil fathering a child, the mother sacrificing her eldest daughter to the devil, and the impossibility for a family to get rid of the devil as soon as he had gotten a foothold in a family. As a select bibliography, the entries below are aimed to give information about research related to children in witchcraft cases all over Europe, in addition to the 1692 cases in Salem in Colonial America.

General Overviews

The general overviews include articles focused on child witches in general, not necessarily related to a particular country or region. Trends in the period as for persecution of children are pointed out, particularly the change from very young children being targets of witches during the initial phases of the witch-hunt to children taking more active parts in the trials during the later phases of the hunt. The persecution of children is seen in connection with important demonological treatises, books spread in the European book market about the powerful devil and what he could accomplish on earth, with an emphasis on alleged witches entering into a pact with the devil. In this way they got hold of the power of the devil and were able to perform harmful witchcraft, including the ability to shape-shift and to fly through the air, while also taking part in witches’ gatherings and collective witchcraft operations. Throughout the period of witch-hunting, there were increasing numbers of children accused of witchcraft, as new demonological ideas were more widely known among people. Behringer 1989 argues that increased knowledge of demonological ideas as time went by influenced the stories told by children during interrogation, and Monter 2006 gives a chronological survey of the role of children during the period with witchcraft trials, while Walinski-Kiehl 1996 focuses on arguments for using torture against children accused of witchcraft.

  • Behringer, Wolfgang. “Kinderhexenprozesse: Zur Rolle von Kindern in der Geschicte der Hexenvervolgung.” Zeitschrift für historische Forschung 16 (1989): 31–45.

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    The article focuses on the changing role of children through the period of witchcraft persecution. The number of trials involving children increased at the end of the period of witchcraft persecution, due to the fact that diabolical knowledge to a greater and greater degree was mediated and received by children and made into their own stories as time went by. Children finally played an active role during witchcraft persecution, not least because of them taking part in denunciation of others, children as well as adults. (Title translation: Witchcraft trials against children: The role of children in the history of witchcraft persecution.)

  • Monter, William. “Children.” In Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Western Tradition. Edited by Richard M. Golden, 183–185. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2006.

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    This article gives an overview of research focused on children in witchcraft trials, drawing major lines from the earliest phases of witchcraft persecution to the final stages. At first, very young children were involved in witchcraft trials because they were targets of witches and even killed and eaten at Sabbaths. As the persecution continued, older children began taking part in roles as denouncers, accusers, and witch-finders. By the beginning of the 17th century, children below the age of majority were imprisoned and punished for witchcraft in most parts of Europe.

  • Walinski-Kiehl, Robert S. In “The Devil’s Children: Child Witch-Trials in Early Modern Germany.” Continuity and Change 11.2 (1996): 171–189.

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    The text discusses demonological notions of the possibility of children being witches. Mention is made of the German bishop Peter Binsfeld, who approved of torture of children below fourteen years of age and allowed testimonies of children to be used against adults. The main argument was that witchcraft was an exceptional crime; therefore, extraordinary methods had to be used. Prior to the 1580s, jurists had paid little attention to the issue.

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