In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Witch Hunt

  • Introduction
  • Collections of Essays
  • Source Collections
  • Reference Works
  • Renaissance Occult Sciences
  • The Reformation, Magic, and the Devil
  • Demonic Possession
  • The Ending of the Witch Hunts

Renaissance and Reformation Witch Hunt
Gary K. Waite, Karim Baccouche, Cheryl Petreman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 August 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0169


The subject of witch persecution in the late medieval and Early Modern periods has grown greatly since the advent of social history in the 1970s, and it now informs research across other fields of Renaissance and Reformation studies, most especially social history, the history of ideas, judicial history, and so on. The principal focus of late has been on regional histories of witch trials and on the local neighborly conflicts and suspicions and political and judicial circumstances of the region in question. Tus, the lack of central control over local courts and the long-standing reputations of the preliminary suspects have been major foci of attention. Even so, what turned trials for maleficia (harmful magic) into large-scale witch prosecution was belief in a broad conspiracy of witches in league with the devil. Without such belief, reinforced, first, by the 15th-century reform and anti-heresy movements and, then, especially by the religious disputes of the Reformation era, witchcraft would have remained a matter of local jurisdiction and not subject to the often uncontrolled large-scale trials of the late 16th and early 17th centuries.

General Overviews

Fortunately the European witch hunts have many excellent surveys, the best of which explore the multifaceted nature of witchcraft belief and prosecution and avoid monocausal explanations. It will prove extremely helpful in comprehending the phenomenon by beginning with one or more of these works. The six volumes of the Athlone History of Witchcraft and Magic in Europe series (Ankarloo, et al. 2002, cited under General Overviews: Early Modern) are equally divided between pre-1500 and post-1500 eras in an effort to cover beliefs about magic and witchcraft across the entire period of Western history (see Medieval and Early Modern). Bengt Ankarloo and Stuart Clark have done an excellent job in selecting the appropriate specialists to write the major sections for each volume, although there is some unevenness as a result of having multiple authors for each. A new historiographical analysis (Hutton 2017) is absolutely essential reading in the field, for both Medieval and Early Modern.

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