Atlantic History Witchcraft in the Atlantic World
Ellen Hartigan-O'Connor
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 July 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0145


The early modern period of Atlantic exploration and connection coincided with a wave of witchcraft persecutions, sometimes called the “witch craze.” Although belief in witchcraft—generally understood to be the use of magic to harm others—has been present in many societies, people in Europe and its colonies in the 15th through 18th centuries believed that witches were warriors in a vast conspiracy with the devil to undermine Christian society. Common, familiar fears about witches, focused on harmful deeds (maleficia), were enhanced and transformed into panicked suspicion that significant numbers around the globe were signing pacts in blood with the devil to do his bidding. Historians have puzzled over this transformation in beliefs, as well as the timing of increased, organized persecutions of accused witches that resulted in the deaths of more than fifty thousand individuals. Some see the events as a response to socioeconomic change associated with the rise of merchant capitalism and the renaissance of learning—a coping mechanism for those torn between village culture and modern culture. Other scholars emphasize the power of Atlantic institutions such as the Catholic Church and the Inquisition, which helped spread the texts and technologies of witch hunting. Still others see the history of the witch craze to be a history of boundaries being drawn between religion, science, and magic at a time of rapid expansion in knowledge. All face the difficulties of “explaining” a phenomenon that varied greatly in particulars from place to place and across time—for example, whether the witches’ Sabbath or demonic possession were important parts of witchcraft beliefs, whether the convicted were hanged or burned, what ratio of women to men existed among the accused, and when mass trials started and stopped. And most face the theoretical challenge of studying a “thing,” witchcraft, that most do not believe truly existed.

General Overviews

Given the widespread interest in witchcraft within the general public, as well as its popularity as a topic for focused undergraduate courses, there are many good textbooks and overviews available as starting places for work on witchcraft. Popular overviews, including Demos 2008 and Purkiss 1996, use strong narratives and accessible style to set the scene. Textbooks such as Behringer 2004 and Levack 2006 provide helpful narratives and explicit interpretive frameworks. A wide variety of readers (Breslaw 2000, Oldridge 2008, and Wiesner 2007) reprint scholarly articles and primary sources. In addition, scholarly collections, including an Oxford Handbook and the Witchcraft and Magic in Europe series cover the historical sweep of witchcraft in Europe and the Americas. In terms of Atlantic history, some works make an implicit point about similarities in witchcraft beliefs in various locations (Levack 2013 and Briggs 1996). Others, like Breslaw 2000, argue that witchcraft beliefs themselves originated in transatlantic connections. Readers interested in charges of diabolism in voodoo, a syncretic religion of the African diaspora, can consult the article “African Religion and Culture.”

  • Behringer, Wolfgang. Witches and Witch-Hunts: A Global History. Malden, MA: Polity, 2004.

    A text describing witchcraft as a global historical phenomenon. Links outcomes of the European witch hunts of the early modern period with global events in the postcolonial world, stressing shared beliefs and practices. Includes timeline and thematic bibliographies.

  • Breslaw, Elaine G., ed. Witches of the Atlantic World: A Historical Reader and Primary Sourcebook. New York: New York University Press, 2000.

    Combines primary sources with several articles that interpret them. The work as a whole argues that early modern witchcraft beliefs emerged out of cultural, social, and economic connections around the Atlantic world. Although the theme is transatlantic, a substantial portion of the book is dedicated to the Salem Witch trials.

  • Briggs, Robin. Witches and Neighbors: The Social and Cultural Context of European Witchcraft. New York: Viking, 1996.

    Accessible overview emphasizing the continuing caution of European elites toward witchcraft trials and their reluctance to participate in wide-ranging witch crazes. Briggs argues that the widespread belief in witchcraft across Europe was usually associated with neighborliness gone wrong in local village communities, whether in England, Iceland, or Spain.

  • Demos, John. The Enemy Within: 2,000 Years of Witch-Hunting in the Western World. New York: Viking, 2008.

    A sweeping overview written for a general audience that covers witchcraft beliefs and witch hunts in Europe and North America. Includes engaging case studies of individuals caught up in the trials and a section on modern so-called witch hunts targeting accused Communists and others. Synthesizes a wide range of scholarship, and contextualizes the phenomenon using insights from psychology.

  • Levack, Brian P. The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe. 3d ed. Harlow, UK: Pearson Longman, 2006.

    Useful narrative textbook on the history of witch hunts in Europe, covering intellectual, legal, and religious foundations; social profiles of “typical” witches; and demographic details of how patterns of accusation and execution varied from place to place.

  • Levack, Brian P., ed. The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

    Thirty-three chapters divided into three sections on witch beliefs, witchcraft prosecutions, and themes in witchcraft research. While not specifically focused on the Atlantic, the essays in the collection cover multiple regions and allow for cross-Atlantic comparisons. The introduction discusses the changing relationship between witchcraft and magic.

  • Oldridge, Darren, ed. The Witchcraft Reader. 2d ed. London: Routledge, 2008.

    Collection of essays from a range of scholars covering the history of witchcraft beliefs in Europe from the late medieval period to the present. Includes thematic sections on confessions, possession, witch cults, gender, and the reformation. Emphasizes differing scholarly perspectives.

  • Purkiss, Diane. The Witch in History: Early Modern and Twentieth-Century Representations. New York: Routledge, 1996.

    Emphasizes the malleability of definitions of “witch” and “witchcraft,” that could be deployed to cope with a range of social stresses. Highlights the centrality of maternity and mother’s bodies to Western witchcraft beliefs.

  • Wiesner, Merry E., ed. Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007.

    This textbook, part of the Problems in European Civilization series, is organized into four sections: intellectual foundations, socioeconomic conditions, accusations and trials, and gender. Each section includes a historiographical introduction, reprinted selections of recent scholarship, images, and suggestions for further reading. Wiesner presents another lucid overview in Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

  • Witchcraft and Magic in Europe series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.

    This six-volume series on witchcraft beliefs and prosecutions is divided chronologically into volumes addressing biblical and pagan societies, ancient Greece and Rome, the Middle Ages, the witch-trials period, the 18th and 19th centuries, and the 20th century. Each multiauthored volume tackles trends across Europe, and each includes a bibliography for further reading.

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