HIS 125: Witchcraft and Witch-Hunting in Early Modern Society

Discussion/Laboratory—3 hour(s); Term Paper. Social and cultural history, 1300-1800. Topics such as medieval and Renaissance Italy, early modern Italy, Ancient Regime France, family and sexuality, and material culture and daily life. May be repeated for credit. May be repeated for credit. GE credit: AH, SS, WC, WE.


Prof. Kathy Stuart







Spring 2019


About 50,000 people perished in the European witch-hunt, mostly in the century between 1560 and 1660. We explore the particular set of circumstances that encouraged these “burning times” in the era of the baroque. We study earlier prosecutions of heretics and Jews as a kind of model for the witch trials that followed. Prosecutions of Jews focused mostly on men, but most victims of the witch-hunt were older, post-menopausal woman. What were the gender stereotypes that led to this particular construction of the witch? About 15 % of accused witches were men, however. What made these men vulnerable to witchcraft accusations? Did warlocks practice a different, masculine magic? At the same time as thousands of witches were dying at the stake, more and more Europeans believed themselves to be victims of demonic possession. We compare the roles of witches and demoniacs and study rituals of exorcism.  Children played a problematic role in the witch-hunts. Witchcraft often served as an explanation for high infant mortality, and children featured prominently among the accusers of witches. But after 1680, children took on a new role: as perpetrators of witchcraft. We will explore the paradox that on the eve of the Enlightenment, the so-called “Age of the Child” that recognized childhood as a special stage of life that needed to be protected and nurtured, children were accused of—and executed—for witchcraft more than ever before.  Finally, we ask when, how, and why the witch-hunts ended. People didn’t stop believing in witchcraft—why did they stop burning witches?