“Witch Hunts”: Now and Then, Myths and Realities

“Witch hunt” is a phrase that has been thrown around in social media a lot recently, from Donald Trump’s tweets to people boycotting and harassing people who wore PacSun clothing in an attempt to destroy the business over a shirt. The use of the phrase, “witch hunt,” implies mass hysteria or paranoia around something arbitrary or nonexistent. Unfortunately, “witch hunts” have been going on for centuries, and there are a lot of false assumptions made about them, and specifically about early witch hunts in Europe.

Witch hunts only happened during the dark, evil, and nasty period of the medieval times right? Nope. First of all, the medieval times, aka the Middle Ages, were not dark, evil, and nasty. Second, the European witch hunts did not occur during the middle ages, but actually happened after. During the early 1400s into the late 1700s there was a witch panic in Europe, mainly centering around the area that is now Germany (Levak 184).

Today, when people think of witches they usually think of women, and assume all of the people who were tried as a witch were women. The ratio actually was that the people accused of practicing witchcraft was about 20% male to 80% female (Roper 6). And even then, not everyone that got prosecuted was violently executed. Many were able to live freely, but still under scrutiny and superstition, after their trials. It wasn’t just the poor being accused of being a witch either, people across all classes were being accused. In the beginning, most witches accused were men, because sorcery was something you learned, and at the time women were denied such high education (Levak 185). When the devil gets involved however, that’s when it turned into dangerous witchcraft that needed to be punished.

It also wasn’t the Catholic Church or the Spanish Inquisition doing all the witch hunting either. Instead of the witch hunts being a national event for each country, it was more of a regional occurrence, happening only in places where the tension between the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation was the strongest—which happened to be Germany (Roper 16,18). The reason the Spanish Inquisition was to blame for the trials was due to a translation error because there was a type of trial called an inquisition. The court records say ‘trial by inquisition’ not ‘trial by the inquisition’ like historians originally thought. There was also a little ice age at the height of the witch hunts, which cause crops to fail, animals to die, and children to suffer, which horrified people and they needed something to blame. Thus, they turned to accusing people of being a witch and torturing them.

The witch trials weren’t even as large as historians originally thought, either. Once the numbers of witches that were killed were in the millions, but it has been proven by Brian Levack and other historians that the numbers executed were around 45,000 and those prosecuted was about 90,000. Quite a difference.

It doesn’t help that there was a historical fiction about the witch hunts, Histoire de l’Inquisition en France by Lamothe-Langon that was assumed to be facts by historians for many years. According to Jenny Gibbons in her document Recent Developments in the Study of The Great European Witch Hunt Lamothe-Langon was a forger. Histoire de l’Inquisition en France was assumed to be truth instead of made up because old historians did not check their sources for credibility and assumed that historians before them were not misguided. His book made it seem that there was a massive witch craze in the early 1400s in France, to the point that 400 women seemingly died in one day. Eventually, according to Gibbons, historians began to catch on to his lies and deception.

Over the past century historians have been learning that the European witch hunts of the 1400s-1700s was not as extravagant or large as some once believed, or even fake. Much like modern witch hunts, they are based in lies and are blown way out of proportion. Nothing has changed for witch hunts over time.


Levack, Brian P. The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe. 4th ed. N.p.: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2016. Print.

Roper, Lyndal. Witch Craze: Terror and Fantasy in Baroque Germany. N.p.: Yale UP, 2006. Print.