Fire Burne & Cauldron Bubble: Witchcraft at the Dawn of Modernity > Introduction


On many levels, witches still exert an enigmatic allure. In the realm of popular culture, they feature prominently on the stage in Wicked, in films such as The Wizard of Oz and The Blair Witch Project, and on television shows such as Bewitched and Charmed. They stand as symbols of feminine self-actualization in John Updike’s The Witches of Eastwick and as an allegory for McCarthyism in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. At the crossroads of cultural history and gender studies, the subject of witchcraft remains as popular as ever in scholarship, judging by the many books and articles published thus far in the twenty-first century. Yet there was a time when the issue was not merely one of entertainment, social commentary, or intellectual curiosity. It was, quite simply, a matter of life and death, when witches embodied society’s worst fears and nightmares.

Between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, a specter was haunting Europe, the specter of witchcraft. Across the Western world, religious and secular authorities obsessed over the threat of witches. In this context, witches were people, most often women, believed to be practitioners of magic, working in concert with diabolical powers toward the subversion of Christian society. Recent estimates suggest that nearly 100,000 individuals from across Europe were tried as witches during this period, with about half being put to death. Though highly approximate, these figures demonstrate the seeming ubiquity both of witchcraft and of the efforts meant to eradicate it.

The idea of witchcraft and the historical reality of the witch hunt remain objects of scholarly debate, but most experts today agree on two points. First, the fifteenth century, especially its middle decades, represents the decisive point in the development of a theory of witchcraft that would hold sway over learned—and, increasingly, popular—opinion for at least the next 200 years. The main concept was that certain individuals worked acts of sorcery as a result of having pledged themselves to the worship of the Devil, and that they were together part of a vast satanic conspiracy.

Second, the various cultural trends that coalesced in this notion themselves long predated the fifteenth century. They include:

  • The intrinsic Christian hostility to sorcery—that is, magic malevolent in intent or effect.

  • The rise of a persecuting culture during the later Middle Ages as a response to heresy.

  • The growing demonization of Christendom’s perceived enemies, falsely imputing to them practices meant to invert or parody aspects of Christian worship.

  • A shift toward Roman civil law, with its inquisitorial mode of adjudication and use of torture as an interrogation technique.

  • Growing distrust and scrutiny of female spirituality and of unsupervised communities of women in the later Middle Ages.   


As a backdrop to these trends, successive crises throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries further heightened the anxieties of the period. These adversities included deteriorating economic conditions, plague, the Great Schism of the papacy, and the Czech Hussites’ rebellion against the Roman Church. The upheavals of the Protestant Reformation and the fragmentation of medieval Christendom would ultimately push this apprehension to an unprecedented level of intensity. 



Despite a relative lull in the sixteenth century’s middle third, roughly coinciding with the first generation of Protestant reformers and the Catholic Church’s response in the Council of Trent (1545-1563), the witch hunt subsequently made a dramatic resurgence and climaxed around the turn of the seventeenth century. This renewed preoccupation likely resulted from what scholars call the “confessionalization” of Europe, as Catholic and Protestant authorities tried to enforce doctrinal conformity on their respective populations in pursuing the ideal of a godly Christian community. That the majority of witch trials occurred along Europe’s religious fault lines, running through Germany, Switzerland, and parts of France, is most revealing. It could be argued that the witch hunt was among the last manifestations of the confessional state in Western society, wherein the ultimate end of government was not simply ensuring public order, but also the community’s salvation and right relationship with God.

The witch craze began to ebb in the latter decades of the seventeenth century with the gradual secularization of politics after more than one hundred years of bitter religious warfare across Europe. The Thirty Years War (1618-1648) and the English Civil War (1642-1651) were decisive in this regard. Another factor was the fading belief in the supernatural basis of witchcraft, stemming from new developments in science and philosophy. Nevertheless, the endurance of the old ways continues to astound. Witch trials—and executions—occurred in parts of Europe during the lifetimes of such harbingers of modernity as Adam Smith, Immanuel Kant, and Voltaire. In Britain, the last witch trial resulting in a death sentence (albeit overturned) occurred as late as 1712, while witchcraft officially remained a capital offense until 1736, when Parliament repealed the Witchcraft Acts of Queen Elizabeth I and King James I.

The history of the witch hunt thus offers a fascinating, if grim, window onto the past. As one of the largest repositories of early printed books in the United States, the University of Illinois Rare Book & Manuscript Library is home to a rich collection of materials that chronicle this era across Europe, and especially in Britain. Though presenting only a few of our most historically significant items, this exhibition highlights this particular strength of the holdings at Illinois for the benefit of a vibrant field of scholarship and enduring interest. It is evident indeed that witches and witchcraft continue to haunt us, to perplex us, and to captivate us even after all these centuries.


          --David Morris, Curator