Can fear of the Devil explain the Witch Trials of the Late Medieval and Early Modern Age?

Written by Eleanor Schelpe

Despite the common misconception, the cause of witch trials in the Late Medieval and Early Modern age, dated as approximately 1450-1700[1], cannot be solely explained by the fear of the devil alone. This is simply because the fear of the devil has existed as long as the devil itself, having been fuelled by the descriptions given in the Book of Genesis when the Devil is first described, and does not explain a sudden increase in witch trials and the hysteria surrounding witches and magic during the Late Medieval and Early Modern age. 

The Devil as a figure takes on various forms dependent on the religion and source from which the description derives. However, the form which is most commonly referred to in the context of witch trials across Europe, refers to the description given by Christianity. Within the Bible the Devil becomes synonymous with Hell and the atrocities that occur there which unsurprisingly resulted in the widespread fear of the Devil and Hell. 

What happened during a witch trial?

Witch trials were the act of placing an accused woman (sometimes men) on trial for their involvement with witchcraft which was described as “physically harmful magic”[2] in forms such as “livestock and other property … [being] destroyed, or people being killed and injured”[3]. Witch trials had occurred alongside the belief in witchcraft itself with examples dating back to antiquity.[4] Therefore, explaining the cause of such a phenomenon can be attributed to more than just the fear of the Devil, other factors such as religious rivalry and available literature can only explain part of the reason why the witch trials of the late medieval and early modern age occurred.  

Fear of the Devils influence

The fear of the Devil had existed long before the period in question and in some format has remained to the modern day. For example, during the 13th century there were accounts of heretics being accused of diabolism and being tortured, imprisoned or executed as a result.

Prior to the period in question much of the witchcraft which occurred was classified as Maleficium and was often not the kind to encourage a trial, unless it could be proved that the individual had been practising this craft for many years. Frederic Spee argued strongly that the prolonged act of witches causing harm was “dangerous to the state and can wound it so extraordinarily”[5]. It was the increase in belief that devil worship was becoming more popular amongst witches and that “they could use his power, or he could act for them”[6] which instilled more fear.

It could be argued therefore that it was not fear of the Devil himself which contributed to witch trials, but more so the fear that the Devil was now able to utilise a widespread network of worshippers to do his bidding. 

Catholics vs Protestants

It can be seen that “in several regions witchcraft trials began just as heresy trials against Protestants and Anabaptists ended”[7] which suggests that changes in religious powers contributed to the number of accusations of witchcraft. The church during this time was the source for the majority of the information taught to the lower and typically less educated classes.

It was following the separation of Catholic and Protestant territories during the 15th and 16th centuries which resulted in both sects using witchcraft and the devil to explain the actions of the opposition. Actions undertaken during Devil worship were detailed within the Newes From Scotland in 1591, when witches “should kisse his Buttockes, in signe of duetye to him”[8]. This imagery was used by both Protestant and Catholics to suggest that by following the opposing religion, they would be forced to also commit this act. 


Authorised exorcisms were referenced by both sides, in order to further support their claims of being the true religion, as they held the abilities to expel the Devil from the human body. However, the act of performing an exorcism was strictly intended to be overlooked by the church. The act of performing an exorcism without the church in attendance would result in severe punishment.

Niccolò Consigli, was condemned for attempting this practice outside of the church’s influence and was “accused primarily of sorcery, necromancy, and unlicensed exorcism”[9]. This indicates that the information spread from the churches was influential in two ways, firstly it was possible to reinforce fear of the devil and sanction the necessary extreme actions to combat this, and secondly, it was possible to establish power by controlling the acts which would achieve the removal of said ‘evil’. 


The application and use of torture during interrogations and the investigation process of witchcraft, resulted in wider spread accusations. In fact “many people … frequently feigned things to avoid all suffering, preferring to die by confessing to a falsehood, rather than suffer by denying it”.[10] Within the Malleus Maleficarum, it details that “if the prisoner will not confess the truth satisfactorily, other sorts of tortures must be placed before him”[11]

This practice to encourage naming others was condemned by some, including Frederic Spee in the Cautio Criminalis, as it resulted in unfair accusations and punishments in cases where evidence was sparse. Spee also argues “that torture exposes innocent people to the danger of sinning by forcing them to denounce other innocents”[12]. Therefore, with a lack of evidence in the form of confessions, many witch trials did not progress onto a conviction, and slowly the number of witches being placed on trial decreased. 

Printing press

The printing press was first invented in Germany during the 15th century by Johann Gutenburg.[13] It allowed new information to be available easily and cheaply to the less educated, and poorer individuals who previously relied solely on the teachings of the church.

An example of a text produced during this time is the Malleus Maleficarum by Heinrich Kramer, which was “printed 15 times between 1486 and 1520”[14]. The Malleus Maleficarum also “went through another 19 printings during the fiercest period of witch persecutions in Europe between 1569 and 1669”[15]. Compared to modern standards the number of books being published seem small, however, during the first few decades of the printing press’ creation the number of books being reprinted in such numbers was rare. Therefore, the demand for reprinting a text detailing witchcraft and Devil worship practices, shows how prominent this topic was throughout Europe. 

The printing press was utilised by powerful and educated individuals, such as James I who published Daemonologie in 1597, in order to explain the differences of witchcraft and magic, stating that in regards to the Devil “Sorcerers, or Witches, [work] for that olde and craftie Serpent”[16]. However, he also states that “curiosity, it is onelie the inticement of Magiciens, or Necromanciers”[17], which suggests that magician and necromancers were deemed acceptable. This is not surprising, as “learned necromancers were highly skilled and educated men, … [and] were often seen as wielding impressive demonic power”[18], and due to this power were seen to be in control of the Devil instead. 

In conclusion, the fear of the devil cannot solely explain the witch trials of the late medieval and early modern age. Whilst the fear of the Devil had been a constant underlying influence of everyday life, it was through other events such as the separation of the church into Catholic and Protestant sectors, increased access to written material outside of the church and the use of torture which provided a divided atmosphere for those in power to exploit peoples pre-existing beliefs of the Devil. Furthermore, the acknowledgement that the fear of the Devil remained after the decline in witch trials and persecutions, shows clearly that it could not solely explain the reason for the increase of witch trials in the late medieval and early modern age. 

[1]Darren Oldridge, The Witchcraft Reader, ed. by Darren Oldridge, 3rd edn. (Oxon: Routledge, 2019), p. 3 in , <https://www.vlereader.com/Reader?ean=9781351345248> [accessed 29 November 2019].

[2]Bengt Ankarloo, ‘Witch Trials in Northern Europe 1450-1700’, in Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: The Period of the Witch Trials, ed. by Bengt Ankarloo, Stuart Clark (London: Athlone Press, 2002), p.59

[3]Malcolm Gaskill, Witchfinders: A Seventeenth-Century English Tragedy(Great Britain: John Murray, 2005), p.28

[4]Derek Collins, ‘Theoris of Lemnos and the Criminalization of Magic in Fourth-Century Athens’, The Classical Quarterly, 51 (2001), p.477

[5]Friedrich von Spee, Cautio criminalis, or, A book on witch trials, trans. by Marcus Hellyer (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2003), p.19

[6]Robert Rapley, Witch Hunts: From Salem to Guantanamo Bay(Quebec: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007), p.5

[7]Gary K. Waite, Heresy, Magic, and Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe(Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2003). p.8

[8]Newes From Scotland(London, 1591), p.14

[9]Richard Kieckhefer, ‘Witch Trials in Medieval Europe’, in The Witchcraft Reader, ed. by Darren Oldridge, 3rd edn. (Oxon: Routledge, 2019), p. 25

[10]Marcus Tullius Cicero, ‘Partitiones oratoriae’, cited in Friedrich von Spee, Cautio criminalis, or, A Book on Witch Trials,trans. By Marcus Hellyer (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2003), p.74

[11]Heinrich Kramer, James Sprenger, Malleus Maleficarum(1486), p. 12

[12]Friedrich von Spee, Cautio criminalis, or, A book on witch trials, trans. by Marcus Hellyer (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2003), p.73

[13]Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), p.3

[14]Hans Peter Broedal, ‘The Malleus Maleficarum and the Construction of Witchcraft’, in The Witchcraft Reader, ed. by Darren Oldridge, 3rdedn (Oxon, Routledge, 2019), pp. 43-47 (p. 43). 

[15]Ibid, p.43

[16]James I, Daemonologie (1597), p.8

[17]Ibid, p.8

[18]Michael D. Bailey, ‘Witchcraft and Reform in the Late Middle Ages’, in The Witchcraft Reader, ed. by Darren Oldridge, 3rd edn. (Oxon: Routledge, 2019), p. 39

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