While associated with scientific advancement and reason the early modern period was still deeply rooted in superstition and religion, a blurred line between the two makes it difficult to tell where beliefs in witches, spells, and stories of monsters and demons intercede with Christian saints, healers, and heretics of the church.

Primary sources reveal, admittedly, a much more colorful world than today. Even though we can easily scoff notions of witchcraft and magic with our current world view, the people of early modern Europe considered these to be real forces that influenced events and humans, and so we must treat past superstition beliefs with the seriousness in which they were treated.


Witchcraft and Sexual Deviancy


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The belief in witches and witchcraft was exacerbated by the church, and local supervision. Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks reports that “nearly all pre-modern societies believed in witchcraft and made some attempts to control witches, who were understood to be people who used magical forces to do evil deeds.”

This was a phenomenon common to early Europe, so much so that there are known professional witch hunters, such as the German Heinrich Kramer (1430-1505) and Jacob Sprenger (1436-95). Kramer wrote a book on the nature of witches that influence many future trials and confessions. His stereotypical witch was a woman, although men could as well be witches, who worshiped, or made deals with, Satan, and drew their powers from “carnal lust” or a deviant sexual promiscuity.

We can see this tie between accused witches and sexual deviance as in the case of Christina Collari an Italian women accused of witchcraft in 1625. Collari’s lover was a married man and confessed to seeing the accused trying to predict the future.


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What Was the Difference Between a Witch and a Healer?


What is ironic about this accusation is that holy figures such as saints used spells to heal and prophesize dreams. The following is a healing spell in which Madonna dell’Alto Mare, or the Madonna of the High Seas, was invoked to tell the future through dreams.


O Madonna of the High Seas
Come to me in my dreams, for I must speak with you
Doors of gold and keys of silver
Bring me this dream for my salvation
O, of evil and of good
Beautiful Mother, you must warn me
If there is evil Sharp needles, rushing water and burning fire
If there is good A table is set the church is lighted
And the vines are full [of grapes]


Where the difference lies in the healing spell of a saint and the art of witchcraft is some degree of sexual deviance. Furthermore, many of the confessions for practicing witchcraft were made under the duress of torture.

A German man in 1628, named Johannes Junius, confessed engaging in sex with a woman who changed into a goat and then compelled him to renounce God under pain of death by accepting Satan as his god. Junius confessed to talking with demons, witches, and the devil, all of which was under the pain of torture.

Junius was burned at the stake, but his entire confession is proved false by a secret letter he sent to his daughter during his imprisonment. Junius writes to his daughter

“dearly beloved daughter Veronica. Innocent have I come into prison, innocent have I been tortured, innocent must I die. For whoever comes into the witch prison must become a witch or be tortured until he invents something out of his head and–God pity him–bethinks him of something”


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Heresy vs Witchcraft: The Execution of Jan Hus


Persecution by the church was not only practiced when concerning witchcraft and deals with the devil, it was also used to squash any rejection or alteration of church doctrine. Many labeled as heretics were leaders of religious groups that had splintered apart from the Catholic Church, whose reach stretched throughout all of Europe, that is before the Protestant Reformation.

One heretic of such was John Wyclif, a university teacher of theology, who dared to questioned church doctrine. Wiesner-Hanks says “Wyclif rejected the ideas of transubstantiation, that the bread and the wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ by the words of the priest during the Eucharist.” What may seem a mundane and confusing difference in doctrine today was punishable by death.

Jan Hus, a follower of Wyclif, was executed at the Council of Constance in 1415 for heresy. The council officially claimed, “John Hus…is a disciple not of Christ but rather of the heresiarch John Wyclif,…, has taught, asserted and preached many errors and …which have been condemned both by God’s church and by other reverend fathers in Christ.” What seems to us a small disagreement about a church ritual was enough to sentence a man to death.


Sources Cited


[1] Merry E Wiesner-Hanks, Early Modern Europe, 1450-1789, 2nd ed, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 433.

[2] A Woman is Accused of Witchcraft, Italy 1625, Archivio di Stato di Venezia, Sant’Uffizio, Processi B. no 2, doc #3, December 1625, Translated by Monica Chojnacka.

[3] 17th Century Healing Spells, Italy, Cecilia Gatto Trocchi, Magia e medicina popolare in Italia, (Rome:  Newton Compton, 1982), p.  234 Translated by Monica Chojnacka)

[4] George L. Burr, ed., The Witch Persecutions in Translations and Reprints from the Original Sources of European History, 6 vols. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania History Department, 1898-1912) vol. 3, no. 4, pp. 23-28.

[5] Condemnation of Jan Hus, 1415.