For the understanding of the mental attitude in early modern times with regard to witchhunts the answer to the “WHY” is the most exciting.
Many pages have been filled with the motives for witchhunts. In a view of a core period of 300 years it can be assumed that we are faced with multiple causes. The recurring fear of the devil is one of the central themes.
The church frightened the people with the power of Satan and made them believe that the woman was his most dangerous tool. Contrary to some hypothesis, the witch hunt cannot be equated with a hunt for women. There are significant regional differences in the proportion of women pursued and the numbers are not always 80% as in Southwest Germany or even well over 90% as in the diocese of Basel.
Records preserved in Würzburg for example confirm a gender balance for the years 1627-1629. In Scandinavia and Russia the percentage of male victims was even higher than that of women. Overall however, more than three quarters of all victims in the European witch burnings were female.
Sometimes the immediate motive for persecution was just a simple neighborhood dispute, where envy and jealousy were the reason. At other times it was smoldering village gossip where a scapegoat was blamed for disasters of any kind. Then again there is the aspect of a contest of religious beliefs against the background of Reformation efforts. The long-term climatic rigors of the prevailing Little Ice Age drove people to despair and resulting crop failures, famine and death did the rest to dissuade the people from faith.
But all of these are only ostensible motives. The real purpose for the witch hunts lies elsewhere. No matter how much the responsible ones – especially the representatives of the church – may insist that they had in sight only the salvation of the general public and the witches in particular, the real reason for those crimes was much more banal: the threat of loss of power! This subject was of such vital importance that at some point any means were justified to hold their own position. The ruling elite imagined having to tear from the people the deeply rooted belief in witches which developed its own dynamic of fear.
The aim of the political forces had to be to try to reach an acceptable balance between the will of the people and their anger flaming up because of dissatisfying circumstances on one hand and on the other hand, because of the Church’s claim on the cohesion of the community of faith as well as the power hunger of the feudal class. The greatest asset of the ruling class, especially the church, was in this case the stupidity of the people.
This asset was under threat of gradually disappearing because of letterpress printing, science and the age of enlightenment.
Critical spirits also discovered that the lifestyle of priests and monks was not as honourable as was made to believe. So as not to lose even more of the faithful during those bad decades of the Little Ice Age the church had to act and taking into consideration the prevailing suspicions of the people against marginalized groups they took the initiative together with the ruling class to set examples on “scapegoats”. A church oriented in questions of faith of the next world found in the belief of witchcraft a welcome explanation for the grievances of this world and in the witches, its danger.
The danger to the public welfare by alleged witches was certainly only pretended, because at no time was there the potential for incitement of the population. In times of turmoil and threats of revolution witches became the pawn in the plots between the ruling classes, especially during the period of the reformation. The confrontation and dealings with dissenters, especially during the reformation and counterreformation was in truth the debate for the best concepts of hegemony.
Secular and spiritual rulers likewise were striving for the greatest degree of influence and participation. The contrast between the two worlds – here the extravagant life at court, there the ascetic life in the monasteries – became one of the most fertile germs in fighting for the privilege of the best design of all situations of life. In the course of these fights the people between them, and their spiritual awakening, came under pressure more and more. This pressure found a suitable valve in the pursuit of witches.
Yet it was then as now: Released from the predominant philosophy of life, it is education, life experience, personal attitude, the character and the mental condition of the opinion leaders which have a decisive influence on the interpretation and (de)regulation of laws and standards. Throughout the history of witch hunts again and again individuals are found who forced or encouraged those persecutions. People with a desire for admiration and an inflated ego who wanted to leave their mark on their sphere. One of them was the count and malefiz master Balthasar Nuß of Fulda who, even among his colleagues, had the reputation to be a liar and murderer.
But even laudable counterexamples can be found in those dark times like Prince Bishop Johann Philipp von Gebsattel of Bamberg (1599-1609) during whose reign no witch was burnt and no arrangements were made for cracking down in religious matters and thereby opponents were promptly rallied to the cause. Ultimately it depended on the individual whether and how things ran their course. So, regarding witch hunts in most cases we deal with unshakeable perpetrators who in the name of a questionable theory were believed to do the right thing and who by intimidation, threats, but also promises found many followers.
Unlike his predecessor, Bishop Gebsattel ruled in a very tolerant way:
"The bishop doesn´t want, that anybody should be forced into religion - but everybody should believe, what he wants."
Konrad of Marburg (abt. 1189/90 to July 30, 1233) was inquisitor, preacher and schoolmaster. Noble knights waylaid and killed him.