Classes That Cast a Spell

witches woodcut print

Between 1560 and 1660, about 60,000 people in Europe were executed for witchcraft. About 80% were women.

What caused the massive witch hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries? Why did most of the witch hunts take place in Germany and Switzerland? And why were women most often accused of witchcraft? Why did the witch hunts end?

Those are questions explored in “Murder by Magic: Witchcraft and Witch-Hunting in Early Modern Europe,” taught by history professor Kathy Stuart, and “Witches: Myth and Reality,” taught by German professor Elisabeth Krimmer. The courses attract a variety of students —history majors, science majors interested in how scientific developments challenged supernatural beliefs, and those looking for a compelling elective.

The origins of the witch hunts were many. It was a time of wars, economic instability, and disease. The Catholic Church and just-emerging Protestantism were fighting for the high moral ground, expressed by rooting out “evil.” The lack of a strong central government in the region prevented checks on the cascading accusations, leading to confessions (often gained through torture) and executions.

The enmity focused on women due to longstanding religious views about women’s “sinfulness” and inferiority, animosity toward unmarriedand older women, and a strengthening patriarchal system, Stuart said.

The courses also explore modern expression of witch hunts: Hillary Clinton being tied to a nonexistent satanic human trafficking ring; misogyny toward women in positions of power or running for public office; and the coerced confessions of the “Central Park Five,” a group of young men convicted of rape and later exonerated.

“This hasn’t gone away,” said Stuart. “It’s not a bygone issue.”

— Jeffrey Day, content strategist in the College of Letters and Science, wrote this article for the fall 2019 issue of the College of Letters and Science Magazine.