The Witchhunts Of The Thirty Years War
Among the other great social traumas abetted by the war was a major outbreak of witchcraft persecutions. This violent wave of witch-hunting first erupted in the territories of Franconia during the time of ‘the Danish Intervention’. The hardship and turmoil the conflict had produced among the general population enabled the hysteria to spread quickly to other parts of Germany. Residents of areas that had been devastated not only by the conflict itself, but also by the numerous crop failures, famines and epidemics that accompanied it, were quick to attribute these calamities to supernatural causes.
In this tumultuous and highly volatile environment allegations of witchcraft against neighbors and fellow citizens flourished. The sheer volume of trials and executions during this time would mark the period as the peak of the European witch-hunting phenomenon. The persecutions began in the Bishopric of Würzburg, then under the leadership of Prince-Bishop Phillip Adolf von Ehrenberg. An ardent devotee of the Counter-Reformation, Ehrenberg was eager to consolidate Catholic political authority in the territories he administered. Beginning in 1626, Ehrenberg staged numerous mass trials for witchcraft in which all levels of society (including the nobility and the clergy) found themselves targeted in a relentless series of purges. By 1630, 219 men, women and children had been burned at the stake in the city of Würzburg itself while an estimated 900 people are believed to have been put to death in the rural areas of the province.
During this time the witch-hunts also continued their unchecked growth, as new and increased incidents of alleged witchcraft began surfacing in the territories of Westphalia. The witch-hunts reached their peak around the time of the Edict of Restitution in 1629 and much of the remaining institutional and popular enthusiasm for them faded in the aftermath of Sweden’s entry into the war the following year. However, in Würzburg the persecutions would continue until the death of Ehrenberg in July, 1631.The excesses of this period would inspire the Jesuit scholar and poet Friedrich Spee (himself a former “witch confessor”) to author his scathing legal and moral condemnation of the witch trials, the Cautio Criminalis. This influential work would later be credited with bringing an end to the practice of witch-burning in some areas of Germany and its gradual abolition throughout Europe.