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The Witchcraft Trials in Early Modern Europe


Witchcraft hunts and trials have always been a subject of interest for historians, primarily due to the religious beliefs and attitudes towards the supernatural typical of the studied periods that they reflected. However, these events provide the scholars with much information on various phenomena of all life spheres: political, economic, and social, which impacted witch trials. For instance, records of witchcraft trials allow the researchers to learn more about the justice system in Early Modern Europe. Although witchcraft cases were quite specific, they still demonstrate the justice system’s major characteristics, such as methods and principles of evidence obtaining and key factors influencing the trial’s outcome.

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The current research would mostly focus on the Trial of Tempel Anneke held in German town Brunswick in 1663. It would be contrasted to a seemingly similar trial of Elizabeth Lorenz, which took place in the same area but had a different outcome. The records of some other witch trials would support the provided observations and give a broader view of the justice system in the researched period and the way it operated in witchcraft trials.

Torture as a Method of Obtaining Evidence

It is important to note that torture was frequently used to obtain evidence for witch trials in the 17th century. Moreover, it seems to be a common and legally accepted practice of that period, as the legal documents of that time contained notes of whether a statement or a confession had required torture. From the modern perspective, such testimony is not reliable and ethically accepted and thus is not valid. People in that period were also aware of that, at least to a certain extent, as they required repetition of such testimony without torture (Morton The Trial of Tempel Anneke xxxii). However, modern researchers still can question the validity of these statements due to the psychological pressure the suspects faced.

The documents and folios from the trial of Tempel Anneke are not exceptions. For instance, Document B provides Master Heinrich Cordes’s statement given “without torture,” while Folio 15 states that the witness, Christoff Meinicke, was “put on the wheel” (Morton The Trial of Tempel Anneke 4; 55). Apart from that, sometimes the statements were given “without torture and in the presence of the executioner and his torture instruments,” as Folio 24 of the same case suggests (Morton The Trial of Tempel Anneke 82). Even though such actions were not defined as torture in the 17th century, from the modern perspective, it can be considered as such since such a threat put considerable pressure on the suspect’s psychological state. In brief, physical and mental torture was a legally accepted tool for obtaining evidence in Early Modern Europe.

The Suspect’s Confession and the Role of Cultural Beliefs

When accused of witchcraft, proving one’s innocence was extremely difficult but not impossible. If there were no solid proof and the suspect’s confession, the person would be considered innocent. Before the official trial of Tempel Anneke began, the investigators collected many testimonies supporting the accusation and conducted a well-organized interrogation of the suspect (Morton The Trial of Tempel Anneke 3-23). Tortures were used only when all other testimonies pointed at the person, by they did not plead guilty. Thus, one way out was not confessing and withstanding the torture, which is obviously, easier said than done.

It is no wonder there are only a few records about the suspects who managed to do so. One of them was Margaretha Horn, whose case was investigated in the German city Rothenburg ob der Tauber in 1652 (Rowlands 336). According to Rowlands, it is important to examine this case as it proved the possibility for a suspect “to tell a story of not being a witch” and “highlighted why this was such a difficult thing to do” (337). It is important to note that Margaretha did not accept tortures silently and submissively. Rowlands highlighted that she confidently defended herself using the narrative strategies to improve the court’s impression of her during her interrogations and make it rule in her favor (344-345). These strategies were based on the cultural and religious beliefs of the German people of that time and her self-definition as an honorable woman and a staunch believer in God (344-345). She made the investigators believe that such a pious woman cannot be a witch.

The political situation might also be a beneficial factor in her case. Rowlands notes that the witch persecution was not so active in the area she lived in (338). For example, only twelve cases against alleged witches were carefully investigated, with torture used in the process (Rowlands 339). On the whole, the authorities of Rothenburg did not regard witchcraft as a real threat (Rowlands 339). Therefore, the political and social situation and local cultural beliefs could have played a role in specific witch trial cases.

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Another woman suspected of having relations with dark forces was Elizabeth Lorenz. However, her case was different from the two mentioned above. One should note that strictly it was not a witch trial as Elizabeth claimed she encountered the Devil, and no one suspected her of being a witch (Morton “Putting the Devil in Context”). On the contrary, her confession and pitiful appeal to help her were so compelling that the witnesses and the court believed she was an innocent victim. Even though it was ultimately not a witch trial, it is important to read about this case as it gives a broader picture of investigations related to supernatural powers and helps make important observations. Firstly, the German courts of the 17th century seemed to draw a line between conscious witchcraft with malicious intent and a diabolic possession of a pure soul that tried to resist the evil influence. It also means that the judicial system of that period required separate investigation of each case with studying all the specific evidence and context, and not everyone who behaved strangely would be accused of witchcraft.

Thorough Collection of Witnesses’ Testimonies

What is valuable about Morton’s work as an editor is that along with his own comments, he provides the original records (translated by Dähms) and allows the readers to interpret them themselves. Moreover, the readers can evaluate the number of documents collected and prepared for each case. They might not be as detailed and objective as the modern judicial documents are, but they are thorough enough to believe that one witness’s testimony was not enough to execute an alleged witch.

If one examines the trial of Tempel Anneke’s records, one would see a broad spectrum of testimonies and judicial reports collected to back the accusations. Moreover, each folio is very precise in describing everyone involved in the case and all the circumstances influencing it. For example, Folio 2 comprises all the questions prepared in advance for Tempel Anneke’s interrogation, and Folio 3 presents the woman’s answers (Morton The Trial of Tempel Anneke 9-23). On the whole, the records give a detailed overview of the whole investigation process.

Elizabeth Lorenz’s case also proves that German courts of the 17th century did not punish women suspected of having relations with demonic or diabolic powers indiscriminately. The investigators collected 101 pages of judicial notes and testimonies of the woman’s employers, coworkers, and relatives before the court could decide she was innocent (Morton The Bedevilment of Elizabeth Lorenz 1). Elizabeth’s first interrogation questions were also documented, followed by the woman’s answers (Morton The Bedevilment of Elizabeth Lorenz 13-21). Thus, the records of this trial also demonstrate the investigation’s thoroughness and prove the need for a sufficient amount of evidence for a suspect to be punished.


In conclusion, the study of the witchcraft trials records of the 17th century demonstrates their value to the historians interested in learning more about the justice system in Early Modern Europe. Specifically, one can learn more about major ways of obtaining evidence and see which evidence was considered valid and compelling enough for the court to make a certain decision. Apart from that, the studied sources describe external factors affecting the outcome of the witch trials, including political and socio-cultural contexts. Compared to the modern perspective on justice, the recorded trials’ procedures seem barbaric, unjust, and invalid. However, even if one wanted to frame someone, it was not easy either, as a meticulous collection of testimonies and their confirmation without torture was required.

Works Cited

Morton, Peter A., editor. The Bedevilment of Elizabeth Lorentz. Translated by Barbara Dähms, University of Toronto Press, 2018.

Morton, Peter, A. Putting the Devil in Context. University of Toronto Press, Web.

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Morton, Peter A., editor. The Trial of Tempel Anneke: Records of a Witchcraft Trial in Brunswick, Germany, 1663. Translated by Barbara Dähms, 1st ed., University of Toronto Press, 2017.

Rowlands, Alison. “Identity, Memory, Self-fashioning: Narratives of Non-confession in the Witch Trial of Margaretha Horn, 1652”. Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft, vol. 14, no. 3, 2019, pp. 336-370, Web.

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