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Witchcraft Craze History


In the present time, we often use terms such as witch, sorcerer and magician interchangeably. However, in the Early Modern period, each of these terms had very specific meanings. As such it is important to have a clear idea of the meanings of these words in the context of the time in question.


When talking about witchcraft, people in early modern Europe could be refering to one or both types of witchcraft.

The first involved the concept of maleficia, or harmful magic and the second was witchcraft in the sense of dealing with demons, called diabolism. Over the approximate 300 year period that included the witch hunts, the meanings of these words changed, often becoming intermingled, picking up and exchanging certain concepts.

The other main concept of the time was that of sorcery. Although this was also a crime in the relevant period, it was never prosecuted with as much zeal as those accused of witchcraft.


In its simplest sense, maleficia from the Latin, means harmful. Another aspect of the word as it was commonly used is to denote the performance of harmful deeds or acts by means of mysterious or occult power. This type of magic would include killing someone by using a spell, working with a doll in the image of a person or destroying crops by calling down a storm. A person who commited such an act were called malefici or maleficae.

The essential characteristic of these maleficent deeds is that they are magical rather than religious and harmful rather than benefical. They are carried out by individuals who possess some sort of mysterious power to perform evil deeds.

The distinction between harmful and beneficial magic is important. To fall into the category of maleficia, the purpose of the magic must be to cause harm.

High and Low Magic

Another distinction to make within maleficia is that between high and low magic. High magic is considered sophisticated, requiring some level of education to practice. The most common form of high magic would be something like alchemy or divination.

Low magic requires little or no education and can be learned by oral transmission or apprenticeship. Examples would be the use of charms or spells. Most of the maleficia in the early modern period fell into this category of low magic. The reasons for this include the fact that the majority of witches came from the lower levels of society and the fact that most high magic was considered white.


The other activity that came to be part of the definition of witchcraft in the early modern period was the act of diabolism, or relationship with the Devil.

A witch was someone who commited harmful magic and who had also made some sort of pact with the Devil. It was often thought the the witch recieved her powers to harm people from the Devil himself.

"The emergence of the belief that the witches were not merely magicians but Devil-worshippers changed the nature of the crime of witchcraft. It made witches not simply felons...but heretics and apostetes, intrinsically evil individuals..." (Levack, p.8)


Although maleficium and sorcery have similar characterisitics, they are not the same. Sorcery tends to involve the practice of magic by some sort of mechanical and manipulative process. Sorcery is a skill that can be acquired. Sorcery can be distinguished from maleficium on two possible grounds. Firstly, it can sometimes be considered beneficial and secondly, maleficent acts don't need any special technique or tools. That is the maleficent act can be committed through the inate powers of the witch without any physical assistance, such as using the evil eye or cusing or wishing.


Levack, Brian "The Witch-hunt in Early Modern Europe" (London: Longman, 1987)
Hart, Roger "Witchcraft" (London: Wayland Publishers, 1971)
Maple, Eric "Witchcraft" (London: Octopus Books, 1973)
Britannica Online "Occultism: Witchcraft: Witchcraft in Historical Cultures: Western Christendom" -

My aim in this section of my site is to provide some of the current academic thinking in relation to this period and the events that occured. If you would like to contribute or make a comment, feel free to contact me:

Yours, Laren


Page Updated 7th April, 2000
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