Case Study

Children and Witchcraft (16th c.)

Why I Taught the Source

The allure of witchcraft is easy to recognize if not so easy to explain: rarely do high school history classes fail to cover some aspect of witch trials and they remain a very popular course at the college level. Like so many features of the early modern European world, witchcraft is at once familiar yet utterly foreign. This somewhat paradoxical nature can hide the centrality of this system of beliefs for the culture of the period and one can easily loose sight of how important such supernatural beliefs were for the people living in the Atlantic world in the 15th through 17th centuries. Witchcraft touched upon related systems of belief in science (natural philosophy, then), religion, politics, law, and gender. At the popular level, witches occupied a central position in their understanding and defining the source of misfortune in their daily lives. Clearly, there is something important implicated in the study of early modern witchcraft.

The overall details of the rise and decline of this cultural focus on witches are generally accepted. Beginning as early as the late 1400's (and almost everywhere in the Atlantic world by the early 1500's), early modern Europeans sought, discovered, and condemned their own neighbors for maleficia (using magic to cause harm) as well as participating in a Satanic community. The exact number of people swept up in this hunt will never be known but the most commonly quoted figures are (approximately) 160,000 accused and 50,000 convicted in Europe alone. This obsession with the presence of witches tapered off for most areas in the late 1600's, but for a few regions and scattered cases, witchcraft accusations did not die out until the dawn of the 18th century. Referred to (inaccurately) as the "European Witch Craze," this 200 year period was the occasion for widespread and shared fears about these supernatural figures and their actions.

But who were these "witches" and how can one explain this rather sudden and powerful cultural fixation? Scholarly and amateur researchers have attempted to answer those questions. Some initially pictured this "craze" as a misogynistic attack on women. Others saw the pursuit of witches as part of a broader campaign to expand the power of early absolutist rulers. More recent scholarship has explained this phenomenon with an anthropological bent, arguing that neighbors accused each other of witchcraft for specific social and cultural reasons. Finally, other scholars have looked to earlier systems of belief that carried over from the medieval period to explain the persistence of witchcraft beliefs, especially in radical Puritan areas such as Salem, Massachusetts. This brief review is not intended to completely summarize all of the scholarly interpretations that have been developed but, rather, to illustrate that there is no universal definition of what or who was a "witch" nor a universally accepted explanation for the features of these accusations and trials.

Children witches are a good topic of study because they provide a way to speak of the end of the early modern and beginning of the modern Atlantic world. While having many features in common with "ordinary" witches, the testimony about these children also previews the new dynamics of the modern cultural preoccupation about "children" and the rise of the modern notion of family. Less well-known, these witches fall within few of the "norms" for European witch beliefs though they are accused of the same types of behaviors. For example, children were most commonly victims of maleficia rather than its source, the cases involving child witches invariably led to the arrest of large numbers of local children (a dynamic rarely seen in adult cases) and early modern ideas about children rarely sanctioned their 'power' as adults (occult powers violated this notion). That final dynamic, the idea of a magically powerful child, is one of the elements that makes children witches excellent subjects of study.

How I Introduce the Source

My approach to teaching witchcraft relies on providing the background information of the early modern period and then (and only then) using primary sources to allow the students to struggle through to their own understanding of this interesting constellation of cultural beliefs. Too often, teachers rely on secondary sources to convey the deep and pervasive emotions and ideas at play in any witchcraft trial (or any historical event, for that matter). I employ as many primary sources as I can to help my students become better historians; their struggle using primary sources is one of the best means to that end.

The central questions in my study of witchcraft are built on two goals and a set of related questions. The goals are straightforward. First, Critical Thinking–how does/should a historian approach sources? How does a historian go about understanding a particular time/event in history? Second, Content–what are the important features and events of the early modern Atlantic world? The first goal (and its related questions) is built into every assignment in my class.

I give this project three, sometimes four days. I would have covered the Renaissance, Reformation, Voyages of Discovery and the New Monarchs before I ever begin the study of witchcraft. Having a good foundation in the cultural and intellectual patterns of the period, the first day I give the students secondary excerpts about the witchcraft phenomena. Using 'expert cooperative' groups (a two stage process of discussion and analysis), the students break into small groups of five or so and each group reads separate excerpts from scholars. 1 The task in this phase is for each member of this group to become an expert of their excerpt.

The second stage involves breaking those first groups into new groups: here, in the second stage, every group member shares their 'expertise' within their new group. This second stage allows for a rich and contrary discussion to take place as each scholarly perspective is shared and digested. I like to end this phase with a whole class discussion focusing on what sense they can make of the various interpretations.

Because this section of the class work is really about preparing the students to perform well in the trial by introducing them to the differing interpretations of witchcraft, the techniques of reading primary sources (which can be utilized in the next stage) are not relevant here. However, the more general and critical reading skills are crucial so that students understand that conflict in interpretations illustrate the richness and vitality of historical study.

Reading the Source

The next phase involves a mock trial of a set of child witches. There are three sets of roles: teams of prosecution and defense and a pool of jurors (I use three students per team). The prosecution and defense teams' tasks are to argue for or against the guilt of their "clients." Because of the easy access of the Salem materials, I use legal transcripts of the following children:

Drawing on these primary sources, as well as some secondary contextual material, prosecution and defense teams construct their own arguments about the children. The general questions they address have several levels: What did people believe these children did? What did people believe witches were capable of? The purpose here is to grasp the details of the trial and its accusations. The jury is not passive; I require each jury member to ask at least one question (they have access to the same sources as the prosecution and defense). In every case I've done this, the prosecution and defense engage in lively factual and theoretical arguments about "guilt."

The Examination of Sarah Carrier, 8 years old at her trial, is good source to exemplify this dynamic. Sarah confesses to being a witch, that her mother "taught" her to be one and that her mother and her would spectrally fly to the people they were afflicting and do them harm. There are some common themes in her testimony (e.g., the devil as a black dog or man, the notion of a familiar, and the 'swearing' to serve the devil on a book). But Sarah, only 8, adds some non-traditional pieces as well: the wooden spear and the details of the book. Most interesting is her apparent denial of the "witch meeting" (i.e., the Sabat), an event that was commonly claimed in other testimonies. Sarah's denial suggests a kind of maturity (or agency) that Puritan children "ought" not to show. Even with its brevity, the source raises all the kinds of questions noted in the previous paragraph. Taking the time to deconstruct the source rewards the historian (here, your students) with a host of interesting questions.

Once the trial is over, we 'de-brief' the performance, using both the Critical Thinking and Content goals as our guide. We work outward from the factual and ask such questions as: What purpose did these accusations serve? What kind of 'world' did the children and their accusers inhabit? What sense did these accusations and beliefs make? We normally end the class with a hand-vote about guilt. This always brings in a question of "anachronism" in studying history (normally phrased as "well, I wouldn't find them guilty today, but if I lived then . . . . ").

In the last layer of analysis, I ask the students to reflect on the scholarly excerpts for homework by choosing one text that they think best explains the children witch trials. The most important part of the process here is not which one they choose (as there is no "right" answer) but the ability to create a thesis and marshal evidence to support that thesis.


One of the hardest (yet promising) tasks of studying the early modern period is to communicate how perfectly strange these ancestors of ours were. Students in my classes all too often simply dismiss "them" as feeble-minded or stupid. When a student struggles to understand how one's parents might send their son or daughter to their death for witchcraft, that struggle becomes an asset for the broader study of early modern culture.

My experience has been that students love talking about witch trials. Because of their emotional investment in the topic, they more readily work at really understanding what was happening in the trials and communities. Because the idea of a 10 year-old boy having a demonic pact or killing a cow strikes them as ridiculous–and yet there it is–they are forced to make sense of the underlying beliefs and tensions which drove this "craze." In doing so, I insure that they do not dismiss the beliefs (or culture) as simple or stupid but really force them to confront a strange and alien world. Using a combination of secondary excerpts helps them come to terms with both the time and the facts.

1Robin Briggs, Witches & Neighbors; Stuart Clark, Thinking with Demons; Hans Peter Broedel, The Malleus Maleficarum and the Construction of Witchcraft; Brian P. Levack, State Building & Witchcraft; and Wolfgang Behringer, Witchcraft Persecution in Bavaria: Popular Magic, Religious Zealotry and Reason of State in Early Modern Europe.

How to Cite This Source

Tom Rushford, "Children and Witchcraft (16th c.)," in Children and Youth in History, Item #281, (accessed August 10, 2021).


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