Witchcraft and Religion in the Reformation

A painting in the Rila Monastery in Bulgaria, condemning witchcraft and traditional folk magic

During the Reformation, witchcraft was a complex problem. To understand witchcraft during this period, one needs to recognize the role religion played.

Religious teachings and beliefs in early modern Europe dealt with principles pertaining to man and his relationship with God. However, there was a dark side presented of attributes and principalities that were opposed to God. The belief in this dark side could be a very powerful force in everyday life. But more than this, according to Robin Briggs in Witches and Neighbors, because of the dependent relationship between good and evil, “religion, magic, and witchcraft were inextricably linked.”

Witchcraft Understood Through the Eyes of Religion

For most religious folks of the time period, there was a God, but there also existed a devil. Good and evil coexisted. Mankind could be tempted by evil forces as well as tap into their power. Individuals that allowed their bodies and souls to be lured into this dark side were called witches.

The concept of the sabbat was another area in which religious beliefs played a role. This meeting of witches for diabolical and twisted purposes “presented a mirror image of the Christian world in which people actually lived” relates Ms. Briggs. Christians met at church because of what they had in common and to learn how to live a better life. The sabbat served the same purpose for those bedeviled by the dark side.

Consistent with this theme, Ms. Briggs claims that “the main purpose of most communal Christian rites was to protect the crops and encourage fertility, so the diabolical festivals sought to destroy them.”

When Religion Could Provide no Answers, Witchcraft is Blamed for Misfortune

One of the main ways people understood their world in early modern Europe was through their religion. People wanted answers to why certain events occurred. When it came to misfortune such as sickness, famine, or plagues, Ms. Briggs points out that “theologians wrestled none too successfully with the problem of evil and the reasons why God either inflicted it himself or allowed the Devil to do so in his stead.”

While the clergy did not overtly condone or teach belief in witches, their teaching was responsible for “opening spaces in which diabolical power could operate,” according to Ms. Briggs. Considering all of the social and economic upheaval of the 16th century, there had to be a scapegoat for misfortune. The witch seemed like a perfectly logical culprit. They were emissaries of the Devil and their intent was to distort, extract revenge, and harm God’s creation and those attempting to do God’s will.

Reformation Impacts View of Witchcraft and How it is Fought

While Protestants and Catholics reformed in different ways and at different rates, “what seems to have happened, predictably, is that old and new ideas fused into an untidy composite, whose very instability was highly dangerous,” according to Ms. Briggs. Practices were authorized that fed into witchcraft cosmology. Ms. Briggs argues that items such as “holy water, bread, candles, and other objects which had been blessed were distributed” in order to protect individuals from “illness, drought, plagues of insects and the like.”

Ranges of conjurations from exorcisms to semi-pagan prayers were given as well. This kind of action from religious leaders drew parishioners even deeper into a world of “do-it-yourself magical religion” which played a double role of “routine protective rituals and a source of emergency power in crises.” This kind of magic came to be thought of, at least by many parishioners, as necessary in a world of witches.

In the early modern period of Europe, very few people accepted events in their life as ruled by chance. The inability of the religious world to answer specific questions in times of misfortune as well as the ambiguity over the use of “magical religion” caused witchcraft beliefs, a concept that could easily be explained in terms of good and evil, to be more readily accepted in order to understand life’s misfortunes.


  1. Briggs, Robin. Witches and Neighbors, New York: Putnam Penguin Inc, 1996.