Criticisms of the Psychopathological Interpretation of Witch Hunts: A Review

Thomas J. Schoeneman, Ph.D.

The psychopathological interpretations of the European witch hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries, which has been prominent in histories of psychiatry, contends that demonology overwhelmed psychiatry in the late Middle Ages, with the result that the mentally ill were executed by thousands as witches. The author reviews the criticisms and contrary evidence that have been brought to bear on this paradigm in the past 20 years, including critiques of its data collection and interpretation, historical evidence which has failed to support its contentions, and questions about its implicit approach to the history and philosophy of science. (Am J. Psychiatry 139:1028-1032, 1982)

No doubt is left in our mind that the millions of witches, sorcerers, possessed and obsessed were an enormous mass of severe neurotics, psychotics, and considerably deteriorated organic deliria . . . for many years the world looked like a veritable insane asylum without a proper mental hospital. (1, p. 73).

Traditional histories of psychiatry generally subscribe to the psychopathological interpretation of the European witch hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries (2-4). As Zilboorg (1, 5) has presented it, this formulation holds that in the late Middle Ages (circa 900-1100) European society suffered increases in the prevalence of individual and mass psychopathology at the same time that demonological theology eclipsed psychiatry and psychology. As a result, the learned classes mistakenly accused and executed the mentally ill as heretics and later as witches. The actual psychopathology of these suspects was particularly evident in reports of their behavior, especially in their confessions of a variety of real and imagined offenses.

The designation of accused witches as deranged is as old as the witch hunts. In the midst of the prosecutions occasional skeptics profferred melancholy, senility, and delusions as possible contributing factors in some witchcraft confessions (6-10). The advent of the Enlightenment in the late 17th century contributed to an intellectual climate that favored naturalistic explanations such as mental illness; physicians began to give opinions as to the true illnesses involved in cases of supposedly supernatural phenomena (11, 12). Thereafter, some of the great names in the new fields of neurology and psychiatry offered intrapsychic analyses of cases of witchcraft and demonic possession; these included Pinel, Esquirol7 Charcot, Janet, and Freud (3, 4). The most influential modern proponent of this paradigm was Zilboorg (2, 4, 13-15); his ideas (1, 5) have attained widespread currency in other histories of psychiatry (16-23) and in textbooks of abnormal psychology (2), making the psychopathological analysis of the European witch hunts the one most familiar to psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, other professionals, and students in the mental health field. (For a full catalogue of works in this tradition, see Midelfort [24] and Spanos [3]).

Despite its popularity, the intrapsychic view of the witch hunts has drawn increasing criticism in the past 20 years. In the rest of this paper I will review these critiques. The discussion will focus principally on witchcraft and will only occasionally address issues of demonic possession and exorcism, which have received fuller treatment elsewhere (25, 26).


A number of commentators have raised questions about the data base of psychiatric treatments of the witch hunts. One such reservation involves what could be called "citational incest," that is, a frequent tendency for psychiatric historians to use other psychiatric historians as basic evidential sources (3, 4). The writings of Zilboorg (1, 5) appear to be the common ancestors in this regard, either through direct citation or through a diffusion of ideas into subsequent works (2, 4). Those who have examined Zilboorg's methods of data collection (2, 15) have found serious inadequacies, including the use of only five primary sources (three witch hunters' manuals and two skeptical treatises); failure to examine such standard historical materials as legal records, manuscripts, pamphlets, diaries, and literature; and failure to include insights from eminent early historians of the witch hunts (7, 27-32).

There have also been a number of shortcomings in handling the data. Many psychiatric historians have relied on witch hunters' manuals such as Malleus Maleficarum (33) as sources of "case histories" of witches who were ac who authored these works and of their informants (many of whom confessed under torture, false promises of mercy, and other forms of coercion) is quite suspect (2, 34). Despite this fact, such materials have often been the basis of psychiatric diagnoses such as schizophrenia and hysteria, labels that are themselves not always reliably used today (3). Reviewers have also chided psychiatric historians for ignoring or distorting evidence that does not fit their model (2-4, 35, 36). The most notorious examples of this are 1) the failure to consider the effects of various forms of social and judicial pressure (including torture) and a number of social learning variables (3) on confessions of witchcraft and 2) the transformation of the physician-critic Johann Weyer into the "father of modern psychiatry" (5), which involves viewing Weyer as somehow divorced from the demonological Zeitgeist, when in fact he based his criticisms of the witch hunts firmly on a belief in the extensive power of Satan and evil magicians (6, 7, 9, 35). The psychopathologists were also responsible for some confusions of their data. For instance, Zilboorg and his protegés frequently commented that thousands of the possessed were executed, which is a confusion of demoniacs (often regarded as the victims of witchcraft) with accused witches (2, 3). A second example involves a confusion of the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Reformation (35-37). Some interpreters of medical history have stated that demonology and the subsequent witch hunts developed in medieval times and declined in the scientific revival of the Renaissance. In actuality, demonology and witch trials were principally products of the Renaissance and Reformation, that is, roughly of the period between 1450 and 1700 (34, 38).


Careful historical and archival research has failed to support many tenets of the psychopathological paradigm. For instance, the contention that demonological concepts and treatments of insanity usurped those of psychiatry in the Middle Ages and Renaissance is unfounded. Kroll (37) and Rosen (39) identified three coexisting heuristic bases concerning mental disorder during these times: the academic tradition of Galenic humoral theory, folk medicine, and theological dogma. Theological explanations of insanity (which included divine as well as diabolic intervention) predominated only during extremely stressful, disorienting times; otherwise, physicians apparently preferred to attribute mental disorder to natural etiologies (39). In addition, this periodic reversion to demonological attributions may have occurred only on the Continent. Neugebauer (14, 15), from a painstaking analysis of English legal records of the 13th to 17th centuries, found that in all cases but one natural causes were used to explain mental incompetency both in the petitions of the general populace and in the mental status examinations by royal officials charged with establishing a disability.

The treatment of insanity, like its conceptualization, varied, but it was not overwhelmingly brutal or theological. In the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, for instance, the variety of municipal actions taken concerning deranged individuals included no action, hospitalization, expulsion from the community, treatment by a physician, exorcism or pilgrimage, and assignment of a guardian (39). Zilboorg and his colleagues overlooked or minimized evidence of naturalistic treatments of mental disorder such as those discussed in the widely used 13th-century Encyclopedia of Bartholomaeus and the numerous therapeutic communities and hospitals for the deranged that had existed from the times of the Crusades (37, 40). Thus, the notion that a developing demonology crushed all rival world views in the Middle Ages is apparently an overstatement. (Further information on the geneses of demonological beliefs and the witch hunts is available in books by Cohn [38], Kieckhefer [34], Peters [41], and Russell [42]).

Reviewers have also noted that archival research has some bearing on the notion of the accused witches as mentally ill (2, 3). The use of legal records, pamphlets, literary works, sermons, and diaries has enabled historians (many of whom have adopted anthropological approaches) to describe the types of persons most likely to have been accused of witchcraft, as well as the interpersonal dynamics underlying such accusations (10-12, 29, 30, 32, 43-45). The most potent single factor predisposing a person to a charge of witchcraft was sex: the majority of accused witches were women. Psychiatric historians who have realized this fact have attributed it to the predominance of hysteria or repressed sexuality in women (17) or to repressed sexuality, unconsciously motivated misogyny, or general mental illness in judges and inquisitors (21, 46); these contentions have, of course, been criticized as both unsupported and undemonstrable (3, 10, 24). Alternative explanations have focused on changing social and economic conditions that placed many women in anomalous or marginal social positions (3, 10, 34, 44) as well as on a basic misogynistic bias that was manifest in legal theory and practice (47).

Other factors that contributed to a woman's chances of being labeled a witch were old age, unmarried status, and poverty. This characteristic identity was apparently widespread; however, the interpersonal dynamics of accusations varied across locations. In England, accusations apparently assuaged guilt over unneighborliness (e.g., refusing a request from a neighbor and then holding her responsible for subsequent misfortune) and served to dismantle relationships which were becoming untenable due to social change (e.g., the displacement of an ethic of neighborliness by Protestant values of individuality and self-reliance [12, 44]). In the French-Swiss border regions, accusations served to discourage unneighborly actions; transgressors were likely to be the accused rather than the accusers, thus reversing the English pattern (45). French witch trials had two motifs: In rural areas, zealous judges precipitated large-scale prosecutions by pursuing village sorceresses who functioned as healers and midwives, but urban settings showed the more sensational sequence in which entire convents of supposedly possessed nuns accused priests of bewitching them (11). The failure to find a common pattern of accusations in all locations illustrates the complexity of mechanisms and variables involved in witch hunting. While archivists have identified various nonpsychopathological factors that predispose to witchcraft accusations, to my knowledge only two have explicitly mentioned insanity. Macfarlane (44) found that the contribution of mental disorder to witchcraft accusations in Essex (England) court records was almost nil (recall Neugebauer's [14, 15] complementary finding of an absence of supernatural explanations of insanity in the English Crown's incompetency jurisdiction). Midelfort, on the other hand, reported that two factors which increased a woman's chances of being accused of witchcraft in southwestern Germany were social isolation and melancholy; Midelfort described the latter as "a depressed state characterized occasionally by obscure or threatening statements and odd behavior" (10, p. 185).

Before concluding that Midelfort's evidence validates the psychopathological interpretation, one should consider the following points. First, Midelfort considered psychopathology to be useful in explaining certain single cases of witchcraft confessions but inadequate to an understanding of the witch hunts as a social phenomenon (10, 24). Second, depression was clearly secondary to sex as a predisposing factor in accusations, and it coexisted in many cases with other interpersonal influences that might have generated "depressive" behaviors, including poverty, social isolation ("Persons without families were automatically peculiar, unprotected and suspect" [10, p. 185]), loss of religious faith, and marital discord. Third, those confessions of witchcraft which appeared to be totally voluntary and which cited emotional distress prior to the seeking of satanic solace need not have proceeded from mental illness but from normal attempts to understand and explain one's behavior (e.g., making a false confession of misdeeds) and circumstances (e.g., being accused of witchcraft) and from situational pressures (see Delcambre [48] and Spanos [3] concerning the social psychology of witchcraft confessions). Finally, Midelfort found that larger witch scares were escalations of local accusations in which all patterns and stereotypes broke down, creating a situation in which anyone, not just any class of person (such as the mentally ill), was liable to accusation. In general, then, the archival literature has found mental disorder to be neither a fundamental characteristic of accused witches nor an integral component of patterns of accusation.


Two types of comments have appeared concerning traditional psychiatric historians' assumptions about how to study the witch hunts. The first involves their emphasis on intrapsychic processes and individual pathology, a focus that has been widely described as inadequate in representing the complexity of the phenomena involved in witch hunting (2-4, 10, 24, 26, 39, 42, 49, 50). Not surprisingly, this objection originated with authors who preferred to explain witch hunting in terms of its social and cultural determinants. Some of these investigators have suggested that mental illness may be an acceptable explanation in a number of single cases of witchcraft accusations and prosecutions but that this may also be undemonstrable given the nature of surviving records. A second criticism pertains to the psychopathologists' approach to the history and philosophy of science. Many commentators (2-4, 10, 15, 26, 35-37, 39, 42, 49, 51, 52) have pointed out the absolutism and ethnocentricity involved in evaluating historical events such as the witch hunts in terms of modern constructions of reality and have espoused a relativistic position that attempts to understand past beliefs and actions in terms of the historical, social, and intellectual contexts in which they were embedded. Kirsch (35, 36) identified this absolutist tendency as an example of the "Whig interpretation" of history (53); Schoeneman (2) and Spanos (3) delineated its character in many psychiatric histories as involving the assumptions that past actions which do not conform to present conceptions of normality must be manifestations of psychopathology and that past beliefs which do not correspond to present scientific views must be explained as due to ignorance, malice, or both. Critics have viewed the Whig interpretation as responsible for problems in the treatment of data in many psychiatric histories and have noted that it serves a self-congratulatory function, since it defines the present state of psychiatry as superior to previous stages in which "mere superstition" prevailed. The alternative, relativistic position, which is much closer to the current practices of historians, anthropologists, and social psychologists interested in witchcraft, has had some interesting applications in the present-day practice of psychiatry. A number of practitioners involved in cross-cultural psychiatry have observed that when people from social backgrounds characterized by strong beliefs in magic and witchcraft complain of being bewitched or cursed to doctors who have always regarded such matters as nonsense, they are frequently and inappropriately treated as being paranoid schizophrenics (26, 54-59). The typical psychosocial treatment described in this literature has been a combination of Western therapies (medication, family therapy, hypnosis) with interventions designed to lift the perceived curse (consulting a root doctor, confronting a malefactor). The latter strategies have generally received credit as most crucial to therapy, not only for their direct ameliorative properties but for their necessity in establishing a therapeutic rapport. These reports share the view of many critics of the psychopathological interpretation of witch hunts that it may not be useful to impose 20th-century Western concepts of mental illness on other historical eras or cultures.


The psychopathological interpretation of the witch hunts appears to be in decline, and this is traceable to two causes that are probably interrelated. In the first place, sociohistorical analyses in this area show an increasing sophistication and complexity, whether they are the works of psychiatrists and psychologists interested in history (2-4, 26, 37, 39, 60) or of anthropologists and historians interested in psychiatric concerns (14, 15, 49). Second, there has been a surge in the number of scholarly historical and anthropological treatments of witchcraft-related phenomena in general and of the European witch hunts specifically in the past 20 years or so, which has generated further interest in and criticism of some of the older classic studies. (Readers interested in this literature should consult, in addition to the various studies discussed in this article, the works of Marwick [61], Midelfort [24], Monter L62], and Peters [41, appendix 3]).

The impact of these developments has been most visible in the criticisms reviewed in this paper. There is also evidence of a softening of the strict mental illness perspective by recent historians of psychiatry. The first edition of the American Handbook of Psychiatry contained no mention of Medieval and Renaissance medicine; however, the second edition mentioned the witch hunts briefly and took the middle-of-the-road position that some confessing witches were mentally ill but many more confessed under physical and mental torture (63). A change is more clearly evident in Mora's revision of his historical chapter in the second edition of the Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry from a dyed-in-the-wool psychopathological interpretation (20) to an account that recognizes the existence of opposing viewpoints concerning the role of mental illness in the witch hunts, cites a much wider range of scholarly investigations as evidential support, and is much more complex and socioculturally oriented (60). Thus, although the older psychiatric historians' views are firmly entrenched in current syllabi and textbooks, a change is apparently under way that will fulfill Rosen's call (39) for historical analyses of psychiatry and insanity which do justice to the complexity of their subject matter, analyses which are multidisciplinary, cross-cultural, and faithful to events, conditions, times, and places which have influenced past human behavior.


1. Zilboorg G: The Medical Man and the Witch during the Renaissance. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1935

2. Schoeneman TJ: The role of mental illness in the European witch hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries: an assessment. J Hist Behav Sci 13:337-351, 1977

3. Spanos NP: Witchcraft in histories of psychiatry: a critical analysis and an alternative conceptualization. Psychol Bull 85:417-439, 1978

4. Szasz TS: The Manufacture of Madness. New York, Harper & Row, 1970

5. Zilboorg G: A History of Medical Psychology. New York. WW Norton, 1941

6. Baxter C: Johann Weyer's De Praestigiis Daemonum. Unsystematic psychopathology, in The Damned Art: Essays in the Literature of Witchcraft. Edited by Anglo S. London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977

7. Kittredge GL: Witchcraft in Old and New England. Cambridge. Mass, Harvard University Press, 1929

8. Kors AC, Peters E (eds): Witchcraft in Europe 1100-1700: A Documentary History. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1972

9. Monter EW: Law, medicine and the acceptance of witchcraft, 1560-1580, in European Witchcraft. Edited by Monter EW. New York, John Wiley & Sons, 1969

10. Midelfort HCE: Witch Hunting in Southwestern Germany 1562-1684. Stanford, Calif, Stanford University Press, 1972

11. Mandrou R: Magistrates and witches in 17th century France, in European Witchcraft. Edited by Monter EW. New York, John Wiley & Sons, 1969

12. Thomas K: Religion and the Decline of Magic. New York, Scribners, 1971

13. Werman D: The teaching of the history of psychiatry. Arch Gen Psychiatry 26:287-289, 1972

14. Neugebauer R: Treatment of the mentally ill in medieval and early modern England: a reappraisal. J Hist Behav Sci 14:158169, 1978

15. Neugebauer R: Medieval and early modern theories of mental illness. Arch Gen Psychiatry 36:477-483, 1979

16. Ackerknecht E: A Short History of Psychiatry, revised ed. New York, Hafner, 1968

17. Alexander F, Selesnick ST: The History of Psychiatry. New York, Harper & Row, 1966

18. Bromberg W: From Shaman to Psychotherapist. Chicago, Regnery, 1975

19. Deutsch A: The Mentally Ill in America, 2nd ed. New York, Columbia University Press, 1952

20. Mora G: History of psychiatry, in Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry. Edited by Freedman AM, Kaplan Hl. Baltimore, Williams & Wilkins Co, 1967

21. Sarton G: Six Wings: Men of Science in the Renaissance. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1957

22. Schneck J: A History of Psychiatry. Springfield, Ill, Charles C. Thomas, 1960

23. Veith I: Hysteria: The History of a Disease. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1965

24. Midelfort HCE: Recent witch hunting research, or where do we go from here? Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 62:373-420, 1968

25. Spanos N, Gottlieb J: Demonic possession, mesmerism, and hysteria: a social psychological perspective on their historical interrelations. J Abnorm Psychol 88:527-546, 1979

26. Pattison EM: Psychosocial interpretations of exorcism. Journal of Operational Psychiatry 8:5-21, 1977

27. Lea HC: A History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages. New York, Macmillan, 1888

28. Burr GL: Selections from His Writings. Edited by Gibbons LO. Ithaca, NY, Cornell University Press, 1942

29. Ewen CL: Witch Hunting and Witch Trials. London, Kegan Paul, Trench, & Trubner, 1929

30. Ewen CL: Witchcraft and Demonism. London, Heath Cranton, 1933

31. Hansen J: Zauberwahn, Inquisition and Hexenprozess in Mittelalter. Munich, R Oldenbourg, Verlag, 1900

32. Notestein W: A History of Witchcraft in England. Washington, DC, American Historical Association 1911, 55.

33. Kramer (Institoris) H, Sprenger J: Malleus Maleficarum. Edited and translated by Summers M. New York, Dover, 1971

34. Kieckhefer R: European Witch Trials: Their Foundations in Popular and Learned Culture, 1300-1500. Berkeley, University Of California Press, 1976

35. Kirsch I: Demonology and science during the scientific revolution. J Hist Behav Sci 16:359-368, 1980

36. Kirsch I: Demonology and the rise of science: an example of the misperception of historical data. J Hist Behav Sci 14:149-157, 1978

37. Kroll J: A reappraisal of psychiatry in the Middle Ages. Arch Gen Psychiatry 29:276-283, 1973

38. Cohn N: Europe's Inner Demons. New York, Basic Books, 1975

39. Rosen G: Madness in Society: Chapters in the Historical Sociology of Mental Illness. New York, Harper & Row, 1968

40. Allderidge P: Hospitals, madhouses and asylums: cycles in the care of the insane. Br J Psychiatry 134:321-334, 1979

41. Peters E: The Magician, the Witch and the Law. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1978.

42. Russell JB: Witchcraft in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, NY, Cornell University Press, 1972 Am J Psychiatry 139:8, August 1982

43. Boyer P, Nissenbaum S: Salem Possessed. Cambridge, Mass. Harvard University Press, 1974

44. Macfarlane ADJ: Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England. New York Harper & Row, 1970

45. Monter EW: Witchcraft in France and Switzerland. Ithaca, NY, Cornell University Press, 1976

46. Anderson RD: The history of witchcraft: a review with some psychiatric comments. Am J Psychiatry 126:1727-1735, 1970

47. Geis G: Lord Hale, witches, and rape. British Journal of Law and Society 5:26-44, 1978

48. Delcambre E: The psychology of Lorraine witchcraft suspects, in European Witchcraft. Edited by Monter EW. New York, John Wiley & Sons, 1969

49. Connor JW: The social and psychological reality of European witchcraft beliefs. Psychiatry 38:366-380, 1975

50. Rush JA: Witchcraft and Sorcery: An Anthropological Perspective of the Occult. Springfield, 111, Charles C Thomas, 1974

51. Gallinek A: Psychogenic disorders and the civilization of the Middle Ages. Am J Psychiatry 99:42-54, 1942

52. Kaelbling R: Comparative psychopathology and psychotherapy. Acta Psychotherapeutica 9:10-28, 1961

53. Butterfield H: The Whig Interpretation of History. London, Bell. 1931

54. Arieli A: Certain magical beliefs in mental diseases. Isr Ann Psychiatry 8:173-185, 1970

55. Leininger M: Witchcraft practices and psychocultural therapy with urban US families. Human Organization 32:73-83, 1973

56. Snell JE: Hypnosis in the treatment of the ''hexed" patient. Am J Psychiatry 124:311-316 1967

57. Tinling DC: Voodoo, rootwork and medicine. Psychosom Med 29:483-490, 1967

58. Warner R: Witchcraft and soul loss: implications for community psychiatry. Hosp Community Psychiatry 28:686-690, 1977

59. Wintrob RW: The influence of others: witchcraft and rootwork as explanations of behavior disturbances. J Nerv Ment Dis 156:318-326, 1973

60. Mora G: Historical and theoretical trends in psychiatry, in Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, 2nd ed, vol 1. Edited by Freedman AM, Kaplan Hl, Sadock BJ. Baltimore, Williams & Wilkins Co, 1975

61. Marwick M (ed): Witchcraft and Sorcery. Harmondsworth, England, Penguin, 1970

62. Monter EW: The historiography of European witchcraft: progress and prospects. J Interdisciplinary History 2:435-451, 1972

63. Ellenberger H: Psychiatry from ancient to modern times, in American Handbook of Psychiatry, 2nd ed. Edited by Arieti S. New York, Basic Books, 1974


Created by

Updated: 26-June-02