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Popular Culture and Witchcraft


The study of any society reveals a complex blend of ideas, values and practices. Some are endorsed by sufficiently large numbers to be classed as 'popular'. Yet it is very difficult to demarcate these neatly from 'elite' customs, especially considering everyday exchange, evolution over time and ever-changing fashions. In this seminar, we will try to identify some key elements of popular culture such as shaming rituals, using - as is appropriate for a largely illiterate population - visual evidence from the period. Another prominent aspect is the widespread belief in magic, related (il)legitimate practices and the emergence, peak and decline of the early modern witchhunt.



  • How can historians define and study early modern popular culture?
  • Which features and values characterized popular culture in our period?
  • Was the witch-hunt a ‘war against women’?



EITHER William Hogarth, ‘Hudibras Encounters the Skimmington’ (originally published in Samuel Butler, Hudibras, London 1726) [British Museum]

OR Hans Baldung, ‘The Witches’ Sabbath’ (Woodcut, 1510) [Web Gallery of Art] Alternative version here.

Questions about the sources:

  • To which extent can such images represent popular culture?
  • What do these visual sources tell us about gender roles in early modern society?



Capp, Bernard, ‘Popular Culture(s)’, in Beat Kümin (ed.), The European World (3rd ed, 2018), 283-92



Burke, Peter, Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe (any edn), Chapter 2: ‘Unity and Variety in Popular Culture’ [online]

Ingram, Martin, ‘Ridings, Rough Music and the “Reform of Popular Culture” in Early Modern England’, in: Past & Present 105 (1984), 79-113 [online]

Levack, Brian, The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe (any ed), ch. 5: ‘The Social Context’ [online]

Roberts, Penny, ‘Witchcraft and Magic’ in in Beat Kümin (ed.), The European World (3rd ed, 2018), 271-82 (e-book)

Scribner, R. W., ‘Is a history of popular culture possible?’, History of European Ideas, 10 (1989), 175-91 [online]



Behringer, Wolfgang, ‘Weather, Hunger, Fear: The Origins of the European Witch Hunts in Climate, Society and Mentality’, German History, 13 (1995), 1–27 [online]

Brennan, Thomas, Public Drinking and Popular Culture in Eighteenth-Century Paris (Princeton, 1988) [online]

Davis, Natalie Zemon, Society and Culture in Early Modern France (Stanford, 1975) [online]

Delumeau, Jean, Catholicism Between Luther and Voltaire: A New View of the Counter-Reformation, trans. Jeremy Moiser (London, 1977)

Fox, Adam, Oral and Literate Culture in England 1500-1700 (2000)

Durrant, Jonathan B., Witchcraft, Gender and Society in Early Modern Germany (Leiden, 2007)

Ginzburg, Carlo, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller (Harmondsworth, 1992)

Harris, Tim, (ed.), Popular Culture in England c. 1500-1850 (Basingstoke, 1995)

Hutton, Ronald, The Rise and Fall of Merry England: The Ritual Year 1400-1700 (Oxford, 1994)

Kümin, Beat, ‘Rural Society’, in Ulinka Rublack (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of the Protestant Reformations (Oxford, 2017) [online]

Larner, Christina, Enemies of God: The Witch-Hunt in Scotland (Edinburgh, 2000)

Levack, Brian, (ed.), The Witchcraft Source Book (London, 2014) [online primary sources]

Oldridge, Darren, (ed.), The Witchcraft Reader (London, 2002/2008)

Reay, Barry, Popular Cultures in England 1550-1750 (London, 1998)

Scribner, Robert W., Popular Culture and Popular Movements in Reformation Germany (London, 1987)

Scribner, Robert W., Religion and Culture in Germany 1400-1800, ed. L. Roper (Leiden, 2001)

Sharpe, James, Instruments of Darkness: Witchcraft in England, 1550–1750 (London, 1997)

Thomas, Keith, Religion and the Decline of Magic (London, 1971)