The role of mental illness in the European witch hunts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: an assessment

J Hist Behav Sci. 1977 Oct;13(4):337-51.


Historians of psychiatry have propagated the view that the witch hunts of sixteenth and seventeenth-century Europe were primarily a persecution of the mentally ill and that demonological concepts of possession and witchcraft impeded psychiatric progress for centuries. The author reviews the evidence marshaled by these historians and examines additional historical material bearing on the psychopathological view. He concludes that the role of mental disorder in the witch hunts has been overinflated by authors with an interest in promulgating the medical model of abnormal behavior. Furthermore, the psychopathological paradigm is based on an outmoded philosophy of science, which results in historical distortion and paradoxes, and on restriction and selectivity in the choice of evidence.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Attitude to Health
  • Europe
  • Female
  • History, 16th Century
  • History, 17th Century
  • Humans
  • Magic*
  • Male
  • Massachusetts
  • Mental Disorders / history*
  • Prejudice
  • Psychiatry / history
  • Punishment
  • Religion and Psychology
  • Social Conditions