17th Century European Witchcraft Craze Explained

Written by historians at history4everyone.wordpress.com

If witchcraft today seems a frivolous subject more appropriate to Hollywood horror movies and Halloween costumes, four centuries ago it was a deadly serious business. The period between 1550 and 1650 in Europe witnessed a widespread and concerted effort to discover and eradicate witchcraft, and though estimates vary it is reasonable to conclude that–at a minimum–more than 100,000 people were prosecuted for the crime, and some 40,000 executed for it. Concern with witches, of course, predated the sixteenth century.

In Classical antiquity we find reports of strange behavior, such as Roman complaints about “Strigae,” women who could fly when they turned themselves into owl-like creatures and went about stealing babies. The cult of Diana involved nocturnal women on horseback, and stories circulated about peculiar pagan fertility cults. Moreover, there was a long-standing tradition of popular belief in various forms of magic, practiced by many lay people, and often to helpful ends. Cunning women, diviners, healers, and astrologers were among those who ordinary people might consult in the belief that these “specialists” could utilize the magical properties that reputedly were inherent in nature and not the monopoly of the Christian Church. On occasion, such people might turn their talents to more destructive ends (practicing bad magic or “maleficia”) and others might be more inherently or persistently malicious, but they wouldn’t seem to pose a serious enough threat to alarm Europe’s rulers and prompt them to mobilize the full weight of their judicial machinery to execute tens of thousands of their subjects. What underlay the witch-craze of the sixteenth and seventeenth century was the fusion of this popular tradition with elite concerns over the devil’s agency and power, turning what could have been dismissed as bothersome local nuisances into manifestations of a mortal threat.

In the late Middle Ages, the Church was troubled by theological and social rebellion: the emergence of new forms of heresy such as the Cathars and Waldensians, and the outbreak of a series of peasant rebellions. The introduction of printing helped to advertise and spread such concerns among literate elites, as in the publication in 1486 of the (in)famous witch-hunting manual, Malleus Maleficarum [Hammer of Witches], by the German Dominican monks Heinrich Kraemer and Jacob Sprenger. It was less concerned with the popular tradition of natural magic than with diabolism, that is covenants by disorderly people with the devil so they could exercise evil magical power against Christianity. This witches’ brew of worries about heresy, diabolism, maleficia, and nocturnal activity took on added significance because of changes in parts of continental Europe in judicial practice, especially the revival of Roman law and emphasis on inquisitorial rather than accusatorial procedure. Victims could not rely upon surviving an ordeal to prove their innocence; instead, it was incumbent on the judge to seek evidence and employ torture to elicit confessions, confirming guilt and implicating other victims.

Who were these disorderly people and how did they manage to be prosecuted as witches? The first point to make is that very few of them were actually attempting to practice any form of witchcraft; they were victims, either of judicial fantasies, popular hysteria, or their own anti-social behavior. It is also worth noting that our stereotype of the witch — an ugly old woman living alone, shunned and feared by her neighbors — offers important clues about who was likely to be accused and why.

A typical witchcraft case began as a result of personal misfortune. Perhaps somebody’s seemingly healthy child or animal suddenly died. Maybe they became lame or ill, or their crops were ruined by an unexpected hailstorm, or they suffered from any of the challenges that were so common a feature of the precarious balance of life in early modern Europe. Searching for an explanation, the afflicted person suspected witchcraft, and more often than not, knew just who they suspected. Overwhelmingly, though not inevitably, the suspect was female (about 80% overall were women). It was generally assumed that women were weaker, morally as well as physically, and so more likely to resort to magical means to even the score. They were also presumed to be more lustful, and thus receptive to the devil’s sexual advances. On a practical note, women were, as cooks and midwives, more frequently associated with bodily health, and more vulnerable to accusations of sorcery in cases of infant mortality, food poisoning, or sudden illness.

Women accused as witches tended to be somewhat older (often in their 40s and 50s), with a history of eccentric and contentious, unneighborly behavior. They were often widowed or single, and so were not “plugged in” to normal social networks, and indeed aroused fears that they were likely to disrupt established families (some historians speculate that these fears were aggravated in protestant countries by the reduction of approved vocations for older single women with the dissolution of convents). They were likely to be poor, and thought to be ready to resort to magic as compensation for their vulnerability. Sixteenth century Europe, beset by demographic growth, inflation, and increasing poverty, was thus a fertile breeding ground for denunciations of people who had, in the eyes of their neighbors, violated the norms of the community.

Once a witch trial began, however, the initiative swung to the judges, who, during the era of the witch-craze, were less interested in cases of maleficia than in the possibility of diabolism and a direct challenge to the faith. Primed by printed accounts and previous opinions, judges expected to find evidence along the following lines. The accused witch was presumed to have been tempted by the devil in some disguise (often as a well-dressed young man) and to have given herself to him both sexually and spiritually (signing a pact). The next step would be to travel in a unnatural way (by broomstick, on a animal, or transformed as an animal) to a nocturnal gathering, or sabbat. Riotous behavior would ensue, including a banquet of unappetizing food, worship of the devil and receipt of a “devil’s mark” (a strange mark on the body or spot that was insensitive to the touch), and a general perversion of Christian rituals. The witch would then be provided with the means to do harm, usually through some powder or paste.

Further investigation would usually uncover witnesses who could testify to the bad character of the accused, while torture would frequently elicit a confession from the hapless victim. What began as the arrest of an individual, however, could spiral into a panic as judges, convinced of the collective and collaborative nature of the crime (the nocturnal meetings and so forth), tortured suspects to reveal the names of their supposed accomplices in witchcraft. All too often, the suspects were willing to invent episodes and implicate the innocent simply to stop the pain. These were the circumstances under which a self-sustaining panic could take shape.

Were there any patterns to the entire process? There was no clear difference between the denominations, as Catholic Poland and Protestant Scotland were quite willing to prosecute and execute witches, while Catholic Spain and Protestant Holland proved more lenient. Areas of religious division witnessed the greatest concentration of prosecutions, such as the French/Swiss borderlines and in what is now southern Germany. Under the stress of the Reformation, trials escalated beyond the stereotypes, so that in Trier in the 1590s 306 people were executed, and in Bamberg the mayor and most of the city council met a similar fate in the 1620s.

With religious conflict at a fever pitch, fears of subversion were heightened. The Reformation’s emphasis on individual, personal sanctity may have made some people feel inadequate to the extent that they projected their guilt onto others and accused them as witches. The emphasis of both Protestant and Catholic churches on the necessity of superseding older superstitions with true Christian faith meant that the churches now claimed a monopoly over the exercise of sacred power. Many people, stripped of recourse to reputed practitioners of protective magic (such as cunning women or astrologers), could now only retaliate legally, against perceived witches.

Yet, as quickly as the witch-craze had erupted, it faded away. It wasn’t that the witches had gone away, but that the context had changed. In that sense, the witch-hunts tell us more about European society between 1550-1650 than about the witches themselves. The tensions that had fueled it began to recede. After the mid-seventeenth century, Europe experienced greater prosperity, less inflation, and fewer visitations of the plague. The Wars of Religion came to an end, and confessional boundaries appeared more settled. Above all, elites no longer viewed thousands of old, poor, widowed women as agents of the devil and an imminent threat to the survival of a Christian world. Confessions gained under torture now seemed less credible (although it worth recalling that about half of the accused were not convicted). The scientific revolution, advances in medical thought, and conceptions of a more rational, orderly world all undercut the hysteria that had blazed so fiercely. So ended an era; perhaps political dissidents would be the modern-day equivalents of the witches.


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