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How Medieval Churches Used Witch Hunts to Gain More Followers

How Medieval Churches Used Witch Hunts to Gain More Followers


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The Salem witch trials of the 1690s have an iconic place in American lore. But before the Salem witch hunt, there was the “Great Hunt”: a larger, more prolonged European phenomenon between 1560 and 1630 that led to 80,000 accusations and 40,000 deaths.

Why’d it happen? Well, as with the Salem witch trials, there are a lot of theories. In the past, scholars have suggested that bad weather, decreased income, and weak government could have contributed to the witch trial period in Europe. But according to a new theory, these trials were a way for Catholic and Protestant churches to compete with each other for followers.

In a forthcoming Economic Journalarticle, economists Peter Leeson and Jacob Russ lay out their argument that the two churches advertised their finesse at persecuting witches as proof that they were the best church to join if you wanted protection from Satan. Witches, after all, were doing the bidding of Satan; so getting rid of them was a way to protect people from him.

“Similar to how contemporary Republican and Democrat candidates focus campaign activity in political battlegrounds … historical Catholic and Protestant officials focused witch-trial activity in confessional battlegrounds during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation to attract the loyalty of undecided Christians,” Leeson and Russ write. These “battlegrounds” were places where Protestantism had made inroads, giving Christians a choice about which church they wanted to belong to.

To bolster their point, the authors point out that from about 900 to 1400, the church didn’t want to acknowledge the existence of witches; and consequently, it didn’t try people for witchcraft. In 1258, Pope Alexander IV even prohibited the prosecution of witchcraft. Yet a few centuries later, the church reversed its decision. According to the economists, it was because of the Protestant Reformation.

Beginning in 1517, the Reformation split the church into two factions: Catholic and Protestant. Suddenly, these two churches had to compete with each other for followers, and they did so by using the attention-grabbing witch trials as perverse advertisements for their brand.

Leeson and Russ argue that this helps explain why areas where Protestantism spread saw more witch trials than solidly Catholic regions. Germany, where Protestantism began, accounted for 40 percent of these persecutions. Switzerland, France, England, and the Netherlands—all countries where Protestantism spread—accounted for 35 percent. But only six percent of persecutions took place collectively in Spain, Italy, Portugal and Ireland, all regions that were more solidly Catholic.

The economists argue that witch hunts declined in the late 17th century thanks to the Peace of Westphalia. That 1648 treaty ended two religious wars, including the Thirty Years War, and established a new balance of power in Europe. It also gave Protestantism and Catholicism a religious monopoly on certain regions, eliminating the need to compete for followers by persecuting witches.

Still, some witch trials did continue between 1650 and 1700. Leeson and Russ suggest this may have been because people had become accustomed to witch trials, and sincerely believed them to be a way of protecting their communities from Satan.

Using witch trials to attract followers is only possible when the belief in witches is widespread. In the same vein, people “will only continue to demand witch trials if that belief continues,” Leeson and Russ write. The scientific revolution “may have eventually eroded popular belief in witchcraft, eroding popular demand for witchcraft prosecutions along with it.”


The Malleus Maleficarum: A Medieval Manual for Witch Hunters

The Salem witch trials, which began in 1692 in Salem Village, Massachusetts bay colony, are one of the most well-known and notorious witch trials in history. Yet, this was not the only case of these acts, as witch trials had been conducted in Europe for almost three centuries by then. This was due to the fear engendered by the perception that there was an ‘organized threat’ by satanic witches against Christendom. One of the products of this phenomenon was the Malleus Maleficarum, a work that dealt specifically with the prosecution of the so-called witches.


Witch Hunts Weren't a Medieval Superstition—They're the Product of "Modern" Education

The 15th century seems to have provided ideal soil for this new idea to take root.

On a midsummer day in 1438, a young man from the north shore of Lake Geneva presented himself to the local church inquisitor. He had a confession to make. Five years earlier, his father had forced him to join a satanic cult of witches. They had flown at night on a small black horse to join more than a hundred people gathered in a meadow. The devil was there too, in the form of a black cat. The witches knelt before him, worshiped him and kissed his posterior.

The young man’s father had already been executed as a witch. It’s likely he was trying to secure a lighter punishment by voluntarily telling inquisitors what they wanted to hear.

The Middle Ages, A.D. 500-1500, have a reputation for both heartless cruelty and hopeless credulity. People commonly believed in all kinds of magic, monsters and fairies. But it wasn’t until the 15th century that the idea of organized satanic witchcraft took hold. As a historian who studies medieval magic, I’m fascinated by how a coterie of church and state authorities conspired to develop and promote this new concept of witchcraft for their own purposes.

Early medieval attitudes about witchcraft

Belief in witches, in the sense of wicked people performing harmful magic, had existed in Europe since before the Greeks and Romans. In the early part of the Middle Ages, authorities were largely unconcerned about it.

A church document from the early 10th century proclaimed that “sorcery and witchcraft” might be real, but the idea that groups of witches flew together with demons through the night was a delusion.

Things began to change in the 12th and 13th centuries, ironically because educated elites in Europe were becoming more sophisticated.

Universities were being founded, and scholars in Western Europe began to pore over ancient texts as well as learned writings from the Muslim world. Some of these presented complex systems of magic that claimed to draw on astral forces or conjure powerful spirits. Gradually, these ideas began to gain intellectual clout.

Ordinary people – the kind who eventually got accused of being witches – didn’t perform elaborate rites from books. They gathered herbs, brewed potions, maybe said a short spell, as they had for generations. And they did so for all sorts of reasons – perhaps to harm someone they disliked, but more often to heal or protect others. Such practices were important in a world with only rudimentary forms of medical care.

Christian authorities had previously dismissed this kind of magic as empty superstition. Now they took all magic much more seriously. They began to believe simple spells worked by summoning demons, which meant anyone who performed them secretly worshiped demons.

Inventing satanic witchcraft

In the 1430s, a small group of writers in Central Europe – church inquisitors, theologians, lay magistrates and even one historian – began to describe horrific assemblies where witches gathered and worshiped demons, had orgies, ate murdered babies and performed other abominable acts. Whether any of these authors ever met each other is unclear, but they all described groups of witches supposedly active in a zone around the western Alps.

[You’re smart and curious about the world. So are The Conversation’s authors and editors. You can get our highlights each weekend.]

The reason for this development may have been purely practical. Church inquisitors, active against religious heretics since the 13th century, and some secular courts were looking to expand their jurisdictions. Having a new and particularly horrible crime to prosecute might have struck them as useful.

I just translated a number of these early texts for a forthcoming book and was struck by how worried the authors were about readers not believing them. One fretted that his accounts would be “disparaged” by those who “think themselves learned.” Another feared that “simple folk” would refuse to believe the “fragile sex” would engage in such terrible practices.

Trial records show it was a hard sell. Most people remained concerned with harmful magic – witches causing illness or withering crops. They didn’t much care about secret satanic gatherings.

In 1486, clergyman Heinrich Kramer published the most widely circulated medieval text about organized witchcraft, Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches). But many people didn’t believe him. When he tried to start a witch hunt in Innsbruck, Austria, he was kicked out by the local bishop, who accused him of being senile.

Witch hunts

Unfortunately, the fear of satanic witchcraft grew. The 15th century seems to have provided ideal soil for this new idea to take root.

Europe was recovering from several crises: plague, wars and a split in the church between two, and then three, competing popes. Beginning in the 1450s, the printing press made it easier for new ideas to spread. Even prior to the Protestant Reformation, religious reform was in the air. As I explored in an earlier book, reformers used the idea of a diabolical conspiracy bent on corrupting Christianity as a boogeyman in their call for spiritual renewal.

Over time, more people came to accept this new idea. Church and state authorities kept telling them it was real. Still, many also kept relying on local “witches” for magical healing and protection.

The history of witchcraft can be quite grim. From the 1400s through the 1700s, authorities in Western Europe executed around 50,000 people, mostly women, for witchcraft. The worst witch hunts could claim hundreds of victims at a time. With 20 dead, colonial America’s largest hunt at Salem was moderate by comparison.

This article by Michael D. Bailey first appeared in The Conversation on July 2, 2020.

Image: A group of traditional witches (Kandelhexen) dance around a bonfire during their traditional "witches sabbath" carnival performance in the Black Forest village of Waldkirch, Germany, February 6, 2016. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach.


Inventing satanic witchcraft

In the 1430s, a small group of writers in Central Europe – church inquisitors, theologians, lay magistrates and even one historian – began to describe horrific assemblies where witches gathered and worshiped demons, had orgies, ate murdered babies and performed other abominable acts. Whether any of these authors ever met each other is unclear, but they all described groups of witches supposedly active in a zone around the western Alps.

[You’re smart and curious about the world. So are The Conversation’s authors and editors. You can get our highlights each weekend.]

The reason for this development may have been purely practical. Church inquisitors, active against religious heretics since the 13th century, and some secular courts were looking to expand their jurisdictions. Having a new and particularly horrible crime to prosecute might have struck them as useful.

I just translated a number of these early texts for a forthcoming book and was struck by how worried the authors were about readers not believing them. One fretted that his accounts would be “disparaged” by those who “think themselves learned.” Another feared that “simple folk” would refuse to believe the “fragile sex” would engage in such terrible practices.

Trial records show it was a hard sell. Most people remained concerned with harmful magic – witches causing illness or withering crops. They didn’t much care about secret satanic gatherings.

The handbook for detecting and persecuting witches in the Middle Ages, ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ or ‘Hammer of Witches.’ Wellcome Images/Wikimedia

In 1486, clergyman Heinrich Kramer published the most widely circulated medieval text about organized witchcraft, Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches). But many people didn’t believe him. When he tried to start a witch hunt in Innsbruck, Austria, he was kicked out by the local bishop, who accused him of being senile.


Witch hunts

Unfortunately, the fear of satanic witchcraft grew. The 15th century seems to have provided ideal soil for this new idea to take root.

Europe was recovering from several crises: plague, wars and a split in the church between two, and then three, competing popes. Beginning in the 1450s, the printing press made it easier for new ideas to spread. Even prior to the Protestant Reformation, religious reform was in the air. As I explored in an earlier book, reformers used the idea of a diabolical conspiracy bent on corrupting Christianity as a boogeyman in their call for spiritual renewal.

Over time, more people came to accept this new idea. Church and state authorities kept telling them it was real. Still, many also kept relying on local “witches” for magical healing and protection.

The history of witchcraft can be quite grim. From the 1400s through the 1700s, authorities in Western Europe executed around 50,000 people, mostly women, for witchcraft. The worst witch hunts could claim hundreds of victims at a time. With 20 dead, colonial America’s largest hunt at Salem was moderate by comparison.

Salem, in 1692, marked the end of witch hunts in New England. In Europe, too, skepticism would eventually prevail. It’s worth remembering, though, that at the beginning, authorities had to work hard to convince others such malevolence was real.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Aristotle, Witchcraft and Witch Hunts

Aristotle is not a name you would expect to hear in regard to the witch hunts that took hold of Europe between 1450-1750, especially as he himself was also a victim of religious intolerance (or rather lack thereof, as Aristotle fled Athens to avoid being executed under charges of impiety). However, whilst Aristotle himself did not believe in witchcraft, his followers did.

Aristotle

One follower in particular, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1275) had a profound impact upon the Church’s view of witchcraft. Previously, witchcraft had been seen as a pagan belief, and Christians did not believe in it for the most part of the medieval period. So much so that Charlemagne banned executions where a person had been accused of witchcraft, instead stating that those who would murder supposed ‘witches’ would receive the death penalty.

However in Aquinas’ time, two types of magic were believed to exist: harmful magic, which was punishable by death, and spiritual apostasy which was legal. Spiritual apostasy was the belief that witches had no malevolent powers but ‘rather had succumbed to illusions of diabolical agency’. Aquinas managed to bring these two ideas together to create a new idea that witchcraft was blasphemy, thus giving a reason to execute witches as this made their powers evil-minded. This new belief continued well into the Enlightenment as it became part of English law.

Thomas Aquinas

It wasn’t just Aristotle’s logic that made it possible to accuse people of witchcraft, it was also his attitude towards women. Aristotle believed that the menstrual cycle was a sign of women’s inherent inferiority to men and Aquinas reinforced this Aristotelian belief of male superiority, as Aquinas stated that the soul is passed through the father’s semen. Demonology was rooted in Aristotle and Aquinas’ works, which ultimately led to the myth that women’s bodies were a source of pollution and that menstruating women should be left alone. This was because menstrual blood was supposedly toxic and linked to ‘uncanny powers that could ultimately destroy’. This myth managed to persist until the early 20th century in Europe and the female anatomy became inherently tied to conversations surrounding witchcraft, especially in regards to sexuality.

Aristotle and Aquinas’ ideas led to arguably one of the most misogynistic pieces of work ever written, the ‘Malleus Maleficarum’, also known as The Hammer of Witches, by Heinrich Kramer. To say that Kramer had a problem with women is an understatement. The title of Kramer’s work refers specifically to women, as in Latin Maleficarum is in the feminine gender, thus the title actually means ‘The Hammer of the Female Witches’ . Kramer directly cites Aquinas and his defense for the theory of incubi and succubae, as Kramer believes witches to have been born from these sex demons. His book was the result of a feud between him and Helena Scheuberin, as she would curse him in the street and encourage others to not attend his sermons as she believed him to be evil. In response, Kramer accused her of witchcraft and in court, the bishop noted that Kramer focused very much on Scheuberin’s sexuality.

The ‘Malleus Maleficarum’

The ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ was used by many European governments as the basis for the mass murder of supposed ‘witches’ during the Enlightenment era, which saw more witchcraft related deaths than the Medieval period. In Scotland, approximately 3,000-4,000 witches were executed between 1560-1707 and during the two-year period of England’s Long Parliament, approximately 200 people were executed for witchcraft.

James I was highly interested in witchcraft and even wrote his own book on witchcraft called ‘Daemonologie’. He saw himself as somewhat of an expert on the subject and became involved in the 1605 case of Anne Gunther as well as the 1590 North Berwick witch hunt. The Anne Gunther case was settled in the Star Chamber, an English court in the Palace of Westminster, which found that Anne’s possession was fabricated by Anne’s father. However, in the North Berwick witch hunt, James I viewed himself to be a victim as those accused in the trials were not just accused of witchcraft but also of high treason. The North Berwick witch hunt did not just involve James I but also the state of Denmark, as the case involved James’ wife Anne of Denmark and two Danish women were executed in Kronberg for cursing Anne’s ship. This witch hunt implicated over seventy people and several were executed, the most famous being Agnes Simpson.

Suspected witches kneeling before King James VI, from ‘Daemonologie’

‘Daemonologie’ is a philosophical work involving two characters, Epistemon and Philomathes. Epistemon is epistemology which is a branch of philosophy concerned with the theory of knowledge to which Aristotle contributed. The maxim ‘against one who denies the principles, there can be no debate’ was used by James I in ‘Daemonologie’ and medieval scholastic philosophy used this maxim to refer to the authority of the Aristotelian system. This maxim was the opening sentence in ‘Daemonologie’ and was used to prove the existence of witches, as the Scriptures had stated their existence and this was further proved through confession and daily experience. In 1604, James I issued a statute against witchcraft which transferred the trials from the Church to the common law courts.

Eventually, Parliament passed an act in 1736 repealing the laws against witchcraft, instead choosing to administer fines instead of the death penalty on people who claimed to have magical abilities. In England, the last woman to be executed for witchcraft was Alice Molland in 1684 and in Scotland, it was Janet Horne in 1722.

Claudia Elphick is a History, Literature and Culture undergraduate student at the University of Brighton.


Torture for Confessions

Inquisitors often resorted to torture in order to extract information or confessions from accused witches. Red-hot tongs were applied to women's breasts and genitalia. Researcher Nancy van Vuuren has written that The women's sex organs provided a special attraction for the male torturer. It should not be surprising that just about every torture victim eventually confessed.

Confessions commonly came attached to denouncements of other possible witches, keeping the Inquisitors in business. In Spain, church records tell the story of Maria of Ituren admitting under torture that she and sister witches turned themselves into horses and galloped through the sky. In a district of France, 600 women admitted to copulating with demons. Some entire villages in Europe were exterminated.

Although the children of heretics and Jews had never known much in the way of compassion from Inquisitors, the children of convicted witches suffered even more horribly. These kids were themselves prosecuted for witchcraft girls after the age of nine and a half, boys after the age of ten and a half. Even younger children could be tortured to elicit testimony against parents.

Voluntary testimony from someone as young as two could be admitted even though it was never regarded as valid in other cases. A French judge is reported to have regretted leniency when he sentenced young kids flogged while they watched their parents burn instead of sentencing them to burn as well.

It seems to me that witches served a symbolic role for the male, celibate religious authorities in Europe. Witches were not simply adherents to an alternative religiosity, and they certainly weren't turning whole towns into toads. Instead, their treatment at the hands of men, and the rationales used by those men indicate that the oppression of witches was somehow symbolic of the oppression of women in general, of women's sexuality, and of sexuality in general.

We hate to sound Freudian, but we really do think that in this case, the assertions by celibate men about the alleged sexual obsessions of witches are really a clear case of projection. We think that it was the religious authorities who were obsessed and insatiable with their sexuality, but since their repressive ideology couldn't allow that, they had to project their desires onto others. If women, sexually evil beasts, were actually responsible for the priest's sexual desires, then the priests could in turn still feel holy and better yet, holier than thou, more righteous and holy than the hated women around them.


What is Witchcraft?

We won't go into a detailed description of the witchcraft of the Middle Ages here but here are a few basics. Witchcraft was the use of power other than divine powers, to perform paranormal activities. In the case of black magic the intention was to cause harm, perhaps to cause sickness, death of adults, infants or livestock, hailstorms, etc. White magic was used to to counteract the black magic, however, the Church would say even white magic is dangerous. Witchcraft was an acquired skill, it was something that was learned. It was not something that one is born with. White magic is used against black magic,

Up until the late 1400's the Church downplayed the role of witchcraft. The Church's opinion on witchcraft did not begin to formulate from a theological perspective until the end of the Middle Ages. Before that the church tried to discourage it as superstitious, rather than an actual power. However, after the Black death, things changed a lot. People began to take witchcraft seriously and to consider it as a genuine threat. Everyone at that time believed that witchcraft was real, and that it actually could cause harm. So they treated it much the same way as they treated other forms of serious harm such as murder. There are many biblical verses upon which the Church was willing to draw. (i.e., Ex 22:17, Gal 5:19-21and the book of Revelation)

The Catholic Encyclopedia says this:

. In Witchcraft, as commonly understood, there is involved the idea of a diabolical pact or at least an appeal to the intervention of the spirits of evil. In such cases this supernatural aid is usually invoked either to compass the death of some obnoxious person, or to awaken the passion of love in those who are the objects of desire, or to call up the dead, or to bring calamity or impotence upon enemies, rivals, and fancied oppressors. This is not an exhaustive enumeration, but these represent some of the principal purposes that witchcraft has been made to serve at nearly all periods of the world's history.

There is a lot of misinformation that assumes the witch craze was at the heart of Catholic Inquisition. It is true the Church put witches on trial. The Bull (bulletin) "Summis desiderantes affectibus", of Pope Innocent VIII (1484) dealt with witchcraft and heresy. Henrick Kramer and James Sprenger, inquisitors put out a manual called "Malleus Maleficarum" (the hammer of witches). It was a bad book.

  • The Catholic Church had nothing to do with the Salem Witch burnings in the US, that was a Protestant thing, as were the witch burnings in Scotland, England and most of Germany. There were also many secular entities that burned witches. There were 20 deaths of 162 trails at Salem and there were 67 total witch deaths in North America during the Burning Times.
  • The book by Lamothe-Langon called "Histoire de l'Inquisition en France" responsible for many of the overestimations of inquisition related witch deaths in southern France was a forgery. This book was a major influence on the Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology. New York : Julian Press, Inc., 1958. Encyclopaedia Britanica. Third Edition, 1970. . Robbins, Rossel Hope. More about the forgery below. If you are reading a book that was produced before 1972 or a book that is influenced by anything writing between1890-1972 then the numbers are probably skewed by this book.
  • The Catholic Inquisition only applied to baptized Catholics who were practicing witchcraft. The Inquisition had nothing to do with pagan, secular or protestant witches.
  • By 1485 the Inquisition's involvement with witch hunting was dying down. Institoris started a witch campaign at Innsbruck in 1485, but he was severely criticized and resisted by the Bishop of Brixen (see Janssen, "Hist. of Germ. People", Eng. tr., XVI, 249-251).
  • Although there were trials of witches prior to the "witch crazes" of 1580-1645A.D., before that period trials were scattered and not very prevalent. The Reformation was in full swing during the witch crazes and it was no longer a "one Church" world.
  • Approximately 25% (or more) of the witches who died were men. Although the "Malleus Maleficarum" reflected the unfavorable attitudes toward women during that time period, the Catholic witch trials were not a gender thing, it was about rooting out people who thought to have made a pact with the Devil (men and women). More about the Catholic Church and women here.
    , Calvin, and their followers were totally into the popular belief that the power of the Devil as exercised through witchcraft and other magic practices must be stopped through violence. It was in virtue of the Biblical command that he advocated the extermination of witches.
  • In Iceland there was a witch hunt where 90% of the victims were men.

How Medieval Churches Used Witch Hunts to Gain More Followers - HISTORY

Study of Fifteenth Century Criminal Records Reveals the Origins of the Witch-Hunt

A dark but iconic moment in U.S. history, the Salem witch trials of 1692, are taught in American schools to educate students about religious extremism and the judicial process. But the origins of witchcraft prosecution can be traced back to Europe centuries prior, when pre-Reformation courts first induced criminals to admit to heresy and witchcraft to exert social control through displays of harsh and often violent punishment.

Laura Stokes is an Assistant Professor in Stanford’s Department of History, whose work has mostly focused on the origins and prosecution of witchcraft in fifteenth century Europe. Her Ph.D. dissertation, which chronicled the rise of such persecution as well as its linkages to developments in judicial torture, has now been revised into a book, Demons of Urban Reform: The Rise of Witchcraft Persecution, 1430-1530.

Focusing on case studies from the European cities of Basel, Lucerne, and Nuremburg, Stokes’ work examines the legal underpinnings of witchcraft persecution as well as the religious and esoteric influences that fueled it. Considering how and why the three cities in question took different paths with regard to witchcraft persecution, Stokes highlights how the concept of witchcraft as a legally condemnable crime emerged from the intersection of religion and indigenous belief in magic, superstition and necromancy. Her work sheds light on how social and religious forces are capable of breeding persecution, informing how we should consider the persecution of witches as it exists today in various parts of the world.

How did you become interested in the history of witchcraft prosecution?

LS: I first encountered the history of witchcraft as an undergraduate at Reed College, as I searched for a topic for my senior thesis. I was interested in the social dynamics of persecution and in deviance as a constructed category. That thesis turned out to be the opening of a door rather than a finished project in itself. Witchcraft persecution is a very complex historical phenomenon, the understanding of which requires one to be versed in three forms of law (both in theory and practice), theology and religious history, as well as a wide array of political and social phenomena. After ten more years of study, I was ready to write a book on the subject.

What is significant about the distinction you make between "witchcraft" and "diabolic witchcraft?"

LS: Diabolic witchcraft is a specific, historical concept. It is the one that drove the early modern European witch hunts, and as such is justly infamous. Witchcraft, when broadly defined, is a concept which appears in nearly every human society. Witches are still persecuted in the world today, often with extreme violence. If historians are to have anything to offer to this pressing human rights issue, they need to find a way to make the specific experience of Europeans pertinent to the rest of the world. Viewing the European phenomenon with a broader lens is part of this process, and it turns out also to enrich our understanding of European witchcraft. The assumption that diabolism was the defining feature of early modern witchcraft blinds us to the non-diabolic, indigenous concepts of witchcraft that lay at the roots of the persecutions.

Lucerne, Basel and Nuremberg serve as the case studies in Demons of Urban Reform. What led to you to focus on those particular cities?

LS: The book deals with an early phase of European witchcraft prosecution and, for this reason, most of the potential case studies come from the Swiss region. The phenomenon of the diabolic witch and the early modern practice of witchcraft prosecution originated in the region of what is today western Switzerland around the year 1430. From that geographical origin, the beliefs and practices that fueled both prosecutions and witch hunts spread most effectively from one region to adjacent regions. Although rumors of the "new sect of the witches" appears to have inspired isolated witch hunts in such far flung places as Arras in northern France, most of the fifteenth century witch trials took place in a fairly narrow geographical region.

Witch-hunts did not exist in Europe before the mid-fifteenth century. What conditions fostered the concept of the witch-hunt?

LS: Over the course of about two centuries, European clergy went from condemning witchcraft beliefs as "superstitious" to sharing them and elaborating them into the concept of the diabolic witch. Why did this happen? In part, it was due to the influence of magic within clerical circles, where esoteric knowledge derived in part from the Arabic world was cobbled together with quasi-magical elements of popular religious practice to create the art of necromancy.

The popularity of necromancy among the narrow upper crust of learned men contributed to their belief that magic was likely to be real, and provided the fabric for fears of secret attack. These fears were particularly strong among the high clergy during the fraught years of the great Western schism, when two popes vied for control of Europe. The schism was resolved in the early fifteenth century, but left a profound dispute over the seat of power within the church. Meanwhile, the development of the medieval inquisitions had led to the creation of guides for the discovery and persecution of heresy. These guides, in the manner of medieval religious writing, aimed to systematize knowledge and to explain how apparently quite disparate elements fit within a single, coherent Christian worldview. In so doing, the manual writers merged together heresy, village magic, popular fears of witchcraft, and the demonic elements of clerical necromancy.

What new insight have you gleaned in considering the persecution of witchcraft from a legal, rather than religious or purely social, standpoint?

LS: Persecution is a phenomenon which can take place within religious, social, or legal spheres, as well as across them. Prosecution is the particular prerogative of the legal apparatus. By examining the persecution of witches through the lens of legal prosecution and within the context of prosecution generally, my work highlights the persecutory nature of early modern criminal prosecution.

It is the similarities, not the differences, between witch trials and other criminal trials that are most instructive in this regard. This is of importance to historians of witchcraft, who have often examined the witch hunts as an exception within early modern criminal justice. It is of importance to contemporary observers of law as well, because it was in combating that persecutory tendency of early modern justice that the modern legal protections of the individual arose. Given that our modern system is also prone to lapse into persecutory paths, it is useful to know how the persecutory tendencies of the old system were facilitated, that we might better fight their intrusion into our own criminal justice system.

You describe witchcraft prosecution as ebbing and flowing during the period of 1430 to 1530. Is this evidence of the importance of social control in pre-Reformation cities?

LS: The ebb and flow of witchcraft prosecution is not so much evidence for the importance of social control, as it is evidence that both social control and witchcraft prosecution were driven by the same forces. That social control was important to pre-Reformation cities has been long understood by historians of the urban communes, and indeed is seen as one reason that early Reformation innovations in social control were largely urban experiments.

What is interesting about the relationship between social control and witchcraft prosecution in my work is that they follow the same trends, that both appear to be expressions of a zeal for reform within the ruling circles of the cities. The waxing and waning of that zeal had many causes, some of which are lost to the historian. Among these is without a doubt some measure of the natural flux of generations, by which young people often have more in common (in their temperament) with their grandparents than with their parents. One cause which I have been able to trace in the book is the process by which a single, spectacular event can cause a social panic, resulting in a renewed zeal for moral and social control.

The book opens with a summary of a trial that took place in Lucerne, where you describe how a secular, urban court had a man who was accused of theft tortured until he also confessed to a charge of diabolic witchcraft. Could you expand on this apparent paradox between a secular court and manufactured heresy?

LS: This is one of the puzzles that caught my fascination early in this project. I had made the assumption that heresy prosecution was the prerogative of the church, at least until the Reformation. Yet although the case which opens the book is remarkable in many ways, it is far from unique in this aspect. These urban courts did not accept many practical limitations on their prerogative to prosecute misconduct, and they often crossed the line into matters which are usually seen as falling within the jurisdiction of the medieval church courts: marriage, sexual misbehavior, blasphemy, and even false belief.

This line crossing is of interest in part because it could, though surprisingly only occasionally, be a cause of direct conflict between the urban authorities and the local bishop. It is also of interest because it follows quite closely the contour of ebb and flow discussed above. This sort of case was a manifestation of the same secular championing of moral and social control that so characterized Reformed cities a few decades later.

What kinds of primary resources informed your understanding that many admissions to witchcraft were induced by torture?

LS: The details of criminal procedure are difficult to tease out from fifteenth-century sources. In each city I had quite different sources, each with its own set of flaws. For Basel I had details of the costs for interrogation and torture in the expense records, but shifts in recording practices elide these for decades at a time. For Lucerne, I have even fewer direct references to torture, but these are programmatic: they are statements about the outlay for the personal and process of torture generally and make clear that, at a certain point, torture became a regular part of criminal interrogations.

The best records exist for Nuremberg, where the detailed city council minutes describe every single instance in which torture was directed or allowed, albeit quite tersely. I have used the records from Nuremberg to analyze the transformation of torture practice across the late fifteenth century.

You mention that while two of your city case studies - Lucerne and Basel - shared similar indigenous ideas of witchcraft in the fifteenth century, the following years would see witch-hunts and persecution become much more pronounced in the former. How did this come to be?

LS: In the most basic analysis, two key elements are necessary for witchcraft prosecution: accusations and a legal system willing to pursue them. The shared indigenous ideas of witchcraft in Lucerne and Basel gave rise to accusations in both places. People believed in the existence of wolf-riding, storm-raising, milk-stealing, child-killing witches, and that belief led to specific accusations of witchcraft.

In Lucerne, the urban authorities accepted and pursued the accusations of witchcraft brought by the populace. They clearly shared the beliefs of their rural subjects and urban neighbors. In Basel, by contrast, urban authorities had long been resistant to prosecuting witchcraft. They suspected their rural subjects were rather too credulous, and they ultimately labeled witchcraft accusations superstition. Several factors influenced this difference between the two urban elites.

One was the relative social proximity of the elites in Lucerne to the rest of the populace: the council was large and inclusive, comprising nearly a tenth of the urban population during the fifteenth-century witchcraft persecutions. The Basel council was smaller and more exclusive. Although the guilds were represented in the council, in practice councilors were drawn from a narrow circle of elite families. Another factor which should not be forgotten is the presence of a young and vigorous humanist university in Basel, founded in the fifteenth century. The men who ruled Basel did not share the witchcraft fears of their subjects, and although they pursued witchcraft accusations when it was politically expedient to them, they ceased to pursue them once their power was sufficient to make it unnecessary.

Immigrants and foreigners in Lucerne were often the target of accusations of witchcraft was this insider/outsider dynamic in relation to witchcraft, characteristic of Lucerne only? As a means of control, how did it gain prominence and acceptance and how has it developed since?

LS: The best evidence on late medieval and early modern communities generally leads me to suspect that the sort of insider/outsider dynamic which can be demonstrated in Lucerne was a common occurrence throughout Europe. This does not mean, of course, that all witchcraft suspects were outsiders. It does mean that a failure to integrate fully into a new community was a potentially deadly problem.

Social integration, whether one was born into a given community or arrived there as an immigrant, was absolutely vital to early modern people. The mechanisms of social control were fundamentally a means of ensuring such integration, and were often targeted at eliminating foreign modes of dress, play, dance, and mores.


Witch Hunts Weren't a Medieval Superstition—They're the Product of "Modern" Education

On a midsummer day in 1438, a young man from the north shore of Lake Geneva presented himself to the local church inquisitor. He had a confession to make. Five years earlier, his father had forced him to join a satanic cult of witches. They had flown at night on a small black horse to join more than a hundred people gathered in a meadow. The devil was there too, in the form of a black cat. The witches knelt before him, worshiped him and kissed his posterior.

The young man’s father had already been executed as a witch. It’s likely he was trying to secure a lighter punishment by voluntarily telling inquisitors what they wanted to hear.

The Middle Ages, A.D. 500-1500, have a reputation for both heartless cruelty and hopeless credulity. People commonly believed in all kinds of magic, monsters and fairies. But it wasn’t until the 15th century that the idea of organized satanic witchcraft took hold. As a historian who studies medieval magic, I’m fascinated by how a coterie of church and state authorities conspired to develop and promote this new concept of witchcraft for their own purposes.

Early medieval attitudes about witchcraft

Belief in witches, in the sense of wicked people performing harmful magic, had existed in Europe since before the Greeks and Romans. In the early part of the Middle Ages, authorities were largely unconcerned about it.

A church document from the early 10th century proclaimed that “sorcery and witchcraft” might be real, but the idea that groups of witches flew together with demons through the night was a delusion.

Things began to change in the 12th and 13th centuries, ironically because educated elites in Europe were becoming more sophisticated.

Universities were being founded, and scholars in Western Europe began to pore over ancient texts as well as learned writings from the Muslim world. Some of these presented complex systems of magic that claimed to draw on astral forces or conjure powerful spirits. Gradually, these ideas began to gain intellectual clout.

Ordinary people – the kind who eventually got accused of being witches – didn’t perform elaborate rites from books. They gathered herbs, brewed potions, maybe said a short spell, as they had for generations. And they did so for all sorts of reasons – perhaps to harm someone they disliked, but more often to heal or protect others. Such practices were important in a world with only rudimentary forms of medical care.

Christian authorities had previously dismissed this kind of magic as empty superstition. Now they took all magic much more seriously. They began to believe simple spells worked by summoning demons, which meant anyone who performed them secretly worshiped demons.

Inventing satanic witchcraft

In the 1430s, a small group of writers in Central Europe – church inquisitors, theologians, lay magistrates and even one historian – began to describe horrific assemblies where witches gathered and worshiped demons, had orgies, ate murdered babies and performed other abominable acts. Whether any of these authors ever met each other is unclear, but they all described groups of witches supposedly active in a zone around the western Alps.

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The reason for this development may have been purely practical. Church inquisitors, active against religious heretics since the 13th century, and some secular courts were looking to expand their jurisdictions. Having a new and particularly horrible crime to prosecute might have struck them as useful.

I just translated a number of these early texts for a forthcoming book and was struck by how worried the authors were about readers not believing them. One fretted that his accounts would be “disparaged” by those who “think themselves learned.” Another feared that “simple folk” would refuse to believe the “fragile sex” would engage in such terrible practices.

Trial records show it was a hard sell. Most people remained concerned with harmful magic – witches causing illness or withering crops. They didn’t much care about secret satanic gatherings.

In 1486, clergyman Heinrich Kramer published the most widely circulated medieval text about organized witchcraft, Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches). But many people didn’t believe him. When he tried to start a witch hunt in Innsbruck, Austria, he was kicked out by the local bishop, who accused him of being senile.

Witch hunts

Unfortunately, the fear of satanic witchcraft grew. The 15th century seems to have provided ideal soil for this new idea to take root.

Europe was recovering from several crises: plague, wars and a split in the church between two, and then three, competing popes. Beginning in the 1450s, the printing press made it easier for new ideas to spread. Even prior to the Protestant Reformation, religious reform was in the air. As I explored in an earlier book, reformers used the idea of a diabolical conspiracy bent on corrupting Christianity as a boogeyman in their call for spiritual renewal.

Over time, more people came to accept this new idea. Church and state authorities kept telling them it was real. Still, many also kept relying on local “witches” for magical healing and protection.

The history of witchcraft can be quite grim. From the 1400s through the 1700s, authorities in Western Europe executed around 50,000 people, mostly women, for witchcraft. The worst witch hunts could claim hundreds of victims at a time. With 20 dead, colonial America’s largest hunt at Salem was moderate by comparison.

This article by Michael D. Bailey first appeared in The Conversation on July 2, 2020.

Image: A group of traditional witches (Kandelhexen) dance around a bonfire during their traditional "witches sabbath" carnival performance in the Black Forest village of Waldkirch, Germany, February 6, 2016. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach.


Watch the video: Ugly History: Witch Hunts - Brian A. Pavlac (July 2022).


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