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Publications > 35/4 - page 2
> Sections: Publications | News & Information | National Jesuit News | Studies in the Spirituality of Jesuits | The Way
  Studies in the Spirituality of Jesuits > 35/4 - page 2


Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe

For most of human history and in all cultures, people have believed in magic -- in the superhuman powers of certain individuals to heal and help others (so-called "white-magic"), or to do harm ("black magic"). The shaman was integral to primitive cultures, revered as a holy person in touch with the spirit world. Ancient Greece and Rome bequeathed Western civilization a literature filled with stories about magic spells, amulets, and witches who had the power to change themselves and others into animals. 9

The Bible too makes references to people communing with spirits. Though Mosaic law forbade divination to learn the future (Leviticus 19,31), Isaiah relates that Israel was filled with soothsayers (Isaiah 2,6). Magic was part of the Bible's cultural landscape. The narratives tell of Moses and Aaron getting the better of Pharaoh’s magicians and their "secret arts" (Exodus 7, 8-12). The Bible declares magic to be powerless against God but does not deny that its practitioners can be effective.

Though neither testament declares magic to be bogus, both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures prohibit sorcery as tantamount to idolatry (1 Samuel 15,23; Galatians 5,20). Witchcraft was declared one of the sins for which God had destroyed Israel (2 Kings 17,17). Any God-fearing society wary of the same fate was advised to heed the explicit biblical command, "You shall not permit a witch to live" (Exodus 22,17).

Under the questionable assumption that modernity equates with moral progress, most of us tend to associate witch trials with the supposedly dark Middle Ages. We think of them as conducted by priest-inquisitors doing the work of the church. As a matter of fact, it was the Roman Inquisition that carried out the first trial and execution for witchcraft in Toulouse, France, in 1275. And in the 1400s, especially in France, church inquisitors were responsible for a number of women being executed as witches, most famously Joan of Arc. But the greatest number of witch trials and executions by far took place between 1550 and 1650, and most of those, more narrowly, between 1580 and 1630. In other words, not in the Middle Ages, but early modernity, at the dawn of a time associated with genius and Enlightenment. And in the main those trials and executions were in the hands of secular courts. When Spee wrote of inquisitors in his Cautio, he was referring to laymen.

Much is still unclear about the waves of witchcraft trials that plagued early modern Europe. For one, we can only estimate how many people were executed. Records have been lost or destroyed, and many cases were never recorded at all because the accused were lynched, committed suicide or died under torture. The most recent archival research estimates the total number of trials at 110,000 and the number of persons executed at 60,000. About half of those executions took place within the Holy Roman Empire. 10

Because they were not evenly spread over time and space, open questions still remain about why witch-hunts broke out at all, and why they occurred when and where they did. After Germany, where trials numbered some fifty-thousand, witch-hunting ravaged the British Isles (five-thousand, more than half in Scotland); the Scandinavian counties (five-thousand); and tiny Switzerland (nine-thousand). In Italy and Spain, despite numerous investigations, very few prosecutions resulted in execution. The Spanish and Roman Inquisitions were generally skeptical of the accusations. In Rome only one execution is recorded for witchcraft. 11

It's debated why the greatest numbers witch trials and executions took place in German lands and those immediately adjacent to them. The scholarly consensus is that no single factor provides the solution. War, famine, and epidemics certainly promoted widespread anxiety and a collective sense of being delivered over to mysterious evil powers. Economics, patriarchy, and social control of the masses have also been named as contributing factors. Not, however, confessional differences among churches.

At a time when Catholics and Protestants accentuated their disagreements with one another, both churches were in accord about the dangers of witchcraft. Martin Luther harbored no doubts that witches existed, raised up storms, and rode through the air. They were the Teufelshuren ("devil's whores"), he said, and should be exterminated. Luther himself excommunicated several witches in 1529. In 1540, when there were still relatively few witch-burnings in Germany, there were four executions in his hometown of Wittenberg. 12

Catholic principalities like Cologne, Trier, Bamberg, and Würzburg were major centers for witch trials, all of them ruled by Prince-bishops. An eye-witness account of the 1581-1593 persecutions in Trier speaks of civil leaders and clerics in the city being executed for witchcraft -- two burgermeisters, a judge, two associate judges, monsignorial canons, parish priests, and rural deans. 13 In 1628 the burgermeister of Bamberg was tried and executed for witchcraft. The following year in Würzburg the Prince-Bishop's Chancellor wrote in a letter to a friend about the accusations of witchcraft being leveled against "four hundred in the city, high and low, of every rank and sex . . . clerics, electoral councilors and doctors, city officials, court assessors . . . ." Also accused were law students, thirteen or fourteen students soon to be ordained priests, and some three-hundred "children of three and four years." 14

Records like these can give the false impression that the witch-hunts were indiscriminate and struck men and women, rich and poor alike. But such was not the case. "The most well-documented characteristic of those persons who were prosecuted for witchcraft is that they were predominantly, if not overwhelmingly, female." 15 In most regions of Europe, the numbers of women prosecuted exceeded seventy-five percent, in some areas over ninety percent. Why this was the case is also not altogether clear.

A common feminist reading of this gender imbalance is that the witch-hunts were a means of maintaining male domination in a changing society, that they were intended to make women feel guilty about their sexuality and to keep them in their place. 16 Critics of this particular interpretation point out that it does not explain why so many women accused other women. But it is, of course, a widely- noted phenomenon that members of an oppressed group commonly identify with the prejudicial attitudes of their oppressors and ill-treat their own kind.

Another, more compelling explanation for the gender imbalance looks to the influence of stereotypes on attitudes and expectations. The misfortunes blamed on witchcraft more often than not related to women’s areas of responsibility. There is nothing in the definition of a witch that excluded males. Just as in the original 16th century Faust legend re-worked by Goethe, a man could just as easily make a pact with the devil and practice harmful magic. But the stereotype of the witch that came down from classical and medieval literature was routinely female and made women the more natural suspects.

Women in early modern Europe typically functioned as cooks, midwives, and healers, in occupations that made them particularly vulnerable to accusations of sorcery. 17 Women, not men, tended gardens and knew the qualities of herbs for cooking and healing. The idea of a man standing over a boiling cauldron was at the very least improbable. 18 Likewise, the image of a witch was one of being morally weak and driven by carnal lust, qualities that the period in question -- especially its treatises on witchcraft -- attributed to women.

If contemporary research on witch-hunts reveals anything, it is that no one interpretation of the phenomenon explains all -- not politics, religion, economics, or misogyny. But if no one explanation fits all, neither is the number of typical cases unlimited. There are patterns, like that of the crone -- the old single woman, so poor that she is dependent on her neighbors to stave off starvation. Very often a scold, she could well be expected to curse those who denied her plea for alms. And those who turned her down could be expected to feel guilty, until some misfortune later occurred and they remembered her curse. 19

Neither should one assume that all the suspects prosecuted for witchcraft were innocent of trying. Artifacts and tools of the trade provide ample evidence that, in various historical periods, some individuals did in fact practice both white and black magic, and still do. Hence, not surprisingly, in early modern Europe too there were cases, “at most only a few,” where the accused sincerely believed that the devil had granted their wishes. 20

Another common misconception is that benighted clerics and judges initiated the witch-hunts from on high upon the hapless masses. But more recent research indicates to the contrary that the desire to track down witches often arose from below, that the common folk pressured authorities to take action. Village witch-hunting committees existed in Germany, where, especially in small states, authorities often faced open rebellion if they did not comply with the people's wishes. The gullibility and superstition of the masses were major factors in the popular desire to prosecute witches, as was a “gloomy world view” that could become almost apocalyptic. Under a sense of impending urgency, “exceptional crimes” called for exceptional measures. 21

The view of witchcraft as an “exceptional crime” was embedded in the 1532 criminal code enacted for the Holy Roman Empire by Emperor Charles V. The code called for secular courts to investigate and prosecute persons for witchcraft, whether they had injured others or not. The punishment for injurious witchcraft was burning at the stake; at the judge's discretion, that for harmless witchcraft could be milder, like confiscation of property or exile. In practice, the distinction was moot thanks to the legal reasoning of Lutheran jurist, Benedict Carpzov (1595-1666), for whom Exodus 22,18 trumped the imperial legislation. If the Bible did not allow witches to live, neither should the German courts. 22

The exceptional nature of the crime also explains how the Middle Ages and imperial code justified the use of torture. From the Roman Empire to the late 18th century, torture was a routine component of Europe’s judicial procedure. Today, even when legally prohibited, torture in various forms is standard practice in any number of countries around the globe, though it may be disguised under the euphemism of aggressive police interrogation. One need only consult agencies like Amnesty International for documentation.

Even in the United States, in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks of 9/11, legal experts have begun to think the unthinkable and regard the use of non-lethal torture as a matter meriting serious discussion. Generalized alarm about international networks of evildoers conspiring to unleash widespread destruction on innocent victims has put judicial use of torture in a different light. Only the benefit of hindsight allows us to view 21st century anxieties about terrorists as justified and those of centuries past about witches as not.

The civil and religious authorities of medieval and early modern Europe did not have that benefit. So we have little reason to be appalled that in 1252, Pope Innocent IV allowed the use of torture to uncover heretics, who, like highway robbers and murderers, were viewed as a menace to society. The same reasoning allowed the license for judicial torture to be extended to persons suspected of witchcraft. Surprising, perhaps, is that a justification for using torture was to protect not only society but innocent suspects as well. The idea was to learn some fact under torture that only the guilty party could know and to obtain a confession from the real culprit. 23

Though clearly not comparable to modern Western judicial systems, even in the Middle Ages there were regulations intended to prevent judges from using torture arbitrarily. But in the case of suspected witchcraft, the danger posed to society was seen as warranting disregard of the usual judicial restraints. Judges could apply and repeat torture without qualms and did so with the approval of jurists and theologians alike. Whereas the Middle Ages viewed witchcraft primarily in terms of magic, by the 16th century witches were regarded as engaged in an anti-Christian, anti-social conspiracy with Satan. The point of the torture was not to punish the crime but to uncover the conspiracy. 24

If the general public raised calls for hunting and prosecuting witches, one cannot ignore the complementary role played by the educated elites. The intellectuals were responsible for introducing the idea of the demonic into the issue in the first place. Illiterate commoners had no difficulty in accepting the effectiveness of magic alongside natural causality. They viewed magic as able to work directly, without any outside agency. But for intellectuals educated in the Aristotelian tradition, magic could have no reality without the participation of the spirit world. 25 To produce their extraordinary feats of magic, sorcerers and witches had to be in a conspiracy with the devil. It was that concept of witchcraft that made the fatal difference between Spee’s day and ages past.

9 Baroja, The World of Witches, 17-40. The most celebrated classic source is Apuleius, Metamorphosis.

10 Levack, Witch-Hunt, 19-21.

11 See Herbert Haag, Teufelsglaube, (Tübingen: Katzmann, 1974), 442; Anne Llewellyn Barstow, Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts (San Francisco, CA: Pandora, 1994), 181; Levack, Witch-Hunt, 20-21.

12 Haag, Teufelsglaube, 469.

13 Alan C. Kors and Edward Peters (eds.), Witchcraft in Europe, 1100-1700: A Documentary History, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1972), 217.

14 Kors - Peters, Witchcraft in Europe, 251-253.

15 Levack, Witch-Hunt, 124. See also Barstow, Witchcraze, 25; and Wolfgang Behringer on recent witchcraft studies in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland in Jonathan Barry, Marianne Hester, and Gareth Roberts (eds.), Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe: Studies in Culture and Belief. (Cambridge University, 1996), 93.

16 Barstow, Witchcraze, 147-165.

17 With the rise of medicine as a profession in Europe, the male medical establishment joined with witch-hunters to discredit the activities of midwives and thus marginalize women not only in obstetrics but also in all areas of medicine. See Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski, Not of Women Born: Representations of Caesarean Mirth in Medieval and Renaissance Culture (Ithaca / London: Cornell University Press, 1990), 91-119.

18 Levack, Witch-Hunt, 126-127; Behringer in Barry, Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe, 94.

19 Barstow, Witchcraze, 26.

20 Barry, Witchcraft, 39.

21 Behringer in Barry, Witchcraft, 87.

22 Haag, Teufelsglaube, 457.

23 Recent studies indicate that another motive for inflicting torture is to demonstrate the power and authority of the torturer over the victim. See Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World, (New York /Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), 27-59.

24 Michele Battafarano (ed.), Friedrich von Spee: Dichter, Theologe und Bekämpfer der Hexenprozesse, (Trento: Juigi Reverdito, 1988), 224-226.

25 Richard Kieckhefer, European Witch trials: Their Foundation in Popular and Learned Culture, 1300-1500. (Berkley: University of California, 1976), 78-80.

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  • The first word... - Richard A. Blake, S.J., Editor
    Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe
    Demonologists and the Devil
    Life and Career
    The Cautio Criminalis
    Ignatian Spirituality in a Baroque Mode
    "In Spe Spes Fuerat"
    A Role Model for Today

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