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9-08-2015, 18:03


The cooperation of state and church authorities in the establishment of offi cial Christian churches in the centuries after the Reformation was also evident in trials for witchcraft, which reached their peak in Europe in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Because so many records have been lost or destroyed, it is diffi cult to make an estimate for all of Europe, but most scholars agree that during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 people were offi cially tried for witchcraft and between 40,000 and 60,000 were executed. Between 75 and 85 percent of these were women, though the gender balance varies widely in different parts of Europe. The reasons for this predominance of women are complex: women were viewed as weaker and so more likely to give in to the devil’s charms or use scolding and cursing to get what they wanted; they had more contact with areas of life in which bad things happened unexpectedly, such as preparing food or caring for new mothers, children, and animals; they were associated with nature, disorder, and the body, all of which were linked with the demonic. Europeans took their notions of witchcraft with them to the New World: a few people, most of them women, were executed for witchcraft in the European colonies in North America. In the Andean region of South America, older native women who had fl ed to mountainous areas and refused to become Christians were charged with witchcraft and idolatry. Some European thinkers even blamed witchcraft on the explorations, asserting that demons had decided to return to Europe from the Americas once Christian missionaries were there, and so were possessing and seducing many more people than they had in the Middle Ages. Anthropologists and historians have demonstrated that nearly all pre-modern societies believed in witchcraft and made some attempts to control witches, who were understood to be people who use magical forces to do evil deeds ( malefi cia ). Witches themselves often believed in their own powers, which could serve as a way to earn a living or gain infl uence over their neighbors. In the later Middle Ages, however, many educated Christian theologians, canon lawyers, and offi cials added a demonological component to this notion of what a witch was. For them, the essence of witchcraft was making a pact with the devil, a pact that required the witch to do the devil’s bidding. Witches were no longer simply people who used magical power to get what they wanted, but people used by the devil to do what he wanted. This demonological or Satanic idea of witchcraft was fl eshed out, and witches were thought to engage in wild sexual orgies with the devil, fl y through the night to meetings called sabbats which parodied the mass, and steal communion wafers and unbaptized babies to use in their rituals. Some demonological theorists also claimed that witches were organized in an international conspiracy to overthrow Christianity, with a hierarchy similar to the hierarchy of angels and archangels that Christian philosophers had invented. Witchcraft was thus spiritualized, and witches became the ultimate heretics: enemies of God. The earliest trials involving this new notion of witchcraft as diabolical heresy were in the 1430s in the area around Lake Geneva in Switzerland and France, and in 1484 Pope Innocent VIII (pontifi cate 1484–92) authorized two German Dominicans, Heinrich Krämer ( c . 1430–1505) and Jacob Sprenger ( c . 1436–95) to hunt witches in nearby areas of southern Germany. Krämer oversaw the trial and execution of several groups – all of them women – but local authorities objected to his use of torture and his extreme views on the power of witches, and banished him. While in exile, he wrote a justifi cation of his ideas and methods, the Malleus malefi carum ( The Hammer of [Female] Witches) , published in 1486. The Malleus pays particular attention to the sexual and gendered nature of witchcraft: As for the fi rst question, why a greater number of witches is found in the fragile feminine sex than among men … the fi rst reason is, that they are more credulous, and since the chief aim of the devil is to corrupt faith, therefore he rather attacks them … the second reason is, that women are naturally more impressionable, and … the third reason is that they have slippery tongues, and are unable to conceal from their fellow-women those things which by evil arts they know … But the natural reason is that she is more carnal than a man, as is clear from her many carnal abominations … To conclude. All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable. 2 The Malleus also provided practical advice for future witch-hunters, advising them how to recognize and question witches, and recommended that secular authorities work with inquisitors in prosecuting witches. Later demonological works were not as deeply misogynistic as the Malleus , but the stereotype of the witch that developed across much of Europe was female. Secular rulers north of the Alps increasingly agreed with Krämer about their role, and passed witchcraft statutes authorizing the death penalty if witches harmed people through magic or sorcery. These civil witchcraft laws, such as the criminal code of the Holy Roman Empire from 1532 or the English and Scottish witchcraft statutes of 1563, tend to focus more on malefi cia and less on pacts with the devil, though in actual trials the infl uence of Malleus and other works of demonological theory is evident, at least in central Europe. Witch trials died down somewhat during the fi rst decades after the Protestant Reformation, when Protestants and Catholics were busy fi ghting each other, but they picked up again more strongly than ever in about 1570. Most of them were handled by civil authorities, though the German prince-bishops – who were both religious and secular authorities in their bishoprics – were among the most active witch-hunters. Though at the popular level people continued to be primarily concerned with the effects of a witch’s powers while at the learned level they were concerned with the origins of them, learned ideas gradually began to infi ltrate popular understanding of what it meant to be a witch. Illustrated pamphlets and broadsides portrayed witches riding on goats or pitchforks to sabbats where they engaged in anti-Christian acts such as spitting on the communion host and sexual relations with demons. Though witch trials were secret, executions were not; they were public spectacles witnessed by huge crowds, with the list of charges read out for all to hear. By the late sixteenth century, popular denunciations for witchcraft in many parts of Europe involved at least some parts of the demonic conception of witchcraft, and suspects confessed to night-riding and attending sabbats. In areas of Europe in which the demonic concept of witchcraft never took hold, such as Finland, Iceland, Estonia, and Russia, there were no large-scale hunts. In Finland and Estonia about half of those prosecuted for witchcraft cases were male, and in Iceland and Muscovite Russia the vast majority of those prosecuted were men charged with sorcery or with harming people or animals. Along with witchcraft statutes, other legal changes also played a role in causing, or at least allowing for, massive witch trials. One of these was a change from an accusatorial legal procedure to an inquisitorial procedure. In the former, a suspect knew the accusers and the charges they had brought, and an accuser could in turn be liable for trial if the charges were not proved; in the latter, legal authorities themselves brought the case. This change made people much more willing to accuse others, for they never had to take personal responsibility for the accusation or face the accused’s relatives. Inquisitorial procedure involved intense questioning of the suspect, often with torture; areas in Europe that did not make this change saw very few trials and almost no mass panics. Inquisitorial procedure came into Europe as part of the adoption of Roman law, which also (at least in theory) required the confession of a suspect before she or he could be executed. This had been designed as a way to keep innocent people from death, but in practice in some parts of Europe it led to the adoption of ever more gruesome means of inquisitorial torture. Torture was also used to get the names of additional suspects, as most lawyers trained in Roman law fi rmly believed that no witch could act alone. The use of inquisitorial procedures did not always lead to witch-hunts, however. The most famous Inquisitions in early modern Europe, those in Spain, Portugal, and Italy, were in fact very lenient in their treatment of those accused of witchcraft: the Inquisition in Spain executed only a handful of witches, the Portuguese Inquisition only one, and the Roman Inquisition none, though in each of these areas there were hundreds of cases. Inquisitors fi rmly believed in the power of the devil and were no less misogynistic than other judges, but they doubted very much whether the people accused of doing malefi cia had actually made a pact with the devil that gave them special powers. They viewed them not as diabolical devil-worshippers, but as superstitious and ignorant peasants who should be educated rather than executed. Their main crime was not heresy, but rather undermining the church’s monopoly on supernatural remedies by claiming they had special powers. Thus inquisitors set witchcraft within the context of false magical and spiritual claims, rather than within the context of heresy and apostasy, and sent the accused home with a warning and a penance. Though there were “witch-hunters” like Krämer or the self-proclaimed English witch-fi nder Matthew Hopkins in the 1640s who came into areas specifi cally to hunt witches, most witch trials began with an accusation of malefi cia in a village or town. Individuals accused someone they knew of using magic to spoil food, make children ill, kill animals, raise a hailstorm, or do other types of harm. Local studies have shown that kinship stresses often played a role in these initial accusations, for tensions over property, stepchildren, or the public behavior of a relative or in-law were very common in early modern families. Household or neighborhood antagonisms might also lead to an accusation. The Malleus warned that midwives were prone to witchcraft, but actual accusations against them were not especially numerous. Women who took care of infants and new mothers were more common targets, charged with killing the child or drying up the mother’s milk. Women number very prominently among accusers and witnesses as well as those accused of witchcraft because the actions witches were initially charged with, such as harming children or curdling milk, were generally part of women’s sphere. Women also gained economic and social security by conforming to the standard of the good wife and mother, and by confronting women who deviated from it. Women accused of witchcraft were often argumentative, willful, independent, and aggressive; as the indictment of Margaret Lister in Scotland in 1662 put it, she was “a witch, a charmer, and a libber.” 3 The last term carried the same connotation and negative assessment of “liberated woman” as it can today. Very often the incident that led to the charge was not the fi rst, but for some reason the accuser decided no longer to tolerate the suspect’s behavior. Once a fi rst charge was made, the accuser often thought back over the years and augmented the current charge with a list of things the suspect had done in the past. The judges then began to question other neighbors and acquaintances, building up a list of suspicious incidents that might stretch back for decades. Historians have pointed out that one of the reasons those accused of witchcraft were often older was that it took years to build up a reputation as a witch. Fear or a desire for the witch’s services might lead neighbors to tolerate such actions for a long time, and it is diffi cult to tell what might fi nally drive them to make a formal accusation. At this point, the suspect was brought in for questioning by legal authorities, and in many parts of Europe we have detailed records about these trials. They have been used by historians to study many aspects of witchcraft, but they cannot directly answer what seems to us an important question: did people really practice witchcraft and think they were witches? They certainly confessed to evil deeds and demonic practices, sometimes without torture, but where would we draw the line between reality and fantasy? Clearly people were not riding through the air on pitchforks, but did they think they were? Did they actually invoke the devil when they were angry at a neighbor, or was this simply in the mind of their accusers? Trial records cannot tell us, and historians have answered these questions very differently, often using insights from psychoanalysis or the study of more recent victims of torture in their explanations. Though we cannot determine the extent to which people actually practiced witchcraft, we know that there were great regional differences in the likely outcome of a trial. As noted above, in southern Europe all cases of witchcraft were handled by the Spanish, Portuguese, or Roman Inquisitions, which most often simply dismissed them. In Europe north of the Alps and Pyrenees, the initial accusation might also be dismissed if the judges regarded the evidence as questionable; one set of fi gures from the Home Assize Circuit court in England shows 513 persons accused of witchcraft between 1559 and 1736, of whom 200 were convicted and 109 hanged, with the percentage of convictions and executions declining throughout the period. At the same time, when an English judge asked some of his German counterparts how a person accused of witchcraft could escape conviction, they could not think of a way to answer him. Sexual relations with the devil rarely (and in some parts of Europe, especially Scandinavia, never) formed part of popular ideas about witchcraft, but questioning and torture were in the hands of learned authorities, who were generally more versed in demonological theory, and had often read the Malleus with its intense concerns about sex. During the course of questioning, judges and inquisitors sought the exact details of a witch’s demonic sexual contacts. Suspects were generally stripped and shaved in a search for a “witch’s mark” or “pricked” to fi nd a spot insensitive to pain. In central Europe and Scotland accusations of sex with the devil were generally limited to women, while in France demonologists thought witches of both sexes engaged in sexual intercourse with the devil, and accused witches of both sexes were questioned about such activities. Once the initial suspect had been questioned, and particularly if he or she had been tortured, the people who had been implicated were brought in for questioning. This might lead to a small hunt, involving from fi ve to ten victims, which was most common in Scotland and parts of Switzerland and Germany. Small hunts grew into largescale panics occasionally in England (in the 1640s with Matthew Hopkins) and Sweden ( beginning in the province of Dalarna during the period 1668–76), but most often in the part of Europe that saw the most witch accusations in general – the Holy Roman Empire, Switzerland, and parts of France. There are a number of possible explanations for this: much of this area consisted of very small governmental units, which were jealous of each other and after the Reformation were divided by religion. The rulers of these small territories often felt more threatened than the monarchs of western Europe, and were largely unhindered in their legal or judicial moves by any higher authority. The parts of France that were under the tighter control of the French monarchy and the appeals court of the parlement of Paris saw far fewer large witch-hunts than the areas that bordered Switzerland or the Empire. Many of the deadliest hunts were in the prince-bishoprics in the Empire, such as Trier, Mainz, Würzburg, Ellwangen, Bamberg, or Cologne, where bishops saw persecuting witches as a way to demonstrate their piety and concern for order; in one hunt in Ellwangen, over 400 people were executed between 1611 and 1618, and one of the bishops of Bamberg later acquired the nickname the “burning bishop of Bamberg.” Areas in which the learned stereotype of witchcraft as a devil-worshipping international conspiracy was never fully accepted, including England, the northern Netherlands, and Scandinavia, had a more restricted use of torture and few mass panics. (Torture and demonology were linked, as torture was generally used primarily to fi nd out a witch’s accomplices and learn the details of the demonic pact; it was employed most by those convinced of the reality of massive numbers of witches and in turn led to the denunciation of as many other people as the judges thought necessary, for torture was stopped only when the accused supplied what the judges thought was a suffi cient number of names.) Witches were also tried by jury in England, which some analysts see as leading to milder sentences, though jury trials did not have this effect in Denmark. Large-scale panics might begin in a number of ways. Many were the outgrowths of smaller investigations, in which the circle of suspects brought in for questioning simply continued to grow unchecked. Some were also the result of legal authorities rounding up a group of suspects together, and then receiving further denunciations. They often occurred after some type of climatic disaster, such as an unusually cold and wet summer, and came in waves. Panics spread in southern Germany and eastern France in the 1570s, 1590s, 1610s and 1660s, the last spreading as far north as Sweden. In large-scale trials a wider variety of suspects were taken in – wealthier people, children, a greater proportion of men. Mass panics tended to end when it became clear to legal authorities, or to the community itself, that the people being questioned or executed were not what they understood witches to be, or that the scope of accusations defi ed credulity. Some from their community might be in league with Satan, but not this type of person and not as many as this. In many ways it was similar skepticism that led to the gradual end of witch-hunts in Europe. Even in the sixteenth century, a few individuals, including the German physician Johann Weyer (1515–88 ) and the English gentleman Reginald Scot (1538?–99 ), questioned whether witches could ever do harm, make a pact with the devil, or engage in the wild activities attributed to them. In 1631, the Jesuit theologian Frederick Spee (1591–1635) questioned whether secret denunciations were valid or torture would ever yield a truthful confession. These doubts gradually spread among the same type of religious and legal authorities that had so vigorously persecuted witches. By the end of the sixteenth century, prosecutions for witchcraft were already diffi cult in the Netherlands, Bavaria, and the area under the jurisdiction of the parlement of Paris; the last offi cial execution for witchcraft in England was in 1682, and by then trials were increasingly rare even in the Holy Roman Empire. Witchcraft trials were prohibited in France in 1682, England in 1736, Austria in 1755, and Hungary in 1768. Sporadic trials continued into the late eighteenth century in other areas, but by then people who thought themselves witches were more likely to be regarded as deluded or mentally defective, meriting pity rather then persecution, even by people who still fi rmly believed in the devil. At the popular level, belief in the power of witches often continued, but this was now sneered at by the elite as superstition, and people ceased to bring formal accusations when they knew they would simply be dismissed.