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The unique phenomenon of witchcraft in ancient europe

Order The Genesis of Science in from Amazon. Scotland closed its account with Janet Horne in 1722 while trials wound down across Europe. However, it would not be until 1782 that the last witch to be legally executed met her fate at Glarus in Switzerland. But by the late 17th century witch trials were already reasonably rare occurrences even in the same localities where, in the earlier part of that century, the greatest hunts had taken place. The crime itself was extinguished in France by royal edict in 1682, repealed in England in 1736 and the unique phenomenon of witchcraft in ancient europe in Poland as late as 1776.

However, the decline in trials and hunts did not necessarily presage a corresponding decline in the belief in witches just as their start did not correspond to any increase. Belief is a notoriously hard thing to measure, but almost all societies appear to have some tradition of witches and fear of magic has been nearly universal.

The questions about witches in early modern Europe are not so much why people believed in them at that time and place, but why that belief manifested itself into the hunts and executions. The purpose of this essay, therefore, is to examine the reasons that trials for the crime of witchcraft, from being relatively common before 1650, had, across Europe, become a rarity fifty years later and had died out altogether within another century.

This rapid decline and then extinction is at least as puzzling as the widespread appearance of the phenomena in the first place at the end of the fifteenth century.

Witch trials only became common during the Renaissance and the fiercest hunts took place in the 1620s and 1630s in German speaking areas.

Contrary to popular belief, they were not a phenomenon of the Middle Ages. Although magical belief and practice were just as common during this earlier period, they did not often lead to trials, let alone executions. Until recently popular views of this subject were confused both by the agendas of rationalists who wanted to find examples of superstition and by neo-pagans seeking their own foundation myth.

Meanwhile, estimates of the total number of executions over three centuries has shrunk to about 60,000 or so [NOTE]p 25, Brian P Levack The Witch-hunt in Early Modern Europe Harlow, 1995 which is of a similar order of magnitude to what the Jacobins managed in just three years of terror during the French Revolution.

There is very little agreement about the reasons for the end of witch trials and the scholars have tended each to be an advocate for their own ideas based on the study of particular localities rather than trying a more synoptic approach to bring some order to the myriad of available suggestions.

It is not even clear whether we are looking for some new causes that helped end witch trials or simply the absence of whatever it was that had started them in the first place. So, if we could identify the conditions that brought about the trials, the subsequent decline might simply be explained by their later disappearance.

An example of this would be the religious confusion and violence of the Reformation that had largely worked itself out after the Treaty of Westphalia in the mid-seventeenth century. It has also been widely noticed that hunts tended to take place in areas and periods where central control had largely broken down or during interregnums between regimes.

For example, the activities of Matthew Hopkins took place in the chaos of the English Civil War, the Great Hunt in Scotland in 1661 when English justices were replaced, the unique phenomenon of witchcraft in ancient europe even the Salem of 1692 outbreak occurred in a temporary vacuum of authority.

When control was restored, goes this theory, the witch hunts largely ceased.

On the other hand, the original causes might long since have been removed without their effects likewise disappearing so that the decline of witch trials will be brought about by entirely different means. Examples frequently cited are the rise of secular rationalism or social trends that led to the discounting of devilry. It has been suggested that witchcraft simply became too old hat for the intelligentsia of the early Enlightenment to countenance and that they were wont to sneer at such outdated nonsense so as to reassure themselves of their own intellectual superiority.

A good deal of recent work has concentrated on the social reasons for witchcraft accusations and has looked for the causes of both their rise and fall at a local level. They suggested that the full implementation of the Poor Laws sufficiently alleviated the situation so that the accusations ceased. While their careful research of depositions suggests they have accurately portrayed the mechanism by which social tensions manifested themselves, I do not think that they have explained why, at that particular place and time, it should be through witchcraft accusations.

The era the unique phenomenon of witchcraft in ancient europe the witch trials was one of great change and disruption but we must not forget that it was bracketed by the disastrous fourteenth century and the enormous social upheavals of enclosure and the industrial revolution.

Any social explanation for witch hunts has to be specific enough to differentiate between the early modern period and those on each side of it, while also being general enough to apply to the unique phenomenon of witchcraft in ancient europe of Europe over two centuries. The commonalties of witch beliefs are greater enough to make having lots of different social explanations for different environments unconvincing.

For this reason I will be looking for general reasons for the decline that can be applied across Europe rather than seeking an individual cause for each locale. By a witch, I mean someone who is believed to have received magical power by some form of diabolical means. The diabolical source of this power is important because the mentality of most Christian intellectuals allowed only the devil as a source of supernatural power, except of course from God, and it led witchcraft to be viewed in much the same way as heresy.

The connection between diabolism and magic is found in the documents of the Christian elite including, most famously, the Malleus Malificium 1486 of Kramer and Sprenger, but has an older provenance.

The straightforward dichotomy between God and the devil was already present in late antiquity with the labelling of all pagan gods as demons but once they had been seen off, the church took a more sceptical attitude. Belief in magic was considered to be a sin but consequently actually practising it was nothing more than delusion.

The unique phenomenon of witchcraft in ancient europe

This attitude is very much an intellectual one and reflects the continuing rejection of most forms of supernatural belief by theologians even when witchcraft was accepted. That is to say that rather than believing in the innate potency of ritual magic or in nature spirits, they insisted that God and the devil were the only possible agencies for magical or miraculous power.

This was not just a question of theology but also arose from the Aristotelian paradigm of natural science that had no room for spirits, magic or other such phenomena. Later, the hermetic systems that became popular during the Renaissance did allow for spirits and angels to be summoned so consequently their practitioners were always vulnerable to accusations of devilry.

This ambiguity about what the unique phenomenon of witchcraft in ancient europe and was not acceptable remained a feature of intellectual debate throughout the Middle Ages and Early Modern period with both sides using magic to make their own polemical points.

At a popular level, beliefs about the supernatural were far more varied and indeed, one of the only commonalties appears to be that they did not involve the devil, at least without prompting from educated interrogators. MacFarlane mentions that the devil hardly figured at all in the depositions to the Essex assizes and in other English cases, he makes few appearances even in confessions [NOTE]p 532, Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic London, 1971.

Elsewhere, especially in confessions under torture, diabolic themes are much more prevalent. This seems likely to have been due to the use of torture, together with leading questions, causing the defendants to start echoing the more learned views of their prosecutors.

Restrictions in space make a discussion of how witch trials started impossible here, but it seems likely that a key factor was the overlaying of the elite mentality of diabolism and its associated perversions onto the pre-existing magical beliefs and social tensions among the people. This had happened before with the heretics of the Middle Ages when much of what was believed about them came from ancient authorities rather than their actual activities.

It was the combination of learned thought with real factors on the ground as there really were heretics and people claiming magical powers that the unique phenomenon of witchcraft in ancient europe deadly.

Many, but by no means all, so-called witches seem to have been healers, wise women and cunning men who previously would have been of no interest to the higher clergy or secular legal authorities.

If they were brought before any authority it would tend to be the local church court that would prescribe some penance like walking around the parish wearing sackcloth. The village healers indulged in a wide variety of ritual magic, healing or mediation with spirits but they had little or no idea of any theory attached to these actions. In other words, to the lower orders, magic was a question of practice while to the elite it was something that required explanation with the devil usually the only explanation available.

The topography of the decline in trials and executions strongly suggests there were two distinct phases. The first phase, which takes place from the first half of the seventeenth century, is a large falling of in the number of accusations and a corresponding decrease in the proportion of capital convictions obtained.

Thomas states that the large majority of executions in England had already taken place by 1620 [NOTE]p 537, Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic London, 1971 and in Spain the Basque hunt marks the end of large scale prosecutions.

  1. An example of this would be the religious confusion and violence of the Reformation that had largely worked itself out after the Treaty of Westphalia in the mid-seventeenth century.
  2. On the other hand, the original causes might long since have been removed without their effects likewise disappearing so that the decline of witch trials will be brought about by entirely different means. Torture was against swedish laws and we know that it was used only on very rare the phenomenon of the witch trials also occurred during the 16th century witch trials in the history of mankind aside from those of early modern europe,.
  3. A defendant, accused of a non-existent crime, should expect that any effective legal process will find them not guilty and in witch trials this is eventually what happened. Although war itself distracted from witch trials as they were no longer the most pressing concern, the feelings of uncertainty and insecurity engendered by possible conflict could increase them.
  4. Even if they later retracted their confession they were not supposed to be put to the question again [NOTE]p 65, Edward Peters, Inquisition Berkeley, 1989. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries there might simply have been a change in the jurisdiction for witch trials from secular to ecclesiastical courts but during the seventeenth century heresy had gradually ceased to be seen as a crime deserving temporal punishment and the church courts could no longer expect the secular arm to carry out their orders.
  5. There are always a few people who become fixated on a piece of doctrine and insist that the world will be imperilled by giving it up. In late seventeenth century England this happened to nearly all magical ideas as the New Philosophy became the in-thing.

Appeals heard by the Parlement of Paris after about 1610 show a large reduction in the number of capital sentences that were confirmed and after about 1630 an equally precipitous drop in the number of cases heard even though all witchcraft cases at this time were subject to automatic appeal to Paris [NOTE]p 40, Alfred Soman, "The Parlement of Paris and the Great Witch Hunt 1545-1640 " Sixteenth Century Journal 9: The pattern is repeatedly seen in almost all localities although the time scales are often different.

This is not the end of the prosecution of witches - that continued even with sporadic outbursts of panic - but it is rather the normalisation of the crime as it fades into the background of early modern life. The second phase is the complete cessation or abolition of prosecutions for witchcraft and this tends to take place the unique phenomenon of witchcraft in ancient europe the eighteenth century. Often, it had become impossible to secure a conviction before the crime itself was removed from the statute book.

It seems extremely likely that in looking for causes we must treat these two phases as separate events to be handled individually and that consequently we will not find any single reason for the end of witch trials. Explaining the decline of witch trials and executions Under Roman law, to achieve a capital conviction required a full proof consisting of material evidence, witnesses of good standing or a free confession.

Torture could be used to extract a confession if sufficient partial proofs had been accumulated but the defendant had to repeat themselves after they recovered and then again in court.

Explaining the decline of witch trials and executions

Even if they later retracted their confession they were not supposed to be put to the question again [NOTE]p 65, Edward Peters, Inquisition Berkeley, 1989. English common law forbade the use of torture in criminal cases altogether unless with the permission of the privy council effectively meaning only for treason but had similar systems of evidences and proofs of witchcraft as codified by William Perkins [NOTE]p 30, Cotton Mather, The Wonders of the Invisible World London, 1693.

In the case of witches, material evidence was usually lacking, as the village healers did not go in for the kind of occult paraphernalia that characterised higher magic.

It is also hard to see how the social interactions thought to lead to the initial accusation by Thomas and Briggs could give rise to witnesses able to the unique phenomenon of witchcraft in ancient europe they had caught the witch casting a spell red handed, let alone flying through the air. That said, when a witness was produced before the dubious English judge Sir John Powell, declaring that the defendant had been seen travelling on her broomstick, his lordship is said to have dryly remarked that there was no law against flying sadly the provenance of the story is doubtful [NOTE]p 53, Phyllis J Guskin, "The Context of Witchcraft - the Case of Jane Wenham 1712 " Eighteenth Century Studies 15: In short, to get a capital conviction if the proper procedures were followed was extremely difficult.

That is not to say that one could not be punished in other ways where the proof was deficient and the grounds of suspicion that could lead to the application of torture were considerably wider. Simply having a bad local reputation could land someone in a lot of official trouble. This was due to an important reform in the legal system in the late Middle Ages when the accusatio was gradually replaced with the inquisitio. To modern ears this immediately summons up images of the Inquisition although it was secular rather than clerical courts and certainly not papal inquisitors that were responsible for the vast majority of fatal witch trials.

When before the Inquisition, a confession and willingness to do penance was always supposed to be sufficient to avoid the death penalty for a first offence while no such leeway existed in most secular courts [NOTE]p 525, Geoffrey Parker, "Some Recent Work on the Inquisition in Spain and Italy" Journal of Modern History 54: Instead, iniquisitio was a method of legal proceedings used in all courts outside England which dropped the dependence on an accuser to bring a complaint.

The accuser who could be punished himself if the defendant was acquitted was replaced by an inquirer whose role was slowly taken over by professional magistrates. This inquirer was expected to investigate matters brought to their attention or the subject of rumour, and was equipped with various powers to enable them to do so. Once they had a case it was presented before a court for consideration and sentence.

Provided the procedures were followed and the magistrate was fair and competent, this was a huge improvement over the system of personal accusation and trial by ordeal that preceded it. But it is clear that during the great hunts the rules were not followed. Torture was liberally applied and the atmosphere was one of siege where it was felt the circumstances demanded extreme action.

The most prolific hunters tended to be lay magistrates and middle ranking clerics of some education while in the higher and appeal courts such as at Paris the conviction rate was much lower, mainly because the sense of panic was absent, torture kept to the statutory limits and evidence examined with a cooler eye [NOTE]p 37, Alfred Soman, "The Parlement of Paris and the Great Witch Hunt 1545-1640 " Sixteenth Century Journal 9: Neither was it the case that most senior judges denied the very possibility of witchcraft for if they had it is hard to see how they could have countenanced any executions at all.

Rather, they were removed from the panic on the ground so they could take a more objective and professional stance. It was not just lawyers who could become more lenient as they became more expert in their subjects. However, no doubt as a result of having seen a huge range of moles, growths and boils on patients of unimpeachable character, they simply refused to be drawn as to whether a particular lump was of diabolic or purely natural origin.

So the reduction of witch trials from epidemic to endemic proportions requires little else than the assertion of central control over convictions to ensure the legal forms were being adhered to and that local courts could not execute people without sufficient evidence.

This central control could be achieved either through allowing appeals to higher courts or even making them mandatory or else by ensuring the proper training and oversight of local magistrates. In particular, the strict controls over the use of torture had to be reinstated, notwithstanding the status of witchcraft as a crimen exceptum an exceptional crime in most states, and confessions achieved through torture treated with the necessary scepticism. In either case, this was extremely difficult during times of the unique phenomenon of witchcraft in ancient europe upheaval, which explains the prevalence of hunts in the areas of the Holy Roman Empire most affected by the fragmentation of control up to the Thirty Years War and the same situation in France during the Wars of Religion.

Although war itself distracted from witch trials as they were no longer the most pressing concern, the feelings of uncertainty and insecurity engendered by possible conflict could increase them.

The Decline of Witch Trials in Europe

At first sight, the abuse of judicial process was not so prevalent in England and a crack down on the use of torture can hardly explain anything in a jurisdiction in which torture was not used. The reasons for the hotspots of witch prosecutions in Essex and Lancashire also remain a mystery now that the theory of proxy persecutions of religious minorities has been called into question. It is ironic that English witch trials faded at much the time that a king who was personally interested in them came to the throne.

The North Berwick trials and his publication of Demonologie 1597 suggest that when he became James I of England, he would have been as concerned in his new realm as he was in his old. Perhaps the events surrounding the state opening of Parliament in 1605 focused his mind on more concrete threats to the royal person.

The constant danger from Spain that was present during the rule of Elizabeth, as well as fears about the succession, might well have contributed to an atmosphere that encouraged trials.

The ascension of James solved the later problem as well as closing off Scotland as a bridgehead for foreign invaders.