General Nature Of The Witchhunts

During the main period of witch-hunting in the 16 th and 17 th centuries, fear of witches manifested itself in many forms. Nevertheless, certain generalizations about the pattern of witch-hunting can be made. A trial would most often begin with an accusation of maleficium. Such charges usually arose as a result of some sort of otherwise unexplainable misfortune—the sudden death of a child, cows no longer giving milk, a crop failure, or other similar events. As for the direction the charges took, that is, who was accused of being a witch, this usually reflected long-standing interpersonal animosities of the sort that could be quite common in small, tightly knit communities. People in pre-modern Europe were accustomed to sudden and unexplained calamities and did not automatically assume that witchcraft lay behind all such events. However, when established animosity existed, often having developed over years, then people might indeed become ready to explain their misfortune as being the result of malevolent witchcraft directed against them by certain of their neighbors or often enough even by family members. Maleficium might be a particularly attractive explanation for a misfortune that occurred soon after some quarrel or other conflict, especially if, in the course of the argument, the other party had uttered a curse or made some sort of general threat.

In theory, almost anyone could be a witch. In practice, however, those most likely to be accused of witchcraft were people who lived on the margins of their communities. The poor, especially those who begged from the rest of the community and thereby continually strained the social bonds between themselves and the community, the elderly, especially elderly women who had neither husbands nor children to care for them, or anyone who acted strangely or in an anti-social manner were all typical targets of witchcraft accusations. For a variety of social and cultural reasons, women in general were especially vulnerable to charges of witchcraft, and across Europe an average of 75 percent of those executed for this crime were female. In some regions, as high as 90 percent of the victims of witch trials were women, although in some other regions, men were in the majority. As many scholars have noted, witchcraft was a gender-related crime but by no means a gender-specific one.

Although most everyone in medieval and early-modern Europe was familiar with religious teachings about the power of demons and the as sociation of witches with the devil, the majority of witch trials began with charges only of maleficium, and elements of diabolism did not usually figure prominently in the initial accusations. Most people, it would seem, were concerned about the potential harm witches could do to them and not about any larger, diabolical conspiracy existing in their midst. Once accusations were brought into the courts, however, authorities would be sure to inject charges of diabolism into cases in which these were not already present, and clearly the general populace was not averse to this occurrence and fully accepted that witches were indeed in league with Satan.

Once a trial began, it could proceed in several ways. The simplest possibility, and probably what happened in a large number of cases, was that an acquittal or conviction would be attained and the process would end there, with just the single, isolated trial. Also likely, however, was that a single trial might lead to a larger hunt. Other people might begin coming forward with accusations of witchcraft, the magistrates conducting the trial might broaden the scope on their own, or the accused witch might name accomplices, either voluntarily or under torture. Thus, even a single accusation could lead to numerous trials. In most cases, after several trials, and in all likelihood several convictions and executions, this sort of medium-level hunt would end of its own accord. Judges would become satisfied that they had found all the witches present in a community and no further accusations would be made. In some cases, however, a hunt could spiral out of control if, for whatever reason, the initial few trials created a high enough level of panic in the community, or concern among the prosecuting officials was raised to a sufficient level. In these cases, accusations would not dry up, and zealous magistrates might press their investigations, convinced that more witches would be uncovered. Often, the use of torture became more intense, and thus confessions came more quickly and became more extreme. A fair sign that a hunt was getting out of control was that the typical stereotype of the witch began to break down and accusations came to fall increasingly on men and on wealthier and more socially prominent people.

Not many hunts became widely out of control, but when they did, they could claim scores or even hundreds of victims and threaten to destroy entire communities. Because the uncontrolled use of torture could virtually guarantee confession and conviction in almost all cases, and because even a single witch might accuse dozens more, there was no natural break to the process. Such large-scale hunts typically ended only when the authorities involved reached a crisis of confidence. That is, they had to become convinced that they were extracting mostly false confessions and therefore were attaining mostly false convictions. Only then would they either stop the trials or at least become more cautious in their acceptance of evidence and use of torture. In the face of more acquittals than convictions, the level of panic that could grip a community usually then subsided, and the hunt came to an end.

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