The Emergence Of Witchcraft And The Age Of The European Witchhunts

In the early 15 th century, the fully developed idea of European witchcraft—of witches as demonic sorcerers who worshiped the devil and formed a vast, conspiratorial, diabolic cult dedicated to the destruction of the Christian world—began to emerge. Especially in lands in and around the western Alps, where some of the first true witch-hunts took place, the number of trials involving charges of harmful and maleficent sorcery increased significantly. In addition, even when the initial accusations might still focus only on traditional aspects of maleficium, judicial authorities increasingly began interjecting their own notions of diabolism and demonic conspiracy into the trials. The decade of the 1430s seems to have been a critical turning point. Within only a few years, a number of treatises and other learned accounts describing witchcraft were written. While these accounts all differed from one another in various ways, they all described witchcraft not just in terms of demonic maleficium, but also as an organized sect and diabolical conspiracy. Several of the authors of these treatises were associated in one way or another with the great church Council of Basel, which met from 1431 until 1449. This council seems to have served as an important center for the development and diffusion of the emerging stereotype of witchcraft. Clerics from across Europe came to Basel to attend the council, and might well have taken notions of witchcraft back with them when they left.

The last three quarters of the 15th century, from approximately 1425 until 1500, mark the beginnings of the witch craze in Europe. The first real witch trials occurred in this period and, although initially they were fairly localized to the lands around the western Alps, they spread and increased steadily in number. The century also saw the publication of the first major treatises on witchcraft, beginning with the group of writings clustered around the 1430s, and culminating in the publication of the most famous medieval witch-hunting manual, Malleus maleficarum, or Hammer of Witches, written by the Dominican inquisitor Heinrich Kramer (Institoris in Latin) and first printed in 1487. Although the Malleus never served as the sole or definitive source on all aspects of witchcraft and demonology, it was very popular, circulated widely, and was reprinted many times. Certainly by the end of the century, the stereotype of witches as demon-worshipers and servants of Satan, as laid out in the Malleus and other similar works, was widely established across Europe. Individual witch trials and even some small-scale hunts (compared to what was to come) were occurring with increasing frequency in many lands. The rise of the great European witch-hunts was not a smooth trajectory, however, and shortly after 1500 there occurred a long lull in the escalation of witch-hunting.

Beginning around the turn of the century, and for at least the first half of the 1500s, the number of witch trials in many regions of Europe leveled off, and in some areas even declined. In an apparent corollary development, the production of new treatises on witchcraft dried up and older treatises fell somewhat out of favor. For example, no new edition of the Malleus maleficarum was printed from 1521 until 1576. Scholars are uncertain why this lull should have occurred. Some cite the influence of Renaissance humanism. In this period, humanist ideas spread from Italy to the rest of Europe. Humanist thinkers were often skeptical of witchcraft, or at least of the existence of large cults of witches. In addition, insofar as the conception of diabolical witchcraft rested on principals of medieval scholastic demonology, fear of witches may have been reduced by the humanists' many critiques of scholasticism in general. It must be noted, however, that while humanism differed from scholasticism as an intellectual method and in its approach to older, authoritative texts, nothing in Renaissance humanist thought challenged the basic Christian notion of the devil or the real existence of demons. Thus nothing in Renaissance humanism was inherently opposed to belief in witchcraft.

Historians have also argued that the first phase of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century may have contributed to the lull in witch trials. The relationship between the Reformation and the continued development of the witch craze in Europe is complex. On the one hand, Protestant theologians naturally tended to disregard many aspects of earlier Catholic theology and were not inclined to regard medieval clerical authors, such as those who wrote the earliest treatises on witchcraft, as being in any way authoritative. However, Protestant theologians certainly did not deny the existence or real power of demons or the devil, and ultimately Protestant theories of witchcraft were virtually identical to Catholic ones. If anything, Protestantism was even more concerned about the power of the devil in this world than medieval Catholicism had been. In the short term, however, it seems as if the initial shock of Martin Luther's successful break with the Catholic Church and the other subsequent breakaways that he helped to inspire, as well as the Catholic response, occupied so much of the attention of religious and secular authorities across Europe that little energy was left to expend on concern over witches at least for a time.

In the long run, though, the Reformation may have contributed significantly to the severity of later witch-hunts by helping to promote the jurisdiction of secular courts over this crime. Witchcraft had always been a crime under both church law, as a form of idolatry and demon-worship, and secular law, since maleficium was believed to cause real harm, injury, or death. In fact, secular courts were often more severe in their handling of cases of witchcraft than were many ecclesiastical courts. In Protestant lands after the Reformation, ecclesiastical courts were done away with, and secular authorities became responsible for the enforcement of moral and religious codes. A similar process was already underway in many Catholic lands, but the Reformation doubtless accelerated this development. When witch-hunting began to rise again after the mid-1500s, secular courts were responsible for the vast majority of witch-trials across Europe. The only major exceptions were in Spain and Italy, where the Spanish Inquisition and Roman Inquisition respectively oversaw many cases. It is worth noting that witch-hunting was much less severe in these regions, with fewer overall trials per capita and significantly fewer executions than in many northern lands.

In addition to possibly contributing to some of the legal developments that underlay the witch-hunts, the Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation certainly caused matters of religious belief and personal morality to be brought to the fore of the European consciousness for most of the 16th and early 17th centuries. While confessional conflict does not appear to have been directly responsible for many accusations of witchcraft, the heightened and sustained religious tensions that pervaded much of European society in these years probably did contribute to concerns about religious deviance and moral corruption, and ultimately to the fear of witches within many communities. The religious wars sparked by confessional conflict that engulfed Europe in the 16 th and 17th centuries also certainly contributed to harsh economic conditions and social strife that then produced accusations of witchcraft. The period from 1550 to 1650 is sometimes known as "Europe's iron century." War, agrarian failures, popular revolts, inflation, and economic and social dislocations on a wide scale wracked the continent. It is certainly no coincidence that the idea of witchcraft and the fear of witches that emerged first in the 15th century found new life in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, and that this was the period of the most intense witch-hunting in many regions of Europe.

After the lull in the early 1500s, around in the middle of that century the number of witch trials across the continent began to rise again, and the period from approximately 1575 to 1675 marked the height of the European witch-hunts. Not only did the number of trials rise to the highest levels ever in most regions of the continent, but almost all of the worst panics and largest hunts occurred during this period. In addition, the production of treatises on witchcraft and witch-hunting resumed. The Malleus maleficarum was reprinted again in 1576 and several times thereafter, and even more popular and influential new treatises appeared by Jean Bodin in 1580, Nicholas Remy in 1595, Martin Del Rio in 1599, and Francesco Maria Guazzo in 1608. By the middle of the 17th century, however, witch-hunting was again declining across much of Europe. Scotland and Scandinavia experienced their most severe outbreaks of witch-hunting in the 1660s and early 1670s respectively, and the persecution of witches in the British colonies in New England crested with the trials at Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692. Elsewhere in Western and Central Europe, however, the number of witch trials fell off rapidly, and many states began to officially end witch-hunting. In France, for example, King Louis XIV effectively ended witch trials in 1682, and in England Parliament repealed the witchcraft act in 1736. In Eastern Europe, concern over witchcraft and witch-hunting developed late, and in regions of Poland, Hungary, and Russia, the worst trials occurred in the 18 th century. This regional anomaly aside, however, the period from 1675 until 1750 can generally be seen as one of steady decline in witch-hunting. By the end of the 18 th century, the legal persecution of supposed witches had ended across Europe.

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