[Above is Henry Fuseli's representation of Macbeth's witches.]
See here for a good introduction.
Between 1400 and 1800 between forty and fifty thousand people, mainly women, died in Europe and colonial north America on charges of witchcraft. Why? As Lyndal Roper states,
‘No-one … can offer a total explanation for phenomena lying in the realms of psycho-history.’Europeans had long believed in witches yet only in the period after 1500 did they turn this cultural assumption into a one of the major killers of western Europe.
The chronology and geography are varied. Central Europe and Scotland were most affected, Ireland and the Iberian peninsula least. There was a short-lived bout of intense witch-hunting in England in the 1640s and nineteen deaths in Massachusetts in 1692. In Poland witchcraft executions only ended with a royal decree in 1776, by which time about 1,000 people had died. Witch-hunts did not begin in Hungary until the 18th century.
What is witchcraft?
Belief in magic has always been common and exists in the world today, for example in Africa. But what is unique to western Christian civilization is the belief in a personal devil. There were two quite different but related activities denoted by the word witchcraft as it was used in early modern Europe: the practice of maleficium, and worshipping the devil. Maleficium meaning calling down a curse on another, was the effect of witchcraft. The cause was the pact with the devil. It was usually believed that those witches who made pacts with the devil also worshipped him collectively in nocturnal ceremonies, the ‘witches’ sabbath’ ,that could include naked dancing or the cannibalism of infants.
Witchcraft as inversion
It is important to recognize that almost everybody believed in witches and it was heresy to doubt their existence. In his book Thinking with Demons, Stuart Clark argues that views on witchcraft arose from notions of ‘misrule’ or inversion: wisdom/folly; male/female; Carnival/Lent. In a world of ‘looking-glass logic’ structured by opposition and inversion, demonic witchcraft made sense. Witchcraft had all the appearance of a proper religion, but in reality it was a religion perverted. And since genuine religion was, in theory, a total experience, so its demonic copy was all-embracing. There were nine orders of devils to match the nine orders of angels. The pact with the devil was a parody of baptism. The witches’ Sabbath was a parody of the mass (or of Protestant preaching). Demonic inversion was inseparable from notions of archetypical rebellion. That was why the Puritan William Perkins argued that if the death penalty was appropriate for traitors, it was even more necessary for those who joined the devil in his rebellion against God. A further inversion lay in the fact that witches could change themselves into animals. Although these transformations were accepted as illusory, the concept of metamorphosis suggested that instinct might replace reason and brutishness virtue.
The Malleus Maleficarum
One reason for the new attitude to witches was a newly confrontational attitude among the intellectual elite, arising paradoxically out of Renaissance humanism. In 1484 Pope Innocent VIII authorized two German Dominican Inquisitors, Heinrich Krämer and Jakob Sprenger, 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 banished him. While in exile, he wrote the classic text on witchcraft, the Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches) (full text here), published in 1486. These views and activities were endorsed in a papal bull of 1484. The book proved the catalyst to give shape to existing anxieties. In 1532 Charles V’s new codification of imperial law, the Lex Carolina, prescribed the death penalty for both heretics and witches. Far from abandoning belief in witchcraft as a relic of Catholic superstition, Protestants endorsed it and quoted Exodus 22:18: 'Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live'.
Witchcraft and popular belief
Witchcraft was both intellectual and folk belief. People in the early modern village were subject to a huge range of hazards – plague, illnesses and sudden deaths. The distinctions between the natural and the supernatural were blurred and within the community individuals with special powers – cunning folk – were recognized. It was natural to ascribe relatively unusual or inexplicable events such as slow lingering illnesses, mental illness, hailstones to maleficium. Most of the quarrels between ‘witch’ and victim involved a denial of neighbourliness or some other perception of a wrong done. The majority of witchcraft accusations came from below and concentrated on the alleged harm done by maleficium. It was their social superiors who added the element of diabolism.
Overwhelmingly witches were women (though not in Poland or Russia). The Malleus was extremely misogynistic. Although men and boys were indicted, a disproportionate number of those brought before the courts were post-menopausal women, notably widows.
Stuart Clark notes that what the witchcraft writers said about women amounted to ‘three groups of propositions, drawn on with almost formulaic uniformity’.
(1) Women were by nature weaker than men and therefore had a greater capacity to fall; they could not grasp spiritual matters easily and were credulous and impressionable in their beliefs; at the same time they were resentful of authority and discipline and their carnal appetites were greater than men’s.But he goes on to argue that these statements are ‘entirely unoriginal’, mere 16th century clichés, and are found well outside the context of witchcraft. Therefore the experts on witchcraft ‘were not in any way eccentric in what they said about women as such [but] were entirely representative of their age and culture’. The writers who were sceptical about witchcraft, such as Reginald Scot, were no more enlightened about women; instead they used the femininity of the witch as a reason for doubting the truth of her statements.
(2) Women were the devil’s preferred target – see Eve, whom some writers called the first witch; inconsistency was a trait that women and devils had in common.
(3) Women were both curious and loquacious, more eager than men to know hidden things; their bodies were ugly and they were malicious, rancorous and vindictive.
Other historians have drawn attention to the changing social situation of women that marginalized them in society – for example an increase in the number of women living alone as spinsters or widows. Keith Thomas argued that economic and social changes, as well as different attitudes to charitable relief, led to a decline in neighbourliness and that women on their own were the chief victims. Olwen Hufton notes that the witch phase is coincident with attempts to change or reform traditional charitable practice. Women’s customary roles gave them more opportunities to practise harmful magic as they generally served as cooks, midwives and healers.
Diarmid MacCulloch notes that older women and widows were often vulnerable because they had been the subject of accusations over many decades and because they did not have a husband to support them. Those who confessed to collusion with the devil repeatedly used phrases like ‘he promised I should nae want’ or ‘Je ne manquerai de rien’.
Lyndal Roper explores the combined hatred and fear felt in German society for the crone, the woman past childbearing years whose body has become an object of disgust. Envious of young women, she gives vent to her spite through harmful magic.
The late Christina Larner pointed out that witches were accused not because they were women but because they were witches. A great many cases were brought by angry and frightened ‘victims’ who genuinely believed witches had caused their misfortunes.
The women who admitted to witchcraft did so often under torture but in some cases they seem to have believed their own stories.
Scotland: a case study
Witchcraft had been on the Scottish law books from 1563, but went virtually unprosecuted until 1590 when James VI became an enthusiastic prosecutor. In 1590 he was caught up in storms when on his way to meet his bride, Anne of Denmark, and on his return he led an investigation into the witchcraft that had ‘caused’ the storms. Between November 1590 and May 1591 more than a hundred suspects were examined and a large number were executed. He uncovered a story of a gathering at North Berwick parish kirk the previous Halloween over which the devil had presided with the intention of planning the king’s destruction through manipulation of the weather. The accused confessed under torture and were executed.
In 1591 he commissioned the publication of News from Scotland, which outlined the recent events, presumably for an English audience. But he also wanted to write something more scholarly and to challenge Reginald Scot’s 1584 treatise The Discoverie of Witchcraft. In 1597 he published his Demonologie.
However, by the time this was published, James belief in witchcraft seems to have been waning. When he became king of England he backed new legislation (1604) that took witchcraft prosecutions out of the church courts and into the secular courts and in practice witchcraft prosecutions declined during his reign. (But Macbeth was presumably meant as a tribute to his zeal in uncovering witches.) But though prosecutions declined in England, they intensified in Scotland and between 1590 and 1680 about a thousand people were executed. This can be seen as part of the Kirk’s power struggle against the secular authorities.
There was a similarly intense prosecution in the Catholic archbishopric of Cologne from 1594 during the episcopate of Ferdinand of Bavaria. Here the Jesuits were especially zealous in launching prosecutions.
On the other hand, the power of the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal paradoxically acted as a check on prosecutions. In 1609-10 there was a bout of executions in Navarre. But after examining thousands of cases, the Navarrese inquisitor Alonso de Salazar wrote, ‘I have not found the slightest evidence from which to infer that a single act of witchcraft has really occurred’. But the Iberian population had their own ready-made scapegoats – Jews and Muslims – and did not need another. And the Inquisition was well trained in the hearing of evidence.
For the East Anglian witch scare, see here. For Anna Göldi, the last witch to be executed in Switzerland, see here.
The decline of witchcraft
Witchcraft prosecutions declined in most parts of Europe from the end of the seventeenth century, when the scientific revolution and the coming of the Enlightenment provided a new view of the world with naturalistic explanations for death and disasters. The Salem trials in Massachusetts and the execution of Anna Göldi in the following century, were an aberration.
The ordinary people continued to believe in witches until well into the nineteenth century, but they were unable to bring prosecutions because the legal machinery no longer supported them.