In our times the number of witches and of supporters of the Devil is growing rapidly, so that almost all towns and villages in the whole of Germany, not to mention other people and nations, are full of this vermin. These servants of the Devil not only do harm to the precious crops in the fields which the Lord has made grow through the power of his blessing, but also try to do as much harm as possible through thunder, lightning, showers, hail, storms, frost, flooding, mice, worms, and in many other ways which God is permitting and for which they use the support and help of the Devil.
Further News of Witches
, Germany, 15901
Throughout early modern Europe, people feared witchcraft. However, the ‘witchcraft’ that they feared was not a single, simple thing, easy to define. Anyone who has heard of an ‘essential definition of witchcraft’ has been misinformed. There were then, and there still are today, several overlapping definitions of it – and the definitions tended to change over time. Here we need to focus on the definitions that were used in the early modern period. Executions for ‘witchcraft’ were for that specific crime, and a specific word had to be used – though, as we shall see, not all languages used their word or words for ‘witchcraft’ in the same way. But the specific crime of ‘witchcraft’ was built up out of a number of components, which can be analysed separately. There are four main fields into which these components can be grouped.
The fourfold concept of witchcraft
The four fields of the early modern concept of witchcraft were all interlinked, but they can be separated out for analytical purposes. There were different definitions of witchcraft because, although everyone feared witches, they did not all fear them in the same way. In particular, the elite had a more intellectual and theoretical fear, while the common people’s fear was more immediate and practical. This provides the basis for two of the fields of the
fourfold concept. (There is more about elite and popular beliefs later in this chapter.) The third and fourth fields were less about real witches that were feared, but provided essential background for everyone’s witchcraft beliefs.
The first field to be discussed, then, is the demonic witch of the elite – the witch who was in league with the Devil. Then comes the village witch of the common people – the witch who harmed her or his neighbours. Witchcraft was also a matter of story and legend, so we need a third field: the folkloric witch. Finally, witchcraft was sometimes a matter of intense personal experience, with people entering trances and seeing visions. They either encountered witches in nightmare visions, or entered trances and went on spirit-voyages that could make others think that they themselves were witches. The fourth field, therefore, is the witch experienced through trance, dream and nightmare: the envisioned witch.
The demonic witch was in league with the Devil. This view of witchcraft saw it essentially as a religious crime – a type of heresy or false belief. The Christian church authorities had been concerned about heresy since the middle ages; they had not usually thought of witchcraft as a heresy, but we shall see in Chapter 2
that they began to change their minds. Combining ideas from various sources, fifteenth-century theologians gradually became convinced that a ‘new heresy’ had arisen, consisting not of people who worshipped God in the wrong way, but of people who actually worshipped the Devil. They formed a secret, underground sect, who renounced God and promised their souls to the Devil, and gathered at night to perform evil ceremonies in a witches’ sabbat.
In Chapter 3
, which provides a detailed discussion of the demonic witch, we shall see these ideas becoming elaborated. Witches flew to the sabbat, and the ceremonies included horrific rites: witches had promiscuous sex with the Devil and with one another, they danced naked, and they killed and ate babies and children. Some of these ideas were ancient and stereotypical fantasies of what an evil group would do, much older than the idea of demonic witchcraft. The essence of the demonic witch did not lie in these acts, though; the basic crime was that she or he had promised their soul to the Devil, in a contract known as the ‘demonic pact’. The crime of the demonic witch, then, was a thought-crime – the crime of being
The village witch was also an evil figure, but on a smaller scale. Peasants were concerned about their health, their families and their farms, and they feared magical interference with these. Peasants had to work closely with their neighbours, bartering and sharing goods and tools, and this sometimes led to disputes and rivalries. When a peasant suffered a misfortune that was hard to explain, they sometimes feared that a witch had caused it, and they tended to ask themselves whether there was anyone who might have a grudge against them. We shall see in Chapter 4
that village witchcraft was not about threats to society as a whole, nor even (with rare exceptions) about threats to the village as a whole. It was about personal, individual malice. Peasants were likely to ascribe a misfortune to witchcraft if they had
quarrelled with a neighbour and believed that the neighbour was out for revenge. They would be particularly likely to do so if the neighbour fitted one of the stereotype images of the witch, with the most common stereotype by far being the quarrelsome older woman – something that we shall examine in Chapter 9
. The crime of the village witch, then, consisted in carrying out specific harmful acts – the crime of performing
The folkloric witch was a character from stories. These stories were told by villagers, but had their own traditions and their own logic; they did not simply replicate what was known about village witches. The folkloric witch did not live in the village; her residence, if known, was in a remote region, often a forest. She was always female, unlike the demonic witch or the village witch. She was not necessarily a normal human – she was sometimes related to giants or fairies. She was always maleficent; sometimes her evil deeds resembled those of the village witch (killing and injuring livestock, for instance), but she also committed more fantastic malefices, especially the stealing and eating of children. We shall see in Chapter 5
that stories tended to focus on the witch’s remarkable powers, especially of magical travel and flight, and of shape-shifting. There was some mention of witches’ sabbats, usually large gatherings in remote locations, but witches in most stories were solitary figures. The main non-solitary witches were the product of folkloric multiplication – there might be three witches in a story, rather in the way that there could be three sons or three princesses. The folkloric witch was not necessarily a criminal, and indeed was not necessarily human, but ideas about her fed into ideas about criminal human witches.
Envisioned witches, also discussed in Chapter 5
, were of two related types. First, some people had trance experiences in which they felt themselves carried away to distant lands or to other worlds; sometimes they encountered strange beings there. Although such experiences could be traumatic, they could also be empowering; typically the person would gain powers of healing or prophecy. If the authorities came across such a person, they might think that they had found a witch. Second, more directly envisioned witches arose from another type of visionary experience – a nightmare or other traumatic event when the victim believed that the ‘spectre’ of the witch had appeared in their room and attacked them. Such ‘spectral evidence’ would be important in some witchcraft trials. Envisioned witches, then, arose from various intense personal experiences, for which ‘witchcraft’ provided explanations.
A simple comparative view of the demonic witch and the village witch has the authorities believing in the former, and the common people believing in the latter. This is a useful starting point, but it is too simple for our purposes. The authorities also
believed in the village witch. As for the villagers, they do not seem to have disagreed with what they were told about demonic witches, though they rarely thought demonic witches important. Their idea of the Devil was less frightening, and they were hardly ever interested in conspiracies of multiple witches. Villagers’ testimony against witches almost
always stressed acts of magical harm by individuals. The demonic witch, by contrast, was rarely thought to act alone, but was usually a member of a group. How much effort the authorities put into identifying the other members of the group might vary, but worship of the Devil was definitely a collective affair.
The demonic witch of the elite and the maleficent witch of the village could be seen as mirroring the two parts of the Ten Commandments, known at the time as the ‘two tables’. The first table (the first three or four commandments) consisted of crimes against God, notably worshipping other gods. The second table consisted of crimes against one’s neighbour, such as theft, murder or adultery. Broadly speaking, the demonic witch broke the first part of these commandments, while the village witch broke the second part. The elite tended to be concerned with crimes against God; peasants were concerned mainly with harm to society. The elite’s concern for society tended to be more symbolic and less practical than the peasants’ everyday worries. The peasants’ concern about malefice was firmly grounded in real, practical misfortune and tragedy. Sometimes their cattle or children really did die, and it is not surprising that they sometimes blamed witches. By contrast, although the elite imagined that witches were killing unbaptised babies and eating them, these babies never existed at all. The elite did have reasons for their beliefs, but – as we might expect for educated people – these reasons were more complicated. The horrific rites of the witches’ sabbat were a symbolic inversion of positive human values: not just bad acts, but the imagined opposite of good acts.
In the demonic witchcraft of the elite, witches had no power of their own. They appeared to do extraordinary things, such as causing illness and death, bringing hailstorms, sinking ships, or flying; but it was not actually the witches themselves that performed these acts, it was invisible demons acting on their behalf. Demonologists usually explained that the Devil deceived witches into thinking that they themselves performed the actions. A few suggested or implied that the demons were obliged to carry out the witch’s wishes, which made witches seem more fearsome (though this idea was arguably unorthodox). All elite thinkers, however, agreed that the power of witchcraft originated with demons.
In village witchcraft, villagers usually assumed that witches did have inherent power. Witness statements by witches’ neighbours rarely discussed this, probably because they took it for granted. Sometimes they said that witches’ power was taught to them. Another common idea was that the witch inherited her or his power; typically a daughter was said to have got her witchcraft from her mother. These two ideas combined when a mother was said to have taught her daughter. At any rate, once acquired, the power was always something that the witches themselves possessed. When witches were thought to issue curses or cast secret spells, their victims did not usually think that the power came from any other source than the witch.
This should be qualified, however, because some villagers, when cursing their neighbours, did
invoke the power of others. Typically their curse was a kind of prayer, publicly calling down the wrath of God on their enemy. They might also invoke the Devil, perhaps asking him to take their enemy away. These curses are not entirely distinct from the idea of the witch’s inherent power, because certain people’s curses were thought to be more effective (just as certain people’s prayers were more often answered). However, people who cursed their neighbours probably did not think that this made them ‘witches’, even if they thought that the curses took effect.
The power of envisioned witches usually came from outside. People who had visions of fairies or ghosts, and who used these fairies or ghosts in folk healing or fortune-telling, may well have thought that the power came from the fairies or the ghosts. Some people who encountered spirits in trance-voyages thought that they themselves had the power to initiate such voyages. But probably most trance-voyagers were taken by their spirit-guide; some, indeed, had no choice about whether they went or not. On the whole, power here rested with the other-world beings – fairies, ghosts or even demons. In this sense, folkloric witchcraft was closer to demonology than village witchcraft was. Indeed, aspects of folkloric witchcraft fed into demonology. When interrogators were told by a witchcraft suspect that they had visited fairyland, the interrogators would tend to assume that the fairies were really demons, and they could use this to enhance their understanding of demons.
Perhaps for this reason, there was no actual conflict between demonic witchcraft and village witchcraft. If an educated priest or pastor explained to the villagers that the power really came from the Devil and his demons, peasants seem to have had no objection to this view. For their own part, educated people seem to have tolerated the beliefs of the uneducated – they simply assumed that they knew better.
Globally, most traditional societies have believed in figures similar to the village witch. The folkloric witch and the envisioned witch, too, are widespread. The demonic witch, however, was unique to early modern Europe. Because demonic witchcraft was collective, this gave the European witch-hunt a uniquely destructive character: witches could readily be multiplied. Although numerous witches were prosecuted as isolated individuals, there were also many panics in which groups of witches were prosecuted. These panics arose largely from elite fears of demonic conspiracy. However, they often involved one of the other types of witch as well. Typically, an individual village witch was identified and arrested, and was interrogated about her or his accomplices. Especially if torture was used, this process could generate names of further witches who could be accused of making a pact with the Devil, attending witches’ sabbats, or both. The procedure of the criminal courts will be described in Chapter 7
, while the dynamics of witchcraft panics will be explored in Chapter 8
. Finally, a global perspective on the European witch-hunt will be outlined in Chapter 11
Witches were an enemy within; they were thought to keep themselves secret. Both the authorities and the common folk were aware of other dangerous groups of people, such as Jews or lepers, who were segregated from the community and were feared as perhaps wanting to conspire against it. But Jews and lepers were publicly known to be such. Witches were not publicly known; they could be anyone.
Today we can see that the ‘witches’ of early modern times were largely imaginary. Except in cases of mental illness, hardly any villager thought that she or he was a ‘witch’ until they were called that by someone else. However, early modern folk could have what seemed to be good reasons for deciding that someone else was a ‘witch’. This could be because of the person’s known magical activities – they could have been folk healers or diviners, for instance. Magical practitioners like this were not usually thought of as witches – more often, they helped identify other people as witches; but, if magical practitioners were perceived to have misused their powers to harm people instead of helping them, they could be accused of witchcraft. To villagers, witchcraft was essentially harmful.
The most common way in which villagers came to see someone as a witch was through neighbourhood quarrels that were followed by misfortune. If someone suffered a misfortune that they could not explain through natural causes, they might begin to suspect ...