During the early modern period of European history, stretching from roughly 1450 to 1750, thousands of persons, most of them women, were tried for the crime of witchcraft. About half of these individuals were executed, usually by burning. Some witchcraft trials took place in the various ecclesiastical courts of Europe, institutions that played an important role in regulating the moral and religious life of Europeans during the Middle Ages and the early modern period. More commonly, especially after 1550, the trials were held in the secular courts – the courts of kingdoms, states, principalities, duchies, counties and towns. The geographical distribution of cases throughout Europe was extremely uneven. In some jurisdictions there were very few prosecutions, if any at all, whereas in others hundreds and sometimes thousands of persons were tried over the course of three centuries. There was also an uneven chronological distribution of witchcraft trials. A gradual increase in the number of prosecutions during the fifteenth century was followed by a slight reduction in the early sixteenth century, a dramatic increase in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and finally a gradual decline in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Within each jurisdiction there were even more pronounced fluctuations in the number of trials. Instead of a steady stream of prosecutions we often find some periods when large numbers of witches were prosecuted and others when the crime does not appear to have been a problem.
Although the number of witches who were tried varied from place to place and from time to time, all of these witchcraft prosecutions can be considered parts of one very large judicial operation that took place in Europe during the early modern period. This general but nevertheless clearly defined historical development is usually referred to as either the European witch-craze or the European witch-hunt. The former term, which is the one most commonly employed, should be used with great caution. It is appropriate only to the extent that European authorities and communities harboured such deep fears of witches during this period that they manifested frenzied, irrational or manic
forms of behaviour in pursuing them. In some instances the number of suspected witches was so large, and the fear of them so profound, that entire communities became caught up in a panic. The problem with the word ‘craze’, however, is its implication that the set of beliefs that underlay the prosecution of witches was the product of some sort of mental disorder, which was certainly not the case.
The latter term, witch-hunt, is preferable to witch-craze because all witchcraft prosecutions, even those that gave no indication of collective psychoses, involved some sort of search for malefactors. Witch-hunts did not usually involve the physical pursuit of a named individual, as in the case of a hunt when a prisoner escapes from gaol or evades the law. Occasionally witches who escaped or went into hiding were hunted in that way, but the essential process in combating witchcraft was discovering who the witches were rather than where they were located. Witch-hunting involved the identification of individuals who were widely believed to be engaged in a secret or occult activity. Witches were hunted, therefore, in the same way that members of an underground movement or secret organization would be hunted today. This was a task undertaken by various individuals, usually judicial authorities but sometimes professional witch-finders. Acting on the basis of accusations, denunciations or sometimes mere rumour, these men arrested persons whose names came to their attention, interrogated them, and did everything in their power to extract confessions from them. Sometimes judicial authorities continued this investigation by forcing confessing witches to name their accomplices, the type of legal prosecution most commonly associated with the word ‘witch-hunt’ today.1
The final stage of the witch-hunt was, in most cases, the formal conviction of the accused, followed by their execution, banishment or imprisonment.
The main purpose of this book is to explain why the great European witch-hunt took place. On this historical question there is no scholarly consensus. Indeed, it is difficult to think of any other historical problem over which there is more disagreement and confusion. During the past century the witch-hunt has been attributed, in whole or in large part, to the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, the Inquisition, the use of judicial torture, the wars of religion, the religious zeal of the clergy, the rise of the modern state, the development of capitalism, a series of agricultural crises, the widespread use of narcotics, changes in medical thought, social and cultural conflict, an attempt to wipe out paganism, the need of ruling elites to distract the masses, opposition to birth control, the spread of syphilis, and the hatred of women. This book does not endorse any one of these all-encompassing explanations of the hunt. Rather, it adopts a multi-causal approach which sees the emergence of new ideas about witches and a series of fundamental changes in the criminal law as the necessary preconditions of the witch-hunt, and both religious change and social tension as its more immediate causes. Only by studying all of these factors, which will be the subject of Chapters 2
by seeing how they reinforced each other, can we begin to understand why the hunt occurred. Even then, however, it is necessary to go beyond these general causes of the hunt and explore the specific circumstances and events that triggered individual witch-hunts, for the European witch-hunt was little more than a series of trials and separate hunts, each of which had its own precipitants. Each of these hunts also had its own dynamic, and therefore in Chapter 6
I try to explain why witch-hunts, once they had begun, followed many different patterns of development.
The complexity of the great European witch-hunt is evident not only in an analysis of its causes but also in a study of its chronological and geographical development. Since witch-hunting was more intense in some areas than in others and at certain times than at others, it is imperative that we explain why these variations occurred. Only in this way can we appreciate the relative importance of some of the more general causes of the entire European witch-hunt. Throughout the book, therefore, I make an effort to explain this diversity, and in Chapter 7
I adopt a more systematic approach to the entire question.
deals with the decline and end of witchcraft prosecutions in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Although many different societies from ancient to modern times have identified certain individuals as witches, the extensive criminal prosecution of Europeans for practising witchcraft occurred only during the early modern period. It is important, therefore, that we understand how this massive judicial operation came to an end and why witchcraft was considered no longer to be a crime. Even after the trials ended, however, communities occasionally lynched people whom they suspected of being witches, and in the twentieth century members of various groups have been relentlessly pursued by authorities much in the same way as witches. Chapter 9
explores these different forms of witch-hunting after the trials had ended. The last section of that chapter deals with witch-hunting in Africa in the late twentieth century, after decolonization. These African witch-hunts, which have been in large part conducted without official governmental sanction, have revealed deep conflicts between groups of people determined to take action against witches and the post-colonial courts that refuse to recognize the reality of the crime.
The meaning of witchcraft
In dealing with such a complex issue as witchcraft, it is important to establish what the word means. Since contemporaries themselves assigned different meanings to the word, and since they also used many other terms as the equivalents of ‘witch’ and ‘witchcraft’, this is no simple task. When early modern Europeans used the word witchcraft, however, they were almost always referring to either or both of two types of activity. The first was the practice of harmful, black or maleficent magic: the performance of harmful
deeds by means of some sort of extraordinary, mysterious, occult, preternatural or supernatural power. This type of magic would include the killing of a person by piercing a doll made in his or her image, inflicting sickness on a child by reciting a spell, bringing down hail on crops by burning enchanted substances, starting a fire by leaving a hexed sword in a room, and causing impotence in a bridegroom by tying knots in a piece of leather and leaving it in his proximity. Such harmful magic was usually referred to in Latin as maleficium
, while the plural form identifying such magical acts was maleficia
. In English maleficia
were sometimes called ‘witchcrafts’.2
The agents of these deeds were often referred to as malefici
, the Latin words that were commonly used to identify male and female witches during the late medieval and early modern periods.
It was in the performance of maleficium that European witchcraft most closely resembled the practice of witchcraft in some African and Native American societies today. In all witch-believing societies witches are regarded as individuals who possess some sort of extraordinary or mysterious power to perform evil deeds. The essential characteristics of these deeds are that they are magical rather than religious, and harmful rather than beneficial. These distinctions, however, are not always clear and call for some sort of explanation.
In its purest sense magic is a power that is activated and controlled by human beings themselves. The power is very much the magicians’ power, which they use to produce readily observable, empirical results in the world. They almost always use this power in critical situations and they usually act secretly and individually. The assumption of magicians is that if they practise their art correctly, it will automatically bring about the desired result. If they fail, they conclude that they have not performed their spell or ritual properly. In practising religion, however, people, whether they be priests or laity, do not exercise the same type of control over the power they are employing. They merely supplicate spirits or gods, who they hope or trust will achieve the desired result. If they fail, it is because the gods did not deign to satisfy their request. The ends that they pursue, moreover, are generally non-empirical, ‘supernatural’ goals, such as the achievement of life after death. Religion is also a more communal, organized form of activity than magic, and its practice is not confined to critical situations. Unlike magic, religion uses the art of persuasion in attempting to realize its goals, and since it deals with superior beings, it is more capable of filling the people who practise it with a sense of awe.3
Although it is possible to draw clear distinctions between magic and religion in their purest or most ideal senses, in practice these distinctions are often blurred.4
This should not surprise us, for many religions have slowly developed out of magic, while others have often deteriorated into magic.5
One example of the way in which religion can resemble magic is the fact that priests sometimes recite prayers or perform rituals with the magician’s certainty that if they act according to form, the desired outcome will automatically ensue.
The results of religious activity, moreover, are very often empirical, worldly benefits, just like those of magic, and they may have been sought in order to solve an immediate crisis. Magic, on the other hand, can easily become conflated with religion whenever it uses the powers of gods or other spirits to achieve its intended effects. In ancient Greece and Rome, for example, the very same gods who were the object of supplication and who inspired awe in their worship played an important part in the practice of magic. And, as we shall see, the early Christian Church insisted that all magical activity involved the power of the pagan gods, who were considered to be demons.
Because of the frequent blurring of the distinctions between religion and magic, it is worthwhile to imagine a continuum of activities that involve the use of some sort of preternatural, supernatural or non-empirical power. At one end of the continuum would be magic in the purest or ideal sense, in which the gods would no...