Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe

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Leader: TeenageCreep
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Created on: 8 Jan 2011
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A group focused on the study, discussion & debate around one of European history's most interesting & memorable phenomena from the early modern era (15th to 18th century) ---> the witch-hunts


<> Francesco Maria Guazzo, Compendium Maleficarum, 1626 <>


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 which 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 only in Europe and only 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 often 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 which 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 man-hunt when a prisoner escapes from goal or evades the law. Occasionally, witches who escaped or went into hiding were hunted in that way, but the essential process of 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 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 attentation, 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. The final stage of the witch hunt was, in most cases, the formal conviction of the accused, followed by their execution, banishment or imprisonment.

There is no consensus of opinion on the historical question of why the great European witch-hunt took place. indeed, it is difficult to think of any other historical problem over which there is more disagreement and confusion. During the tweentieth century alone 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, the widespread use of narcotics, changes in medical thought, social and cultural conflict, an attempt to wipe out paganism, the need of the ruling class to distract the masses, opposition to birth control, the spread of syphilis, and hatred of women. Rather than endorse any one of these all-encompassing explanations for the hunt, we should adopt 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 in its more immediate causes. Only by studying all of these factors and by seeing how they reinforced each other, can we begin to understand why the hunt occured. 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 really nothing more than a series of separate hunts, each of which had its own precipitants. Each of these hunts also had its own dynamic, and therefore we must also 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 in a study of its chronological and geographical development. Since witch-hunting was more intense in some areas than in other and at certain times than at others, it is imperative that we explain why these variations occured. Only in this way can we appreciate the relative importance of some of the more general causes of the entire European witch-hunt.

Although magic and sorcery are in a certain sense universal phenomena that occur in all societies at all periods of time, the European witch-hunt was a time- bound phenomenon, which did not begin until the fifteenth century and ended by the middle of the eighteenth. A study of its termination can, therefore, deepen our understanting of the conditions that both made it possible and sustained it.


(Brian P. Levack, The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe, Longman, 2nd edition, 1995, pp. 1-3)

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  • RussellChap

    If you fucked a witch who suddenly turned into a black goat would it kill your hard on?

    2 Apr 2013 Reply
  • TeenageCreep

    yep, top-notch record ov '12, i think the opener is thee best one.

    7 Jan 2013 Reply
  • vitameen

    u guys know this ??

    6 Jan 2013 Reply
  • TeenageCreep

    salve, yep, "Eros and Magic in the Renaissance" is definitely his magnum opus, go for it, dunno how many ov his books have been translated to English, other worth checking titles would be: "Iocari serio. Stiinta si arta in gindirea Renasterii" (Iocari serio. Science and Art in Renaissance Thought" & "Cult, magie, erezii" (Cult, magic, heresies); if u're interested in Culianu's life (& especially death), THE book on this subject is Ted Anton's "Eros, Magic and the Murder of Professor Culianu". As he had an academic career in The Netherlands for more than 10 yrs., i guess there should be books translated to Dutch ;)

    19 Aug 2012 Reply
  • chewtoy

    Hi y'all, I just joined the group. I was wondering if anyone here had any thoughts on the writings (and life & mysterious death) of Ioan Petru Culianu. I'm considering ordering some of his books (in particular "Eros and Magic in the Renaissance"), are they worth it?

    18 Aug 2012 Reply
  • TeenageDeathBoy

    http://youtu.be/LOQND4fVF_w Fascinating lecture by Professor Teofilo Ruiz, "The Terror Of History: The Witch Hunt in Early Modern Europe"

    7 Aug 2012 Reply
  • mytruepassion

    Hmm... is 21st century witch hunting off topic?

    30 Apr 2012 Reply
  • TeenageCreep

    that's irrelevant, the question here is wether u're interested in the historical study of this European phenomenon & anything related to it or not (& if u have great musick in yr. charts, which u do).

    22 Feb 2012 Reply
  • EbullientMonad

    If witches were real, I'd be in favour of burning them. Am I in?

    21 Feb 2012 Reply
  • TeenageCreep

    Qui habet aures audiendi, audiat

    11 Jan 2012 Reply
  • mytruepassion

    Those who died on the stake because they did not recant, had no clue what they were defending?! Cursed with a sleeping conscience, they were probably delusional or suffering from some severe personality disorder: too narcissist to admit they were wrong and too histrionic to miss the possibility of being in the center of attention… because they lacked the modern freedom they became the modern myth.

    10 Jan 2012 Reply
  • mytruepassion

    Freedom of speech is not just a beautiful word some guys have invented during the 17th century… it doesn’t originate in sterile philosophy, but in practice. And it has a history behind. Maybe it wasn’t a thesis then, but it was a practice…a censored and a very dangerous practice. Often it was labeled as heresy, blasphemy, treason and punished accordingly. Every society, including the present one, has placed limitations on unpopular discourses… and those are relevant to the understanding the reality of social interactions, the particularities of the individual-society relationship. You say we cannot apply postmodern relevant concepts like freedom of speech to 15th-16th century realities…so we are left to discuss about the less modern censorship. What were they censoring again and again with great effort? The very notion they had no clue about… the freedom of speech… of unpopular speech.

    10 Jan 2012 Reply
  • TeenageCreep

    he got entangled in a game of survival, now approving of theological dogma, the next day denouncing it & so on & so on for some yrs. till even the Pope got worried & thought it would be best to let the secular courts handle him (who btw were far more ruthless during trials than clerical authorities); i'm in no way condemning his attitude of recant today & re-recant tomorrow, in those times i would prolly had done the same thing in order to survive as long as i could but come on, let's not make him a godly figure of defending personal freedom of speech just by the terrible way in which he died - he has so much to offer through his great body of work; it's simple to judge from nowadays perspective those who didn't stood up to their opresors, so let's not do that in Galileo's case & "so many others". Bruno as a martyr of thought or freedom of speech is a late 19th century myth used in Italy after 1870 & Europe in conflicts between the Church and the state or those who have been oppressed.

    6 Jan 2012 Reply
  • TeenageCreep

    Yates simply states that Bruno comes from a long traditional line of Renaissance humanists, who focused more on reason, moral values & alternative ways of perceiving the world, whereas in the Medieval world one would be more or less "human" in the way he expressed his love & veneration for God (strict rituals, moral values & expressions of faith regulated by the Church), in the Renaissance, Man had sought a more p2p connection w/ God, elaborating alternative ways of understanding the world, his place in it, how God fitted in all this etc. Thus i wouldn't say that this constitues a clear & conscious expression of freedom of speech, it's just an evolution in from one world view to another; anyway, this is an attribute mainly of the intellectual field, whereas the mass population of any European state had to wait even centuries in order to "awake". Bruno's case is complex, stretching for many yrs.

    6 Jan 2012 Reply
  • mytruepassion

    Quoting Giordano Bruno: "Everything, however men may deem it assured and evident, proves, when it is brought under discussion to be no less doubtful than are extravagant and absurd beliefs." I wasn't referring to the martyr of science but to the martyr of the freedom of speech... the man who stood for his beliefs and died as free man... unlike Galileo and so many others...

    5 Jan 2012 Reply
  • mytruepassion

    Oh, so you tend to agree with Frances Yates arguments... do you agree with this argument stated at page 356: "Yet, on moral grounds Bruno's position remains strong. For it was the descendant of the Magi of the Renaissance who stood for the Dignity of Man in the sense of liberty, toleration, the right of man to stand up in any country and say what he thought, disregarding all ideological barriers. And Bruno, the Magus, stood for love, as against what the pedants, of both sides, had made of Christianity, the religion of love."

    5 Jan 2012 Reply
  • TeenageCreep

    for me freedom of speech in the context of a relevant subject in society following nowadays' model can be traceable to the (pre-/post-)Enlightment period, that's de facto freedom of speech, only then does this concept gain it's present significance.

    5 Jan 2012 Reply
  • TeenageCreep

    oh come on, Bruno as a "martyr of science" is a late 19th century myth, developed more than 250 yrs. after his death, it's not the only example, see the flat earth problem, how Dark were the Dark Ages, lol, the ferocity of Spanish inquisition (also a terrible myth that needs to be broken), there are a lot ov shitty clichés circulating in our postmodern world, another major problem is that w/ ppl considering those who died as witches burned at the stake to be "martyrs" ov this & that, a view found frequent in the wicca tradition, i remember Gardner even went as far as to trace his 17th century ancestors to be victims of the witch-hunt in England - thus the supposed perpetual evolution of a witch-cult in Europe. Just look at Bruno's official accusations, they dealt more w/ "teological" than pure scientific matters, he was way into neoplatonism & hermeticism, i tend to agree w/ Frances Yates' arguments in "Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition"

    5 Jan 2012 Reply
  • mytruepassion

    I was waiting for DJBlasfemik to refine his statement... i hope he will do that when time allows. I wouldn't say that those subjects were irrelevant or unimportant back then, because many have lost their lives on the stake defending those... Giordano Bruno is one example, but we could have a whole thread about personalities that died or "were crushed" defending those beliefs. I agree to the fact that judging the 15th-16th society from the present point of view doesn't lead to a better understanding of it... yet, we are not judging society but questioning nowadays religion from historical perspective... The present religious beliefs are based on events that happened thousands of years ago and the present religious practices are following principles/regulations that originate in those early times... The society is changing, but isn't it interesting to observe how these changes reflect upon religious beliefs and practices and analyze the possible connections?

    5 Jan 2012 Reply
  • TeenageCreep

    i don't think DJ_Blasfemik wanted to state that people from Early Modern Europe weren't familiar w/ such subjects, it's just that they were so irelevant & unimportant back then, in that type of society, almost any essential nowadays concept can be traced back many centuries in the past (the way it appeared, was interpreted back then, how it evolved to its present understanding of it) & i stronlgy agree w/ him when he says that postmodern/contemporary relevant subjects like freedom of speech, tolerance, racism, political correctness etc. simply can't be applied to realities of 15th-16th centuries, this type of exercise is classic failure in historiography cause you write about past events from a present point of view so this racism/tolerance/freedom of speech model applied to the witchcraft phenomenon would tell more about present day society & its concerns than those of 16th century ppl.

    29 Dec 2011 Reply
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