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Dark magic and Witchcraft – a reasonable fear? The Rationale behind Witchcraft Belief in Early Modern Europe

Written by Nikita Nandanwad. Witchcraft trials have traditionally been viewed as campaigns of irrational religious belief. Yet, recent scholarship has demonstrated the complexity behind witchcraft trials and the ways they were informed by conceptions of gender.

The Early Modern period (c. 1500 – 1800 CE) is well known for its witch hunts. A famous example is the Salem Witch Trials in colonial Massachusetts, which found thirty guilty of committing witchcraft – of which nineteen people were hanged, one man (Giles Corey) pressed to death for refusing to plead, and five died in jail.

Since the dawn of the Scientific Revolution, which influenced the Enlightenment and transformed the views of Western society on nature, there have been several explanations as to why witchcraft hysteria was so common in Early Modernity – especially since Europe was also undergoing the Scientific Revolution at this time. This article will explore one particular type of source to inform the debate: witchcraft treatises, as well as discussing the change in historiography to include more feminist perspectives.

Witchcraft Treatises

Broadly speaking there were three types of treatises:

  1. Practical manuals: Legal ‘handbooks’ written for clergy and lawyers. For example, French jurist Jean Bodin published De la démonomanie des sorciers (On the Demon-mania of the Sorcerers) in 1580, in which he wrote about legal procedures and the question of establishing judicial proof of witchcraft.
  2. Polemical treatises: The witch hunts took place around the time of Reformation, during which religious tensions between Catholics and Protestants were especially high. As such, there was a growth in publications linking ‘the other side’ with heresy, and heresy with witchcraft. A common example is English Catholic Thomas Stapleton’s 1594 Witchcraft Oration, which offers twelve reasons linking witchcraft with the rise of heresy.
  3. Personal accounts: Memoirs or testimony of those with a personal connection to the prosecutions.

Malcolm Gaskill rightfully observes that the difficulty in explaining past beliefs is that scholarly groups impose their own beliefs upon history, thereby resulting in radically different interpretations, For example, a popular notion of witch hunts today is that they were an expression of irrational hysteria, thereby dismissing witchcraft treatises and other publications as symptomatic of popular delusion. This argument comes from eighteenth-century ‘Rationalists’ (a movement that appealed to critical reason and logic), who dismissed pre-scientific society as an era dominated by ‘barbarism’ and superstitious beliefs. It was believed that the Industrial Revolution ushered a ‘golden age’ of scientific progress – and the Early Modern witch hunts were held as a last struggle between reason and ‘primitive bigotry’. With the end of witch hunts, science and reason had triumphed, and any remnants of primitive medieval society had come to an end.

In 1971, Keith Thomas published his monumental work, Religion and the Decline of Magic, which suggested that there were valid psychological and social fears underlying witchcraft beliefs (which are expressed in the treatises); that the only explanation for the “inexplicable misfortunes” of daily life could be dark and malevolent forces antagonistic to society. As such, the typical victims accused of witchcraft were from marginalised groups perceived as socially antagonistic, such as old, poor, and unmarried women. Many learned writers of the treatises, such as the Protestant theologian Thomas Erastus, suggested that there’s no such thing as “licit” magic; and witches were likely women who had a sexually perverse relationship with the devil. The archetypal image of the witch (familiar spirits, the witch flying on a broomstick, the black cat as the witch’s accomplice, and so on) was attributed to popular beliefs held by the uneducated masses.

Following Thomas’ work, there has been an explosion in the intellectual historyof witchcraft studies, which analyses witchcraft as a coherent, popular system of belief across all social classes. Several learned scholars of the time tried to justifybelief in witchcraft and evil forces through means which required a step-by-step, evidence-based judicial process. This is evident in the witchcraft treatises, such as Jean Bodin’s assertion that no witch could be erroneously accused if correct judicial procedures were followed.

Twenty-first century historians now study the cultural dimensions, socio-economic context of Early Modernity, and other elements such as popular folklore which together created witchcraft beliefs. As a result, a large body of primary evidence from this period was re-evaluated and new theories suggested as to the psychologies underlying the fear of dark magic and witches. Peter Maxwell-Stuart observes that all of the treatises, irrespective of category, have two things in common: personal agenda, and a sense of anxietycaused by the ‘proximity’ of recent events. For instance, both Bodin and Stapleton composed their works during the Religious Wars following the Reformation, in an atmosphere dominated by fear of impiety, heresy, and atheism. These fears were potent as they centre on a perceived threatto society. Notably, Stapleton began his work by introducing ‘two especially great evils at this time’ – heresy and dark magic. Both practices are linked to the Devil’s work, with the end goal of apostasy and faithlessness. Thus, “heresy grows with magic, and magic grows with heresy.”

Gendered Witchcraft

The 1970s witnessed a growth in feminist interpretations of history, which subsequently highlighted the misogynyinherent in such witchcraft treatises, and the tendency to see witchcraft as a female activity. A famous example is the Malleus Maleficarum, a highly influential work printed at the beginning of Early Modernity in c. 1486. The work is primarily a warningto authorities about the growth of ‘Satan’s servants’. It discusses the theologythat lies behind witchcraft, a description of witch activities, and the legal actions that must be taken to successfully prosecute witches.

Sexual prominence is rife in the Malleus – one example is its suggestion that women in league with the Devil participated in sexual intercourse with evil forces. The Malleus is a product of its time in this regard – for the tendency to see women as lustful objects of ‘temptation’ and ‘pollutants’ was highly common. Indeed, sexual jealousy, or marital infidelity, played a significant role in real accusations of witchcraft. 

Today, the reason behind ‘gendered’ witchcraft beliefs are attributed to Stuart Clark’s theory of polarity: since antiquity, the two sexes have been perceived as opposites in line with other binaries, such as good and evil. Since women were the opposite of men and ‘naturally’ the weaker sex, they were much more likely to succumb to the Devil – this ‘temptation’ usually carries the sexual overtones explored above.

Since the decades following Thomas’ landmark work, historians have been largely successful in identifying a ‘rational core’ behind witch hunts of Early Modernity and examining witchcraft beliefs for their own sake. This was a period where bad socio-economic conditions, political and religious upheaval interacted with popular beliefs regarding the supernatural, creating an ill-defined fear of witchcraft across society. The witchcraft treatises demonstrate these anxieties and appear as an attempt to process a fundamental threat to society through defined legal and judicial means. Witchcraft was also the product of a society which saw women as more susceptible to sin and ‘temptation’; and popular witchcraft treatises are therefore imbued with gendered assumptions. Overall, it is a mistake to label witchcraft belief as ‘unscientific thinking’ – it was in fact the product of entirely ‘rational’ fears arising from the social, political, and religious upheavals of the time.

Written by Nikita Nandanwad

Bibliography

Bossy, John. “Thinking with Clark.” Past & Present, no. 166 (2000): 242-50.

Elmer, Peter. “Science, Medicine and Witchcraft.” In Palgrave Advances in Witchcraft Historiography, edited by Jonathan Barry and Owen Davies, 33-51. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Maxwell-Stuart, Peter. “The contemporary historical debate, 1400-1750.” In Palgrave Advances in Witchcraft Historiography, edited by Jonathan Barry and Owen Davies, 11-32. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Thomas, Keith. Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1971.

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