Magic and Witchcraft

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Magic and Witchcraft

Popular Magic.

In early-modern Europe state churches identified enemies among the missionaries of rival Christian churches, even as they also singled out promoters and participants of popular magic as targets. Early-modern Europeans, like their medieval ancestors, retained a strong belief in supernatural planes of existence that bounded the natural and visible world. Popular magic focused on the spirits who were believed to exist in these supernatural planes, and on how these spirits could be manipulated to serve the needs of humans. Knowing the denizens of the supernatural as well as how to invoke them and what they could do for you was the stated expertise of "wise men" and "cunning women." These were just two names for what anthropologists today call shamans, that is, diviners and healers who provided their clients with help and healing based upon the claim to expertise in accessing the supernatural world. Early-modern Europeans did not turn to shamans in every emergency. Shamans were usually called upon in those circumstances where the supernatural aid the church offered through prayers and recourse to the saints was judged either inadequate or inappropriate. In other words, when early-modern folk had need of a love or fertility potion, their first recourse was not to their priest or minister, but to the local shaman. By the same token, if witchcraft was suspected as the cause of an illness, Christian prayer was not deemed a strong enough counter-measure; a shaman was needed to cast a counter spell. The bodies of knowledge popular magic drew upon often reflected oral traditions from a host of pre-Christian religious traditions. By the early-modern period Christian supernatural entities had also been pressed into service to help humans with their problems. Angels, as well as demons, might be invoked to help find lost or stolen property. Saints, most especially the Virgin Mary, were beseeched for cures. Thus peasants trying to protect themselves from the vagaries of poor harvests, disease, infertility, and natural disasters had access to a rich supernatural world peopled with many different entities, all of whom might offer aid in particular circumstances. The church had long cast a jaundiced eye on these popular beliefs, having for centuries taught that it was appropriate to seek help through prayer to the saints, angels, and God himself. Europe's shamans, on the other hand, had no qualms about approaching any and all kinds of spiritual forces. They might even appeal to Satan himself in trying to resolve a thorny issue. Thus priests and ministers perceived shamans and the longstanding traditions of popular magic as sources of competition as well as a dangerous traffic with the evil spirits that peopled the supernatural order. They sought to have "wise men" and "cunning women" arrested and tried for these crimes as witches. During the first half of the seventeenth century religious and state officials stepped up their campaign against shamanism, helping to send longstanding traditions of popular magic into a decline. Magical beliefs and practices were now forced increasingly underground, where they were prized by some and feared by others. Popular magic's decline, then, was in part a result of the witch hunt, which had by the mid-seventeenth century made it extremely dangerous to practice any form of magic for fear of being identified as a witch.

Learned Magic.

Popular magic stood in contrast to learned magic, a very different set of teachings that had similarly flourished for centuries. In early-modern Europe learned magic rarely involved the invocation of spirits, but rather it assumed that certain hidden connections existed between observable phenomena on earth and unseen phenomena in the universe, and that it was possible to discover these connections and exploit them to one's advantage. These assumptions are best demonstrated in astrology, perhaps the most avidly pursued branch of learned magic. The premise of astrology is that heavenly bodies determine the fortunes of humans on earth. Through the study of the heavenly bodies it is therefore possible for an individual both to anticipate and to take advantage of the events that will occur in the future. Astrology was a branch of learned magic that was widely practiced by medical personnel, since it was seen as bolstering the effectiveness of medicines and other types of cures that needed to be given at times when the stars' positions were most propitious for healing. Learned forms of magic like astrology progressed through the detailed study of texts. Its practitioners started from the intellectual assumption that scholars in the ancient world had discovered most if not all of the hidden connections between things, and that the task of contemporary scholars was thus to rediscover what the ancients had already known. Beginning in the twelfth century a flow of magical treatises from ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome, preserved through the centuries by Muslim scholars, had begun to make its way into Western Europe. The reception of these texts gave rise to a new sort of intellectual figure, the magus (the plural form being known as "magi"), or the master of ancient magical knowledge. The status of the magus was given a powerful boost by the Renaissance fascination with Platonism, which stressed the notion that things on earth were simply the signs for universal or higher heavenly forms that were beyond human comprehension. By the seventeenth century learned magic, like art and architecture, had gained patronage in many European courts and in the humanist circles in cities. Many of the first and second generations of thinkers we associate today with the Scientific Revolution were influenced by Europe's long traditions of learned magical speculation. Alchemy was the branch of these endeavors that drew the greatest support from princely and wealthy patrons throughout the continent. Students of alchemy started from the premise that minerals, like everything else on earth, were living things grown from seeds, and that different types of minerals were simply variants of the same mineral at different stages in the life cycle. If cultivated to their mature forms in an environment free of pollutants, alchemists reasoned, minerals might take on their noblest character, a form that alchemists saw as the element gold. Thus the aims of learned magic like alchemy were to learn how nature might be manipulated and bent to one's advantage, rather than to communicate with spirits to intercede in everyday problems.

Magic in Europe 's Villages.

Accusations of witchcraft, by contrast, largely occurred in Europe's villages, far from the rarefied discussions of learned magic that intellectuals conducted in courts and cities. The distinction between magic and witchcraft in the minds of early-modern villagers is hard for the modern mind to grasp. For them, magic attempted to access and to influence the supernatural world. As such, for all of the moralizing of the churchmen, it was widely perceived in village society as a force that was never completely evil. Witchcraft, on the other hand, was feared as the use of the supernatural to prey upon one's neighbors, and was consequently the worst evil on earth. While plenty of individuals boasted of their ability to perform magic, no one admitted willingly to being a witch. Witchcraft was always imputed to individuals, and implicit in the charge was the idea that the witch was an "enemy of the human race," scheming to wreak havoc upon individuals and communities. While most Europeans did not believe that the use of magic was, in and of itself, criminal, they were largely agreed that witchcraft was an evil that needed to be utterly extirpated. It was normal, in other words, for townspeople and villagers to hate each other and sometimes to rely on magic to try to get back at one another. A successful piece of black magic aimed at an enemy probably did not upset many villagers, but what early seventeenth-century people feared were unexplained, excessive acts of vengeance. Such acts were signs of an individual out to hurt others. Modern readers of witch trial materials are appalled by the ease with which medieval and early-modern European villagers identified, tortured, and burned one or two of their number as the source of everything that had recently gone wrong in their village. Modern people, however, miss the reasoning that ran behind these trials. For early-modern communities, witches were social predators. They were an evil besetting the land, an evil that needed to be rooted out so that health might be restored to the community. The evidence of these trials suggests that an image of the witch—usually someone who was marginal to the community at large and who was widely feared and hated—prevailed as a powerful stereotype that prompted accusations and persecutions at the local level.

The Diabolic Pact.

When European villagers identified one of their own as a witch, their accusations were generally taken seriously by secular officials anxious to prosecute such charges. During the later Middle Ages the Inquisition, a formal office within the church charged with investigating heresy, had fed the persecution of witches by inspiring elaborate new theories of diabolism, that is, the science of demons. The Inquisition fashioned a view of witchcraft very different from that of village society. In place of the notion that witches were merely anti-social and predatory, the theories of witchcraft promoted by the Inquisition in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries taught that witches were those who had allied themselves with Satan and were now seeking to destroy Christian society. By the seventeenth century this notion of a diabolic pact had achieved a general acceptance, not only among many churchmen, but among state officials who now rejected the divide that existed in the popular mind between benign magic and maleficent witchcraft. For these learned elites, there was no neutral way to manipulate magic. All power over the supernatural world derived either from God or from Satan, and every human being who used magic thus entered into a pact with the devil. The terms of witches' covenants with Satan demanded that they wage war against every aspect of Christian society. In the three centuries following 1400 c.e. an estimated 100,000 Europeans were tried, convicted, and put to death for the crime of witchcraft. The most vicious years of this persecution occurred in the century following 1550, that is, at the time when many secular officials became convinced, as had churchmen before them, of the Satanic nature of witchcraft and the dangers that it presented to their societies. Relying on elaborate theories of diabolism and witchcraft, secular and religious authorities persecuted witches in these years with increasing frequency, and the image of the witch as an ally of Satan came to traumatize the seventeenth-century world.



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Nature of the Witch Hunt.

The typical witchcraft trial was a local affair and was precipitated when one or several accusations against someone "everyone knew was a witch" were brought before secular officials. In questioning, secular judges began to ask these individuals to name their accomplices, and under torture, the accused often spewed forth as many names as were needed to bring their suffering to an end. Judges then issued writs to have those accused arrested and tortured. In this way the size, length, and geographic scope of the trials grew. The high tide of these persecutions was also a time of civil war and sectarian conflict, of bad harvests, and of economic privation across Europe. The anxieties these problems generated thus helped to feed the efforts of judges and officials, many of whom argued that the collective misfortunes of contemporary society might be traced to cells of witches. The panic took different shapes in different areas. Germany was infamous for "chain reaction" trials. Judges received a list of names from one individual, and these individuals, in turn, generated their own new lists of accused under torture. These individuals then named others. Such trials might go on for years, claiming hundreds of lives. In Ellwangen in the German southwest, for example, more than 400 people met their deaths this way in the years between 1611–1618. In Bamberg, the capital of a bishopric in central Germany, more than 300 were executed for witchcraft between 1624 and 1631. In France, a series of cases involved nuns who were accused of being possessed by Satan and of appearing in the forms of priests. The best known of these, which took place at the Ursuline monastery at Loudon during 1636, became the subject of a famous novel, The Devils of Loudon, by Aldous Huxley in the twentieth century. In England, the panic prompted towns and villages to seek the services of professional "witchfinders," who traveled from place to place identifying witches for their neighbors to burn. Matthew Hopkins (d. 1647?) was the most famous of these. Sweden was the site for a relatively late (1660s–1670s) but


introduction: By the later eighteenth century, belief in demons, witches, and in a supernatural world was definitely on the wane among intellectuals in Europe. The possibility of demonic influence on the earth, however, still troubled some highly educated thinkers. Joseph Glanvill (1636–1680), one of England's greatest seventeenth-century scholars, and his friend Henry More (1614–1687) were two of these who worried about this decline. Both conducted an active correspondence in which they informed each other about the most recent trials and tribulations worked on the world by demons and witches. In his later years, Glanvill published many of these accounts, together with impassioned pleas to his intellectual readers that they maintain their faith in the spirit world. His fullest expression of these ideas came in Sadducismus Triumphatus (Sadducism Triumphant), a work that compared the decline in witchcraft beliefs to the ancient Jewish sect known as the Sadducees that Jesus had encountered in the New Testament. In this work Glanvill included the following endorsement of the reality of witchcraft made by his friend, Dr. Henry More.

And forasmuch as such coarse-grained Philosophers, as those Hobbians [followers of Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679)] and Spinozians, [followers of the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677)], and the rest of that Rabble, slight Religion and the Scriptures, because there is such express mention of Spirits and Angels in them, things that their dull Souls are so inclinable to conceit to be impossible—I look upon it as a special piece of Providence, that there are ever and anon such fresh Examples of Apparitions and Witchcraft as may rub up and awaken their benumbed and lethargic Minds into a suspicion at least, if not assurance that there are other intelligent Beings beside those that are clad in heavy Earth or Clay, in this I say, methinks the divine Providence does plainly outwit the Powers of the dark Kingdom, permitting wicked men and women, and vagrant Spirits of that Kingdom to make Leagues or Covenants one with another, the Confession of Witches against their own Lives being so palpable an Evidence, besides the miraculous Feats they play, that there are bad Spirits, which will necessarily open a door to the belief that there are good ones, and lastly that there is a God.

Wherefore let the small Philosophick Sir-Foplings of this present Age deride them as much as they will, those that lay out their pains in committing to writing certain well attested Stories of Witches and Apparitions, do real service to true Religion and sound Philosophy, and the most effectual and accommodate to the confound of Infidelity and Atheism, even in the Judgment of the Atheists themselves, who are as much afraid of the truth of those Stories as an Ape is of a Whip, and therefore force themselves with might and main to disbelieve them, by reason of the dreadful consequence of them as to themselves. The wicked fear where no fear is, but God is in the Generation of the Righteous, and he that fears God and has his Faith in Jesus Christ, need not fear how many Devils there be, nor be afraid of himself or of his Immortality, and therefore it is nothing but a foul dark Conscience within, or a very gross and dull constitution of Blood that makes Men so averse from these truths.

source: "Dr. H. M. [Henry More] his Letter with the Postscript to Mr. J. G." [Joseph Glanvill]," in Joseph Glanvill, Sadducismus Triumphatus, or Full and plain evidence concerning witches and apparitions. (London: S. Lowndes, 1689): 26–27. Text modernized by author.

notorious trial in which the testimony of children about a mythical place known as Blakulla led to the execution of hundreds of individuals. In Blakulla, the children were alleged to have seen their friends and their friends' parents dancing and making merry with demons. In the midst of one of these panics, it was extremely dangerous to question the legitimacy of the threat. The assumption was that only a witch would try to dissuade the authorities from further interrogations. But when the accusations began to reach into the higher echelons of society, judges became a bit more scrupulous about the evidence they accepted to bring trials against those accused. As wives of mayors and other important officials came to be tarnished with accusations of practicing witchcraft, judges usually applied scrutiny to the evidence and in this way a particular witch-hunt ceased. In most places this process usually only took several weeks, and once a hunt had come to be discredited even those that had already been accused and condemned were often released.

The Decline of the Witch Trials.

Witch trials continued through the 1670s, but by the 1680s they were beginning to be abandoned by royal governments throughout Europe. While recent historical research has emphasized the importance of the intellectual repudiation of witchcraft among governing elites, there is no consensus among historians about what caused this repudiation. Four interrelated changes in beliefs, however, clearly contributed. First, by the second half of the seventeenth century, the doom and gloom that had contributed to social anxiety and panic during the first half of the century had given way to intellectual optimism. Intellectuals began to express faith in the human ability to understand and control nature. In part this newfound faith was based on scientific breakthroughs such as Newton's discovery of the law of gravity, but it also arose from the technological and economic advances of the time that were then making Europe into the most prosperous region on earth. The results of this optimism were a turning away from the fear that had gripped governments and communities concerning the imminence of Satan's rule over the earth. Second, there was a general and growing skepticism on the part of many thinking people about the existence of any sort of supernatural world, heaven and hell included. During the 1680s some writers like Joseph Glanvill (1636–1680) made vain attempts to try to keep the belief in witches and demons alive. In his Sadducismus Triumphatus he warned that a Christian could not give up the belief in magic and witchcraft without relinquishing faith in God. But such arguments were increasingly out-of-date in a world in which intellectuals were looking with suspicion upon the traditional notion that an invisible or supernatural plane of existence intersected with the earthly world in which human beings lived. Third, the Christian churches throughout Europe began to alter their ideas concerning witchcraft. Over the course of the seventeenth century a number of Protestant and Catholic churchmen dismissed the reality of witchcraft and the theory of a satanic conspiracy. This skepticism grew over time, even as an increasing number of church leaders throughout Europe called attention to the deceit, greed, and corruption of the trials and to the fact that many innocent people were being put to death by false accusations. A fourth shift in belief was the turn by governments toward secularism. By the 1660s, there was a growing reluctance on the part of authorities to embrace any explanation of social and political problems built upon religious beliefs. No longer did governments accept that famine or the plague was a reflection of God's wrath or the devil's ambitions. Instead, officials now assumed that there was a rational explanation for every problem and that these causes might be solved with rational solutions. So the response to famine, they argued, should be the importation of grain, while the appropriate response to plague was quarantine. The elite abandonment of belief in the reality of witchcraft was not mirrored within the popular classes. Rural communities continued to seek relief from social anxieties by identifying and burning witches, but when they made accusations, villagers found their initiatives blocked by government authorities that now cast a skeptical eye on such prosecutions. Thus, by the eighteenth century belief in magic and witchcraft had become one of the boundaries that distinguished high and low culture in Europe. Intellectuals now mocked folk culture for its belief in witches, demons, and spirits, beliefs that had once been shared by learned and unlearned alike. The rich and luxuriant spiritual world of Europe that had given rise to the witch trials' blood-letting became reflective of an older archaic world of superstitious belief.


Bengt Ankarloo and Gustav Hennigsen, eds., Early Modern Witchcraft: Centres and Peripheries (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990).

Brian Levack, The Witch Hunt in Early Modern Europe (New York: Longman, 1987).

Darren Oldridge, ed., The Witchcraft Reader (New York: Routledge, 2002).

Edward Peters, The Magician, The Witch, and the Law (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1978).

Lyndal Roper, Oedipus and the Devil: Sexuality and Religion in Early Modern Europe (London: Routledge, 1994).

G. Scarre, Witchcraft and Magic in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Europe (London: Macmillan, 1987).

Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971).