Witchcraft (magia, maleficium, incantatio ) may be defined as the practice of black magic, sorcery, or intercourse with evil spirits or demons in order, through supernatural aid, to accomplish evil of various kinds. Belief in the existence of demons and witches is deeply embedded in the mythology of antiquity and of the early Germans, and it received concrete expression in the acceptance of hobgoblins and vampires as actual creatures. The concept of the witch was later applied especially to women who, with the help of demons or the devil, wrought harm to men, animals, and property. The Mosaic Law had already condemned witchcraft as a crime to be punished by stoning to death.
The Witch. The German word Hexe occurs from the 13th century and is found first in the Alemanic area. The earliest Germanic words, hagazussa, Old English haegtesse (hedge woman), and Old High German zunrîte (mod. German, Zaunreiterin, fence rider) have been interpreted as taboo terms by scholars. While anthropophagy, according to Carolingian legislation [capitulatio de partibus Saxoniae (an. 785) 6; Monumenta Germaniae Historica: Capitularia (Berlin 1826) 1.26], was a characteristic trait of the striga and furia, the herbaria occupied herself with mixing poisons. The Germans ascribed to witches the power of causing storms and tempests. On the other hand, Italian witches seem to have occupied themselves rather with love spells. The complex image of the witch clearly bore the stamp of Oriental, Arabic, and Germanic ideas and rites. To this image was added the charge of heresy after people had been converted to Christianity and attacks against orthodoxy were associated with magic and witchcraft.
The Church and Witchcraft. Finally, in the eyes of the Church, witchcraft and soothsaying (divinatio, necromantia, sortilegium ) were regarded without distinction as constituting superstition (superstitio ). From the 9th to the 13th century the Church prosecuted witchcraft exclusively by means of ecclesiastical penalties. Meanwhile, it remained customary on the basis of synodal decrees going back to the 6th century to excommunicate magicians [Corpus iuris canonici, ed. E. Friedberg, (Graz 1955) C.26 q. 5 cc.6.9]. The Church originally, however, rejected completely the whole idea of the existence of witches (e.g., Canon episcopi, Abbot Regino of Prüm). Bishop burchard of worms, in his penitential Corrector et medicus (Patrologia latina, 140), labeled witches' riding, flying demons, and the ability of witches to turn into animals (e.g., cats and wolves) as superstitious notions. But after the idea of the reality of the demon world had won general recognition, and magic, because of its association with heterodoxy, was no longer treated as a delictum sui generis but was brought under the formal heading of heresy, a change in the attitude toward witchcraft became evident.
In the 13th century witchcraft became a crime that was associated with intercourse with the devil. The crimen magiae was now prosecuted also by secular law. In the course of the further development of procedure the papal inquisition formulated legal principles that became basic in the markedly increasing number of witch trials in the late Middle Ages. Through the punishment of witchcraft, in accord with both ecclesiastical and civil legislation, the offense in question and its punishment constituted an actual delictum mixti fori. Magic or witchcraft was prosecuted for the first time under German imperial law by the Treuga Heinrici (King henry vii, 1220–35) of 1224, and its punishment was placed at the discretion of the judge: heretici, incantatores, malefici… ad arbitrium iudicis pena debita punientur [Monumenta Germaniae Historica: Constitutiones (Berlin 1826) 2.284]. The German law books of the 13th century demanded the death penalty for magicians. The Sachsen-spiegel of Eike of Repgow (c. 1225) and the Schwabenspiegel composed by an unknown Franciscan (c. 1275) threatened Christian magicians with burning at the stake.
The Witchcraft Delusion. At all levels of European society the witch obsession grew steadily stronger, especially since almost everywhere it found new support. The records of French witch trials in the 13th and 14th centuries already list many victims. Italian statutes of the 14th and 15th centuries prescribed fines, banishment, and fire for magicians and witches. When belief in demons began to assume truly epidemic proportions, Pope Innocent VIII (1482–92) issued his bull against witches, Summis desiderantes affectibus (1484), and ordered the Inquisition to investigate persons accused of practicing witchcraft. The Dominicans Henry Institoris and James Sprenger, making use of inquisitorial writings for the purpose (that of Nicholas Eymericus, 1320–99, among others), composed a commentary for court procedure, the notorious "Hammer of Witches" (Malleus maleficarum ) of 1487. This work exercised a long and marked influence on forensic practice. Denunciation and torture governed procedure. Ordeals, witches' trials, and sympathetic measures were all employed to obtain evidence. For the penal treatment of witchcraft in the Holy Roman Empire of the German nation the Constitutio criminalis Carolina (CCC) of the Emperor Charles V in 1532 was decisive (art. 109). However, it still restricted burning at the stake as a penalty; it was to be used only for the practice of harmful or black magic.
The great witch prosecutions increased rapidly in the first half of the 15th century, reached their climax in the first third of the 16th, and petered out c. 1700. No one was safe from prosecution. Witchcraft came to embrace a wide field, and interpretation favored the accuser. Catholic territories emulated Evangelical areas in putting down the presumed crime. Even the leading Reformers were not immune to belief in witches. The witch craze and witch burning were not limited to a single religion, or to any one nationality, or to Europe. The mixed clerical-secular criminal trials manifest themselves rather as phenomena typical of their age in the general history of law.
Moreover, well-defined centers of witch prosecution arose. During the entire 15th century France was in the grip of the witch plague. The French victims of the late 16th century often confessed that they were guilty of lycanthropy. In 1641 ordeal by water was abolished on order of the Parlement of Paris, but even in 1670 there were severe witch prosecutions in Rouen and Normandy. In Spain the burning of witches did not begin prior to the 16th century, but in the 17th century the tribunal of Toledo alone handled 151 witch cases. Condemnation to the galleys or imprisonment for life were frequent penalties. In the magic and astrology of the Iberian Peninsula, Arabic ideas were especially active beside the ancient traditions. Italian trials of the 15th and 16th centuries frequently ended with the imposition of the death penalty on the accused. In England the witch trials and condemnations in Essex (1576) aroused the whole country. Parliament in 1604 passed the famous English statute against witches. Even as late as 1716 a woman was executed as a witch at Huntingdon; in Scotland the last execution on this charge took place in 1722. Under Calvin's influence
the persecution of witches spread first through the Romansch cantons of Switzerland. In Russia the death penalty and mutilation for witchcraft were still practically unknown in the 11th century, but belief in witches developed rapidly there later. Even in the 19th century Russian peasants murdered supposed witches. The Polish Parliament forbade witch trials in 1776. In Denmark there were numerous witch trials between 1572 and 1652; in 1670 in the Danish area of Mora alone 22 death sentences were imposed on women. Distant Iceland burned a man at the stake for magic in 1685. The witch craze reached America toward the end of the 17th century and a number of persons were executed for witchcraft, especially at Salem, Massachusetts.
In 1623 Pope Gregory XV (1621–23), by his constitution Omnipotentis, commanded that persons who had made a pact with the devil (pactum cum diabolo ) or who had practiced malicious or black magic (maleficium ) that had caused the death of another, should be surrendered
to the secular court (curia secularis ) and be given the death penalty. If the action of the evildoer did not result in the death of another, he should atone for his crime by imprisonment for life. In Germany, where there was much suffering from witch persecutions, especially during the Thirty Years' War, the last witch trials were conducted at Würzburg in 1749, at Endingen in 1751, and at Kempten in 1775. Leading advocates of witch prosecution were Jean Bodin, Peter Binsfeld, and Benedikt carpzov. Among the chief opponents were the Catholics Adam tanner, Paulus laymann, Ferdinand sterzinger, Nicolas malebranche, and, above all, the Jesuit Friedrich von spee [Cautio criminalis contra sagas (Rintelen 1631)], and the Protestants Balthasar Bekker, Lambert Daneau, and Christian Thomasius.
Evaluation. The witch trial was clearly a typical legal procedure in which torture was employed to prevail over the demons or ghosts who had taken possession of the accused. The prosecution or persecution of witches cannot be evaluated correctly on the basis of dramatic and tendentious literature on the theme. The phenomenon must be judged exclusively from the perspective of men afflicted with superstition and in the light of its concrete historical environment. The critic should not ignore the important fact that, despite great progress in the natural sciences, a propensity for the occult has not been completely excluded from the mind of contemporary man.
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"Witchcraft." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 17, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/witchcraft
"Witchcraft." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Retrieved August 17, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/witchcraft