History and the Witch Hunts

For most people, the witch hunts provide one of the most powerful testimonies of the evils of institutional religion and specifically the Christian Church. According to the popular image of the witch hunts, this was the time when a powerful Christian church kept humanity in ignorance and superstition, exercising a tyranny over intellectual life that saw hundreds of thousands, if not millions of innocent women sent to the stake. It was a campaign of intolerance against indigenous, pre-Christian religions, which were unjustly misrepresented and viciously attacked by the church’s bureaucracy. Through the Inquisition and its manuals, like the notorious Malleus Maleficarum, the Church blocked scientific investigation and progress, keeping humanity in mental world of superstition and magic. The Roman Catholic Church was responsible for persecuting innocent people as witches in the Middle Ages. After the Reformation, they were succeeded in bigotry and superstition by the Puritans, whose scientific ignorance and religious intolerance resulted in the brutal reign of Matthew Hopkins, the infamous ‘witchfinder general’ in Cromwellian England, and the horror of the Salem witch hunt in New England.

Now the witch hunts certainly were a brutal period in European and American history. The vast majority of Christians today rightly regard the use of violence, torture and execution to enforce religious conformity abhorrent, and the savage persecution of the vast majority of the accused deserves its condemnation. Unfortunately, the Satanism scare of a few years ago and repeated persecution of suspected witches in parts of Africa demonstrates that the mythology of the malevolent witch is still very much alive today, and needs to be combatted by people of humanity and decency, regardless of their religious beliefs or lack thereof. Nevertheless, amongst the true horrors of the witch hunts there are serious distortions and exaggerations, perpetuated by 19th century radical, secularist and Neo-pagan journalists and historians with an anticlerical and antichristian agenda. The result is a view of the witch hunts and the Middle Ages that often sharply varies from the reality. It’s view that needs to be tackled and rebutted.

Middle Ages Not Totally Period of Superstition

Firstly, historians today are increasingly critical of the idea of the Middle Ages as a period of superstition and credulity. The secular French historian, Jean Claude Bologne, has pointed out that most of the spell books date from the 16th – 19th centuries. 1 For Bologne, the goal of the medieval intellectuals was, above all, to find the ‘tricks’ concealed behind miracles, and represent as ‘natural’, what appears to violate the laws of nature. No one is more sceptical of a miracle than a theologian. 2 The Scottish historian of magic, P.G. Maxwell-Stuart, notes that the Middle Ages was a period of intense intellectual challenge and change. The Middle Ages, ‘popularly regarded as something of a stagnant entity, was in fact a millennium of the most intense waves of challenge beating with frequent violence upon the supposedly settled shores of religious, intellectual, and political orthodoxy.’ 3 It was a period when universities and monastic schools were founded, the created universe was examined a constant sense of curiosity and awe, and Arabic, Hebrew and Greek learning entered Europe through Latin translations ‘to leaven the intellects of Europe and produce fresh ideas, fresh theories, and fresh interpretations of everything, theological or temporal: an ebullience which makes the notion of a ‘superstitious’ Middle Ages misleading at best and nonsensical at worse.’ 4 Indeed, Maxwell-Stuart points out that the medieval worldview could be described as ‘sceptical’, though not in the modern sense. The universe was understood and examined in relation to God, with history as the continuing narrative of humanity’s relationship with the Lord. This examination of the nature of the cosmos involved doubt, both because of the liability of the individual to error, and because the nature of the universe was such that it could produce misunderstanding, illusions and deceit. The medieval project to understand the operation and meaning of the cosmos in relation to God, and thus allow humanity to transcend history and approach God ‘is perfectly rational.’ 5

The idea that the Middle Ages was a period of superstition and ignorance, represented by the Roman Catholic Church, in contrast to the modern, forward-looking and ‘rational’ age, was the product of the 18th century French radical philosophes. It has persisted because it assumes that the historical process is one of progress from primitivism to sophistication, with the present age one of comfortable sophistication. 6 It was buttressed by 19th century romantic historical novels and early 20th century anthropology, which were strongly influenced by Darwinism and imperial and racial assumptions of natural hierarchy. These also created the image of a quaint, superstitious peasantry, liable to be awed by the technological inventions that the more sophisticated upper classes took in their stride.7 Indeed, the notion that humanity has moved from magic through religion to science has for many scholars been thoroughly discredited because the three have at times been indistinguishable and all of them have been found in varying degrees of sophistication in societies ranging from the primitive to the modern. 8

Idea of Medieval Witch Hunts the Product of 19th Century Anticlericalism

Much of the idea that the witch hunts were the product of Roman Catholic superstition was produced by 19th century liberal historians like Jules Garinet in France and Henry Scott Lea in America. Their approach was influenced and informed by an optimistic belief in scientific progress and human rationality. ‘Emotionally committed to liberalism and viewing the Church as an obstacle in the road of progress, they reject the possibility of there being any real currents of witch belief and practice and insist that not the witches, but the inquisitors invented witchcraft.’ 9 The most influential scholar of this view was Lea, who was an historian of the Inquisition. He was followed by Andrew Dickson White, the president of Cornell University partly responsible for the myth of the war of science with religion. White considered that ‘witches were unfortunate wretches blamed by superstitious Catholicism for natural disasters like storms for which White knew the true, scientific, explanations.’ 10

The history of witchcraft and the witch hunts has also suffered from the false claims of 19th century radical journalists and social campaigners like Jules Michelet in France and the American feminist campaigner, Matilda Joslyn Gage. Michelet, in his 1862 book, La Sorciere, viewed the medieval witch cult as an egalitarian peasant religion of nature in which women were natural healers, enchantress and the guardians of the cult’s ancient secrets. These witches were heroic rebels against the brutality of an oppressive, feudal hierarchy and the misogynist Roman Catholic church. 11 This view was taken up and embellished by Gage in the 1890s. She saw the medieval witch cult as the remnant of ancient, matriarchal religion that venerated Mother Earth. 12 This cult was suppressed by the Roman Catholic church, which reinforced male domination by removing the cult’s female healers and priestesses. 13 It was Gage who invented the figure of the supposed nine million people executed for witchcraft. 14

Ancient Origins of Belief in Witches

In fact the Middle Ages experienced relatively few witch hunts. ‘Fear of it permeates folklore of all periods, but it was not until the late 15th century that it was perceived in Europe as a threat grave enough to require systematic prosecution.’ 15 Witches, and the belief in magic existed long before Christianity. A large amount of surviving Hittite literature is magical, and black magic was treated in Hittite law as a crime in the same category as assault and battery. 16 The Twelve Tables of Roman traditional law treated the recitation of a malum carmen – an evil spell – as a criminal offence. 17 Roman literature contains a number of witches and descriptions of witchcraft. Horace in his Epodes describes the horrific murder of a child by witches. While the incident is fictional, and may have been intended as part of a propaganda campaign against witches by the pagan Roman emperor Augustus, nevertheless there were witches working clandestinely in the Roman slums. 18

Medieval Scepticism of Witchcraft

While the early Christians certainly believed in the existence of demons, and believed they were active in the world, there was considerable scepticism about human witches. Saint Augustine stated that while demons were able to change their shapes, humans could not and God does not grant power to demons to change things from one form into another. When this occurred, it was merely an illusion. 19 The ritual masquerades held in honour of Diana on the 1st of January, in which some people believed that they had really been transformed into animals, was viewed as irrational by some clerical writers. Observing them, Caesarius of Heisterbach declared ‘What rational person could believe that he would find men of sound mind who would wish to change themselves into a stag or other wild beast?’ 20 The Pactus Alamannorum, the law code of the Alamanni tribe of southern Germany, of 613-623 punished wrongful accusations of witchcraft against innocents with a fine, and prohibited the seizing and harming of witches by individuals. The Frankish king Rothari, in an edict of 643, prohibited the burning of women for the crime of cannibalism as the crime was impossible. 21 The capitulary – the governmental order – issued by the Frankish emperor Charlemagne for Saxony of 775-790 strictly prohibited violence against innocents suspected of witchcraft: ‘If anyone, deceived by the Devil, believes after the manner of the pagans that any man or woman is a witch and eats men, and if on this account he burns (the alleged witch) or gives her flesh to be eaten or eats it, he shall be punished by capital sentence.’ 22 Here the belief in witches is treated as a pagan superstition, the result of Satanic delusion. Nevertheless, belief in magic was strong and punishments could be harsh. King Alfred the Great in England punished witchcraft with the death penalty. However, the Carolingians in France and Visigoths in Spain, although passing harsh legislation against witchcraft, tended to treat it in much the same way as other harmful crimes against people and property. 23 The church penitentials of the seventh to ninth centuries mostly punished black magic, incantations and idolatry with penances for three years. 24

Medieval witchcraft appears to have emerged from a mixture of the belief in night-flying, malignant spirits – the striga and lamia of the Romans; that certain people were able to leave their homes at night to join the wild ride with the spirits of the dead across the world under the leadership of Diana, Herodias or Holda, a witch of Germanic folklore; and the activities of Christian heretical sects, such as the Cathars and Waldensians, that were accused of holding orgies presided over by a demon or the Devil himself. 25

Nevertheless, the early medieval legislation against witchcraft was sceptical of the existence of night-flying witches. The Canon Episcopi, published by Regino of Prum in 906 and the Corrector of Burchard of Worms, considered the belief that certain women left their homes at night to fly across the Earth following the Greek goddess Diana, to be deluded by the Devil and urged parish clergy to act against them and their delusion. 26 This scepticism continued into the 12th century, when John of Salisbury, who believed in the reality of magic, repeated the comments about the night ride of with Herodias and Diana as a delusion, and viewed the idea of shapeshifting as a similar demonic illusion. 27 There has been an attempt by some historians to claim that Thomas Aquinas was responsible for spreading the mythology of the existence of witches that supported the persecutions of the Inquisition. In fact, Aquinas views were entirely traditional. While he firmly believed in the existence of demons and magic, he believed that demons could only act with God’s permission. Magicians implicitly formed a pact with the demons they invoked, but he doubted that anyone had ever made a pact face to face with a demon, like Faust. He similarly saw the night flight as illusory, and while he believed that there were demons who had sex with people, he did not consider this to occur during the orgies supposedly held by witches. ‘The great scholastic can in no way be held responsible for the witch phenomenon except in the general sense that the Aristotelian system he used was conducive to support of the craze that was beginning to grow.’ 28 Some intellectuals remained sceptical In the 15th century, for example, the author of a treatise on witchcraft written in Cologne considered that some of the illusions ascribed to demons were really the entirely natural product of disturbed minds. Antonio Guaineri, the author of a medical treatise that briefly considered witchcraft, stated that the incubus who supposedly had sex with sleeping women was psychological in origin, caused by some kind of physiological disorder. 29 Medieval medicine considered that nightmares were sometimes due to the pressure of the stomach on the heart, particularly after a heavy meal. This blocked the healthy flow of the vital spirit that animated the body through the nerves, thus causing nightmares. 30 While this explanation has been thoroughly discredited by modern medicine, nevertheless it demonstrates that alongside the theological discussion of witchcraft there was a tradition of scientific research that also considered non-supernatural explanations. Nicholas of Cusa considered people who confessed to witchcraft to be merely mad. 31 Nicholas Oresme certainly believed demons were active in the world and followed by witches. However, this was rare, and confessions of witchcraft should be treated with scepticism because they were obtained through torture or the threat of torture. 32

Societal Factors in the Expansion of Belief in Witches

Despite this tradition of scepticism, the belief in witches expanded. The church acted to counter this perceived threat from heresy and witchcraft with the foundation of the Inquisition by Gregory IX after the end of the Albigensian Crusade in 1229. 33 Along with the theological and philosophical reasons for the growth of belief in witches in their powers were economic, political and sociological factors that created a sense of crisis in medieval civilisation and society, a sense of threat that sought a solution to the strains of contemporary civilisation in the attempt to identify and destroy an obvious source of the threat. In the case of medieval culture, this was witches. However, contemporary scholars have remarked that societies under stress and rapid change generally become intolerant, and seek out or invent clandestine conspiratorial groups that are perceived to be a threat to society. A. Rebecca Cardozo, in her comparison of the similarities between the medieval and McCarthyite witch hunts, has stated that

‘Social, political, economic and religious upheaval makes a society especially vulnerable to a craze. In an atmosphere of confusion and uncertainty, people become intolerant towards change; and it is primarily social, political and religious intolerance that provides the initial impetus for a craze.’ 34

Historians of medieval witchcraft like Jeffrey Burton Russell have recognised the role social change and dislocation played in creating the belief in witches and the witch hunts. From the 11th century onwards Europe experienced marked economic and societal change, marked by a growth in population, the rise of the towns, the development of trade and industry. These changes resulted in religious and spiritual change, such as the stress on apostolic poverty, heresy, and reforming movements within the monastic orders and Church hierarchy. ‘These changes caused a break in the sense of community, a break causing anonymity and alienation.’ 35 These changes were exacerbated by the plagues and famines, including the Black Death, which destroyed nearly a third of the European population, in the 14th century, and the wars and rebellions of the 15th. The change from the use of serf labour, bound to the aristocratic manor, and the movement of the population away from the villages to the towns changed the structure of the medieval family. The extended family of uncles, aunts and cousins was replaced by the nuclear family of parents, children and possibly grandparents. The result of this was the increased isolation of the elderly when the rest of the family moved away in search of work. ‘Abandoned, the old people were prey to anxieties and fears that might cause them to adopt witchcraft or at least drive them to eccentric behaviour that could cause them to be considered witches.’ 36 Sociologists studying the Satanism scare of the 1990s also noted the profound effect economic decline and family breakdown also had in generating rumours of the vile activities of suspected Satanic groups. The rumour-panic of Satanic crimes took place firstly in the American ‘rust belt’, such as western New York and northwestern Pennsylvania where industries that traditionally paid good wages were disappearing, leaving unemployment and anxiety. 37 Similarly, the stable family structure that provided emotional support, problem solving and financial help has similarly suffered disintegration due to changing economic circumstances and social roles. The result has been a rise in marriage breakdowns and parent-child conflicts, as well as teenage drug abuse, and single parent families in the small town and rural communities in which the Satanism scare first emerged. 38 Thus economic and social stresses, and strains and breakdown in the family, can produce the anxieties leading to witchcraft scares both in the Middle Ages and in today’s technological, industrial society.

Torture and Burning of Witches Partly Based on Secular Law

The view of the medieval Inquisition as the primary cause of the accusations of witchcraft has been extensively critiqued. Historians have challenged the idea that the Inquisition was more brutal in its methods than other contemporary courts, including secular tribunals. The adoption of torture and burning for the interrogation and punishment of heretics and witches is a problem for the view of history that considers societies progress from superstition and brutality to enlightenment and humanity. The early Church, for example, strongly opposed torture, and it was also opposed by the papacy, including popes such as Gregory the Great and Nicholas I. It was illegal under Canon Law until the 13th century. It was adopted by the Church following the practice of secular courts and the rediscovery of Roman law, which had provided for torture as part of judicial proceedings. 39 Thus, the rediscovery of part of the classical heritage, which also provided the basis for the modern constitutional state, was also responsible for the reintroduction of torture into European law.

Although the first fully attested burning of heretics was of those of Orleans in 1022, it was unusual and not provided for in most law codes. While it had a theological base in the purifying fire mentioned in the Bible, Greeks, Teutons and Romans had also used it as a punishment for certain offences. It may have been introduced as a replacement for the trial by ordeal, condemned by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. 40 It was adopted by the Church after it was established as the punishment for heresy by secular European rulers. It entered canon law following the endorsement of the German emperor Frederick II’s adoption of it as the punishment for heresy by popes Honorius III, Gregory IX and the Council of Toulouse. 41

Brutality of 16th century Inquisition Exaggerated

While the operation and procedures of the medieval Inquisition have rightly been condemned, historians have also suggested that, following the reforms of the bull Licet ab initio of July 1542, the Inquisition included many aspects of modern criminal law. 42 In trials under Roman jurisdiction, depositions were made under oath to exclude loose accusations. Individuals testifying were required to provide the names of people whom they considered their enemies, in order to prevent charges caused by personal grudges. Although the names of the prosecuting witness were withheld from the defendant and his attorney, nevertheless records of the proceedings were supplied to the accused and his lawyers so that they could prepare a proper defence. Torture was allowed, but its use was restricted and strictly supervised. Physicians were called on to testify that the illness affecting the bewitched victim was the result of natural causes, rather than magic. The Inquisitors did not look for the Devil’s mark supposedly left on the bodies of the witches by Satan, and the testimony of witnesses with poor reputations could not lead to the defendant’s torture. Witches also were not sent to the stake for a first offence if they showed signs of genuine repentance. 43 Furthermore, the accused were allowed a defence attorney, extrajudicial confessions were not valid, and the system allowed appeals to a higher court. There was considerable leniency to first offenders, and long before the civil authorities used imprisonment as a punishment rather than just for custody of the accused during the trial this was the procedure taken by the Inquisition. In some respects Inquisitorial law was remarkably modern. ‘A sentence to life imprisonment by the Holy Office meant, as it does today, parole after a few years, subject to good behaviour; and hose arrest, joined to work-release programmes, tentatively being considered at present by some our more progressive, communities, was a common form of penal service practised by the Inquisition in its day.’ 44

Concern for Reputation of Accused

Inquisitiors were well aware of their duty to protect people’s reputation from harm caused by wrongful accusations. Eliseo Masini, in his manual Sacro Arsenale, stated that ‘great prudence must be exercised in the jailing of suspects because the mere fact of incarceration for teh crime of heresy brings notable infamy to the person. Thus it will be necessary to study carefully  the nature of the evidence, the quality of the witnesses and the condition of the accused.’ 45

Inquisitors’ Relative Scepticism towards Witchcraft

The Inquisitors were also relatively sceptical in their attitude towards witchcraft, a fact that saved Italy from the extremely savage witch hunts elsewhere in Europe. Masin stated that

 ‘In prosecuting suspected witches the inquisitor must not reach the point of incarceration, inquisition or torture until the corpus delicti is judicially established. The presence of sickness in a man or the presence of a corpse in themselves do not constitute adequate evidence, since infirmity and death do not need to be connected to acts of witchcraft but can rsult from a large number of natural causes. The first step, therefore, is to question the physician who attended the patient.’ 46

Indeed, the Holy Office itself acted to suppress a witchcraft panic in Florence that had resulted in gross miscarriages of justice by the secular authorities. The Holy Office declared that ‘these matters are extremely fallacious, and, as daily experience demonstrates, much more real in the imagination of men than in the reality of events; too often every illness whose cause is not immediately discernible, or whose remedy is not readily available is attributed to malefice.’ 47

The testimony of witches was considered unreliable as the basis for the prosecution of others. Judges were specifically instructed not to believe the testimony of witch that named other people they had supposedly met at the Sabbat, as witches did not physically travel to them but only in their imaginations and illusions inspired by the Devil. 48 After the initial interrogation, if the accused had not cleared himself or been pronounced guilty, they were given a record of the entire trial to allow them to prepare their defence. They were allowed to call friend witnesses, who were to be given travel expenses by the court if they came from distant parts and the accused was too poor to afford their expenses. 49. The accused was to be provided with a lawyer if he stated that he needed legal help. He was asked to supply the names of three lawyers, one of which would be selected to represent him by the court. 50 If the defendant was too poor to afford a lawyer, one was to be provided for them. 51 This situation compares extremely favourably with secular courts. Defence lawyers were excluded from the secular legal codes promulgated by the emperor Charles V in 1532 and in France by the Ordinance of Villers-Cotterets of 1539. In England the accused in criminal trials, except those involving treason, were denied legal defence until the Prisoners Counsel Bill of 1836. 52

Strict Controls on Use of Torture 

The use of torture was rigidly controlled. It could only be applied after the defendant had presented their case and the evidence was compelling. The decision to apply it was not the inquisitor’s alone. He had to seek the opinion of the consultori, a permanent advisory committee of six lawyers and theologians that sat on every inquisitorial court. In particularly difficult cases, the evidence was supplied to Rome, with the testimony in the words of the witnesses and the accused themselves in the vernacular and not in specially prepared Latin translations used by the court. If these sanctions were not observed, the evidence obtained under torture would be thrown out of court. 53 Torture was only to be used on people who could stand it. When a physician testified that the prisoner could not endure it, it was not used. 54 The usual method of torture was to tie the accused’s hands behind their back, draw them up to the ceiling and then drop them. Mercifully, sessions of this horrific abuse tend to last only half an hour. The maximum permitted length of time was an hour. 55 A confession obtained by this method was only considered valid if it was ratified outside the torture chamber 24 hours later. 56 Sentences were closely scrutinised by the Vatican, and commuted and cases reopened where irregularities were detected. 57

Relatively Humane Punishment of Offenders

As today, when the complaint is often that ‘life imprisonment’ really means only a few years, the formal language used for sentences may exaggerate their severity. Carcere perpetuo – perpetual prison – actually meant only three years, provided the accused repented. Carcere perpetuo irrimissible actually meant an eight-year sentence. 58 Immuratio, which meant true life imprisonment, actually meant confinement in a room with four walls, rather than being walled up alive. 59 Sentences included imprisonment in a monastery, house arrest, or confinement to a particular area that could range from a village to a city or contado. Elderly wage-earners with modest incomes, large families and daughters of marriageable age and witches whose husbands would take them back were generally assigned back to their homes and shop. 60

Regarding conditions in the prisons of the Holy Office in the Palazzo Pucci, cells were spacious and well-lit, with a bed, table, sheets and towels. There was a barber, bathing facilities, laundry service and mending. Prisoners were allowed a change of clothing twice a week. They were required to appear before the Holy Office to state their material needs and the cardinals were expected to inspect the prisons. On the other hand, prisoners could only read and write about their immediate cases, and could not talk privately with their gaolers or use them to communicate with the outside world. 61 Clergy certainly were not exempt from prosecution, and the Church dealt with them more severely than lay people. 62 While sentences could include the horros of the galleys, there was the possibility of commutation of the sentence even there. 63 Most sentences, however, consisted of public humiliations, such as public abjurations read on the cathedral steps on Sundays and feast days; penances, fines paid to charities, and a cycle of prayers and devotions to be said for months or years. 64

Capital punishment was rare, and reserved for the unrepentant, those with a previous sentence for heresy and those who attempted to overturn central Christian doctrines such as the Virgin Brith and the full divinity of Christ. 65 Only 97 people were executed by the Holy Office in Rome for the period 1542 to 1761. 66 While that’s clearly 97 too many, it ‘s far from the millions suggested by some individuals. John Tedeschi, an historian of the 16th century Inquisition, has concluded that

‘It is impossible to condone coercion, the stake, and the other horrors perpetrated in the name of religion during the Reformation era. They were employed both by the Inquisition and by almost all other judicial bodies in Europe. In the sixteenth century they were an unquestioned part of legal proceedings. But I believe that future research will show that they were used less frequently, wtih greater moderation, and with a higher regard for human rights and life in the tribunals of the Holy Office than elsewhere. Scepticism and incredulity in regard to witchcraft invaded Roman legal circles early in teh seventeenth century, at a time when the lands north of the Pyrenees and the Alps remained in the grip of a witch-hunting mania. It was a modest step towards sanity, and a glimmer of hope at the end of a dark tunnel.’ 67

Lack of Officially Motivated Witch Hunts in England

There were also very few witch trials in England during the Middle Ages and sixteenth, seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Most accusations came from quarrels between members of the minor gentry or people in the lower ranks of society. There was no pressure from the central authorities in church or state to prosecute witches. Although James I in 1604 punished magic and witchcraft with death, in practice the trials focussed on the alleged harm done through magic rather than the use of magic itself. Witches were also believed to operate singly or in small groups, so that there was little pressure on witches to incriminate others. 68 Moreover, torture was not used in England, though witches could be kept awake to force a confession. They were also commonly thrown into rivers to see if they would float, as it was believed that water would reject a witch, as a mark of their guilt. As a result of this relative leniency in England, the number of people executed for witchcraft estimated by historians has fallen from ‘under 1000’ to ‘under 500’. Most witches were acquitted. Of the 513 people charged in the Home Assize Circuit between 1559 and 1736 – the date when the Witchcraft Acts were repealed – 200 were convicted and 109 hanged. Again, it’s still far too many, but it’s not quite the vast numbers suggested by some ideas about the prevalence of superstition and fear in England during this period. 69 In many cases, the accused were able to clear themselves through simple compurgation – formally swearing to their innocence with a group of friends and relatives – at the episcopal court. Of the eight women charged with witchcraft in Somerset in England before Bishop Still in 1594, three were dismissed after successfully swearing their innocence, even though one of these was unable to provide the full number of compurgators. One failed to provide any compurgators at all, but was dismissed one and a half years later as her neighbours testified she was not suspected. The one person who was suspect of having killed someone by magic was handed over to be tried by the local justice of the peace. ‘Generally speaking, all seem to have been sympathetically treated.’70

Puritans Not Opposed to Science and Not Wholly Responsible for Witch Hunts

Similarly, the image of the Puritans as enemies of science also has a highly questionable basis in history. Historians have pointed out that Puritanism and the new, emerging experimental science shared a common anti-authoritarianism, optimism about human possibilities, rational empiricism  and the emphasis on experience. They were considered to be intrinsically compatible, to the extent that many anti-Puritan contemporaries strongly identified them with the New Philosophy. 71 The image of the Puritans as hostile to the new learning was due to anti-Puritan polemicists, such as the Royal Society’s apologist, Thomas Sprat. 72 Rather being opposed to science and learning, the Puritans generally staunchly supported it. They were the main supporters of the new science before the Restoration of the English monarchy, and strongly influenced the next generation. 73 The prosecution of witches in England during the 16th and 17th century was not a particular product of Puritanism. While it was said that Hopkins was the son of a Puritan minister, and he claimed to have a commission from the government to seek out witches, he is not known to have had any positive encouragement from the central government or any particular sectarian religious views. 74 Hopkins appears instead to have merely taken advantage of the breakdown in central government during the Civil War/ War of the Three Kingdoms. His colleague John Stearne was a Puritan, but the only evidence of Puritan sympathies was a passing remark, possibly by Hopkins, that when the Devil married witches he used the Anglican ceremony in the Book of Common Prayer. 75 Hopkins himself was not popular, and indeed encountered considerable opposition from the clergy and the judiciary. He did not dare to visit Great Staughton in Huntingdonshire after the vicar there, John Gaule, preached a particularly vehement sermon against witchfinders in April 1646. His book, Discovery of Witches, was published in self-defence after he was questioned by the Norfolk Assize judges. 76 He was ordered to stop the ordeal of floating witches in 1645, and retired in 1646. 77

Political and Social Pressures Producing Salem Witch Hunt

Similarly the view of some historians that the murderous witch hunt at Salem was due to authoritarianism, pietism, revelation, dogma and moralism overriding reason and logic in New England Puritanism, this view has also been challenged. 78 There were strong sociological pressures operating in Massachusetts to produce the general anxiety that promotes the development of witch hunts. The British government had attempted to establish the Anglican Church and appoint the governor, as well as extending the franchise to the propertied members of every Protestant denomination. These measures not only attacked the basis of the Puritan theocracy, but also the tradition of self-government by which the colony had been appointing its own governors since its foundation fifty years previously. 79 The colonies were also at war with the French and there was unrest amongst the Indians. Taxes had been increased to intolerable levels and the colony had suffered from attacks by pirates and small pox. 80 It has also been suggested that the colony had lost its social cohesion in the face of the external threat of the American wilderness as this had retreated with extension of the frontier. 80 Despite this, the New England Puritans were strongly committed to science and reason. Amongst Cotton Mather’s works is The Christian Philosopher, in which science is used to illustrate Christian morality. Gravity, for example, provided Mather with profound experimental evidence of God’s operation in the world.

‘I am continually entertained with weighty body, or matter tending to the center of gravity; or attracted by matter. I feel it in my own. The cause of this tendency, ’tis the glorious GOD! Great GOD, Though givest this matter such a tendency; Thou keepest it in its operation! There is no other cause for gravity, but the will and work of the glorious GOD. I am now effectually convinced of that ancient confession, and must effectuously make it, ‘He is not far from everyone of us.’ 81

In fact the colonists had attempted to use science to examine the case. The supposedly bewitched girls who made the accusations were examined by the town physician, Dr. Griggs, who tried his remedies and consulted his medical texts. Unable to find a non-supernatural explanation, Grigg concluded that their condition was outside the realm of science and that in his view they were bewitched. ‘Given the stage of medical knowledge at the time, this was not an unreasonable assumption.’ 82 The credibility of the girls’ accusation depended on the acceptance of ‘spectral evidence’ – their testimony that they were being tormented by spirits and had supernaturally witnessed those they accused active in their magic. This was controversial, and many Puritan ministers were strongly opposed to it. Increase Mather stated that ‘spectral evidence’ should not be used as the basis for convictions, and stated that ‘it were better that ten suspected witches should escape, than that one innocent person should be condemned…. It is better a guilty person should be absolved, than that he should without ground of conviction be condemned. I had rather judge a witch to be an honest woman, than judge an honest woman as a witch.’ 83 When the Massachusetts General Court called for a fast and a convocation of ministers to decide the best course of action over the accusations, 14 prominent Puritan ministers condemned the use of ‘spectral evidence’. 84 The credibility of the ‘spectral evidence’ was already strongly damaged by the sheer number and respectability of many of the accused. It was almost totally discredited when it was pointed out that in the Bible Satan had also appeared as the prophet Samuel. This would mean that if the visions the girls reported were not of the accused themselves, but of Satan in the guise of the accused, then the prosecution would have no case at all. As a result, the magistrates on the Supreme Court of Judicature refused to allow ‘spectral evidence’ except in marginal cases. The witch hunted ended with all except three of the 52 people tried acquitted. Those three were then issued with a reprieve by Governor Phips, who issued a general pardon for those still under suspicion and released the remaining prisoners from gaol. 85 In fact Puritans as a whole did not indulge in repression on a grand scale, and the Salem witch hunt was uncharacteristic of Puritan conduct. 86 The Salem witch hunt is therefore less the result of Puritanism than of 17th century attitudes to witchcraft generally, caused by a the girls’ behaviour that the science of the time could not explain.

Secular Courts also Involved in Prosecution of Witches

It was not only only the Inquisition and the episcopal courts that were active persecuting witches in the Middle Ages. Secular courts were also involved in trying witches long before the fifteenth century and to almost as great an extent. 87 The parlement of Paris, which supervised the enactment of French law, considered magic a civil crime, so that throughout the Middle Ages cases of sorcery were tried in the secular courts. Similar views prevailed in England, so that the accusations of witchcraft against Alice Perrers, the mistress of Edward III, were first made in parliament. 88

Existence of Magicians in Medieval Christian Society

While it is debatable whether the witch cult described by the inquisitors, theologians and legal authorities actually existed, historians have rejected the idea that it was a surival of paganism. If the evidence is to believed, it also appears that some of the heresies investigated by the Church came very close to witchcraft, such as the Luciferans of the 14th century, who appear to have worshipped the Devil. 89 There was also a clerical underworld of necromancy within the Church itself, which conjured and invoked spirits and demons to work magic. Medieval necromancy manuals include the Book of Consecrations and the Sworn Book, supposedly written by Honorius, son of Euclid of Thebes. 90 These manuals certainly contained destructive spells, such as to cause death or hatred between friends. Historians studying them have stated that the amoral and destructive aspects of these manuals can make one sympathetic to the inquisitors who condemned them. 91 Rather than these magicians constituting a separate, non-Christian faith persecuted by the Church, many of them appear to considered themselves Christians. The Sworn Book, for example, claimed that it was written to protect magic from persecution by the ecclesiastical hierarchy, which it considers were inspired by demons who wished to corrupt and conquer the entire universe. Both the Sworn Book and the Ars Notaria were largely Christian in their worldview, invoking the Holy Trinity and the Virgin Mary as well as angels, spirits and demons to accomplish its miracles. 92 If there were no witches as imagined by the inquisitors, there certainly were sorcerers and magicians, some of whom believed they had the power and materials to work black magic.

Opposition to Witch Hunts Based on Scriptural View of Witchcraft

The witch hunts stopped with the increase of scepticism towards magic and the presence of demons in the world. While a powerful source of the scepticism was the new materialist philosophy that denied the existence of incorporeal substances, this scientific view of witchcraft reinforced theological objections based on the Bible. Indeed, ‘the sceptical argument was not necessarily linked to any new assumptions about the natural world. On the contrary much of the debate was deliberately conducted within a framework of Protestant fundamentalism. The leading sceptical writers – Reginald Scot, Samuel Harsnet, Sir Robert Filmer, Thomas Ady, John Wagstaffe, John Webster, Francis Hutchinson – all urged that the ‘continental’ conception of witchcraft as devil-worship was unacceptable because it had no Biblical justification.’ 93 Sceptics of witchcraft like Webster argued that any belief regarding witches that could not be found in scripture was to be rejected. 94 The sceptics argued that the witches of the Old Testament had not been devil worshippers, but merely wizards and diviners. When they harmed their enemies, it was through poisons and other natural methods. Most of the were frauds who deserved punishment for their deceit, but not for the non-existent pacts they had made with Satan. The mythology of witchcraft, with nocturnal flights, pacts with the Devil and Sabbaths, was an invention. 95 The witch hunters had never stated that all misfortune was the product of witchcraft. Rather, witchcraft was only to be suspected after natural causes had been excluded. This raised the problem of how an exclusively supernatural cause for the affliction – witchcraft – could ever be identified. The London preacher, John Manningham, remarked on this in 1603. In 1697 the former Secretary for Scotland remarked that ‘the Parlements of France and other judicatories who are persuaded of the being of witches never try them now, because of the experience they have had that it is impossible to distinguish possession from nature in disorder; and they choose rather to let the guilty escape than to punish the innocent.’ 96

Decline of Prosecutions Not Due to Scepticism but Inability to Prove Charge

The judges and jurors who brought the witch trials to an end were, however, not necessarily sceptical of the existence of witches per se, but simply aware of the logical difficulties of proving it in a particular case. 96 Furthermore, the move away from the prosecution of witchcraft based on black magic to its prosecution on the basis of the supposed pact the witch made with the Devil, as stipulated by the 1604 Witchcraft Act, made the courts increasingly strict in the standards of proof demanded for prosecution. Proof of witchcraft was the existence of a familiar, the presence of the Devil’s mark and a confession from the witch that they had made a pact with the Devil. However, the suspect familiar could be merely an ordinary domestic animal, the Devil’s mark merely a natural excrescence and the confession a fantasy caused by melancholy. The severer view of witchcraft introduced by the 1604 legislation led to an increase in acquittals for witchcraft, as confessions could not be obtained without the use of torture as sanctioned on the continent. 98 Juries on witch trials could reject the charge of witchcraft on the grounds that the victim was a fraud, or suffering from a natural illness that could be identified by a better doctor. They also objected to charges of witchcraft on the grounds that, even if the disease was supernatural in origin, it could come directly from the Devil and not from the supposed witch. They would also acquit if it had not been proved that the witch was malicious towards the victim, or the witnesses for the prosecution were unreliable and when the supposed witch regularly went to church and had solid morals. Thus, ‘the mounting rate of acquittals was the work of tribunals which did not deny the possibility of witchcraft as such, but were perplexed by the impossibility of getting certain proof of it in any particular case.’ 99 Much of the scepticism towards witchcraft also came not from any change in worldview, but from personal experience of fraudulent accusations of witchcraft. The celebrated sceptic of witchcraft, Reginald Scot, took up the case against it because of the spate of fraudulent accusations he had personally seen in Kent. In France the prosecution of witches ceased after a series of scandals involving such fraud. 100 These included the notorious case of Marthe Brossier, who from 1598 to her arrest in April 1599 for fraud pursued a career travelling through France as a victim of demonic possession and being repeatedly exorcised and returned to her senses. Examined in prison, the doctors found her to be a fraud with a little genuine illness. 101

Christian Conception of Ordered Universe as Cause for Decline in Witch Hunts

Another major factor in the growth of scepticism towards witchcraft was the increasing philosophical and theological conception of the universe as regular and orderly. Although this view was considerably reinforced by the new, empirical science, it was also very much the product of theology, which saw God ordering the universe through natural causes that were accessible to the human intellect. 102 Thus witchcraft was impossible, according to the sceptic, John Webster, because it was ‘simply impossible for either the Devil of witches to change or alter the course that God hath set in nature’. 103 In some ways, this sixteenth and seventeenth century scepticism was similar to the scepticism of the early Middle Ages that rejected magic because only God could work miracles. Historians have also noted that much of the scepticism towards witchcraft actually derived not from philosophical materialism, but from the revival of Neo-Platonic natural magic that allowed the effects of black magic to be ascribed to a wider range of natural phenomena, such as action at a distance and the sympathy-antipathy laws connecting the microcosm to the macrocosm, than were available within the Aristotelian worldview. 104 Thus before the scientific revolution disenchanted the cosmos, sceptics of witchcraft like Webster could reject it because their conception of nature also included what would otherwise be considered the supernatural, such as astral spirits, satyrs, pygmies, mermaids and sea-monsters. 105

Humane Motives of Opponents of Witch Hunts including Christian Clergy

Much of the opposition to the witch hunts also came from people concerned about the way the fabric of their societies was being destroyed, and innocent people prosecuted and executed. The Jesuit Heinrich Turck of Paderborn remarked ‘Some people began to feel great sympathy for the unfortunate victims; and grave doubts were raised as to whether the many persons who perished in the flames were really guilty and deserving of so horrible a death. In fact, many people thought that this treatment of human beings, who had been bought with the precious blood of Christ, was cruel and more than barbaric’. 106 Thus much of the opposition to the witch hunts, at least as witnessed in Germany by Turck, came from Christian sympathy with the victims. Many of these opponents of the witch-hunts were members of the clergy. Francis Hutchinson, who later became bishop of Down, was motivated to write his Historical Essay concerning Witchcraft of 1718 after witnessing the condemnation and subsequent reprieve in 1712 of Jane Wenham of Hertfordshire. He visited her after her release, and was personally convinced of her piety and innocence. 107 

In Germany, the Jesuit priest similarly voiced his opposition to the witch hunts in his Cautio Criminalis of 1631. Spee had originally been a supporter of the witch hunts, until the Duke of Brunswick had a suspected witch tortured in his presence. The Duke of Brunswick vehemently condemned torture and had it outlawed throughout his territories. The suspected witch was deliberately tortured to demonstrate the horror of the process itself, and unreliability of the evidence obtained from it, so that she confessed not only to attending the Sabbath, but also seeing Spee and another priest there. According to her testimony, produced through this torture, Spee and his clerical companion had turned into animals and had sex with the other witches, who then gave birth to bizarre monsters. This shocked Spee so much that he reversed his support for the witch hunts and became an ardent opponent. 108

Conclusion: Witch Hunts Product of General Human Belief in Magic and Desire to Find Conspiratorial Source of Evil, in Middle Ages Elaborated but also Brought to End through Christian Theology

The use of force, torture, violence and execution to enforce religious or ideological conformity is indefensible. However, the medieval witch hunts were the product of a general belief in the power of magic to harm and kill that predated Christianity and which Christianity shared with other cultures. Witch hunting and the punishment of black magic was not confined to the Church, but occurred throughout society. While it is doubtful whether there ever were witches who actually worshipped the Devil, people, both lay and clergy, did use magic, real or imagined. The witch hunts of the High and later Middle Ages and 16th and 17th centuries were a response to the perception that witchcraft and magic were increasing and a real and ever-present threat, partly produced through societal, economic and intellectual pressures and strains. In this sense the medieval witch hunts were part of the same human psychological process that in modern, secular society saw lives and reputations destroyed through baseless accusations of a vast Communist conspiracy in the West, and in the Communist block of paranoid notions of vast conspiracies of capitalist and imperialist spies and saboteurs.

The witch hunters themselves were not necessarily scientifically illiterate, nor illogical. They were acting within the logic or their own worldview and scientific knowledge of the time. The perception of some of the religious groups commonly associated with witch hunting and religious bigotry as scientifically illiterate seems unfounded. The Puritans, for example, were strongly interested in science and actively involved in its promotion. As for the treatment of the accused, while the medieval Inquisition rightly deserves condemnation, its successor in the 16th century was far more humane and progressive in its treatment of those accused than most secular courts. It’s an horrific indictment of the 20th century that an accused witch probably received better treatment at the hands of the Holy Office in the 17th century than the millions tortured and butchered by murderous regimes of the Left and Right.

Finally, while the end of the witch hunts was greatly assisted by the rise of modern scientific scepticism, this was not the cause of the decline in the persecution of witches. From the early Middle Ages onwards there was a tradition of theological scepticism about witchcraft, based on the belief that only God could work miracles, and that any that appeared to be performed by demons were illusory. The Biblical scholarship of the 16th century convinced many theologians that the medieval ideas of witchcraft were unfounded, and that any witches who believed they could work magic were deluded. The belief in a regular, ordered cosmos that underpins modern science was the product of Christian theology, a theology that considered that it was impossible for the Devil to disrupt the operation of a such divinely established order. The prosecutions also failed through judges and jurors finding the evidence presented inadequate to support prosecutions, and an awareness of fraud by supposed victims and accusers. The opponents of witch hunting included Christian clergymen and lay people motivated by notions of Christian sympathy with the accused and theologically opposed to false and destructive notions of the power of magic and witchcraft. Thus while the witch hunts were a product of a religious desire to destroy real, supernatural forces in the world, their end was also due to a continuing tradition of theological scepticism about the ability of demons to affect God’s world and human sympathy with those so accused, often motivated by a sense of humanity and justice informed by Christianity.

Notes

1. Jean Claude Bologne, trans. Marta Jacober, Magie and Aberglaube im Mittelalter: von der Fackel zum Scheiterhaufen (Magic and Superstition in the Middle Ages: from the Torch to the Stake) (Dusseldorf, Patmos Verlag 2003), p. 8.

2. Bologne, Magie and Aberglaube, p. 9.

3. P.G. Maxwell-Stuart, ed. and trans. The Occult in Medieval Europe (Basingstoke, Palgrave MacMillan 2005), p. 5.

4. Maxwell-Stuart, The Occult, p. 5.

5. Maxwell-Stuart, The Occult, p. 6.

6. Maxwell-Stuart, The Occult, p. 1.

7. Maxwell-Stuart, The Occult, p. 1.

8. Jeffrey Burton Russell, Witchcraft in the Middle Ages (Ithaca, Cornell University Press 1972), pp. 7-8.

9. Russel, Witchcraft, p. 30.

10. Russell, Witchcraft, p. 31.

11. Lois Martin, The History of Witchcraft (Harpenden, Pocket Essentials 2002), p. 84.

12. Martin, History of Witchcraft, p. 85.

13. Martin, History of Witchcraft, pp. 84-5.

14. Martin, History of Witchcraft, p. 84.

15. ‘Witchcraft’ in J. Simpson and S. Roud, The Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore (Oxford, OUP 2000), p. 395.

16. O.R. Gurney, The Hittites (London, Penguin Books 1990), p. 135.

17. Georg Luck, Arcana Mundi: Magic and the Occult in the Greek and Roman Worlds – A Collection of Ancient Texts (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press 2000), p. 19.

18. Luck, Arcana Mundi, p. 61.

19. Russell, Witchcraft, pp. 56-7.

20. Russell, Witchcraft, p. 58.

21. Russell, Witchcraft, p. 61.

22. Russell, Witchcraft, p. 69.

23. Russell, Witchcraft, pp. 72-3.

24. Russell, Witchcraft, p. 73.

25. Russell, Witchcraft, p. 65, 126-7. 

26. Russell, Witchcraft, pp. 76-7.

27. Russell, Witchcraft, p. 115.

28. Russell, Witchcraft, p. 147.

29. Russell, Witchcraft, p. 207.

30. Bologne, Magie and Aberglaube, p. 100.

31. Richard Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press), p. 200.

32. Russell, Witchcraft, p. 171.

33. Russell, Witchcraft, p. 155.

34. A. Rebecca Cardozo,’ A Modern American Witch-Craze’, in Max Marwick, ed., Witchcraft and Sorcery (London, Penguin Books 1982), p. 469.

35. Russell, Witchcraft, p. 271.

36. Russell, Witchcraft, p. 272.

37. Jeffrey S. Victor, Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend (Chicago, Open Court 1993), pp. 47-9.

38. Victor, Satanic Panic, pp. 49-50.

39. Russell, Witchcraft, p. 153.

40. Russell, Witchcraft, p. 150.

41. Russel, Witchcraft, p. 151.

42. John Tedeschi, ‘Inquisitorial Law and the Witch’, in Bengt Ankarloo and Gustav Henningsen, eds., Early Modern European Witchcraft: Centres and Peripheries (Oxford, Clarendon 1990), p. 84.

43. Tedeschi, ‘Inquisitorial Law’, in Ankarloo and Henningsen, Early Modern European Witchcraft, pp. 83-4.

44. Tedeschi, ‘Inquisitorial Law’, in Ankarloo and Henningsen, Early Modern European Witchcraft, p. 84.

45. Tedeschi, ‘Inquisitorial Law’, in Ankarloo and Henningsen, Early Modern European Witchcraft, p. 86.

46. Tedeschi, ‘Inquisitorial Law’, in Ankarloo and Henningsen, Early Modern European Witchcraft, p. 92.

47. Tedeschi, ‘Inquisitorial Law’, in Ankarloo and Henningsen, Early Modern European Witchcraft, p. 93.

48. Tedeschi, ‘Inquisitorial Law’, in Ankarloo and Henningsen, Early Modern European Witchcraft, p. 93.

49. Tedeschi, ‘Inquisitorial Law’, in Ankarloo and Henningsen, Early Modern European Witchcraft, p. 94-5.

50. Tedeschi, ‘Inquisitorial Law’, in Ankarloo and Henningsen, Early Modern European Witchcraft, p. 95.

51. Tedeschi, ‘Inquisitorial Law’, in Ankarloo and Henningsen, Early Modern European Witchcraft, p. 96.

52. Tedeschi, ‘Inquisitorial Law’, in Ankarloo and Henningsen, Early Modern European Witchcraft, p. 96.

53. Tedeschi, ‘Inquisitorial Law’, in Ankarloo and Henningsen, Early Modern European Witchcraft, p. 98-9.

54. Tedeschi, ‘Inquisitorial Law’, in Ankarloo and Henningsen, Early Modern European Witchcraft, p. 100.

55. Tedeschi, ‘Inquisitorial Law’, in Ankarloo and Henningsen, Early Modern European Witchcraft, p. 102.

56. Tedeschi, ‘Inquisitorial Law’, in Ankarloo and Henningsen, Early Modern European Witchcraft, p. 103.

57. Tedeschi, ‘Inquisitorial Law’, in Ankarloo and Henningsen, Early Modern European Witchcraft, p. 104.

58. Tedeschi, ‘Inquisitorial Law’, in Ankarloo and Henningsen, Early Modern European Witchcraft, p. 104.

59. Tedeschi, ‘Inquisitorial Law’, in Ankarloo and Henningsen, Early Modern European Witchcraft, p. 105.

60. Tedeschi, ‘Inquisitorial Law’, in Ankarloo and Henningsen, Early Modern European Witchcraft, p. 106.

61. Tedeschi, ‘Inquisitorial Law’, in Ankarloo and Henningsen, Early Modern European Witchcraft, p. 107.

62. Tedeschi, ‘Inquisitorial Law’, in Ankarloo and Henningsen, Early Modern European Witchcraft, p. 108.

63. Tedeschi, ‘Inquisitorial Law’, in Ankarloo and Henningsen, Early Modern European Witchcraft, pp. 108-9.

64. Tedeschi, ‘Inquisitorial Law’, in Ankarloo and Henningsen, Early Modern European Witchcraft, p. 110.

65. Tedeschi, ‘Inquisitorial Law’, in Ankarloo and Henningsen, Early Modern European Witchcraft, p. 110.

66. Tedeschi, ‘Inquisitorial Law’, in Ankarloo and Henningsen, Early Modern European Witchcraft, p. 111.

67. Tedeschi, ‘Inquisitorial Law’, in Ankarloo and Henningsen, Early Modern European Witchcraft, p. 115.

68. ‘Witchcraft’ in Simpson and Roud, English Folklore, p. 395.

69. ‘Witchcraft’ in Simpson and Roud, English Folklore, p. 395.

70. Derek Shorrock, Bishop Still’s Visitation 1594 and the ‘Smale Booke’ of the Clerks of the Peace for Somerset 1593-5 (Taunton, Somerset Record Society 1978).

71. R. Hooykaas, Religion and the Rise of Modern Science (Edinburgh, Scottish Academic Press 1973), p. 143.

72. Hooykaas, Religion and Rise of Science, p. 144.

73. Hooykaas, Religion and Rise of Science, p. 148.

74. Christina Hole, Witchcraft in England (London, Fitzhouse Books 1977), p. 80; Martin, History of Witchcraft, p. 67; Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England (London, Penguin Books 1971), p. 597.

75. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, p. 597.

76. Hole, Witchcraft in England, p. 82.

77. Martin, History of Witchcraft, p. 69.

78. Joyce Bednarski, ‘The Salem Witch-Scare Viewed Sociologically’ in Marwick, Witchcraft and Sorcery, p. 200.

79. Bednarski, ‘Salem Witch-Scare’, in Marwick, Witchcraft and Sorcery, p. 196.

80. Roger Hart, Witchcraft (Hove, Wayland 1971), p. 112.

81. Bednarski, ‘Salem Witch-Scare’, in Marwick, Witchcraft and Sorcery, p. 197.

82.David Levin, ‘Essays to Do Good for the Glory of God: Cotton Mather’s Bonifacius‘ in Sacvan Bercovitch, The American Puritan Imagination: Essays in Revaluation (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press1974), p. 152.

83. Bednarski, ‘Salem Witch-Scare’ in Marwick, Witchcraft and Sorcery, p. 192; Hart, Witchcraft, p. 116.

84. Vincent Carroll and David Shiflett, Christianity on Trial: Arguments against Anti-Religious Bigotry (San Francisco, Encounter Books 2002), p. 182.

85. Vincent Carroll and David Shiflett, Christianity on Trial: Arguments against Anti-Religious Bigotry (San Francisco, Encounter Books 2002), p. 182.

86. Bednarski, ‘Salem Witch-Hunt’, Marwick, Witchcraft and Sorcery, p. 194.

87. Vincent Carroll and David Shiflett, Christianity on Trial: Arguments against Anti-Religious Bigotry (San Francisco, Encounter Books 2002), p. 182.

88. Russell, Witchcraft, p. 199.

89. Russell, Witchcraft, p. 204.

90. Russell, Witchcraft, p. 177.

91. Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages, p. 163, 170.  

92. Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages, p. 164.

93. Sophie Page, Magic in Medieval Manuscripts (London, the British Library 2004), pp. 44-5.

94. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, p. 681.

95. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, p. 681.

96. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, p. 682.

97. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, p. 685.

98. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, p. 686.

99. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, p. 687.

100. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, p. 688.

101. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, p. 689.

102.  P.G. Maxwell-Stuart, Witch-Hunters: Professional Prickers, Unwitchers & Witch Finders of the Renaissance (Stroud, Tempus 2003), p. 80.

103. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, pp. 689-90.

104. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, p. 690.  

105. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, p. 691.

106. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, p. 691.

107. Hart, Witchcraft, p. 85.

108. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, p. 689.

109. Martin, History of Witchcraft, p. 60.

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30 Responses to “History and the Witch Hunts”

  1. feyd Says:

    Outstanding stuff Beast!
    A while back I had the mixed pleasure of reading The Reformation by Diarmaid McCulloch. Decent writer but the books spoiled a bit by his anti Christian bias. For example when talking about the Inquisition he says it was a myth that Jews assisted Muslims to conquer Spain, when even the Jewish Encyclopedia states that Jews did indeed aid the Islamic invaders. (And there no reason for McCulloch to hide the truth for fear of provoking anti Semitism, during the 8th Century Muslims were generally more enlightened than Christian leaders in Spain and the Jews were perfectly with in their rights to look after their interests.)
    Anyway McCulloch is very well regarded by secular authorities, but even he agrees with your assertion that it was often secular authorities who were trying to burn witches, with Inquisitors of all people defending them. Properly understood the witch burning craze was largely a result of popular hysteria and superstition.
    From The Reformation p574 -575
    “n the Spanish Netherlands, the royal authority and secular courts led the attack on witches. … some of their colleagues in the secular administration of Spain followed suit …. Inquisitors scrutinized various outbreaks of persecution … they decided there was very little evidence for the widespread existence of witches, regarded even most confessions of witchcraft as delusions, and they generally disciplined colleagues who took extreme measures, much to the fury of various secular officials who wanted to forward persecution.

    The chief personality holding the line against punitive viciousness was Inquisitor Alonso de Salazar Frias. Salazar roundly declared in the wake of examining thousands of chases ‘I have not found the slightest evidence from which to infer tha a single act of witchcraft has really occurred’”

    In some parts of Europe far more men were executed for witchcraft than women, consistent with the local popular beliefs in male warlocks. McCulloch also reports how the general consensus from the journals was that during the entire witch burning craze only about 50,000 were executed. The craze spanned 4 centuries, if you factor in the average population of Europe then even as a percentage of overall population over 500 times as many were killed by the internal persecutions of atheists like Pol Pot.

  2. beastrabban Says:

    Thanks for the comments and the appreciation, Feyd. I really wasn’t aware that the Inquisition in the Spanish Netherlands had condemned the witch hunt there, but it certainly fits.

    As for McCulloch’s statement that the Jews didn’t assist the Muslims to conquer Spain, this is peculiar, as under the Visigothic monarchy the Jews were horrendously oppressed. As the Muslims offered tolerance to other monotheists, they could certainly not be blamed if they had given their assistance to the Moors, or welcomed them as an army of liberation.

  3. Pierre Says:

    Awesome stuff as usual.

  4. beastrabban Says:

    Thanks, Pierre! 🙂

  5. Ilíon Says:

    BR, you REALLY MUST STOP all this demythologizing “what everyone knows!” 😉

  6. beastrabban Says:

    Thanks, Ilion. But as for stopping, well, there’s so much that everyone thinks they know which isn’t quite as factual as they think !:)

  7. Ilíon Says:

    The sad fact is that many of the people who know “what everyone knows” don’t wish to know better.

    As an example, a few years ago I tried to explain to some internet ‘atheists’ the simple fact that the Massechusetts Puritan clergy in general (and explicitly Cotton) were against the Salem witch hysteria. No evidence counted with them. If I recall correctly, I even pointed to an article from Encylopedia Britannica.

    No matter, “everyone knows” that Cotton was the main force behind the witch hunting and killing.

  8. Ilíon Says:

    I’m sorry, I meant “Mather” (Cotton Mather), not “Cotton” (John Cotton, the grandfather of Cotton Mather).

  9. beastrabban Says:

    That’s definitely sad, Ilion, and very telling.

    Yeah, there is the image of Cotton Mather as credulous and scientifically illiterate, which is totally unwarranted. If you actually go back and read what Mather actually wrote, he was a very scientifically literate, humane man. He was an ardent opponent of slavery – he called it the ‘greatest thievery in the world’, believed in women’s education and free medical treatment for those who couldn’t afford it. He was a staunch advocate of fair dealing, and commentators on the effect of his writings have noted that in an age when there was no police force and little in the way of public welfare provision, the various societies for the reformation of manners on both sides of the Atlantic had a profound effect on keeping people on the straight and narrow and alleviating poverty.

    I’m going to have to look into this further, but I’ve also come across the statement that a number of the people involved in the Salem witch hunts, though not as victims, were the leading scientific authorities in New England, and that the persecution of the witches is a problem for the history of science as much as it is for Christianity or religion.

    I’ve also heard that the invention of the Salem witch hunts as the great example of Puritan intolerance was due to Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne was, apparently, distantly related to one of the judges involved in the trial. Despite the fact that the authorities recognised that they had carried out a grave miscarriage of justice, and pardoned those involved, Hawthorne nevertheless understandably felt a sense of personal guilt for his ancestor’s involvement. As a result, his account of the trial was coloured by it, and created this image of the fanatical, intolerant witch-hunting Puritan.

  10. beastrabban Says:

    That’s all right, Ilion – I guessed you meant Cotton Mather. Interestingly, Cotton Mather’s Bonifacius, or How to Do Good was a profound influence on Benjamin Franklin. That’s not something you tend to hear about from those who insist that the Constitution was the product of 18th century Deism.

  11. Wakefield Tolbert Says:

    As Ilion pointed out, the most recent historical example of these unfortunate hunts is unfortunately transmogrified into a general animus against Christianity for “allowing” or “promoting” this. Nathaneil Hathorne is mentioned as the one stalwart judge who said “NAY!” to backing down and begging foregiveness. I don’t have any material on this but it is my understanding that in the Puritan episode in the States, the issue was somewhat not all that straighforward. There have been many floating theories. One is that the Puritans actually went down a long list of all possible causes known for psychoactive behavior and even pondered the idea that pranks among teenage girls and other human follies before realizing that they were not dealing with something normal. One of the non normal explanations was that the reason they pulled into this notion of possession is that at the time nothing COULD explain such behavior. Theories floated in the following centuries about a fight among families and vengeance and some such. TV has merely portrayed mean white males with a little hanky panky of their own to hide who unfairly persecuted these innocent girls who merely were part of some nature guild who stewed herbs once in a while. One recent theory on PBS holds that the reason everyone got thrown off the balance beam is that a mold called “ergot” might have infected the crops that year or from the summer before, and this chemical reaction in humans from the mold CAN cause many of the symptoms of screaming and visions experienced by some of the girls who for some reason might have been the only ones exposed to leftoever food stores, etc. In other words the Puritanical penchant for immediate guilt was, well, not quite like that. It was somewhat more methodical. BR mentions of course the known but often discounted experience from the Old Continent from Europe and Britain where older legends and faiths than Christianity had demons and spirits well up from unknown sources. The Irish unknown to many had many of these demi-gods often shown in pictograms eating humans. No doubt a mix of this (and why we carve pumpkins–originally turnips–as the Irish had no pumpkins in those days until the New World was found) older religion and spiritism and outright animism lent credence to the superstitious of possesions by witches. This is an interesting moment in history, as it is now known (much to the chagrin of the Wicca crowd) that modern athropologists, while acknowledging the existence of strange females and some males who practiced dark arts, that NO SUCH thing as what we term WICCA existed. The Wiccan Rede is a rather vague moral maxim if that, and seems of recent derivation from teenage girls seeking power and rebelling against society who in turn got this stuff from mentors studying more recent mystics like Allister Crowley, etc. To be blunt, much of the Wiccan stuff is nicely said to be poppycock. Having said that, certainly there were odd women who probably were often persecuted for all their nature talk and spiritism, etc.

  12. Wakefield Tolbert Says:

    Feyd–

    40 thousand was the number I’m familiar with, but yes whatever the truth it is far from likely that per Sagan “millions of innocent” women were executed. Some, like Harris, to his credit, have reduced the estimated carnage to about 100,000, to which he said (paraphrasing) that this is small comfort. Well, true, to a point. No doubt for no reason on earth would any person like to be the next Joan d’Arc either or similarly unfairly condemned. We could turn this around and say that no doubt numbers DO mean something after all. Some have suggested that it was better for Allied moms and dads and boys everywhere that Japan suffered 200,000 deaths at the A-bombs over one million of their own in addition to another 500,000 Allieds in a storming of Japan to put the Hirohito empire away for good. Or that 250,000 Germans died from Allied bombs rather than have Hitler’s praises be sung in London over the sound of Big Ben. Better that wisecrackers invent H-bombs and have large militaries than suffer the fate of the USSR and Red China and fall to red bereted revolutionaries, or the Pol Potians you mentioned, etc.

    Of course I know the counter to this is that Europe was merely at “war” with a nonsense about witches, etc. But I’ll stand by the point that Harris (and others that BR has run into in print) miss—- that numbers DO means something here. As impersonal and unemotional as that sounds. It is the truth that helps perspective, not wild numbers.

  13. JOR Says:

    People who care too much about numbers are precisely the ones who end up doing the deeds of a Stalin, or a Pol Pot. Or, at least, excusing them. Sacrifices had to be made; eggs had to be broken. You know how it is.

  14. JOR Says:

    If we go strictly by numbers, the Manson Family is better than the US.

  15. Wakefield Tolbert Says:

    You can’t make a good omlet without some popped eggs then?

    Of course we all know the drill here.

    Not sure about Charlie Manson’s fellow travelers, but it seems that that whole era was one of ultimate hilarity and sadness on many issues when radicals got tired of “the system”, which obvisouly WAS in trouble, but decided (like one guys said, we leap–THEN we’ll look around) that planning and alternatives were just passe bourgious mess. In other words you don’t need a plan, they said. You just need to act. Action for the sake of action. Those who took this too far ended up closing campuses, blowing people to smithereens, or killing people like Sharon Tate in her living room.
    Of course I know manson was literally insane combined with evil, whereas some “families” elsewhere were probably one or the other but not necessarily both.

    Like Ayn Rand said, Mario Savio was the “son of Immanuel Kant.”

    Archie Bunker was the reactionary and his Meathead son in law was the pioneer for getting involved in all manner of flag burning and draft card ripping. So it went.

  16. JOR Says:

    And a few generations before it was the meathead sons in law responsible for the flags and the drafts and all the rest of it.

  17. beastrabban Says:

    Thanks for the replies, Wakefield and JOR.

    Wakefield, I’ve also heard that there was a lot more involved in the Salem witch-hunt than just ‘superstitious’ Puritans immediately leaping to the conclusion that Satan was behind the girl’s weird behaviour. As I said, I got the impression from a friend who knows far more about the incident than I do that the community at Salem, or which later became involved in the events there, was extremely scientifically literate. After all, Harvard was literally just up the road, or so I understand.

    I’ve heard of the theories that ergotism was responsible for the witchcraft epidemics in Europe. The ergot fungus produces a chemical quite like LSD. It’s an horrific illness – the victims suffer burning sensations in the limbs and hallucinations of being attacked by wild animals. The last outbreak in Europe was in France in the 1950s, contracted from eating the contaminated bread in the local bakery. The poor souls who had it had to be physically restrained because of their violent convulsions and attempts to escape from the animals they hallucinated were attacking them. One man broke out from a cell and leapt from the upper storey of a building because he was hallucinating that he was being attacked by a tiger. Absolutely horrific.

    However, the ergot fungus is by and large confined to certain areas in Europe, and these largely don’t coincide with the parts of Europe which experienced the witchcraft epidemics. I dare say that it might be responsible for some, but not all, or even the majority.

  18. JOR Says:

    To expound, I think it’s perfectly fair to try and show that Christianity per se, and today’s Christians by extension, are not responsible for things like Witch Hunts, Inquisitions, and the like. But this is something completely different than the by-the-numbers “we killed fewer people than Stalin so we must be okay dudes” defense that gets trotted out from time to time.

  19. Feyd Says:

    Thanks WT – completely agree.

    JOR said:
    People who care too much about numbers are precisely the ones who end up doing the deeds of a Stalin, or a Pol Pot.

    True, thats one of the reasons I sometimes prefer tradition, revelation and emotional thinking over rational thought.

    But when you’re comparing Christianity with secular worldviews numbers are invaluable. Otherwise all you have is points of view and philosophy.

    When business or government decision makers review analyses comparing competing approaches for solving problems they tend to be most swayed by the numbers, which they consider more objective and quantative than other forms of arguments.

    Anyone who has Christ in his heart or who properly understands what the Bible says about treating other people ( e.g. Matt. 5:43-44 , Rom. 16:19 , Col. 4:5-6) knows that Christianity per se doesn’t cause folk to persecute others, but one can’t gloss over the fact that a few Christians have behaved in brutal ways.

    So its just as well that the numbers suggest atheists are far more likely to commit atrocities than Christians.
    Many thousands times more likely if you read the analyses in Vox Day’s The Irrational atheist.

  20. Wakefield Tolbert Says:

    JOR:

    Well, if history or even myth can be helpful here, Betsy Ross is therefore a meathead–and so too the Founders!

    (lol)

    -WT

  21. Wakefield Tolbert Says:

    JOR:

    “But this is something completely different than the by-the-numbers “we killed fewer people than Stalin so we must be okay dudes” defense that gets trotted out from time to time.

    I agree to the extent that atrocity is atrocity. It is about that simple if we condemn equally. Yep.

    –Wake

  22. Wakefield Tolbert Says:

    Feyd said, in part:

    “Christianity per se doesn’t cause folk to persecute others, but one can’t gloss over the fact that a few Christians have behaved in brutal ways.

    I think what goes on here often times is frustration that God is not at work in others also—causing the Devil to get to work on US. It is our fallable human condition. But we do get knocks from the atheists and lose brownie points when it is pointed out we are not perfect.

  23. Wakefield Tolbert Says:

    BR said:

    That’s not something you tend to hear about from those who insist that the Constitution was the product of 18th century Deism.

    And since I’m not sitting in a schoolroom at the moment but from BR we usually get a more closely examined and more nuanced version of history, we can all say….. “Amen”….

    (lol)

  24. beastrabban Says:

    JOR – I entirely take your point about the numbers of people executed for things like witchcraft, heresy or other beliefs being morally wrong no matter how large they are. However, Wakefield also has a point in that in most practical tests of the viability of a particular policy by people, numbers are important. 100,000 people killed is horrifically wrong. It is not, however, quite as horrifically wrong as the false claim of 9 million.

    There’s another dimension to this which raises real questions of how much moral progress humanity made between the ‘superstitious’ Middle Ages and the enlightened rationalism of the 20th century. It was only in the 14th century in the trials of Catherine Delort and Anne-Marie Georgel that the Inquisition insisted on the suspected witch naming other witches. Before then, it appears that witches were arrested and tried on the basis of individual accusations. Yet in the massive witch hunts of Stalinist Russia those arrested were forced to name accomplices. Sometimes the results of this were cleverly by the accused to escape the process. One victim of the purges was released after he named those interrogating him as his accomplices, following a book he was reading on the Spanish Inquisition. Clearly something went terribly wrong between the time Cotton Mather stated that he’d rather than ten witches escaped rather than condemn one innocent person as a witch, and Stalin’s butchery of whole nations.

  25. beastrabban Says:

    Thanks for the appreciation of my comments about Deism and the constitution, Wakefield. 😀 Clearly, a lot of the leading figures in the American Revolution were Deists, but much of the Constitution, including the separation of Church and State, was based on ideas and arguments expressed by Christian ministers like Richard Baxter.

  26. JOR Says:

    “But when you’re comparing Christianity with secular worldviews numbers are invaluable. Otherwise all you have is points of view and philosophy.”

    Yeah, if we let up on the petty tribal scorekeeping we might actually have to think carefully and do philosophy and stuff. God forbid.

  27. bible code sundays Says:

    […] the founder of our faith, who will bring it to completion. Forwanderingchristian.luizcoelho.comHistory and the Witch Hunts For most people, the witch hunts provide one of the most powerful testimonies of the evils of […]

  28. Diane Vera Says:

    To Beastrabban:

    I notice that your bibliography doesn’t include this article: Recent Developments in the Study of The Great European Witch Hunt by Jenny Gibbons, which explains where some of the older errors in interpretation of the witchhunts came from, and how scholars eventuallly corrected those errors.

  29. History of European witchhunts: Jenny Gibbons, and a response to Beastrabban « Diane Vera Says:

    […] History and the Witch Hunts on a WordPress.com blog by “Beastrabban,” March 8, 2008 […]

  30. Diane Vera Says:

    I’ve posted a further response here on my blog.

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