Witch Hunting

Over 50,000 people were executed as witches between the years 1500 and 1700 and a similar number underwent trial on the charge of witchcraft but were acquitted or died before sentence. This happened not during the Dark Ages or the supposedly superstitious medieval centuries, but in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, during the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Scientific Revolution. There is a naturally dramatic and spectacular side to the subject, and films like The Devils and plays like The Crucible have made the images and dynamics of the early modern witch hunt familiar to a wide audience.

In recent decades historians have devoted much attention to witchcraft persecutions. As part of the post-1960s boom in interest in the popular, the repressed, and the marginal, a very large and impressive body of scholarship has been created which tries to make sense of this chilling aspect of European history. The starting point is the mass of trial records stored in the archives of every region from Scotland to Sicily. Students of European witchcraft must start by being students of the law courts.

Attempts to explain the witchcraft persecutions of the past have pursued two complementary paths: the motives of the accusers and the minds of the judges. Most witchcraft trials had their origin in legal charges made by aggrieved parties, who believed that sickness had struck their cattle, a malady fallen on their children, or their potency been impaired by the actions of a malevolent neighbor who could rely on the help of wicked supernatural powers. Hence one path to an understanding of witchcraft is to explore who accused whom, to analyze patterns of class, sex, and age, and to connect charges of witchcraft with the social tensions and strains of the early modern period.

A classic example of this approach is Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic, published in 1971, which studied the evidence for witchcraft in England and concluded that “charges of witchcraft were a means of expressing deep-felt animosities in acceptable guise.” In particular, he argued that those who made accusations of witchcraft were trying to deal with a sense of guilt or shame that they felt for some breach of the traditional duties of neighborliness and charity. The person to whom they had refused charity became the witch. It does, indeed, seem to be the case that old, poor women, the classic receivers (and demanders) of charity, are disproportionately common among those accused of witchcraft.

Another way to make sense of the trials of the great European witch hunt is to concentrate on the beliefs and expectations of the judges and inquisitors who conducted them. These men were often highly educated. In Catholic Europe they might be university-trained friars, and in both Catholic and Protestant countries among them would be gentlemen trained in the law and clergymen with theological knowledge. They brought with them into the courtroom the baggage of their education, which included a set of beliefs about the Devil and his …

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Letters

The Witches’ Sabbath July 18, 1991