SOLUTION: Comparing The Renaissance Witch Craze to Convicted without Evidence Essay

SOLUTION: Comparing The Renaissance Witch Craze to Convicted without Evidence Essay.

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Imagine a society whose landscape is aflame with bonfires that consume screaming,
writhing human beings. Imagine a quarter of a million people being drowned,
hanged, or chained in dungeons, tortured, stabbed, dismembered – literally hacked
to death – in short, subjected to indescribable horrors, for crimes they did not
commit. Imagine the populace of an entire continent seized by the terror of diabolical deeds that we, in our more enlightened times, know could not have happened,
accusing friends, neighbors, fellow community residents, of unspeakable crimes,
subjecting their hapless victims to hideous pain to extract bogus confessions, and
executing them in the most agonizing fashion possible. That time and place was
Renaissance Europe, and the name we give to this madness is the witch craze.
The persecution of supposed witches in Europe between the fifteenth and the
seventeenth centuries is a classic historical instance of the moral panic. It remains
one of the pivotal events in human history, ironically ushering in the modern era.
The witch craze is the “mother” of all moral panics, and in two senses: one, that it
provided a model for subsequent scares – in fact, we still use the word “witch-hunt” for
contemporary versions of organized, unjust accusations – and two, that it was one of
the most horrific of all panics in human history. Yet the fear and hysteria that gripped
the populace in that era burst forth without benefit of the mass media. (Earlier eras
had their own media, of course, such as word of mouth, ecclesiastical and secular
preaching, and the distribution of pamphlets, but they were not the modern media of
communication: They did not permit the simultaneous broadcast of messages to
audiences all over a society or around the globe.) This might seem to contradict what
we said in Chapter 5 about the crucial role of the media in moral panics, but this is
not the case at all. Recall what we said there: “Moral panics began as far back as …
organized society itself. Hostility toward and fear of agents of evil probably date to
the dawn of humanity, long before television, long before writing, long before the
idiographic recording of social and historical events…. Still, the modern mass media
provide the most effective spark for the creation of moral panics, as well as an engine
for their conveyance.” Wherever and whenever human collectivities are rent by diversity and conflict – and this includes ancient Africa, the Middle East, China, Egypt,
Greece, and Rome – panics have flared up. Even though the modern mass media
facilitate the birth and spread of the moral panic, they are not absolutely necessary.
The Renaissance witch craze is the classic and most dramatic instance of a moral
panic. In its most pestilent form, the craze stretched from the early decades of the
fifteenth century until about 1650, an unusually long time for a moral panic.
During this period, a novel crime came into being: conspiring with Satan in a fiendish plot against God to engage in evil, demonological deeds. In continental Europe
during this period, hundreds of thousands of accused witches, roughly 85 percent
of them women, were executed.
The European witch craze raises some intriguing sociological questions, three
of which stand out most prominently. The first is timing: Why did the witch craze
begin in the fifteenth century? Why did it become widespread and especially poisonous between the fifteenth and the seventeenth centuries? And why did it end in
the seventeenth century? Second, we have the issue of content: Why the sudden,
increased attention to sorcery, witchcraft, black magic – in fact, all manner of consorting with the devil? How to explain the emergence of a religious ideology that
implicates witches in wicked acts and the promulgation of world-view antithetical
to true Christianity? Why did this ideology give rise to the widespread and murderous persecution of witches? And third is the target of the witch-hunts: Why
were women singled out as its main victims?
We suggest that the vested interests of the Catholic Church – mainly supported
by the Dominicans and the Inquisition – and the collapse of the authoritative framework of religion and the feudal social and political order address the issue of timing.
The dissolution of the medieval cognitive map of reality, which brought about
utopian expectations, skepticism, and the rise of scientific rationality, experimentation, and exploration, address the content issue. Changes in the economy, demography, and the family, especially with respect to changes in the role of women, explain
the nature of the target of the craze. The answer to the target question is given in
the spatial distribution of the witch-hunt in continental Europe during this era.
Changes in social boundaries offer an answer to our riddles. Medieval society crumbled during the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries, and historically novel social,
political, economic, scientific, and religious institutions came into being. New and
innovative arrangements in the economy, family, science, polity, and religion emerged.
These changes transformed the social order; with the shattering of tradition, custom,
and limitations, new patterns of behavior – for instance, in art and science – appeared.
As a result of these changes, religious and political authorities mounted a ferocious
backlash that attempted to redraw societal boundaries and restore the status quo.
To understand the cultural foundation of this backlash, it is worth mentioning
that most Europeans strongly believed in the reality of witchcraft, Satan, and
demonology. Some of the greatest minds of the seventeenth century – including
Isaac Newton (1642–1727), Francis Bacon (1561–1626), John Locke (1632–1704),
and Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) – firmly believed in the reality of witchcraft. As
Jeffrey Burton Russell (1980, p. 79) put it, “Tens of thousands of [witchcraft] trials
continued throughout Europe, generation after generation, while Leonardo
painted, Palestrina composed, and Shakespeare wrote.”
The belief in witchcraft and witches has existed throughout history. Until the time
of the European witch craze, the basic conception of witchcraft was largely technical: witchcraft could be used for good or evil. In Max Weber’s terminology,
“magicians” looked for “ad hoc” answers to troubling and problematic questions
(1964). Two important points merit our attention here. First, the witch/sorcerer/
magician possessed a special and powerful position vis-à-vis the deities. Her
technological knowledge of such matters as spells, charms, potions, and the like
enabled her to force deities into action. The witch held a specific key to unlock
godly powers. Everyone believed that witches possessed a technological knowledge that granted their clients control over the universe. And second: we can
divide the power that witches held into forms: white magic, which was blessed and
welcome, and black magic, which was condemned.
Thomas O’Dea, a sociologist of religion, defines religion as “the manipulation
of non-empirical or supra-empirical means for non-empirical or supra-empirical
ends.” In contrast, he defines magic as the “manipulation of non-empirical or
supra-empirical means for empirical ends” (O’Dea, 1966, p. 7). O’Dea’s definition
recalls Weber’s view of witchcraft as a type of technology. The magician’s principal function was to address human interests and tensions and serve human needs
through the magician’s use of formulas.
Some time during the fifteenth century, society’s conceptualization of witchcraft
transmogrified from a neutral technology that witches used to attain both good and
evil ends to a completely evil force that created rather than solved social problems. The
distinction between “good” and “bad” magic also vanished. Toward the fifteenth century a conception of magic and witchcraft crystallized into something entirely evil. In
1486 Heinrich Sprenger and James Kramer, two Dominican friars, wrote and, in 1487,
published the most influential book of the witch craze: Malleus Maleficarum (“The
Witch’s Hammer”). This now-notorious handbook instructed witch-hunters on the
fine points of determining how to discover witchcraft and interrogate and punish
witches. Between its covers, the authors had crystallized and accelerated the Inquisition,
which now defined witchcraft as more than a technology. Sorcery had become a
quasi-religion – indeed, an anti-religion. And during this period, the witch had lost her
special relationship with the deities; instead, she had become totally subservient to the
devil. She had become Satan’s tool. This new conception granted inquisitors a license
to launch investigations, trials, and persecution of troublesome women as witches.
The ceremony
The history of European sorcery and witchcraft extends well into Greco-Roman
times. However, as the formalization of an elaborated belief system, witchcraft
was unknown in the fifteenth century. The core ideology of the witch craze served
as a kind of anvil on which the moral panic was forged. What was this ideology?
Between 1450 and 1650, witchcraft “was conceived as a virulent and dangerous
blend of sorcery and heresy.” Sorcery was “anything that aims at negative supernatural effects through formulas and rituals.” The second element, heresy, was
expressed in “the pact with the devil, the witches’ Sabbath in the form of a black
or inverted Mass” (Monter, 1969, p. 8).
The main feature of the European witch craze, the “black” or “witches’ Sabbath,”
was climaxed in a huge orgy between the devil and witches. Lea (1901, vol. 3,
pp. 401–8) reports that Teutonic tradition held a belief that witches were cannibals
and that once a year on May 1, St. Walpurgis’s Night, witches held a nocturnal
gathering, ate, and sang. Late in the 1400s, Dominican inquisitors partly created
and partly formalized the theme of the black Mass, which included riding on
broomsticks or beasts at night to attend the witches’ Sabbath.
Inquisitors conceptualized the Sabbath as a ritual performed by the devil and his
helpers together with the witches. In that ceremony, witches paid homage to and
professed their pact with the devil, received new recruits, and signed their pact
with the devil’s mark. In addition, the black Sabbath included a banquet, dancing,
and sexual intercourse.
After the ceremony, nothing would grow on the spot where it had been held
because the hot feet of the demons and witches scorched the soil so badly that the
earth could never be fertile again. Witches rode to this gathering place on broomsticks (in France and England) or, in the shape of he-goat, the devil himself, whose
back grew according to how many witches he wanted to accommodate. When all
the witches had arrived – those who did not attend were severely punished by
demons – the infernal ceremonies of the Sabbath began. Satan had assumed the
shape of a large he-goat, with one face in front and one on his haunches; all present
kissed his face-behind. Tradition documents this infamous kiss; most authorities
featured it prominently in their writings. Robbins (1959, p. 420) quotes from an
eminent contemporary lawyer, Jean Bodin: “There is no greater disgrace, dishonor,
or villainy than that which these witches endure when they have to adore Satan in
the guise of a stinking goat, and to kiss him in that place which modesty forbids
writing or mentioning.” This completed, the assembled appoint a master of ceremonies, and Satan examines the witches to determine if they bear the secret mark.
The devil stamps those who lack the mark. This done, they all begin dancing and
singing. Then they stop, deny their salvation, kiss the devil’s behind, spit on the
Bible, and swear obedience to the devil in all things. Once again, they begin dancing and singing (Mackay, 1852/1932, p. 470). In the midst of the ceremony, the
witches look around and notice their friends and neighbors, whom they had not
previously suspected to be witches. The devil himself, the imperious master,
reigned above the festivities, dominating all in attendance. Although he usually
appeared as a he-goat, he might also take the form of a big, black-bearded man or
a huge toad. The witches danced to the point of exhaustion to the sound of macabre music made with curious instruments – horse’s skulls, oak logs, human bones,
and so on.
After kissing the devil, the witches sat down and recounted the evil deeds they
had committed since their last meeting. The devil punished those who had not
been sufficiently malicious to satisfy his evil standards (Mackay, 1852/1932, p. 471;
Trevor-Roper, 1967, pp. 94–5). After that, thousands of toads sprang out of the
earth, ready to obey Satan’s commands and, standing on their hind legs, danced
while the devil played the bagpipes, the trumpet, or some other instrument. The
toads talked and entreated the witches to reward them with the flesh of unbaptized babies, a command the witches obeyed. After that, they settled down to a
feast. All agreed that the food was always quite tasteless. Having finished eating,
and at the command of the goat, witches and demons threw themselves into
promiscuous sexual orgies. Again, these orgies were not pleasurable. Robbins
mentions that sexual intercourse was indiscriminate and included acts such as
incest, bestiality, unnatural sexual positions, and the like; according to most demonologists, most witches found it quite painful. Robbins (1959, p. 423) quotes the
account of 16-year-old Jeanette d’Abadie: “She said she feared intercourse with
the devil because his member was scaly and caused extreme pain: furthermore, his
semen was extremely cold.”
After the feast, the dance began again but not as intensively as before. The
assembled called the toads and everybody amused themselves by mocking the sacrament of baptism. They sprinkled the toads with filthy water and while the devil
made the sign of the cross, all the witches and toads cursed the cross. When the
cock crowed, everyone disappeared, and the Sabbath was over (Mackay, 1852/1932,
pp. 469–71; Robbins, 1959, pp. 414–24).
What are the main features of the European witch craze ideology and demonology? The most important is the detail and complexity of demonological theory.
The totally negative description of the witch, as well as the entirely new perception
of witchcraft and demonology, dramatically changed from the previous dominant
perception of witchcraft as technology. The kind of witches that demonologists of
the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries described differed from their predecessors. Witchcraft had lost its neutral technological character, and the complex image
of an anti-religion had replaced it. This new ideology served as the cognitive base
for the moral panic as well as providing what Bromley, Shupe, and Ventimiglia
called “atrocity tales” (1979): “An event which is viewed as a flagrant violation of a
fundamental cultural value. Accordingly, an atrocity tale is a presentation of that
event (real or imaginary) in such a way as to (a) evoke moral outrage by specifying
and detailing the value violations, (b) authorize, implicitly or explicitly, punitive
actions, and (c) mobilize control efforts against the alleged perpetrators” (p. 43).
This ideological transformation in the perception of the witch was crystallized,
authorized, and accepted by the fifteenth century. Hence, one crucial question
centers on how and why this transformation took place when it did.
What was the nature of this new conception of witchcraft? We pointed to
the central role of the Sabbath in this definition. However, we must add three
additional components.
First, in the new conception of witchcraft, the witch lost her special position
with respect to the deities. Instead of controlling them, the deities controlled her.
Demonologists conceptualized the witch as Satan’s puppet, someone from whom
no good could come.
Second, as we’ve said, in demonological theories, witches were characteristically women. The Malleus Maleficarum specifically mentions that “witchcraft is
chiefly found in women” because they are more credulous and have poorer memories and because “witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable.”
In addition, there were more women than men witches “because women have a
slippery tongue and tell other women what they have learned” (Robbins, 1959,
p. 41). Demonologists went to great length to link witchcraft with perverted sexual
practices and the seductive behavior of the devil’s legions. Witch craze theologians
laid great emphasis on the fact that women had an “insatiable” sexual appetite.
Hence, incubi (male demons who served the devil by seducing women) outnumbered succubi (female demons who seduced men) by a factor of ten to one because
women’s lust could be satisfied only by that many more male demons.
Third, the theory of witchcraft represented a reversal of Christian theology.
Hence, the practice of witchcraft transcended mere magic, assuming the form of
a religion or quasi-religion. It possessed a coherent, unified, rationalized system of
beliefs, assumptions, rituals, sacred texts, and the like. The Dominicans who, more
than any other order, developed and helped popularize the conception of demonology and witchcraft, based their beliefs on a Manichean or dualistic assumption
which viewed the world as a battlefield, one in which a struggle between the godly
sons of light and the satanic sons of darkness played out. They feared that Satan
might win this battle and turn the world into Hell. From this perspective, we can
regard the myth of witches as the exact qualitative opposite of the conception of
God and their stories and theology the exact opposite of the true faith, that is,
Christianity. The confessions of witches strongly reinforced this conception.
Likewise, demonology inverts the Catholic dogma of the birth of Jesus, which
states that a spirit entered into the womb of a virgin, causing the conception and
birth of the Son of God. In contrast, demonology charges, in the “black” or witch’s
Sabbath, the devil and the witch engage in perverted, barren sexual intercourse.
We are further told that the devil, in the form of either the succubus or the incubus, appeared before male or female humans and seduced them. But because the
incubus did not possess his own sperm, the human female had to steal it from her
unsuspecting husband in order to copulate with the devil. These tales, set against
the idea of the birth of Jesus, who was born from a nonsexual, holy union between
a woman and a holy spirit, narrate the perverted, painful, and infertile sexual intercourse between the devil and the witch.
Contrary to the day when Christians meet to pray, Sunday, the devil and his
legions preferred nighttime, between Friday and Saturday. Christians meet in a
holy place, the church; the devil and his minions met in unusual and frightening
places. In church, people kissed the crucifix; at the black Sabbath, worshippers
kissed the he-goat’s posterior. The symbols and objects used in the ceremony in
the church (wine, wafers, water) were mocked at the black Mass. Jesus was the
pure good; the devil, the pure evil. In contrast to the holy baptism and the holy
water sprinkled onto the supplicant, the devil made his own form of baptism: a
mark stamped on the witch by the devil and filthy mock holy water, usually sprinkled by toads. Christians associated Jesus with light, purity, and a feeling of serenity, and the devil with darkness, stench, and fear. Parishioners heard organ music in
the church; during satanic ceremonies, the music was macabre and played on
strange instruments. In church, worshippers tasted holy symbols of Jesus’ body
and blood; in the black Sabbath, they feasted on unbaptized, roasted baby’s flesh.
In short, the black Mass represented an inverted or upside-down version of the
true faith and practice.
Initially the church rejected the possibility of witches with demonic powers. In
1230, officials charged a scholastic committee with the task of investigating the
matter. By 1430, the investigation was complete; it suggested the possibility of a
sect of sorcerers and witches (Monter, 1969, p. 59). Most historical researchers
place the timing of the witch-hunts soon after the release of the church’s report on
witches. Their reasoning is worth attention.
After the disintegration of the Roman Empire and the emergence of Christianity
into dominance, the church tried to convert the conquered northern, barbaric,
pagan tribes. Christian missionaries found that these societies already possessed a
spectrum of local deities. Astutely, missionaries canonized these deities into
Christian saints, thereby ensuring continuity with their ancestry. In addition, their
Roman conquerors converted local temples into churches so that they could celebrate Mass in familiar places of worship (Eckenstein, 1896, pp. 6–32, 484). Their
magical practices were tolerated because the Romans felt that eventually, they
would fall into disuse and their previously pagan practitioners would forget them
and become truly Christian (Lea, 1901, vol. 3, pp. 485–96). Thus, in the years
between the fall of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the Renaissance, the
church remained tolerant of sorcery and witchcraft. Action was taken against sorcerers only if the sorcery resulted in murder or the destruction of property (Lea,
1901, vol. 3, p. 408).
During this era, when the church remained tolerant of sorcery, the casting of
spells, and astrology, its officials held that belief in witchcraft was itself an illusion.
This statement appears most prominently in the well-known Canon Episcopi (Kors
and Peters, 1972, pp. 28–31), issued in the ninth or tenth century, whose statement
on witchcraft later canonists adopted as official policy. For over five centuries this
policy, namely that witchcraft is an illusion, served to discourage those in the
church who might have wanted to destroy the belief in witchcraft by sheer force.
The Canon Episcopi put a brake on any sought-for change in the conception of
witchcraft as an illusion. As long as the Canon was regarded as basic church policy,
no mass scale witch craze could take place. Beginning in the fifteenth century
(Robbins, 1959, pp. 143–7, 1978), various writers began attacking the policy endorsed
in the Canon Episcopi. First, authors launched attacks on the authenticity and
validity of the text itself (Robbins, 1978, pp. 21–2). Second, they claimed that contemporary witches were different from those described in the Canon. In 1450, Jean
Vineti, a French inquisitor, identified witchcraft with heresy. In 1458, Nicholas
Jacquier, an inquisitor in France and Bohemia, identified witchcraft as a new form
of heresy, radically different from the type of witchcraft mentioned in the Canon
Episcopi. In 1460, Visconti Girolamo, an inquisitor and provincial of Lombardy,
stated that defending witchcraft was itself heresy. And as we saw, in 1487, Sprenger
and Kramer published the notorious Malleus Maleficarum, in which they advanced
a theory of witchcraft which calcified into the rigid and stereotypical form that
predominated for three centuries (Robbins, 1959, p. 146).
The moral panic involving witches began in Switzerland in 1427, when over
100 people were tried by secular judges for murder by sorcery, stealing milk from
cows, ruining crops by hailstorms, worshipping the devil, and using countermagic against other witches. As time went by, the witch craze spread over Europe.
In France, a judge bragged that he had burned 800 witches in the span of 16 years;
in Geneva, 500 persons were burned during several months in 1515; in Trevez,
France, over the course of “several years,” 7,000 (Bromberg, 1959). The Malleus
itself (Sprenger and Kramer, 1968, pp. 220–1) reports that in the district of Como,
Italy, 1,000 persons were put to death in one year. Remigius, an inquisitor, boasted
that he had put 900 witches to the flame during a period of 15 years.
Midelfort lists some of the results of the witch-hunts as follows:
Between 1587 and 1593 the Archbishop-Elector of Trier sponsored a witch-hunt
that burned 368 witches from just twenty-two villages. So horrible was this hunt
that two villages in 1585 were left with only one female inhabitant apiece. In the
lands of the Covenant of Quedlinburg, some 133 witches were executed on just one
day in 1589. At the Abbey of Fulda, Prince Abbott Balthasar von Dembach …
boasted of having sent over 700 witches to the stake…. At the Furstprobstei of
Ellenwagen, ecclesiastical officials saw to the burning of some 390 persons between
1611 and 1618…. In just eight years Bishop Philipp Adolph von Ehrenberg executed
some 900 persons including his nephew, nineteen Catholic priests and several small
children. In the Prince Bishopric of Eichstatt some 274 witches were executed….
The Duchy of Braunschweig-Wolfenbuttel executed fifty-three between 1590 and
1620 while Duke August of Braunchschweig-Luneberg eliminated seventy between
1610 and 1615…. [The] Duchy of Bavaria probably executed close to 2,000 witches.
(1981, p. 28)
In the continental witch-hunts, children, women – indeed entire families – were
sent to be burned. The historical sources are full of the most horrible, diabolic
stories of the tortures these witches endured, the lies they were told by judges and
inquisitors. Whole villages were exterminated. As Hughes (1952) reports, the area
that is now Germany was covered with stakes, where witches were burning alive.
“Germany was almost entirely occupied in building bonfires…. Travellers in
Lorraine may see thousands and thousands of stakes.” Bogue, a noted cruel inquisitor, cried that “I wish they [the witches] had but one body, so that we could burn
them all at once, in one fire!” (Trevor-Roper, 1967, p. 152). “During the 1580s,
when the Catholic Counter-Reformation began to reconquer the territories they
had lost to the Protestants a decade earlier, the Catholics became dedicated witchhunters too. Many of the persons accused were Protestants who refused to flee or
convert. In France, witches were found primarily in Huguenot areas such as
Orleans, Langedoc, Normandy and Navarre. In Lorraine, Judge Remy boasted of
having executed over a thousand witches. Along the Rhine in the 1590s whole
villages were depopulated” (Trevor-Roper, 1967, pp. 142–5).
In Bamberg, there were a number of cases of political executions as well, for
some of the accused belonged to the town’s elite. The pace of the trials was shocking. Frau Anna Hansen was arrested on June 17, 1629, put to torture between June
18 and June 28, and on July 7, less than a month after her arrest, was beheaded and
burned. It seems clear that the prince-bishop ignored orders from the emperor to
release some of the witches. Ferdinand’s order to release Dorothea Block, for
instance, was disregarded, as was his order to release Dr. Haan and his family because
“their arrest was a violation of the law of the Empire not to be tolerated.” Bamberg’s
witch craze ended when King Gustavus of Sweden threatened the city (he had
invaded Leipzig in 1630). This, along with the death of the prince-bishop in 1631 and
local opposition to the torture ended the mania (Robbins, 1959, pp. 35–7).
In Bamberg, the prince-bishop built a “witch house,” complete with torture
chamber adorned with appropriate biblical texts. In his 10-year reign, he is said to
have burned 600 witches. It is interesting to note that one of his victims was the
bishop’s chancellor, Dr. Haan, who was burned in 1638 for showing leniency as a
judge. Here we have one of the most touching stories of the witch craze. Under
torture, Dr. Haan confessed to having seen five members of the city’s elite participating in the black Sabbath, all of whom were duly burned. One of them,
under fierce torture confessed that he had renounced God, given himself to the
devil, and seen 27 of his colleagues at the witch’s Sabbath. But afterwards, from
prison, he contrived to smuggle a letter out to his daughter, giving a full account
of his trial: “Now my dearest child,” he wrote, “you have here all my acts and
confessions, for which I must die. It is all falsehood and invention, so help me
God…. They never cease to torture until one says something…. If God sends no
means of bringing the truth to light our whole kindred will be burnt” (Trevor-Roper,
1967, p. 157).
As Trevor-Roper (1967, p. 145) points out, the wars of religion in the seventeenth century added fuel to the fire of the witch craze and introduced the worst
period of persecution. Protestants and Catholics zealously accused one another of
witchcraft; the witch craze reached a climax in the early decades of the 1600s. It
also seems that the Thirty Years War (1618–48) brought with it a renewed and
vicious wave of witch-hunting. In their most devastating form the witch-hunts
ceased after the end of the Thirty Years War, with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.
While we can mark the beginning of the terror in the 1490s, just after the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum, so we can date its end when the Thirty Years War
ended. During this period between 200,000 and 500,000 people were tortured and
executed by burning, drowning, and hanging.
As we saw, evidence indicates that the majority of the witch craze’s victim’s
were women. In one specific area of southwest Germany, females constituted 85
percent of all victims (Midelfort, 1972, pp. 179–80). Monter (1969) asserts that
nearly 90 percent of the hunt’s victims were women. Lea (1957, p. 1090) reports
that in Switzerland, “almost every woman” was considered a witch. In some areas
of Germany, between 90 and 100 percent of the victims were women. While at the
beginning of the craze, we often find that accused witches were widows, spinsters,
or “strange” old women, later on, married women and young girls were persecuted as well. The various historical sources on the European witch craze suggest
that neither social status nor age made a significant difference. Rather, the crucial
variable was gender: Everywhere, most of the victims were women. In The Path of
the Devil, Gary Jensen (2007) examines how women emerged as suitable targets for
victims of the persecution because they were, according to prevailing stereotypes,
more susceptible to offering themselves up as servants of, and therefore more
likely to consort with, the devil; because they were more likely to be midwives and
were closer to the folk medicine tradition and hence, often came into competition
with physicians; because they supposedly were more likely to gossip (to have a
“scalding tongue”) and hence, tell tales about others – in short, because they ran
afoul of the patriarchal traditions of both secular and religious society. Monter
(1976, p. 110) notes that “sex seems to have been more important than wealth.” His
data clearly undermine the notion that it was overwhelmingly poor, widowed, or
otherwise strange women who were persecuted. Monter also notes (1976, p. 124)
that “compared to sex, poverty and other factors seem to be secondary.” The major
weight of empirical data supporting the inaccurate view that witches were old,
deviant women comes mainly from British cases (Thomas, 1971), but the British
witch craze was unlike that which took place in continental Europe.
In England, the witch craze began and ended later than in continental Europe,
and it was much milder. A demonological ideology did not prevail there, and persons accused of witchcraft were considered to have committed crimes against
other people and not God. It is very likely that the lack of inquisitorial machinery,
the clear-cut relationship between church and state, and a strong monarchy rendered the craze less virulent there. Furthermore, in England the judicial system
was more humane than in Europe. Its political system lay somewhat outside many
of the controversies that tore the Continent apart. Scotland, however, experienced
much more religious turmoil, which affected the judicial foundations of the law
and, together with the King James VI’s personal encouragement, enabled the
occurrence of a vicious witch craze there. Larner states: “The Scottish witch-hunt
was arguably one of the major witch-hunts of Europe. During its peak it was
matched only by those of the German principalities and Lorraine” (1981, p. 197).
The available sources suggest that, on the Continent, the worst witch-hunts
occurred in Germany, Switzerland, and France, and only to a much lesser extent in
other areas (Cohn, 1975; Trevor-Roper, 1967; Midelfort, 1972).
A number of observers have noted that the witch-hunts were conducted in their
most intense form in regions in which the Catholic Church was weakest and most
threatened (Lea, 1957). In those areas with a strong church, such as Spain, Poland,
and Eastern Europe, the witch craze was negligible (Lea, 1957; Robbins, 1959;
Monter, 1980, p. 33). However, the Scandinavian countries (Robbins, 1959;
Midelfort, 1981) and Russia (Zguta, 1977) present us with an additional dimension.
In these areas, a strong supernatural, pagan belief system existed alongside the
church. In Russia and the Scandinavian countries belief in sorcery and demons was
well-established, which helps explain why such a low rate of witchcraft cases
existed there. Taken together, these points imply that the coexistence of Christianity
with widespread belief in demons and paganism could conceivably counteract the
persecutions, prevent them, or have a strong moderating effect on them. This contrasts with Western Europe, where paganism was largely eradicated. The evidence
strongly supports the view that the witch-hunt ideology – demonology – was
invented, but not to combat popular cults or pagan groups. Rather, it was to shore
up the crumbling ideological and institutional structure of the orthodox Catholic
Church and the traditional medieval social order. In sum, where the church was
strong, witchcraft cases were relatively rare.
The witchcraft myth was invented by Dominican friars. As we saw, until the thirteenth century, the church’s official position regarding witchcraft was summarized
in the aforementioned Canon Episcopi, promulgated around 900, which regarded
beliefs in witchcraft as mere illusion. The Inquisition was founded in the thirteenth
century in order to combat heresy. In 1216, Pope Innocent III formally sanctioned
the Dominican order, which was established to win back heretics to the church.
The pope’s expectations were not realized, and the lost sheep he had hoped to
bring back to the fold never returned. Medieval Europe abounded in heretical
movements, religious prophets, and dissident groups, including the Cathari, who
rejected the authority and institution of the church and believed in asceticism as
the path to spiritual perfection; the Waldenses, a Protestant sect that rejected the
papacy and the Catholic Mass and urged believers to interpret the Bible for themselves; the Hussites, who rejected sainthood and favored a classless society and the
abolition of private property; the Lollards, who rejected priestly celibacy and
favored evangelical poverty and the believer’s direct relationship to the Bible; and
the Flaggelants, who saw flogging as a source of divine inspiration and an expression of ascetic purity. From the point of view of Catholic dogma, these groups
truly were heretical. And for the most part, all were exterminated, marginalized,
driven to remote regions, or had become so small in number as to constitute no
threat to the church. The last trials and persecutions ended in the mid-fifteenth
As a result, the Inquisition’s legal machinery began casting about for fresh apostates to investigate. “When the Inquisition had crushed the religious deviation …
it had little justification to continue to exist. Its work was done. The Inquisition,
however, set about to introduce and develop the parallel heresy of witchcraft,
thereby widening its scope” (Robbins, 1959, pp. 107–208). The Inquisition appealed
to Rome to extend its jurisdiction to the infidel Jews and the Moors of Spain, an
appeal which was successful. This persecution continued into the seventeenth century (Roth, 1971), which helps explain the virtual absence of witch-hunting there.
In the same period, the Inquisition demanded that its authority be expanded to
include the witches and sorcerers it claimed to have discovered in the Pyrenees and
the Alps; Pope Alexander IV rejected the Inquisition’s plea, insisting that the Canon
Episcopi remained in effect and that such a search would divert the church from its
primary task, the search for organized heretics. But the inquisitors continued with
their appeal, and a century later Pope John XXII issued an edict authorizing a limited search in the Pyrenees and the Alps for witches. “Some people,” said John,
“Christian in name only, have forsaken the first light of truth to ally themselves
with death and traffic with hell. They sacrifice to and adore devils; they make or
obtain figurines, rings, vials, mirrors … by which they command demons …, asking for their aid [and] giving themselves to the most shameful subjection for the
most shameful of ends” (Robbins, 1959, p. 288). This document declared that all
who used the services of sorcerers were to be punished as heretics and all books on
the subject were to be burned (Lea, 1901, vol. 3, pp. 452–3).
The Inquisition continued its limited witch-hunt for roughly a century and a
half. During that period, although dozens of major books on witchcraft were
published, the Malleus Maleficarum, as we saw, printed in the 1480s, “opened the
flood-gates” to “inquisitorial hysteria.” Sprenger and Kramer’s book refuted the
argument against the existence of witches and instructed inquisitors on how to
help discover and prosecute them; it was “the most important work on demonology ever written” (Robbins, 1959, p. 337). Interestingly, Sprenger and Kramer submitted the book to the University of Cologne’s faculty of theology for its
endorsement, but the faculty condemned it as illegal and unethical. (Legend has
it that in 1490, the Catholic Church placed the Malleus on its list of prohibited
books, even though Pope Innocent VII had already endorsed its authors as inquisitors.) Undaunted, in the volume’s subsequent editions, the authors forged and
inserted the claim that the University of Cologne had endorsed the book and its
argument. It is crucial to emphasize that, in contrast to the heresies of earlier
centuries, the witchcraft charges spelled out in the Malleus were fictional – largely
or totally invented.
In 1484, before the Malleus was published, Sprenger and Kramer petitioned
Pope Innocent VIII to appoint them general witch hunters in the Rhineland. In
response to their petition he issued his witch Bull, the Summis Desiderantes (Lea,
1901, Vol. 3:540; Kors and Peters, 1972:107–13). In this bull, the Pope asserted
official church belief in witchcraft and the church’s duty – with the help of its
tool, the Inquisition – to exterminate it:
It has come to our ears … that … many persons of both sexes, unmindful of their
own salvation and straying from the Catholic faith, have abandoned themselves to
devils, incubi and succubi, and by their incantations, spells, conjurations, and other
accursed charms and crafts, enormities and horrid offenses, have slain infants yet in
their mothers’ womb, as also the offspring of cattle, have blasted the produce of the
earth, the grapes of the vine, the fruits of the trees, nay, men and women, beasts of
burthen, herd-beasts, as well as animals of other kinds, vineyards, orchards, meadows, pastureland, corn, wheat, and all other cereals; these wretches furthermore
afflict and torment men and women … with terrible and piteous pains and sore diseases; they hinder men from performing the sexual act, women from conceiving,
whence men cannot know their wives nor wives receive their husbands; over and
above this, they blasphemously renounce that Faith which is theirs by the Sacrament
of Baptism, and at the instigation of the Enemy of Mankind they do not shrink from
committing and perpetrating the foulest abomination and filthiest excesses to the
deadly peril of their own souls, whereby they outrage the Divine majesty and are a
cause of scandal to very many.
The most significant sections in the Malleus were its claims that detecting witches
can be demonstrated with argumentation rather than facts; that someone who
does not believe in witches is a witch; and that women were more likely to be
witches than men.
Sprenger and Kramer’s volume, one of the first books printed by Gutenberg’s
new invention, the printing press, immediately became the textbook of the
Inquisition; it ran through more than 20 editions in the matter of just a few decades. The Inquisition found itself in possession of a very powerful instrument of
judicial power. It authorized inquisitors to uncover and punish offenders whose
crime was, by its very nature, unobservable, unprovable, and unfalsifiable except
by the offenders’ confessions, and that could be obtained thought torture. Both the
Dominicans and the Inquisition had a stake and a professional interest in exercising
their power and expertise on investigating and prosecuting heresy. Hence, the longevity of the witch-hunts.
The professional and organizational interest of the inquisitors explains why they
began, as moral entrepreneurs, to focus on the witches as early as the thirteenth century. But the extremely detailed elaboration of demonological theology did not take
place until the fifteenth century, and only at that time did the general public began to
share the interest of professional inquisitors in hunting down and punishing witches.
During the Renaissance era, medieval society began crumbling, changes
occurred that utterly and completely transformed European culture and society.
Among the many changes that took place, the most significant were the growth of
cities, a form of industrial production, an increase in the size of the population, the
systematization of the monetary system, the mapping of undiscovered lands, the
expansion of international trade, the development of ore-mining, a more detailed
class system and a more specialized division of labor. Pirenne (1937, pp. 189–90)
puts the change in the following words: “the development of industry and commerce completely transformed the appearance and indeed the very existence of
society…. [Continental] Europe was covered with towns from which the activity
of the new middle class radiated in all directions…. [The] circulation of money
was perfected…. [New] forms of credit came into use.” Among the changes that
took place, culturally perhaps the most remarkable was the discovery of new lands.
“The exploration and exploitation of non-European areas by Europeans during
the 15th and 16th centuries form one of the greatest phenomena of the Renaissance”
(Penrose, 1962, p. vii) and, no doubt, forced “a re-evaluation of the idea of Europe
as a model Christian society” (Rattansi, 1972, p. 7).
These radical and relatively rapid changes in European society’s economic,
commercial, and urban spheres made deep inroads in the hierarchical structure of
feudal society, which was sanctioned and legitimized by the Catholic Church. In
the medieval tradition, the moral boundaries of society were clearly defined.
Rome ruled Christendom and structured the feudal order in a strictly and uniformly hierarchical manner, one that was firmly embedded in a finite cosmic order
ruled by God. The heretical Jews and Muslims threatened this order, but their heresies already had a place in Catholic theology in that religious duty demanded that
Catholics attempt to convert and save these heretics; if recalcitrant, Jews and
Muslims must be fought and suppressed.
But the city increasingly threatened this stable, hierarchical order because the
social and economic relations it produced did not fit into the feudal scheme of
things; the growth of contact with non-Christian peoples, likewise, did not fit into
the conversion–conflict model; and the growing industrial and capitalist economic
and political transactions, autonomous from theological guidance, threatened the
church’s authority. Further, as Peter Brown (1969) points out, during the twelfth
century, the sacred increasingly became disengaged from the profane, and increasingly, the secular wielded influence over the collective conscience.
In addition, external catastrophes exacerbated the stress and confusion created
by these developments, especially the plague and cholera that decimated the population of Europe and lasted throughout the fifteenth century. Even the climate of
Europe underwent severe changes in temperature during these fateful centuries,
as evidenced by the Little Ice Age, which, except for occasional periods of normalcy, lasted well into the eighteenth century (Russell, 1972, pp. 51–2). In addition
to these stressful physical conditions, in 1456, Halley’s Comet appeared in the sky.
Interpreted as an evil omen, it created anxiety, fear, and unrest. Further, as Griggs
(1980, pp. 81–2) points out, massive population changes were not matched by technological developments, especially in agriculture, putting a strain on food supply.
All this created to feelings of an impending doomsday.
Rosen (1969, pp. 154–5) describes the “feeling of melancholy and pessimism
which marked the period. A sense of impending doom hung over men and women,
intensified by a belief that the end of time was approaching and that the last days
were at hand.” Foucault (1967, p. 15) adds a most picturesque description: “Up to the
second half of the 15th century, or even a little beyond, the theme of death reigns
alone. The end of man, the end of time, bear the face of pestilence and war. What
overhangs human existence is this conclusion and this order from which nothing
escapes.” Stress and confusion were only one aspect of these developments (Holmes,
1975). There was confusion about the moral boundaries of society and the cognitive
map of the world. This often translated into a sense of impending doom.
But there was also an opening up of new possibilities and a rise in standards of
living in the wake of the great catastrophes of the fourteenth century. Those who
survived the epidemics inherited the wealth of the deceased, and even those who
had to maintain themselves by their work could obtain far better wages than before
because of the shortage of manpower. Thus the fifteenth century was an epoch of
great enterprise, bold thought, innovation, as well as one of deep confusion and
anomie, a feeling that the society had lost its norms and boundaries and that the
uncontrollable forces of change were destroying all order and moral tradition.
These developments allowed many contemporary thinkers to overstep the boundaries of reality and enter the realm of magic, fancy, and make believe. “The disengagement of the sacred from the profane opened up a whole middle distance of
conflicting opportunities for the deployment of human talent compared with
which the society of the early Middle Ages appears as singularly monochromatic”
(Brown, 1969, p. 135). Between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries there was
frequently no clear demarcation between rational science and magic.
The inquisitors formed their demonological theories in the early years of the
scientific revolution (Rattansi, 1972), when pseudo-science was often indistinguishable from proto-science. Many scholars were preoccupied with secret or esoteric
knowledge, also referred to as the hermetica, which “focused attention on … extrapowers of nature and mysterious forces” (Rattansi, 1972, p. 5). This explains why
the “growth of demonology and of the witch-hunt paralleled that of the scientific
revolution” (Kirsch, 1978, p. 152) as well as the array of the utopias and ideal societies
that arose (Cohn, 1961), another reaction to the dissolution of the cognitive and
moral boundaries of the medieval world. The anomie resulting from the uncontrolled changes called forth positive and progressive as well as negative and persecutory reactions. The expansion of horizons and the instability of social conditions,
the Reformation, the beginnings of the scientific revolution, and Renaissance art
and humanism, took advantage of the disappearance of many traditional norms
and boundaries for the creation of greater cultural diversity and freedom, giving
rise to a new, infinitely more differentiated culture than that of the Middle Ages. On
the negative side, these changes produced the witch craze, the purpose of which
was to strengthen the Inquisition, counteract and prevent change, and to reestablish traditional religious authority. Parsons (1966, 1971) contends that the traditional
feudal system began to differentiate during the eleventh century, beginning a process that led, by the seventeenth century, to an increasing autonomy of the religious,
governmental, and economic institutions. The new social order, based on relatively
autonomous institutions, replaced a previous rigid, religiously defined, and more
or less unified social system. Social change affected the very center, the collective
conscience of society (Durkheim, 1893/1964) or, to use Parsons’ terminology,
the definition of the “societal community,” which for him was the “salient foci of
tension and conflict, and thus of creative innovation” (1971, p. 121). Parsons (p. 45)
notes that the European Renaissance was the first era during which the secular
culture was differentiated from the religious matrix. This produced a newly felt
need for redrawing the moral boundaries of the society, producing in turn a need
to search out and punish threats to the social and moral order. By persecuting
witches, this society, led by the church, attempted to redefine its moral boundaries,
one of many instances where deviance served the social functions of emphasizing
and creating moral boundaries and attempting to enhance solidarity. So strong was
this need that society created a fictitious form of deviance for this purpose.
Until the Renaissance, the Catholic Church was at the peak of its power. The
dominant thinkers of the era treated social problems as theological or theosophical, and society’s moral boundaries were sharply defined and lacking major threats
to their outlines. This is why during the Middle Ages we find virtually no record of
In the fifteenth century, when the results of the institutional differentiation process and a sharp decline in the church’s authority became visible, “the church began
to need an opponent whom it could divinely hate” (Williams, 1959, p. 37) so that a
redefinition of moral boundaries could take place. This differentiation process represented a challenge to the society’s moral and cognitive map and was seen by the
religious hierarchy as undermining the church’s authority and legitimacy. While the
church needed deviants, only a very special type of deviance would serve, one which
would be seen as directly threatening the religiously defined societal community
and the Christian worldview. Clearly, witchcraft served this purpose. And it was specifically in societies in which the Catholic Church was weakest – France, Germany,
and Switzerland – that experienced the most virulent witch craze. Where the church
was strong (Spain, Italy, and Portugal), hardly any witch craze worth mentioning
took place. Although this was not the first time that the Catholic Church was threatened – witness the various heretical prophetic movements we mentioned, that had
arisen earlier, such as the Cathari and the Waldenses – this development, culminating in the Reformation, was the first time that the church had to cope with a largescale threat to its legitimacy and very existence (Elton, 1963).
For this reason, Protestants persecuted witches with almost the same zeal as the
Catholics, despite many objective differences between them. Protestantism resulted
from differentiation but Protestants, as much as Catholics, felt threatened by this
process. “The Reformation shattered the unity of Christendom, and religious conflicts [as well as] … the Wars of Religion … destroyed the illusion of the perfect
Christian societies” (Rattansi, 1972, p. 7). Luther himself believed in witches and
believed that his own mother had been bewitched. He “often felt sick when he visited Wartburg and attributed this to spells cast by his adversaries there” (Lea, 1957,
vol. 3, p. 417). Calvin was more skeptical of the Dominican witch beliefs than Luther.
He believed that the devil could do nothing without the permission of God and that
he could never conquer the faithful. However, Calvin led a campaign that resulted in
the execution of 31 witches. Calvinist missionaries succeeded in spreading the craze
to Scotland in 1563. When James VI of Scotland, a Calvinist, became king of England,
he revised the lenient statutes dealing with witchcraft and wrote his own handbook
for witch-hunters (Trevor-Roper, 1967, p. 142; Robbins, 1959, p. 277).
This interpretation makes plausible why such a strange and esoteric phenomenon as witchcraft was chosen for elaboration into a myth and why it was so widely
accepted at the dawn of the modern era in Europe. Dominican theory portrayed
witchcraft and witches as the negative mirror or inverted image of the true faith.
As Clark (1980) pointed out, in a world characterized by dualism, the Dominican
theory made a great deal of sense. This made it possible to attribute all the undesirable phenomena of the age to a conspiracy between Satan and witches against
Christianity. By associating everything negative, evil, and vicious with witchcraft,
the church could highlight the ideal components of the true faith. In his religious
tracts, King James gave this notion direct expression when he stated “since the
Devil is the verie contrarie opposite to God, there can be no better way to know
God than by the contrarie” (quoted in Clark, 1980, p. 117). In the sociological
sense, then, the witch craze can be thought of as a “collective search for identity”
and the authors of the Malleus Maleficarum as “moral entrepreneurs” (Becker, 1963,
pp. 147–63), taking part in a “moral crusade” (Gusfield, 1963), all of which tending
toward a restoration of the traditional religious–moral community. Witches represented the only deviants who were thought to attack the very core of the social
system, through an anti-religion.
This helps explain why a number of theologians and intellectuals found in the
demonology of witches a cognitively satisfactory diagnosis of the moral ills of
their time. It still has to be explained how and why this abstruse theory was
accepted by the masses.
As a result of the socioeconomic stress, the crumbling of the feudal social order,
aggravated by the climatological and demographic changes, and a disruption of
family and communal life, a feeling of doom pervaded the land. Further, “the individual was confronted with an enormously wide range of competing beliefs in
almost every area of social and intellectual concern, while conformity-inducing
pressures of a mainly ecclesiastical sort were weakened or discredited” (Rattansi,
1972, pp. 7–8). The existential crisis of individuals – expressed in terms of anomie,
alienation, estrangement, powerlessness (O’Dea, 1966) and anxiety – created a
fertile soil in which the Dominican mythology could prevail.
What better explanation for the strain felt by individuals than the idea that they
were part of a cataclysmic, cosmic struggle between the sons of light and the sons
of darkness? Their personal acceptance of this particular explanation was further
guaranteed by the belief that they could assist the sons of light to overcome and
defeat the sons of darkness – the despised witches – and thus play a decisive role in
ending the cosmic struggle to bring their own salvation nearer. Thus, the differentiation process not only threatened the macroinstitutional level but also the microlevel, that is, each individual’s cognitive map. Hence, a redefinition of moral
boundaries and a restructuring of cognitive maps would be most welcome. For
this reason the moral panic that was based on a new demonology and expressed in
the witch craze gained extensive support.
Demonological theory was ideologically attractive to the masses because of the
need for a cognitive and moral reinterpretation differentiating the religious institution from the polity. Such a differentiation creates a disturbing discrepancy between
what the reality is and what it should be. The function of ideology is to provide
concepts capable of rendering such a discrepancy meaningful and to arouse emotion about why such a discrepancy exists, specifically, to point to agents responsible. This strain was inexplicable by means of traditional concepts; a new and
different ideology revealed why witches, and specifically women, were responsible
for the discrepancy. How women became a symbol can be explained by means of
three processes: structural and functional changes in the family; changes in the
status and role of women; and demographic changes.
Ariès (1962) points out that the medieval family was a property-holding unit and
the heart of the industrial life of the community. The woman held the central
place in the home, as a housekeeper, a breadwinner, and a mother. For example,
prior to the twelfth century, the textile industry was wholly carried on by wives
and daughters of the family, roughly at this time, however, time weaving became
a skilled craft and was increasingly taken over by men. In addition to her domestic
and economic activities a woman’s function was to provide male heirs for the
family’s property and to make her husband richer by the treasures she was supposed to bring as her dowry and through her work.
Most observers accept that a woman’s status was subordinate to that of a man;
indeed, she was regarded as little more than man’s possession. As a result, women
had little control over their destiny. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the
universities taught that women were biologically inferior to men and extremely
dangerous. Scholars emphasized that menstruating women kill little children,
insert chemicals in their vagina to wound the penis of their husband, and feign
virginity and conceal pregnancy.
Some exceptions to the almost uniformly inferior status of women include the
Virgin Mary cult, which regarded women as more spiritual beings; the upheaval
that commerce, industry, and urban life brought about, often resulting in a rise in
women’s power and prestige; and the occasional scholar calling for more rights for
women. Other changes wrought by social and economic change included high
rates of unemployment for peasants moving into urban areas, low wages among
workers, and fluctuation in wages due to market prices of products. When such
conditions prevail, insecurity rises and many couples cannot get married.
Changes in the status and role of women
The changes described above created strong pressure on women to enter the job
market. The fate of the unmarried woman remained unchanged; some were sent
to religious or secular convents, hospitals, “charitable houses,” or poor houses;
others remained with their families and worked to help out. Still others were
forced to turn to prostitution; evidence attests to sharp increases in prostitution
during this era (Bullough, 1964; La Croix, 1926). In any case, the entrance of large
numbers of women into industrial roles introduced substantial changes in the
place of women in the society, their part in the family structure, and their role as
unmarried workers.
Demographic changes in the fourteenth century
During the fourteenth century, Europe experienced severe demographic changes
that bear directly on women as victims of witch-hunts. In particular, the Black
Death (1347–51) had devastating and far-reaching consequences. Although the
most serious phase of the epidemic had abated by 1350, the disease reappeared
intermittently in various locales until the end of the century. The mortality rate
was particularly high in cities due to the density of the population and the absence
of hygienic conditions. People who ran from the cities back to the villages only
spread the disease to rural areas. Lea (1901) reports of areas where, out of every
1,000 people, barely 100 survived. A widely accepted estimate is that roughly onethird of the population of Europe perished.
Ironically, after the major plagues had passed, the peasant and wage-labor survivors found themselves in a highly favorable and advantageous position. As a direct
result of the shortage in manpower, their real income was tremendously increased,
food supplies improved, and job security magnified. In addition, a substantial
number of survivors had inherited wealth from their deceased relatives. Chojnacki
(1974) notes in particular that women enjoyed increases in economic success and
wealth (p. 198), documenting the fact that females became increasingly active in
the economy and gained considerable economic power.
Given increases in standard of living, one might expect an increase in the population, but this did not happen (Nelson, 1971). The real increase in the population
did not take place until the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries. This phenomenon
can be explained in part by the sporadic, unpredictable appearance of disease as
well as the continuation of the Hundred Years War. But the most basic reason lies
The decrease in the population in the second half of the fourteenth century was
due to a significant increase in the use of contraceptive techniques and infanticide
(Helleiner, 1957, p. 71). The motive seems clear. The sector of the population that
was exposed to a suddenly and dramatically higher standard of living did not want
to share their new prosperity by raising large families. Moreover, in the fourteenth
century, life expectancy rose sharply for women, so that it is possible that they
outnumbered men and marriage became more difficult for them. Furthermore,
the economic, monetary, commercial, and urban revolutions that accompanied
the Renaissance and Reformation probably also gave a powerful stimulus to the
rise of individualism and egoism. Persons who married took care to limit the
number of their offspring, while those who did not marry made efforts to prevent
pregnancy (Spengler, 1968, pp. 436–7, 440). Church representatives complained of
the widespread use of coitus interruptus by married and single persons alike as a
means of preventing pregnancy (Wrigley, 1969, p. 124). Although historical research
on infanticide is still in its infancy and cannot yet provide us with reliable numbers
concerning the actual scope of the phenomenon in the twelfth through fifteenth
century, a growing number of scholars have suggested that the rate and scope
increased sharply during the period under question. The abandonment of children
was responsible for the spread of foundling homes in the late Middle Ages and
extensive legislation by the church to fight this practice (Trexler, 1973, p. 99). This
problem began even before the fourteenth century. By the end of the twelfth century, Innocent III had established a hospital in Rome “because so many women
were throwing their children in the Tiber” and “there were as many infanticides as
there were infants born out of wedlock” (Trexler, 1973, p. 99).
Coleman notes that “many children were left abandoned at a church’s door, and
they were accepted in order to prevent their death at the hands of their parents”
and “the purpose of … infanticide was to regulate children, not eliminate them”
(1976, pp. 57, 69). It was exceedingly difficult to prove the crime of infanticide;
indeed, “the unwed mothers and the presumed witches … were to bear the brunt
as examples and admonitions” (Langer, 1974, p. 350).
It is clear that the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries brought with them one of
the most severe demographic changes Europe had ever experienced. Hajnal demonstrates how the patterns of European marriage date roughly from this period.
“The marriage pattern of most of Europe as it existed for at least two centuries up
to 1940 was, so far as we can tell, unique … in the world…. The distinctive marks …
are (1) a high age of marriage and (2) a high proportion of people never marry at
all” (1965, p. 101). Hajnal notes in particular that the rate of single women in the
population was high. The marriage rate, he adds, “is tied in very intimately with
the performance of the economy as a whole.” In addition, he adds, “wealth may …
cause late marriage.” Some observers have noted “that people married late because
they insisted on a certain standard of living … as a prerequisite of marriage. More
single men married late because they could not afford to marry younger” (1965,
pp. 117, 132–3). He suggests that the origin of this marriage pattern lies “somewhere about the sixteenth century [and] became quite widespread … in the general population … in the seventeenth century” (p. 135). Lichtfield (1966) gives us
additional figures that exemplify changes in family structure and function. He
reports that the age of marriage for males rose to over 25. He also indicates that
among the upper middle class in Florence in the sixteenth century, larger dowries
were required for marriage. This both delayed marriages and motivated more of
the ruling classes in Catholic countries to send their daughters to convents, which
required smaller dowries (pp. 202–3). The parallel development in Protestant
countries was an increase in the number of spinsters. Midelfort (1972) adds that in
some places, the age of marriage rose to a high of 27. He also reports that the
proportion of persons remaining single rose to as high as 20 percent. Wrigley notes
that “between two-fifths and three-fifths of the women in childbearing age 15–44
were unmarried” 1969, p. 90). These changes took place progressively over Europe.
In some areas, these developments began as early as the fourteenth century
(Wrigley, 1969).
The significance of a high proportion of unmarried people in the population is
significant in a society in which a strong stigma attaches to being single. In particular, the appearance of a large number of unmarried women produced serious
problems and it is no coincidence that early on, a significant number of accused
witches were either widows or spinsters. Later, however, married women and
young girls were persecuted as well (Midelfort, 1972).
These changes suggest corresponding changes in the role of women. Assuming
urban, industrial roles forced women to move away from their traditional place in
medieval society. Ironically, by entering a labor market characterized by a depletion
of manpower strengthened misogyny (Bainton, 1971, pp. 9–14; Midelfort, 1972,
p. 183). Two centuries earlier many women could not get married because many
men could not afford marriage; in the fifteenth century, they were unable to marry
because of men’s reluctance to marry.
As we have seen, infanticide and contraceptive use were widespread and vigorously denounced by the church. According to Trexler, “child-killing has been
regarded almost exclusively as a female crime, the result of women’s inherent tendency to lechery, passion, and a lack of responsibility…. Infanticide was … the
most common social crime imputed to … witches … by the demonologists” (1973,
pp. 98, 103). Moreover, Piers notes (1978) that as large waves of migrants poured
into the expanding towns, many of whom extremely poor, many women had no
choice but to prostitute themselves. Often, these women followed armed forces
that traveled throughout Europe fighting wars. Because they were poorly paid,
prostitutes had to have many customers. They thus became bearers of venereal
diseases. Even the higher-status job of a servant meant that a woman was at the
disposal of her master’s (and his friends’) sexual appetite. Piers points out that the
servant’s unquestioning sexual availability was often the only thing between her
and abject poverty and starvation. These conditions created high rates of pregnancy, which often resulted in infanticide.
Infanticide was not only a result of the fact that many children were born out of
wedlock. Many rich women could not breast-feed their offspring, or did not wish
to. Consequently wet nurses were sought. Indications point to the fact that wet
nurses were poor women who hired themselves out after their infants died naturally or were killed (Piers, 1978). Trexler suggests that it is possible that in many
cases, becoming a wet nurse was a planned course of action; it provided a safe,
comfortable living. No wonder, then, that midwives were among the chief suspects in accusations of witchcraft. The Dominicans suspected, and probably rightly
so, that midwives were experts in birth control and abortion, and no doubt helped
with infanticide as well. The Malleus voices this suspicion quite explicitly: “No one
does more harm to the Catholic Faith than midwives.”
Under the conditions described here – large numbers of married men and
women, sexual license, sinful contraception, infanticide – the relationship between
the sexes must frequently have been one of mutual exploitation fraught with deep
feelings of guilt and resentment. Because of the powerlessness of women under
both secular and religious law, along with their inferior status, it was convenient to
project onto them this resentment and guilt. The ideology of the witch-hunt made
use of these emotions and made it possible for men who indulged in sex that
proved unhealthy for them to accuse women of taking away their generative powers. Those who were party to contraception through coitus interruptus could project
their guilt on women for stealing their seed. The fantasies about the unlimited
sexual powers and depravity of women might very well have been a reflection of
the fear engendered by the large number of unmarried women not subject to the
authority of fathers or husbands.
Hence, it is clear why women were the principal victims of witch-hunts. The
witch craze paralleled profound changes in women’s roles and in the structure of
the family. The images of the prevailing demonology reflected tensions that must
have been widespread among men; just as clearly, many men took advantage of
the prevailing sexual freedoms. Among married women, who, typically, almost
certainly did not or could not indulge in illicit sex, there must have been feelings of
resentment against “bad” women who might have bewitched their husbands and
sons. Therefore, the female witch, using sex to corrupt the society, was a “suasive
image” of great power in an ideology that aimed to rid the world of Satan’s power.
Understandably, these forces of social change put pressure on church authorities to
restore society’s moral boundaries.
How did the European witch craze end? In their most devastating form, the witchhunts lasted until the seventeenth century, concluding more or less coterminously
with the end of the Thirty Years War (1648). Several factors contributed to the
termination of the craze. First, the invasion of foreign armies from the north
contributed to the end of the craze (Nelson, 1971; Robbins, 1959). Second, the
sheer terror, scope, and nature of the witch craze helped to undermine the process itself. The terrible persecution of the 1620s caused a crisis within the very
order which did so much to direct it: the Jesuits. Already by 1617, Tanner, a Jesuit
in Ingolstadt, in Bavaria, raised some basic objections to the persecution. Friedrich
Spee, another Jesuit, became critical of the persecution after his experience as a
confessor in Wurtzburg, also in Bavaria. That experience, he claimed, had turned
his hair white and “convinced him that all confessions were worthless” (TrevorRoper, 1967, p. 158).
Third, the number of executions and the organization they demanded represented an enormous social and economic burden. The witch craze caused havoc
in Europe; as a result of the destruction of enormous swathes of real estate and
their occupants, commerce had been severely harmed. “Germany was almost
entirely occupied with building bonfires…. Switzerland had had to wipe out
whole villages in order to keep them [witches] down” (Trevor-Roper, 1967,
p. 152). The cost of the craze was mounting; officials must have recognized that it
was too high a price to pay; too many people were burned, a substantial segment
of the population had been eliminated, and the atmosphere the persecutions created had become unbearable.
Fourth, although some contemporary critics of the witch craze spoke out, none
doubted the existence of the devil or of witches. They leveled their principal criticism against the use of torture. During the sixteenth century, most believers understood that the church was engaged in a life-and-death struggle against Satan. In the
seventeenth century, critics began questioning even this foundational dogma and
hence, the very justification for the persecution itself. Clergy and laypeople alike
attacked the cruelty of torture, the implausibility of confessions, and the identification of witches.
As Midelfort points out (1972), the fact that the witch-hunt used the secular
courts also undermined the craze. This took place in the seventeenth century
because of changes in the law, which broke accusations down into discrete and
separable parts. For example, the law came to distinguish poisoning as a distinct
form of murder, and infanticide was cleaved apart from witchcraft. Eventually,
witchcraft as a distinct category prosecutable in criminal adjudication disappeared.
Thus, growing doubts as to the ideological basis for the witch-hunts clouded the
trials’ legitimacy, just as believers criticized the technologies of identifying and the
methods of torturing witches. Eventually the authorities took power away from
the courts and dismantled the inquisitorial machinery, and the persecution of
witches came to an end. The conjunction of the termination of the witch craze
with the close of the Thirty Years War is not a chance occurrence. The Peace
of Westphalia gave official recognition and legitimacy to religious pluralism and
symbolically ended the struggle to redefine the moral system of Europe. The
stresses, insecurity, and instability people living in war-stricken areas experienced
provided fuel to the burning furnace of the final phase of the witch craze. But
once Europe achieved stability and accepted religious pluralism, the witch-hunts
weakened and eventually disappeared altogether.
By the seventeenth century, new cognitive maps and institutional arrangements had emerged, demarcating science, magic, and religion from one another
and recognizing – in England, at least – the autonomy of government and the
economy, and settling secular and spiritual relationships elsewhere in such a way
that recognized the political sphere as supreme. In short, European society had
visibly and triumphantly created a new social order. The Age of Reason lay at
hand, with its new model of the rational man. In this era, the modern nation
state emerged in which the people’s primary loyalty shifted from the church to
the state; the age of secularism had begun. And the basis for the moral panic
against witches evaporated, the reasons for its eruption and its continued support had ceased to exist. A new definition of society’s moral borders began taking shape.
The persecution of witches was a failure: It had failed to restore the crumbling
medieval order. Medieval society was not reconstituted or restored – nor could it
conceivably have been restored. The attempt to do so was futile, and later scholars
could not plausibly justify the sacrifice of countless precious lives, even in instrumental terms. Whether and to what extent joining in witch-hunts psychologically
enabled participants to survive this period of uncertainty and transition is a separate question. If so, it failed to make the persecutors better Christians, even in their
own terms, which had been its stated purpose.
The Renaissance witch craze exemplified a moral panic that was greeted by strong
grassroots support. At the same time, it was a byproduct of the European transition to modernity. Moreover, it provides a clear instance of an invented form of
deviance in the sense that the condemned behavior did not exist. Witches did not
consort, engage in a pact, or copulate, with the devil, did not sacrifice and cannibalize children, and did not engage in ghoulish rituals with other witches. The
question scholars and researchers must answer, then, is why? Why were witchcraft
allegations made, why they begin in the fifteenth century, why were they made
mainly against women, and why did these allegations end in the seventeenth
This era that gave birth to the witch craze opened with significant innovations
in the scientific, political, and religious realms. Many church leaders branded these
innovations as heretical and deviant, yet they introduced flexibility and complexity
to a rigid social structure, providing the basis for a new era. The Inquisition, sensing the crumbling of the traditional medieval order, launched the witch-hunt to
prevent social change.
Here, we attempt to address three issues.
1 Timing: Why did the witch craze begin when it did? why did it end when it
did? why was it so widely accepted? and why was it distributed in the way that it
was? The witch craze began in the fifteenth century because the Inquisition, sociologically the moral entrepreneur in this drama, had a vested interest in launching
it. The Inquisition had to find new goals for itself or remain without purpose and
slowly lose power and disintegrate. In addition, during the fifteenth and sixteenth
centuries, Europe experienced the birth pangs of a new social order. In the conceptualization of Emile Durkheim, what took place was a kind of differentiation
process. This sowed the seeds of confusion and powerlessness among much of the
populace, exacerbated by severe climatological and demographic changes and
hitherto unimagined geographical discoveries, all of which caused the decentering
of European Renaissance culture. These feelings of anomie, helplessness, and confusion, however, also gave rise to progressive utopian expectations and bold scientific exploration. The witch-hunt can be explained as a desperate attempt on the
part of both the church hierarchy and the populace to recapture and restore the
previous moral and social order.
2 Content: Why a witch craze and not something else? How do we explain the
virulent attempt to crush an anti-religious ideology that focused on its supposed
purveyors, demonological witches? By emphasizing the negative – demonology as
the negative mirror twin of the perfection of Catholic ideology and practice – the
Inquisition pointed a finger at precisely the threat that undermined the medieval
order. No other heretical group, imaginary or real, threatened Christian legitimacy.
The elaboration of witchcraft theories into a complex religious ideology was a
direct result of the need for a theoretical construct to explain the turmoil and
anomie of the period. This ideology culminated in the actual persecution of
witches, first because it was devised for that purpose and second, because the trials
and executions represented the endeavor to redefine moral boundaries.
Demonology provided the theoretical justification for the craze; the persecutions
were its manifestation. We also looked at the effectiveness and success of the witch
craze ideology. Clearly, the persecutions did not, indeed, could not achieve their
primary purpose – to retard or reverse social change.
3 Target: Why were women the main victims of the craze? Our analysis of
changes in the economy, demography, and the structure of the family, specifically
changes in the role of women, clarified the nature of unmarried women, the
incidence of prostitution and infanticide, and the use of contraception formed a
salient complex of problems that seemed to arouse strong feelings. These conditions explain the suitability of the female symbol of the witch as a central element
in demonological ideology. Further, women offered a weak, relatively safe target
for the emotional zeal of the craze. Women held an inferior status to begin with;
their lack of power and organization rendered them a soft target of widespread
The moral panic expressed in the witch craze ended when the conditions for its
emergence no longer existed. The spatial distribution of the witch-hunts was a
direct result of the existence of these conditions. The witch craze took place, especially in its most virulent form, in countries or regions in which the crisis was most
deeply felt and where the church was weak. Where the church was strong and
where progressive changes had barely occurred, hardly any witch craze broke out.
The disappearance of these conditions everywhere marked the end of the craze.
A look at the witch craze emphasizes the role of stigma contests and the use of
power (Schur, 1980). We’ve already seen in the work of Stanley Cohen (1972; 2002)
that moral panics are largely about symbolic representations – contending parties
struggling to locate folk devils and define their doings as evil. In Renaissance
Europe, few people questioned the reality of the devil or his evil deeds, but at the
dawning of the fifteenth century, many observers did not accept witchcraft as
materially real or as a palpable threat to the society. Societies fought over the
reality and threat of witchcraft, and the outcome of this battle is the carnage we
spelled out in this chapter: the hunt for and persecution of witches during a period
of nearly three centuries. The outcome of this struggle was not decided because
all the members of the society as a whole were suddenly and inexplicably seized by
the reality of a threat from witchcraft. It was decided because the demonologists
seemed to have the more powerful argument, the more powerful alliances, and the
most powerful structural changes on their side.
Let us be clear about this: Witches seemed to be a threat to early Renaissance
society because the medieval social order really was under siege. The Catholic
Church faced competition from Protestantism, and skepticism and scientific reason
threatened both branches of Christianity; rural dwellers moved to cities, where the
feudal order was upended; commerce overtook farming in importance, placing the
economy on a more fluctuating and more cosmopolitan foundation; women began
entering the economy in substantial numbers, some amassing considerable wealth
and economic power, thereby undermining traditional familial and sexual roles;
new lands were discovered, populated with peoples whose culture threatened
Eurocentric notions of reality. Beginning in the fifteenth century, these and other
changes threatened to undermine the medieval social, political, and religious order
and erase the moral boundaries of European society. Demonologists won out in
the struggle to assign blame; witches caused society’s miseries, it was claimed, and
they should and must be punished. Johann Gutenberg’s timely invention of the
printing press in the 1430s and the extraordinarily opportune publication of
Sprenger and Kramer’s Malleus Maleficarum 50 years later put the technology for
discovering evidence of witchcraft and rooting out and punishing witches in the
hands of every literate demonologist and inquisitor on the Continent, thereby accelerating and intensifying the witch-hunt. Ironically, the very instrument of disseminating enlightenment – the printed book – facilitated the persecution, oppression,
mayhem, torture, and death of over a quarter of a million imaginary criminals.
The era abounds in such ironies. The Renaissance witch-hunts exploded precisely at a time when European society was emerging from its medieval torpor,
when the Catholic hegemonic symbolic-moral universe of the Middle Ages was
under siege, when competing notions of true and false, good and bad, beautiful
and ugly emerged – when European society became more multicultural, more tolerant of diverse views, more urban, cosmopolitan, and complex, in a sense, more
“modern.” It was precisely in this whirlpool of interaction between and among
bearers of disparate symbolic–moral universes that the witch craze, one of the
most virulent of moral panics in human history, erupted. It was the very emergence of cultural diversity that threatened the dominant institutions and ignited
the persecution of the witch scapegoat.
The example of the Renaissance witch craze provides a lesson for contemporary society: Multiculturalism does not eradicate the moral panic. Indeed, the
more diverse the society, the larger number of moral panics, as competing symbolic–moral universes produce their own folk devils, each with exaggerated fears
and anxieties. In turn, these folk devils resist such definitions, drawing, as they
will, on the support from members of competing symbolic–moral universes. The
modern scene of moral panics thus witnesses a larger number of moral panics,
some in conflict, some potentiating each other, and some flourishing and fading
as quickly as they have come into being. The modern, complex moral structure
of societies may very well create a social setting which gives rise to a multitude of
moral panics.
Given the increasing complexity of moral orders so characteristic of postmodern society, it is likely that we will witness a multitude of moral panics in our
future. Most will bubble up on a smaller scale than the moral panics that characterized the European witch craze or even Cohen’s moral panic that centered on the
Mods and Rockers. The differentiation of the mass media, multi-channel television, and the seemingly endless universe of Internet communications, almost
guarantees that this proliferation of moral panics is certain to accelerate. Thompson
(1998, p. 2) points out that in the contemporary era, moral panics erupt with
“increasing frequency” and “catch many more people in their net” than was true
in the past. In fact, he says, “all advanced industrial societies manifest periodic outbreaks” of moral panic (p. 11). Indeed, he insists, it is the very “rapidity of social
change and growing social pluralism” that creates an “increasing potential for
value conflicts and lifestyle clashes between diverse social groups,” which in turn
result in group members mobilizing “moral enterprise to defend or assert their
values against those of other groups” (p. 11). Within a morally complex society,
moral panics have played – and will continue to play – a major role in the manner
in which competing symbolic–moral universes define their boundaries and the
identities of persons inhabiting these universes.

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