When people ask about the Salem witch trials of 1692, they often wonder how people could have believed their neighbors were literally witches. A common explanation is that people were much more superstitious than we are now.
But why did it take until the 1400s until one’s neighbors “being” witches became a problem that needed to be solved? It’s not as though people didn’t believe in witches before 1428 (the Valais witch trials), since religious figures had been writing about witches/witchcraft for hundreds of years already by that point.
What changed at so late a date that the belief in witches began getting people killed? Were people in the 1400-1600s actually more superstitious than the generations before them? If so, why?
The Wikipedia page has a much better treatment of this topic than I ever got in school. Paraphrasing from what I remember:
1). They built their homesteads at random, there seems no rhyme or reason to me. Maybe they built them where they thought they would prosper, then expanded, then got into friction with each other. In short, money.
2). They’d been in contention with their minister before – didn’t want to pay the previous one’s wages, and didn’t want to pay their current one’s wages, st some point, and then they did, in part, and then paid the balance later. Something like that. At any rate, it became something like, “Hey, college-boy, yeah you, Rev. Churchy McChurch-Church … we’re paying for you, lets see some results. Get rid of some Satan, whydon’tcha.” In short, money.
The religious meme is, “Suffer not a witch to live.” That’s the passage in the Old Testament. Except, even in Old Testament times, witches were around – Saul managed to find the Witch of Endor. She wasn’t supposed to be allowed to live, she wasn’t supposed to be consulted, yet the anointed king went and found her. These people, who were supposedly witches, weren’t supposed to be permitted, but they were, they were even consulted. The list of people on the Wikipedia page is pretty sad – elderly people, who owned homesteads, but made their living by begging, doing “favors” i.e. “Well, you could make a rose hip tea, and give it to your sick family member, but why not buy mine, I’ve gathered it at the right star sign, and I know this’ll work. Just a dish of what you’re eating is payment enough…”
To be honest, the Early Modern Period was simply a perfect storm. There was a lot of serious upheaval in Europe following the Black Death and culminating in the Wars of Religion. The Wars of Religion killed something like 10 million people and it was the largest percentage loss of life due to war that Germany has ever experienced in the historical area (including WWI and II.) Some German states lost over 50% of their population and almost none lost fewer than 25%. It was punctuated by rebellions and economic upheaval. Soldiers were increasingly being pulled from the ranks of the general populace rather than career or class-based warrior systems that had been more common a few hundred years earlier, so farms ended up being untended and harvests were smaller. You are also contending with the loss of value of currency due to silver inflation from the Polosi mines, famines and crop failures due to the Little Ice Age, outbreaks of disease as population recovered after the Plague and Europe increasingly urbanized. The average age of marriage was nearly as high as it is today due to economic uncertainty and the lack of available male partners leaving lots of single, landless women who in ages past might have gone to nunneries, but the Protestant Reformation had destroyed those refuges. The religious atmosphere was increasingly dominated by anti-Catholic and anti-Protestant radicals as opposed to what we might call ‘career’ clergy. When we talk about Apocalyptic scenarios, in many ways the 16th and 17th centuries were living those Apocalypses. As is typical when facing these crises, communities turn insular and begin to lash out. They began looking for scapegoats and witches were one of those scapegoats. (Jews and gypsies and religious radicals were also some of the targets.) Basically, people were angry and scared and institutions had become very fragile and in some cases non-existent. The institutions that were left were themselves dominated by people who we’ll say were not always predisposed to justice and were much more concerned with stability. There was also a real theme of economic inequality. If we look at the earliest witch trials, they were not being used against the stereotypical “old woman in the woods” that we like to invent in our modern tellings. They were typically being used to take down powerful landowners and even the nobility. The early witch trials especially allowed bands of the relatively poor farmers a measure of control over the wealthy in their regions. If you look at the absolute earliest witch trials, they were being wielded against groups like the Knights Templar or the Cathar or people like Alice Kyteler who were extremely wealthy. It’s only really after the breakdown of society in the 16th century that the trials take their shift toward women and outcasts.
Anyway, the bottom line is that it was really a very tumultuous time and chaos (as Iraq, Syria, Libya and a million other examples have shown us) tends to lead to atrocity.
Romans, Germans, Celts and Slavs shared a belief in sorcery; theCodex Justinianus influenced plenty of regional codices of law that included penalties for the use of black magic. The Sachsenspiegel, for example, imposed the death penalty in such cases, and the method was death by burning at the stake.
Due to the influence of the church, sorcery was also classified as “Unglaube”, which links sorcery to apostacy and heresy - as you can see, the pieces are beginning to come together in the 13th century.
The “Peinliche Halsgerichtsordnung” of Kaiser Karl V (or the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, as you would call him) from 1530 and 1532 added an article (109), called “Straff der zauberey”, that codified the earlier regionalized laws concerning sorcery and its punishment at the stake for the entire Holy Roman Empire.
Meanwhile, the church had been engaged in a fight against groups that split away from the one true belief in the Holy Roman Catholic Church. The inquisition was particularly involved in the eradication of the Cathari, who were accused - as early as the 11th century - to meet secretly at one location to renounce Christ and debauch in all sorts of sexual practices in the presence of the devil [the notorious Sabbat(h)].
In the 13th century, the inquisition had adopted those accusations and extended them to pretty much all heretic movements.
It was also the inquisition of that time that linked the idea of heretic debaucheries with sorcerers who were also believed to be agents of the devil. And how did the Cathari and other heretics manage to reach those locations that were often far away from their homes? By flying, of course.
And there we finally have it: the link to an old folk belief that people exist who fly around at night, the witches.
The church had rejected this idea for centuries due to their origin in pre-christian beliefs and their inability to stamp those out completely - some researchers go so far as to suggest that the Christianisation was quite superficial in more than a few rural areas in Europe prior to the reformation and counter-reformation.
But in the 15th century, the church changed its tune, and, as far as we know, the trials against heretics and sorcerers in the Swiss regions played a major role in the establishment of the ideas that would lead to so much misery:
Most of the elements that redefined the idea of witchcraft were illustrated in the notorious Malleus maleficarum, the Hexenhammer, published in 1487.
In there, witchcraft was strongly - almost exclusively - associated with women due to their inclination for sexual debauchery which made them easy targets for the devil’s influence. [I’m outlining the misogynistic Malleus here, not making a statement].
This was a deviation from earlier definitions set by the inquisition who saw witchcraft as an equal opportunity for capital punishment.
The Malleus also deviated from earlier tradition in another way that had far-reaching consequences for the legal assessment of witchcraft: As the term for witches used in the Malleus “maleficae” already suggested, the authorities were asked not to categorize witches as heretics first but as practitioners of black magic - which rerouted the jurisdiction from the ecclesiastical to the secular courts, since they dealt (as stated earlier) with the damages done by such practices (the “maleficium”).
The Hexenhammer did not just highlight the turpitude of women in general but also provided the framework for a secular court to convict a true witch easily.
And yet, the first extensive wave of witch-hunts didn’t take place for another 80 years. Why? An why then?
There is no easy answer to these question; some researchers link the witch craze to the confessionalisation Europe’s, other historians see a causal connection to the Counter-Reformation.
The formation of the national state is another hypothesis - as is the reaction of the rural or agrarian population to the growing influence of capitalism (Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, for example, pointed out that the witches of Salem came from merchant families while the accusers were more associated with the agrarian areas).
Widespread misery, political instability and the loss of established value orders have all been named as the foundation for the eruption of the most vicious witch-hunts, but, once again, we find counterexamples that undermine the universal validity of such explanatory approaches.
It is pretty clear that any mono-causal explanation falls short; and even though we can see a wave-character in the appearance of extensive witch-hunts (they are usually one generation apart), they happened in different times throughout the affected regions, and they showed widely different progressions and growth.
But it is no coincidence, imo, that the most affected regions are mostly situated in and around the mauled remnants of the once united but then partisan and later torn Holy Roman Empire.
The witch craze was a warning for the 20th century, and it hadn’t been heard. It might also be a warning for our time. For all of us in the EU, and maybe for the USA as well.
Before then, Outsiders were pretty easy to spot and differentiate from yourself and those of your community; They were Turks, Almohads, Mongols who looked different from you or speakers of incomprehensible languages so you knew where you stood. With the growth of religious dissent, someone you’d grown up with in the same village and who looked and sounded just like you could be On-The-Other-Team and was a potential threat to you. It might have felt similar to the paranoia of the movie The Thing or Invasion of the body snatchers.
I think that we can’t say too much about this point. India right now as an example has an estimated 200 ‘witch’ killings a year which is a rate roughly on par with Europe during its ‘witch hunting’ craze. If we include ‘witches’ who are tortured and raped instead of killed, there are likely more ‘witch trials’ than during European craze. Obviously, their current crisis has nothing to do with the Counter-Reformation. It has much more to do with inequality and a desire to control bad things. India’s crisis is relegated to poor communities cut-off from the economic expansion of the upper classes. It is frequently wielded as a weapon to seize property and land or as part of wider inter-tribal and inter-familial conflicts (The Hatfields don’t like the McCoy’s so instead of ambushing them, in India, they get a mob to lynch them due to them being witches-type of thing.) There is an element of sexual violence as well. It’s not uncommon for the accused to simply be gang-raped or disfigured in some way rather than killed.
The bottom line though is that witch craft trials seem to be fairly wide spread (In addition to Abrahamic witch trials, we see them in Buddhist countries like Burma up until at least the 70s and of course India as well as among many, many animist groups) and in some ways it’s more productive to ask what factors go into stopping them rather than what factors lead to their creation.
However, oddly the only “real” witch (Tituba) got off, as she turned others over.
You don’t have to believe in magic to consider someone a witch. The Romans were Ok with fortune tellers, etc, but death on witches- as they found many 'witches" would sell poisons. And abortifacients. Not to mention, herbalism being what it was, some “remedy” might kill a patient.
But let’s even say no poisons are being sold. Still, you can hurt someone by them thinking you have cast a curse on them. Nowadays we’d scoff, her in the 21st Century America. But others weren’t so lucky to be in our times. So, let us say someone does cast a “curse” on a victim, and he- thru the power of suggestion- does get sick, or even dies. The intent was there- to kill or harm. The effect was there- a death. Should that not still be a crime?
You’ll notice that the heyday of witch-burning roughly follows the invention of printing. The printing press was invented in 1439. A generation later, books like the ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ (1487) became best-sellers. And not too long after that, we have a few hundred years in which ostensible ‘witches’ were prosecuted and murdered.
I don’t think that is much of a coincidence. You had a gullible, superstitious population combined with books being easily produced and widely published for the first time in human history. And people almost immediately used the new technology to disseminate manuals on identifying and hunting witches. Hmmm. These people were the enlightenment era version of InfoWars, and their audiences were just as stupid.
The printing press definitely helped to spread the Malleus Maleficarum across Europe. Its author, Heinrich Kramer (latinized Henricus Institoris), encouraged its propagation, and not just to battle witches but also heretics.
He could not have known that half of Europe would turn heretic just a couple of decades later - though he might still have felt some satisfaction from the fact that those heretics also chose his work to find, convict and punish witches in numbers that would have pleased any old-school inquisitor.
In any case, the vast circulation of the Hexenhammer and its popularity among the legal profession (and beyond) helps to explain why established rules of evidence gathering and argumentation were mostly ignored in trials concerning witches.
They were replaced by the procedures presented in the Malleus, including the generous utilization of torture - a method of finding “the truth” that had been used far less in the European legal systems than people nowadays assume.
The Malleus made convictions much easier than the regular procedures.
Add to this a populace that firmly believed in witches and was in search of scape goats for everything that went wrong at that time, add authorities that saw benefits in this situation - and a considerable increase in burning stakes is not at all surprising.
Not surprising, but nevertheless notable, is also the decline of convictions once the rules of the established legal proceedings were applied again in those trials - and that includes the rejection of torture.
Though a safeguard against false convictions was not the primary reason for the decline of witch trials.
First came a marked decline in accusations. The large witch hunts had made opportunists important and wealthy at first, but when the populace worked itself more and more into a frenzy, no one was safe any longer and more than a few profiteers of the witch craze suddenly found themselves on the rack.
The bloodlust exhausted itself and the loss of control frightened secular and religious authorities.
And the thinkers of the Enlightenment added arguments into the political and legal discourse that rocked outdated and destructive ideas and revealed attractive alternatives.
The peak of executions had topped out in England by 1620; in France even ten years earlier, and the number of cases heard dropped significantly around 1630. Germany was still in the grip of a witch craze at that time but the numbers dropped sharply in the following decade as well.
The last hunt in Scotland happened in 1661; around 1700, witch trials were rare in Europe except for Poland (until 1725).
In the end, legislative acts (like the English Act of Parliament in 1736) mostly confirmed the consensus that had made convictions almost impossible before the crime itself vanished from the books of law.
Actually, we are sure that far less witches were killed than once thought. I’ve seen on TV and plenty of times on the net estimates that go beyond one million people. This is far, far beyond any reasonable number.
The researchers Kors and Peters estimate that around 50,000 people were executed for being witches. [Kors, Alan Charles; Peters, Edward (2001): Witchcraft in Europe, 400-1700: a documentary history. University of Pennsylvania Press.]
Brian P. Levack multiplied the number of known European witch trials by the average rate of conviction and execution, and came to a number of 60,000 deaths. [in his The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe. Pearson Education, 2006.]
Barstow argued that Levack hadn’t taken into consideration lost documentation and estimated a death toll of 100,000 people - Hutton disagreed with her and came to a number close to 40,000 deaths.
A number of 50,000 to 60,000 executions between 1450 and 1750 was also given by Jeffrey B. Russell in his A New History of Witchcraft, (Thames & Hudson, 2007)].
This is a terrible death toll - but nowhere near the numbers put forth in earlier research or popular media products.
It took people a while to work out that they’re made of wood.
It’s reminiscent of French revolutionaries like Robespierre who ended up being sent to the same guillotine he’d sent many others. Or like the chiefs of the NKVD with Yagoda being given the torture/showtrial/execution treatment by his successor Yezhov who was himself give the same torture/showtrial/execution by his successor Beria who may have escaped the torture bit because no pretense at having obtained a confession was required after Stalin died. I don’t know if more informative links can be drawn but I do find it interesting how much of a vipers’ nest that sort of phenomenon can become. The prospect of that bloodthirsty monster being fed until it grows a spirit of its own sounds both like a horror story and a Monty Python sketch.
The witch craze is a lesson from more than one perspective: the conditions for herd mentality, for example, reveal themselves in historical documents; the dangers of an under-educated and deeply unsettled populace are also eminent, and we see what happens when an educated elite confuses convictions with facts and furthers anti-social behaviour when it suits its needs.
I think, we see a lot of this at work presently, but this is an entirely different topic.