Introduction II.B:

4. The Witchcraze

  1. Introduction
  2. Theological Causes
  3. Social Causes  
  4. Magicians' Objections to Witch Hunting
  5. The End of the "Great Hunt"

a.    Introduction

In connection with the magical philosophy we must mention the "witchcraze" of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (1550–1650).  Although almost all cultures have had some concept of witches (which, in this context may be defined as a person — often a woman — who uses magic to work evil on individuals and the community), and have taken action against people perceived to be witches, the European witchcraze was unprecedented in its virulence: recent scholarship estimates that 40 to 50 thousand people — mostly women — were executed, often in cruel ways, and frequently following horrific torture.  It was also unique for persecuting witches for being witches, regardless of whether they were accused of working evil, or even if their actions had good intentions and outcomes.  A full discussion of the origins and progress of the witchcraze is outside the scope of this course, but the following observations are relevant.

b.    Theological Causes

The existence of witches had not always been taken for granted; indeed previously belief in the existence of witches had been considered heretical!  However, by 1600 the existence of Satanic witchcraft was supported by the church, because denying the power of Satan and the demons might lead to denying the existence of Satan, which might lead to atheism.  Or, to put it the other way, if the existence of God and the angels are accepted, why shouldn't the existence of Satan and the demons be granted?  For this argument to work, it was necessary to deny the reality of natural magic, for then, if witches succeeded in their potions and spells (regardless of whether the result was good or evil), it must be through the agency of Satan and the demons.  So argued, for example, Kramer and Sprenger, the authors of the infamous Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches), the most popular witch-hunters' manual.

The witch-hunters also argued that Satan could not accomplish his evil except with the willing participation of humans, especially women, for they were assumed to be more susceptible to moral extremes, but especially depravity, because of their weaker rationality and their greater attachment to the body.  Thus, Kramer and Sprenger asserted, "All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable."  They claimed that women were less interested in motherhood than in sex, which Satan provided the witches through orgiastic sabbats.  Therefore also midwives were accused of conspiring to kill babies to provide raw materials for Satanic magic.  (We may be reminded of contemporary debates about abortion and stem-cell research.)

c.    Social Causes  

In addition to the continuing, church-sanctioned belief in Satanic witchcraft, social factors contributed to the witchcraze, and persecution of witches was most common in politically unstable areas or in regions of religious conflict.

Beginning in the twelfth century there had been a spread of heretical sects, many of which welcomed women and granted them more autonomy than was typical in medieval society.  In this way women became linked with heresy, and when the Inquisition was established in 1230, old peasant women living alone were often its target.

The plague of the fourteenth century had decimated large areas of Europe and led to social instability and further proliferation of heretical sects.  Of course plague, famine, and other disasters and miseries were attributed to the action of Satan and his demons, who were supposed to work especially through women, as the weaker sex and more susceptible to carnal temptations.  By blaming witches, the ruling classes placed the cause of poor people's misery within the ranks of of the poor themselves, and ensured the peasantry's dependence on the ruling classes for their protection, thus defusing peasant revolts.

It's also worth remarking that in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries female healers were often in competition with doctors, who promoted the professionalization of medicine and petitioned governing bodies to make the unlicensed practice of medicine illegal.  (Women could not study medicine in the universities, which were restricted to men preparing for the priesthood.)  On one hand, these professional physicians were often ineffective in their cures, but on the other, if an illiterate peasant women was successful in curing someone, that was taken as evidence she had collaborated with the Devil.  (How else could she have done it?)  Ironically, the good witch was considered more culpable than the evil one, for the good witch, through her cures and other benefactions, made Satanic witchcraft more attractive.  Therefore, even good witches were condemned to death.

d.    Magicians' Objections to Witch Hunting

Several of the Hermetic magicians, including Agrippa and his student Johann Weyer (1515?–88), argued against witch hunting or defended individual witches, which only further darkened their own reputations.  Ironically, they argued that ignorant peasant women were incapable of mastering the subtleties and complexities of natural magic!  Others defenders argued that witches were innocent dupes of the Devil, who was able to predict what was going to happen naturally, and then convince witches that they had caused it, and therefore they argued that the witches should be treated more leniently.  Also, Weyer and others argued that torture was an ineffective method of extracting the truth, for the obvious reason that victims would confess to almost anything to escape the excruciating pain.  Nevertheless, the use of torture continued until the spread of accusations began to touch influential men.

Magicians themselves were not safe from the Inquisition; for example, 1600 saw both the burning of the Hermetic magician Giordano Bruno (1548–1600) (with his tongue staked so that he could not utter heresies) and the torture of Tommaso Campanella (1568–1639), which continued until 1603, and who escaped execution only by pretending madness for the next 27 years of his imprisonment.

e.    The End of the "Great Hunt"

The end of the "Great Hunt" (as the witch persecution was called) has been attributed to stabilization of the power base of the privileged classes, the adoption of the mechanical philosophy (discussed next), and the intention to exploit nature for human benefit (see Easlea, 1980, for a detailed argument).  As we will see, the mechanical philosophy required the existence of God and immaterial souls, and therefore witch hunting was not needed to provide evidence of their existence and bolster Christian faith.

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