Before looking at the actual conduct of the witchcraft
trials, it is important to assess the intellectual context
of the time, because without a belief in witches and
witchcraft, the witch-hunts would never have occured.
It is also important to make distinctions between the
beliefs of the upper, and educated classes and that
of the peasentry. Between those who prosecuted the witches
and those who accused them and were most often the victims.
Upper and Educated Classes
By the end of the 16th century, most educated Europeans,
believed in witches who performed harmful magic, and
engaged in various diabolic activities, most importantly
they had an explicit and acknowledged pact with the
A second accepted witch-belief was that witches having
made a pact with the Devil, gathered regularly with
other witches. At these gatherings, known as Sabbats,
the witches were thought to participate in various vile
acts, such as cannibalism (especially of children),
dance naked and engage in various devient sexual acts,
including intercourse with the Devil. (see the Witch
as Inernal Other for more on these characteristics).
Another activity thought to be underaken was a parody
of the Christian eucharist. Closely associated with
the Sabbath beliefs was that which stated that witches
used there demonic powers to fly, which allowed them
to travel vast distances in almost an instant.
It is important to remember that these ideas, especially
those related to the relationship between the witch
and the Devil, were those of the literate upper classes,
of the theologians, priests, lawyers and magistrates.
While the peasants had some exposure to the sophisticated
demonological beliefs of the upper classes, and could
understand why a peasant might make a pact with the
Devil to improve their lot, the peasants concern with
witches was much more mundane. They feared the witches
ability to use magic to harm them, their families, herds
and crops more than they did the witches association
with the Devil.
The Devil played a central role in witch beliefs in
the period under consideration. The concept of the Devil
had changed much over the period leading up to the Witchcraft
Hunts. In early Christian thought, the Devil, usually
refered to as Satan ("the adversary") was being who
had tempted Christ and who ruled over an ever increasing
host of lesser demons. Satan's power and influence increased,
and the struggle between the Kingdom of Satan and the
Kingdom of Christ grew more intense.
As Christianity spread across Europe, the Church fathers
would consign the religions which they found, and competed
against, both Pagan and Jewish, to the Kingdom of Satan.
An example of this is the physical depiction of Satan.
In order to effectively deal with converts or potential
converts, the Church would demonise the Pagan gods.
Making them into the demons of the Devil. The blackness
of Satan reflects the belief that black is the colour
of sin, however, many other characteristics denote Pagan
orgins, such as the goatee, the cloven feet, the horns
and semi-animal form, that bear a remarkable resembalence
to Pan and Cernunnos.
While having no physical body, the Devil had the power
to create a body, from earth, vapours etc. This accounted
for the coldness of touch that the Devil was said to
have had when having sex with witches. The Devil also
had the power to possess the body of humans, especially
the witches who were his servants. The Devil also had
the power to creat illusions.
While the Devil had limited power over the physical
world, he could not control the will. He could tempt
and delude, but not force someone to join him.
Pact with The Devil
This Pact formed a central pillar of the witch beliefs
of the period. The pact helped to define the crime of
witchcraft and also served as the link between the practice
of harmful magic and the worship of the Devil.
It was not uncommon for many to practice various forms
of ritual magic. However, this practice was increasingly
condemned by theologians. It was important for theologians
to weaken the arguement that those who practiced certain
types of magic did so for benevolent purposes and infact
commanded the demons whom they used. They did this through
the logical arguement that demons would not provide
this service unless they recieved some sort of payment
By making the pact, the magicans was giving something
to the Devil that belonged to God alone. This made the
magican a heretic for it denied God the exclusive position
in the Universe that Catholic doctrine demanded. Worse,
the magican was an apostate for he was denying his Christian
faith by agreeing to worship or otherwise serve a demon.
The significant fact here is the use of the pact as
the act of heresy and the blanket condemnation of all
ritual and/or ceremonial magic on these grounds. This
blanket condemnation could easily be extended to all
forms of magic and the charges of being heretics and
apostates left them suseptable to charges commons against
heretics, that of secret and collective worship, and
total perversity and anti-human behaviour. And as heretics
they were open to prosecution by papal inquisitors.
Another important element in the intellectual foundations
of the witchcraft hunt was the belief in the large,
nocternal gathering of witches known as the Sabbath.
This belief was important in that while the pact with
the Devil made it necessary to prosecute witches, the
belief that they gathered in large numbers made it necessary
to search for the confederates of accused and convicted
The activities that took place at the Sabbath was influenced
by many factors, most cultures have a collective nightmare,
a belief in people who invert the social structure and
beliefs of a culture in order to help destroy it. One
of the classic activities of the Sabbath is that of
cannibalistic infanticide, which most societies consider
to be the ultimate taboo or moral offence.
Another aspect is that of outrageous sexual behaviour.
The heavy sexual restrictions and attitudes of the Church
in this period would help account for the erotic aspects
of the Sabbath - ritual intercourse with the Devil,
promiscous heterosexual and homosexual sex.
The Ability to Fly
The ability of witches to fly also had an impact on
the ideas relating to witchcraft. This element of the
concept of withcraft had its orgins amongst the common
people of Europe. It orgins go back to classical times,
with the idea that at night, woman could transform themselves
into animals, especially screech owls or strigae
who would devour infants. The other element was that
women went out at night on a ride, sometimes called
the 'wild hunt' with Diana, Roman goddess of fertility,
who was often associated with Hecate, goddess of magic.
Partipants in these rides were often thought to take
part in benificent activities.
Some women believed that they took part in these rides.
When the literate elite accepted these ideas, it was
these women who were open to suspicion and accusation
Initially, the Churched viewed these belief with scepticism,
seeing them as delusions and illusions created by demons.
Although not being seen as having no reality, they were
viewed as serious threats because they were nonetheless
heretical. These two beliefs eventually combined. Also,
importantly, the elite no longer viewed these activities
as mere dreams but as reality, evidence of demonic activity.
Movement of Witchcraft Ideas
The development and transmission of learned ideas about
witchcraft occured as a result of the interaction between
the judical process of prosecution and a literary tradition.
The development of ideas was undoubtedly influenced
by the beliefs of those who conducted the prosecutions.
Results of trials were transmitted by word of mouth
to other judges and often became the subject of various
treatise and pamphlets. Transmission of these ideas
was also aided by universities, who were responsible
for the education of the next generation of judges,
magistrates and lawyers. As such, beliefs changed and
grew, reflecting the beliefs of those involved.
The introduction of the printing press also played
in important role in that it allowed for more rapid
transmission of learned beliefs across a much larger
geographical area. As the literature became more popular,
the trials served to reinforce and valid the beliefs
contained in the literature.
The first witchcraft treatise that assumed major importance
in the spread of cumulative ideas was the Malleus
Maleficarum. The work of two Dominican inquistors,
first published in 1486 it became the main handbook
for inquisitors involved in the hunt for witches. Part
of its importance lay not in the ideas it professed,
they had been in existance for many years, but rather
it lay in the theological support for the ideas it was
advancing, the legal advice on how to bring witches
to trial and perhaps, most importantly of all, the claim
that those who denied the reality of witchcraft were
heretics. The work served as an important precondition
for the witch-hunts that followed.
While the various printed works were important in disseminating
idea about witchcraft amongst the literate elite, these
works had little direct affect on the beliefs of the
lower classes. It was from amongst these people whom
accusations, apprehension and testimony against witches
One way in which the ideas spread was the reading of
the charges against witches at their executions. Another
was the deliberate instruction of people. During times
of panic bishops and members of preaching orders would
preach against witches to prevent people from unwittingly
joining sects, to extract confessions and to win the
support of the people in combating this crime.
The concepts in regard to witchcraft proved very resiliant.
While the witch-hunts were under way, Europe was under
the influence of a movement that challenged many of
its ideas, The Renaissance.
It challenged it in many ways. It encouraged general
contempt for medieval learning, especially scholasticism
which failed to live up to the high standards of classical
times. Also, the main philosophical system of the Renaissance,
neo-Platonism, posed a direct challenge to the Aristotelian
philosophy of scholasticism. Renaisannce humanism posed
a strong threat to the witchcraft beliefs that had been
developing over the previous two centuries.
However, neo-Platonism never entrenched itself enough
in European intellectual circles enough to undermine
the more entrenched witchcraft beliefs. Another more
important reason for the failure of this philosophy
to defeat witchcraft beliefs was that is did not deny
two central ideas: that of the existance of the Devil
and the efficacy of magic.
"The formulation, transmission and credulous
reception of the cumulative concept of witchcraft by
members of the learned and ruling elite served as one
of the main preconditions of the great European witch-hunt".(Levack,
Levack, Brian "The Witch-hunt in Early Modern Europe"
(London: Longman, 1987)
Hart, Roger "Witchcraft" (London: Wayland Publishers,
Maple, Eric "Witchcraft" (London: Octopus Books,
Britannica Online "Occultism: Witchcraft: Witchcraft
in Historical Cultures: Western Christendom" - http://www.eb.com:180/cgi-bin/g?DocF=macro/5004/71/47.html