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Witchcraft Craze History

Intellectual Foundations

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 Devil.

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.

Peasant Classes

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.

Witchcraft Concepts

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 or pact.

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.

The Sabbath

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 witches.

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 as witches.

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 most come.

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 Renaissance

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, p.60)


Levack, Brian "The Witch-hunt in Early Modern Europe" (London: Longman, 1987)
Hart, Roger "Witchcraft" (London: Wayland Publishers, 1971)
Maple, Eric "Witchcraft" (London: Octopus Books, 1973)
Britannica Online "Occultism: Witchcraft: Witchcraft in Historical Cultures: Western Christendom" -

Page Updated 7th April, 2000
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