In the present time, we often use terms such as witch,
sorcerer and magician interchangeably. However, in the
Early Modern period, each of these terms had very specific
meanings. As such it is important to have a clear idea
of the meanings of these words in the context of the
time in question.
When talking about witchcraft, people in early modern
Europe could be refering to one or both types of witchcraft.
The first involved the concept of maleficia,
or harmful magic and the second was witchcraft in the
sense of dealing with demons, called diabolism.
Over the approximate 300 year period that included the
witch hunts, the meanings of these words changed, often
becoming intermingled, picking up and exchanging certain
The other main concept of the time was that of sorcery.
Although this was also a crime in the relevant period,
it was never prosecuted with as much zeal as those accused
In its simplest sense, maleficia from the Latin,
means harmful. Another aspect of the word as it was
commonly used is to denote the performance of harmful
deeds or acts by means of mysterious or occult power.
This type of magic would include killing someone by
using a spell, working with a doll in the image of a
person or destroying crops by calling down a storm.
A person who commited such an act were called malefici
The essential characteristic of these maleficent deeds
is that they are magical rather than religious and harmful
rather than benefical. They are carried out by individuals
who possess some sort of mysterious power to perform
The distinction between harmful and beneficial magic
is important. To fall into the category of maleficia,
the purpose of the magic must be to cause harm.
High and Low Magic
Another distinction to make within maleficia
is that between high and low magic. High magic is considered
sophisticated, requiring some level of education to
practice. The most common form of high magic would be
something like alchemy or divination.
Low magic requires little or no education and can be
learned by oral transmission or apprenticeship. Examples
would be the use of charms or spells. Most of the maleficia
in the early modern period fell into this category of
low magic. The reasons for this include the fact that
the majority of witches came from the lower levels of
society and the fact that most high magic was considered
The other activity that came to be part of the definition
of witchcraft in the early modern period was the act
of diabolism, or relationship with the Devil.
A witch was someone who commited harmful magic and
who had also made some sort of pact with the Devil.
It was often thought the the witch recieved her powers
to harm people from the Devil himself.
"The emergence of the belief that the witches
were not merely magicians but Devil-worshippers changed
the nature of the crime of witchcraft. It made witches
not simply felons...but heretics and apostetes, intrinsically
evil individuals..." (Levack, p.8)
Although maleficium and sorcery have similar characterisitics,
they are not the same. Sorcery tends to involve the
practice of magic by some sort of mechanical and manipulative
process. Sorcery is a skill that can be acquired. Sorcery
can be distinguished from maleficium on two possible
grounds. Firstly, it can sometimes be considered beneficial
and secondly, maleficent acts don't need any special
technique or tools. That is the maleficent act can be
committed through the inate powers of the witch without
any physical assistance, such as using the evil eye
or cusing or wishing.
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
My aim in this section of my site is to provide some
of the current academic thinking in relation to this
period and the events that occured. If you would like
to contribute or make a comment, feel free to contact