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The European Witch Craze

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A witch hunt that occurred throughout Europe from the second half of the XV century to the XVII century was considered to be a striking and bloody stain in the world history of mankind. This theme was undeservedly forgotten in the XIX century, but despite this fact it again received a new round of its development at the beginning of the XX century when there was a disclosure of all new facts of the history of the Inquisition, where science has received further details of that hunt. Only in recent decades, due to a systematic painstaking processing of the court documents, monastic and municipal archives, it became possible to recreate a rough picture of those events.

Thus, in this paper we are going to discuss and explore a phenomenon of history, such as a "witch hunt", to identify the main causes of its beginning and to answer the question how and why historians disagree about the causes of witch hunting in early modern Europe.

A brief review of witch hunting

To start with, a witch hunt is a phenomenon in Western Europe (the end of the XV century and the middle of the XVII century) manifested in the massacre of women (sometimes men) who were considered to be the witches, wizards, etc. According to Katz (1994) "the overall evidence makes plain that the growth - the panic - in the witch craze was inseparable from the stigmatization of women. ... Historically, the most salient manifestation of the unreserved belief in female power and female evil is evidenced in the tight, recurrent, by-now nearly instinctive association of women and witchcraft. Though there were male witches, when the witch craze accelerated and became a mass phenomenon after 1500 its main targets, its main victims, were female witches. Indeed, one strongly suspects that the development of witch-hunting into a mass hysteria only became possible when directed primarily at women." Levack (1987) emphasized that "the limited data we have regarding the age of witches ... shows a solid majority of witches were older than 50, which in the early modern period was considered to be a much more advanced age than today."

According to various estimates, the number of casualties during this period ranged from several hundreds to thousands of innocent people. The persecution of people suspected of their involvement in harmful witchcraft began in ancient times. The Christian church has denied the existence of the witches and wizards, supposing that it was not correct for a true Christian to believe in such obscurantism. Sometimes, the priests had to protect the unfortunate people, who were considered to be the wizards and witches, against the superstitious crowd or secular authorities. It was believed that people who called themselves magicians, sorcerers, witches became the victims of the works of the devil. Besides, people stated that the devil has deceived them, instilling as though they possessed the supernatural powers, which actually were absent.

December 5, 1484 the Pope Innocent VIII issued a bull "Summis desiderantes", also known as a "magical bull." This document gave the Dominicans Jacob Sprenger and Henricus Institoris (better known as Heinrich Kramer) the right to destroy the witches in Upper Germany and along the Rhine. Two years later, these inquisitors published their famous treatise on demonology, entitled "The Malleus Maleficarum" (The Hammer of Witches), which quickly became one of the most popular books of that era. By the way, in the beginning this practical guide on how to recognize witches was not recognized by the Roman Catholic Church. Ben-Yehuda (1980) stated that "the importance of the Malleus cannot be overstated. It was to become the most influential and widely used handbook on witchcraft... The moral backing had been provided for a horrible, endless march of suffering, torture, and human disgrace inflicted on thousands of women."

There are different evidences about how many people were killed during the witch hunt. According to some data it was around two tens of thousands. Other sources stated that it was more than one hundred thousand people. Modern historians tend to an average figure - around 40,000. The population of some areas of Europe, for example, the neighborhoods of Cologne, decreased markedly because of an active struggle against witchcraft, the heretic fighters did not spare and children, who also can be blamed for the service of the devil. Briggs (1996) admitted in his book that "a potent myth has become established, to the effect that 9 million women were burned as witches in Europe; gendercide rather than genocide."

One of the main goals of the witch hunters was to find grounds on which it would be easy to identify a sorcerer or a witch. The reliable test for witchcraft was considered to be water tests: a suspected person was thrown into a lake, pond or river. Those people, who did not drown, were considered to be the witches or wizards and were subjected to the death penalty. It was widely believed that each person involved in witchcraft had a special mark that was insensitive to a pain. This mark was sought with the help of injections with needles. The description of such "diabolical marks", as well as the fact that the witches have been taken in separate prisons, and people tried to avoid their touching, has suggested to some historians to think that a witch hunt actually was the persecution and destruction of the lepers.

The causes of witch hunting

The witchcraft cases appeared slowly but confidently from the 14th-15th century. The XVI century in Europe was the start of the modernization process, the expansion of freedom of the human community. However, most researchers did not focus their specific attention on the improvement of the status of women. On the contrary, in many European countries the image of a sloth and seductive temptress again was emphasized and even gained much more aggressiveness. The cause lied in the modernization process, which led to stress, first of all men. The theme of gender inequality, segregation, limitation, and disciplining of the body replaced relaxedness. The fear of female sexuality was also one of the causes that turned "witchcraft" into a satanic heresy and a terrible crime in the period between the ends of the XIV-XVII centuries.

If people claimed to possess the occult powers, were excommunicated as the liars in the early modern era, now these people have been accused of the fact that they caused harm by a contract with the devil. This change was interpreted as the result of the efforts of late medieval clerics who fought against many heresies and experienced the fear of independent women's spirituality and prophetic gift. This new image was crystallized in the end of the XV century. It was stated that the witches did women infertile, destroyed crops and farm animals, kidnapped or murdered babies, flied to the Sabbath, where they participated in different dances and orgies. As a classic symbol of disorder, a female witch is much better target for all those who tried to strengthen a clear structure of authority in the political, religious and professional spheres.

The medieval ideas about the world order, codified by the great scholastics, were destroyed, and a modern European "world view" was just beginning to take shape, new upgraded values have not yet crystallized, and were not able to compensate for the inevitable cultural and psychological disorientation. This situation was aggravated by the foreign threats (Turkish), widespread epidemics and natural disasters. Of course, a lot of people believed in a certain occult conspiracy against the church, conducted by earthly accomplices of Satan, the idea of this plot developed later into the Catholic phobia. Moreover, the agents of this conspiracy were considered to be not only the individuals, but also the whole "criminal associations" that, of course, aggravated the guilt of their participants.

In addition, there was a powerful interest in magic, astrology, alchemy, demonology, occult. A belief in witches and dark forces became an integral part of Catholic teaching, which in the beginning condemned all occult subjects. The so-called notorious "witch hunt" appeared at this particular time when a woman was recognized and proved as vicious, when she can easily be seduced and when she could easily serve as a seducer. It was the time in early modern Europe when thousands of fires flared up across Europe and a lot of innocent women were burned down. The reasons lie both in the Biblical stories, and in a complex crisis situation in Europe at this time.

Thus, the "witch hunt" was caused by a number of different causes, which were closely linked together, through a line that is the Biblical stories, pointing to a secondary status of women and their relationship with the devil, a belief in the existence of witches was successfully interwoven with a common process of a society's disorientation, and consequently, reflected in the "witch hunt".

Moreover, it should be added that witch hunting arose and developed in the depths of the Inquisition. The Inquisition, in its primary meaning, is an investigation, academic council, but in a period of the XIII century, the Inquisition was not only endowed with the powers of observers and researchers, but also by the judges' rights (the rights to decide a man's fate). These rights finally allowed the heretic fighters to manage with people's lives. The main purpose of the Inquisition was to fight with different heresies. A heresy was considered to be any act that contradicted the decrees of the church. And all of these crimes should be subject to the court of the inquisition, which was very strict towards people accused of witchcraft. If magic was not marked by an explicit stamp of heresy, an appeal was taken to the episcopal court. The Inquisition quickly developed the methods of the exploration and recognition of heresy in all its finest shades in order to accurately distinguish a "wolf in sheep's clothing". This is a widely-known fact that a huge number of innocent people were considered to be heretics and, consequently, killed. Those cruel actions happened because of some reasons: a rich heretic's property was confiscated and passed to a "zealous inquisitor".

The terror of the Inquisition negatively affected the Church's attitude to witchcraft because the accused was increasingly forced to admit that he/she was related to the diabolical demons, to disown the Christian doctrine and to prove the fact that he/she caused a lot of harm to people with the help of the devil. The inquisitors gathered these confessions and used them as evidences. So, heresy and witchcraft were combined in a single unit and were similar to each other in the eyes of the inquisitors. Henceforth, an unshakable formula: "heretic - sorcerer," "sorcerer - heretic" became very popular with the crowds.

Thus, we can see that the persecution of witches by the Inquisition began in the first half of the XIV century. An arena for such processes has become southern France, northern Italy and southwestern Switzerland. No wonder that a real epidemic of witchcraft and witch hunting broke out in the next century in Europe. The main impetus for a wide spread of belief in the witches and wizards, the widest dissemination and its success depended primarily on its wide popularity with the clergy.

Thus, examining the above-mentioned information, it is possible to conclude that the causes of witch hunting were associated primarily with the activities of the church, which recognizing witchcraft, undertook measures against it, using all possible methods and putting in charge completely innocent people, mostly women. The confirmation of their assumptions about the existence of witchcraft and the links with the devil of average people, the inquisitors received from the heretics who under torture confessed in the actions and things that were desired by an inquisitor. In this period of time, the witch hunt has started to get the scope of the epidemic, under torture the heretics confessed in the links with the devil and created fertile grounds for the inquisitors.

Historians' disagreements about the causes of witch hunting

This is a widespread fact that many historians disagree so markedly about the causes of witch hunting in early modern Europe. Thus, in this part of the paper we will pay a specific attention to the historians' disagreements about the causes of the witch hunt. There are several versions concerning the origin of mass processes regarding the witches. However, none of which cannot be considered to be exhaustive.

According to one version, the witch hunt was only a continuation of an eradication of heresies. The proponents of this view argue that the Inquisition perceived witches as the members of an organized satanic sect. Refuting this fact, historians admitted that the Inquisition's goal was not to destroy the witches. It pursued only people who were suspected of witchcraft, only if they were involved in some heretical movements.

In accordance with another point of view, the witches were persecuted as phantoms "an internal enemy" along with outcasts, primarily Jews and lepers. But despite this fact such comparative retrospectives do not clarify the main causes of the mass witch hunt. There is also a psychoanalytic interpretation of those processes by which they were mass misogynies - a war of men against women. But to say that those processes were "women's holocaust", interfere with two historical facts - among those convicted of witchcraft were about one third of men. So, we can draw a conclusion that historians disagree with that fact.

Finally, according to one of the most convincing explanations, the emergence of demonological scientific treatises - instructions on how to identify and eradicate the witches facilitated those processes towards the witches.

The active persecution of sorcerers and witches is a result of medieval theology, church organization and trials of witches, held by the papacy and the Inquisition. Under the influence of scholastic demonology, they were the same as the trials of heretics.

According to the most curious version, the witch hunt was a result of mass hysteria caused by stress, disease, war, famine, and also more specific causes, among which the most frequently mentioned ergotism (mold, which appeared on rye in wet years) or atropines (belladonna and other plant and animal poisons). However, to accept this version interferes with the duration of the era of the witches' persecution and bureaucracy, even routine processes. Besides, then it will be necessary to recognize that not the farmers exhausted by hunger and stress suffered from consciousness disorder, but the scientists of demonology and the judges: historians have proved that the stories about flying to the Sabbath and other improbable things, allegedly caused by hallucinations, were not the fantasies of the accused, but only the answers to the direct questions of investigators, who pursued through torture a confirmation of their own ideas about what and how the witches should do.

Many historians stated that this religious genocide was motivated by the Church's desire to achieve a complete religious monopoly, or according to an official site of the "non-wiccan" Witch Community (2010) it was "a tool of repression, a form of reining-in deviant behavior, a backlash against women, or a tool of the common people to name scapegoats for spoiled crops, dead livestock or the death of babies and children." Despite the fact that Christianity neatly created the perfect basis for the witch hunts, not only the Church was guilty of witch hunting. A lot of temporal governments began to hunt the witches for substantially non-religious causes. In addition to the above-mentioned information, it is necessary to add that Stephens (2000) who is a professor of Italian studies suggested his own views about the causes of witch hunting: "I think Witches were a scapegoat for God."


To sum up, it is possible to draw a conclusion that the "witch hunt" is not just a fanatic passion of church leaders to cleanse the world from heretics, this is a complex of causes that gave rise to the "witch hunt", the basis of which is the Bible, drawing a minor and disadvantaged position of women and supporting such their positions, as well as the circumstances of the public environment at this stage of its development: the church, which has a powerful reputation in the community, the crisis that has spread to all spheres of life, prolonged war. The development of a large-scale hunt associated with the activities of the church, which recognized witchcraft, and openly fought with it, all this was reinforced by the numerous Pope's instructions and his positive attitude to the most ardent activists of the Inquisition. All this has led to the fact that the "witch hunt" has swept across Europe, collecting more and more details about serving the devil.

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