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A Brief History of the Persecution of Witches in Europe

In its most basic definition, a witch is simply a person who practices witchcraft (Russell, n.d.). The belief in magic and incantation has existed in almost every culture and civilization in the history of humanity. If one is to go down to the basics, all wielders of magic are considered alike, yet the differentiation has been made between those who practice a ‘good’ form of magic and those that practice a ‘bad’ one. These classifications vary greatly depending on community, culture, religion, and historical period. One who is called a witch is almost always a wielder of the ‘bad’ form of magic, also called ‘black’ or ‘dark’ magic, but the definition concerning the type of magic has also changed throughout history. Within Europe, the ideas and beliefs behind witches follow different trends based on the historical and religious context, with Pagan and Christian beliefs playing a major role in defining the history of how people suspected of practicing witchcraft were treated.

While the belief in witchcraft is deeply related to faith, superstition, and cultural assumptions, the practice is grounded in reality by the character of the witch. Unlike other ‘supernatural’ characters, the witch stands between the real world and the ‘other,’ conjuring magic yet remaining in the form of a human, which most of the time is a woman. Even though the complicated history of witches could be easily titled a product of superstition and the panic of an uneducated crowd, as witchcraft is clearly a cultural belief based on faith more than scientific fact, witch laws were an element of the official judicial system of many regions throughout European history (Levack, 2016). Many people were shunned, persecuted, and put on trial as witches in the name of civil and religious law. Although the definition of witchcraft may have varied throughout the years, the defining experience of the witch in history has been one of oppression. This persecution affected mainly women, with many records providing information about them being blamed for inconveniences and pointed at if they ever exhibited 'suspicious' behavior. Women were often put to trial without much evidence other than a witness accusing them, which almost always led to a death sentence.

Figure 1: Women were sentenced to death if found guilty of practicing witchcraft (Gardiner, 1655).
The Roman World

Magic and incantations had a prominent presence in the Roman imagination and everyday life, which was greatly influenced by Greek culture, religion, and institutions when it came to the classification and belief in magic, particularly in the early Roman culture, after the seventh century BC (Dickie, 2003). Everyday magical practices, mostly of a religious Greek origin, have been recorded in the Roman world (Dickie, 2003). Amulets to ward off evil or call for the healing of the sick were not an uncommon sight, and some curse tablets have been found in an Etruscan necropolis in Volterra, Italy (Dickie, 2003). The Etruscan civilization is considered as the precursor of Rome when it came to power in the Italian peninsula. Early Roman culture adopted much of Etruscan culture when most of the Etruscan controlled territories were assimilated into the Roman sphere in the fifth century BC (Gorlinski, n.d.). While amulets and curse tablets were considered a type of incantation, and they called upon a mystical power to protect the wearer and ward off enemies, these more conventional forms of magic were not distinguishable from religious practices. The Roman people who would follow these types of beliefs did not consider it magic that could alter the course of nature (Dickie, 2003). Rather, these were accepted practices in Roman society.

During the late Roman Republic and the early Roman Empire, around the first century BC, a difference was made between what can only be described as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ magic. Dark magic wielders would practice rites essentially identical to the popular religion. These were more wicked and perverse acts, as they were done with an intention to change the set course of nature, defying the gods and the divine (Dickie, 2003). This period of time and this differentiation between different forms of magic is when one can find the legal restrictions that a wielder of magic could be suppressed with. One of the earliest recorded cases of prosecution of witchcraft was that of a woman named Numantina in the year 24 AD. She was accused of causing erratic and deranged behaviour in her former husband through incantations and potions, causing him to kill his second wife (Dickie, 2003). Although Numantina was acquitted and not imprisoned, the accusation is a great example of the persecution of witches through completely official and legal channels. Numantina was charged under the Lex Cornelia de sicariis et veneficiis, a Roman law that dealt with many crimes and included bewitching someone as one of these offenses (Dickie, 2003). Numantina's case is also one of the first instances where women were blamed for the behavior of others, as she was the one put to trial because of the crimes of her former husband.

Figure 2: The Lex Cornelia de sicariis et veneficiis was enacted by Roman dictator Sulla in 81 BC (Classical Numismatic Group, 54 BC).
The Rise of Christianity and the Middle Ages

While the Romans differentiated magic based on intention and defiance of the divine law, this changed with the rise of Christianity during late Antiquity. After Emperor Constantine the Great converted to the religion in the fourth century AD, the demonization of everything magic became more widespread (Flint, 1999). The Bible became the new source for defining magic. Christian thought changed the culture across all the Roman Imperial territories and relied on a monotheistic and more centralized religion (Flint, 1999). Evidence of Christian legislation mentioning magic as early as 319 AD has been found, showing how the shift from paganism to Christianity began influencing the cultural conceptions of the Romans (Dickie, 2003). While Roman paganism did not draw such a divide between religion and magic, Christianity condemned any deviation from the Church as demonic (Hutton, 2017). The Roman Empire became a Christian Empire, and the laws of Church and Empire were completely interdependant. In this period, persecution of witches became a more public issue. Christians believed they must hunt witches down and not simply legislate their behavior (Flint, 1999).

One of the most famous cases of persecution of a suspected witch during this time was the death of Hypatia of Alexandria. She was one of the most brilliant mathematicians of her time but had the misfortune of living under Byzantine rule in Roman Egypt in the fifth century AD (Dzielska, 1996). Her intelligence already proved unsettling for the clergy of the city and her deep knowledge of classical philosophy and adherence to Roman paganism made her a target for the Bishop of Alexandria and the Christian community at large. While she tried to enjoy a life of study and reclusion, a rumor spread amongst the general population that she was a witch casting satanic magic over the rulers of Alexandria (Dzielska, 1996). There has been great mention that these rumors were propagated by the Bishop of Alexandria himself, knowing the fear this would awaken in the population and the grave punishment that she would receive according to Christian law. Hypatia was finally dragged from her carriage by an angry mob and killed in the year 415 AD (Dzielska, 1996). The fear of Hypatia influencing her students with her "pagan philosophy" had infected the population, as she refused to adhere to the Christian religion (Dzielska, 1996). This was an extrajudicial execution carried out by a mob of early Christians, showing how much witch hunting was influenced by public outrage. This was true even in cases where the proper legal process was carried out. Hypatia's case is not an outlier when it comes to baseless accusations, as similar situations can be seen throughout history. Any behaviour that could be considered a deviation from the Church would make a woman a witch under the public's eyes. In Hypatia's case, her incantations were simply philosophical teachings of a non-Christian origin.

Figure 3: An artist's interpretation of the murder of Hypatia (Unknown, mid 19th century).

During the Middle Ages in central Europe, there seems to be very few records of witch trials up until the 15th century (Hutton, 2017). Although the persecution seemed to die down, medieval law still condemned dark magic and prescribed the death penalty for anyone found guilty of practicing it (Hutton, 2017). What was to be considered dark magic is comparable to the Roman definition of the concept. While priests and clergy performed religious rituals, exorcisms, and prayers in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit, witches would perform similar rituals invoking demons and Satan (Hutton, 2017). During this period, witches became the explicit enemies of the Church, representing a direct mirror of pure evil. The small number of witch trials that occurred after the 10th century would bear the same characteristics as trials during the famous witch hunting craze of the Early Modern period: local trials and angry mobs accused women of strange behavior or strange occurrences happening in their vicinity (Hutton, 2017). Women who were labeled witches were commonly blamed for creating famines, killing crops, and other general misfortunes that may affect the general population.

Renaissance and Reformation

In the year 1486, perhaps the most famous witchcraft treatise was published by Heinrich Kramer, a Dominican inquisitor (Levack, 2016). The Malleus Maleficarum, translated as The Hammer of Witches, provided detailed information about witchcraft and magical practices, with the intention that the general population would be informed on how to better identify witches. The book brought to the public’s attention rituals like the Black Mass, a demonic version of the Catholic mass that was celebrated at night by a coven of witches. The text also highlighted the concept of every witch making a pact with the Devil (Levack, 2016). While the papal inquisition, also known as the Medieval Inquisition, had been created in the 12th century to prosecute and eliminate heresies, like Catharism, during the Middle Ages, inquisitors like Kramer had turned their attention towards witchcraft as the new threat facing the Church (Levack, 2016). Before publishing the Malleus Maleficarum, Kramer had received a papal bull, which is a public decree granted by a pope of the Catholic Church, that allowed him to prosecute witches in his dioceses without any resistance (Levack, 2016). The papal bull, and other witchcraft treatise like Malleus Maleficarum, spread fear amongst the population, and it soon became a public safety issue for many communities. This growing awareness around witchcraft seems to be the central reason for why the number of trials and accusations increased after this period (Levack, 2016).

Figure 4: A 1669 edition of the Malleus Maleficarum (Bibliteca Europea di Informazione e Cultura, 1669).

The Reformation impacted European society to its core, as it cracked the apparent solidity of the Catholic Church (Levack, 2016). The movement, initiated by Martin Luther, caused Church officials to reevaluate their long-standing laws and traditions and launch their own Counter-Reformation. While some historians claim that the Reformation is what caused the rise of witch trials in the 16th century, it certainly introduced an augmented fear of evil in the population (Levack, 2016). For Catholics, the mere event of the Reformation was the Devil’s work; whereas, Protestant leaders like Martin Luther emphasized the presence of the Devil in the world by pointing out the distancing of the clergy from Holy scripture (Levack, 2016). There are records of witch trials in both Protestant and Catholic communities since the mid-1500s, proving that these trials were a more communal issue than a theological one (Levack, 2016).

The period with the most recorded witch trials was between 1560 and 1630, with waves of multiple trials taking place across western and central Europe (Levack, 2016). Most of the trials occurred in the territories of modern-day Germany, which became the hotspot for witch hunting in the 1600s; yet the Spanish Inquisition is perhaps the most recognizable symbol of European witch trials. In reality, the Spanish Inquisition dealt with more cases relating to heresy and the practice of Judaism in secret rather than persecuting witches (Levack, 2016). The great Basque Witch Trials between 1609 and 1611 marks a period of particularly strange witch panic in the northern region of Spain, but it is also an important turning point for the Inquisition’s prosecution of witches (Levack, 2016). The Inquisitor Alonso Salazar Frias noticed the great influence that public panic and superstition had upon people’s testimony and even doubted the testimony of children, who happened to be the most common witnesses during witch trials (Levack, 2016). Salazar Frias emphasized the need for more thorough and reliable evidence and redirected the Inquisition’s preoccupations towards Jewish people and heretics. The same skepticism that Salazar Frias showed began to spread throughout the entirety of Europe, influenced by the Scientific Revolution, causing for the rapid decline of baseless accusations and witch trials all over the continent (Levack, 2016).

Figure 5: The Basque witches were accused of convening to celebrate Sabbath in a cave near the town of Zugarramurdi, Spain (Goya, 1798).
The Enlightenment

The Enlightment, also known as the Age of Reason, brought a more notable reluctance in prosecuting witches (Levack, 2016). In 1737, the British Parliament instated an act that criminalized the act of claiming to possess magical powers or abilities. This act represented the change from a superstitious society ruled by religious authority to a secular body of law defined by reason (Davies, 1999). The need to protect the people from ignorance-based fear and superstitions such as magic became a more important focus, which caused the belief in witchcraft to be a crime against the “enlightened state” more than a crime against God (Davies, 1999).

The last official execution under charges of witchcraft happened in Glarus, Switzerland, in 1784 (Levack, 2016). In this last case, Anna Göldi was accused of bewitching her employer's child (Levack, 2016). This final trial brought a close to a complicated chapter of European history. Superstitions and beliefs of demonic forces persevered, particularly in more rural and poor communities, but the ruling classes and emerging bourgeoisie understood these beliefs to be contrary to reason (Davies, 1999). While there were some instances where angry mobs took it upon themselves to hunt down a suspected witch, these were actions completely outside of the law and could be punishable as well (Levack, 2016). The fear of the Devil faded into the background of the 18th century, and society took up new enemies of the public order that were not necessarily the enemies of the Church.

Figure 6: Anna Göldi's arrest warrant was published in the paper Neue Zürcher Zeitung, offering a reward for capturing her (Historische Lexikon der Schweiz HLS, 1782).

With each period of witch hunting, the same tendencies seemed to influence the population. The witch represented pure evil, the other, and the antithesis to everything that is good and godly, making her an extremely dangerous character. The witch hunting craze seems to be the manifestation of pure fear, following mostly public panic and groups jumping to conclusions with little to no evidence. It has been recorded since Roman times that witchcraft was to blame for the many misfortunes that may fall upon the population. Difficult situations like child illness, as in Anna Göldi's case, or bad crops, like in Ancient Rome, tend to be random and can only be explained by ill luck at best. It seems like women were labeled as witches to be scapegoats for people to pin all their frustrations on and point to a culprit for all their hardships. While religious leaders would blame the Devil for anything that was bad, the witch embodied the Devil on Earth and how the Devil infiltrated the general population, causing communities to suffer. Aside from being a powerful symbol of evil, the supernatural power that witches were believed to wield seemed dangerous enough to awaken widespread fear. This panic was a great contributor to the number of accusations rising throughout history. In the history of witch hunting, women have been mostly at the receiving end of this oppression. While some, like Hypatia, were targeted because they deviated from the established religious norm, others ended up being blamed for misfortunes they had no relation to.

Bibliographic references

Ancient Rome (n.d.) G. E. Forsythe (Ed.), Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved from online database.

Davies, O. (1999). Witchcraft, magic and culture 1746 - 1951. Manchester University Press.

Dickie, M. (2003). Magic and magicians in the greco-roman world. Routledge.

Dzielska, M. (1996). Hypatia of Alexandria. Harvard University Press. Flint, V. (1999). Witchcraft and

magic in Europe: Ancient Greece and Rome. Athlone.

Etruscan. (n.d.). Gorlinski, V. (Ed.), Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved from online database.

Hutton, R. (2017). The witch: A history of fear, from ancient times to the present. Yale University Press.

Inquisition. (n.d.). Edwards, P. (Ed.), Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved from online database.

Levack, B. P. (2016). The witch-hunt in early modern europe. Routledge.

Witchcraft (n.d.). J. B. Russell (Ed.), Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved from online database.

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Maya Sánchez Urrutia

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