Political Catalysts of the Great Witch Hunt in Early Modern Europe
Witchcraft was an almost universally held belief during the early modern period, and the 'crime' of witchcraft was responsible for the prosecution and execution of thousands of individuals - mainly women - in the period 1450 to 1750. Although certain rational thinkers firmly proclaimed their disbelief (for example, Cyrano de Bergerac, 1619-1655, in his Letter against Witches: No, I do not remotely believe in witches, even though many great persons have not been of my opinion, and I defer to no one's authority, unless accompanied by reason Ã¢ÂÂ¦. Reason alone is my queen Ã¢ÂÂ¦.)Ã¯Â¿Â½
Others (for example, Joseph Glanvill, although also a rationalist and founding member of the Royal Society), held that Those that dare not bluntly say, "There is no God" content themselves (for a fair step and introduction) to deny that there are spirits and witches."Ã¯Â¿Â½ In other words, disbelieving in witches was tantamount to disbelieving in God.
Although Cyrano's opinion eventually became the orthodoxy, at the time Glanvill's was the conventional view. This gave people from the highest to the lowest levels in any country in Christendom the justification, even the duty, to persecute those of whom they disapproved, whether for political, financial or personal reasons, under the very convenient blanket accusation of witchcraft.
In this essay I intend to show how the crime of witchcraft was used for political advantage by looking at the different political situations which contributed to the dramatic rise in the fear and persecution of witches throughout the period.
The numerous calamities of the late fourteenth century - for example, the Black Death - and the frequency of war and general hardship throughout the Medieval period led European intellectuals to assume a greater demonic intervention in the world.
It was these very same factors that created the anxieties in early modern communities which encouraged magistrates to prosecute so-called witches.Ã¯Â¿Â½
It was a lack of understanding of the events and other factors such as changing weather patterns affecting crop yieldsÃ¯Â¿Â½ that led to a rise in fear of witchcraft and demonic intervention. Wolfgang Behringer's study 'Weather, Hunger and Fear' shows the correlation between the temporary global cooling, dubbed 'The Little Ice Age', and the rise in witch trials in central Europe. The ignorance and superstition of the common folk led them to supernatural explanations for their misfortunes and played an important role in the origin of the witch-hunt.Ã¯Â¿Â½ There are many examples of inadequate leaders being bullied into action against 'witches' by rebellious communities. Authorities obviously bear responsibility for witch hunts but individual cases as well as mass persecutions were "often preceded by massive pressure from the population bordering on open rebellion against the established order."Ã¯Â¿Â½
As German historian Walter Rammel explains, the problem usually started with lay folk:
'The persecuting impulse was fostered almost entirely "from below," from communities and their representatives. The administration of the ecclesiastical territory was nearly paralysed as communal committees wrested judicial authority from its hands as a consequence of this campaign of extermination, while the administration fought in vain to win back initiative. A local witchcraft ordinance of 1591 mentions that communities have conspired and established a ?muh very nearly resembling a revolt.'Ã¯Â¿Â½
Any administration wanting to avoid outright rebellion bowed to the political pressure laid upon them by the lower classes and increased the time and resources put into the witch-hunt. This happened all over Europe throughout the Early Modern Period:Ã¯Â¿Â½ an example from the Austrian Voralberg region illustrates the lay people's ferocity:
The population called for numerous witch trials but their demands were rejected by the administrative bodies in Innsbruck. However, in the years 1649-1650 the valley of Prattigau managed to purchase its independence from the Habsburgs and became part of the Swiss canton Graubunden. Once away from their former overlords they took the judicial system into their own hands. Terrible persecutions started almost immediately 'venting peasant demands pent-up for decades. This period has gone down as the great witch-killing in the canton's history. Finally the guilty parties could be punished for threatening the crops and thereby the livelihood of the peasants.Ã¯Â¿Â½
Peasants were only able to apply such political pressure when their governing body was weak or distant. There is a clear correlation between centralised government and acquittals in witch trials. Rural areas all over Europe were much worse off than areas of higher population, with a conviction rate of almost ninety percent.Ã¯Â¿Â½
Brian Levack argues that during the Early Modern period there was nowhere near the degree of centralised authority we see today, where a single government can exercise control over even the remotest geographical areas. 'Indeed, the entire political history of the early modern period can be written in terms of conflict between the centre and the periphery.' This resulted in a considerable amount of power being delegated to local authorities and this is where the problem lay. The local communities were able to bully such authorities into trials and investigations.Ã¯Â¿Â½
The highest concentration of trials took place in border areas with no strong governing body, such as North Italy, Switzerland, Eastern France and Germany etc. They were also much more frequent in areas torn apart by the many religious conflicts of the period, particularly in central Europe. Superstition and condemnation thrived in unorganised societies.
Generally speaking, nations less affected by the Thirty Years' War, such as England, and the Italian states, had fewer witch trials and convictions; however, during the English Civil War when the country was torn apart and the judicial system was impaired, there was a huge rise in witchcraft convictions and several freelance witch hunters emerged, including Matthew Hopkins (the Witch-Finder General), all of which resulted in the worst period of witch hunting in English history.Ã¯Â¿Â½
As we can see there certainly was a connection between weak (or weakened) government and a high concentration of witch trials; however, as often is found in historical investigations a general rule cannot be made because the opposite is also true. Strong leadership did not always decrease the amount of witch-hunting or the passion behind it. Royal councils often took steps to encourage prosecutions and High Court Judges confirmed many cases on appeal.Ã¯Â¿Â½ There are of course many examples of Kings and Queens being major supporters of the witch-hunt themselves in their respective countries. Christian IV of Denmark not only advanced a witchcraft ordinance in 1617 but vigorously encouraged the prosecution of suspected witches in Copenhagen and Elsinore in 1626.Ã¯Â¿Â½
King James I is perhaps the best known of Europe's witch-fearing monarchs, and his famous book, 'Daemonologie', clearly expresses his opinions on witches or 'these detestable slaves of the devil.'Ã¯Â¿Â½
His political influence can clearly be seen in England as the persecution of witches increased dramatically when he came to power in 1603. According to numerous historians, such as Robin Briggs and Richard Kieckhefer, the general suspicion and fear of witchcraft also greatly increased, as can be seen from contemporary documents and literature. Along with his leading role in the largest of the Scottish witch-hunts in 1590Ã¯Â¿Â½ these events go to show how a political persona can influence events without even taking into account the legislation passed regarding witchcraft during their regime.
Perhaps the political organization which over the whole period was involved in the largest number of witch persecutions was the Catholic Church. The firm belief of witchcraft within the church is evident in a number of documents, speeches and decrees demonstrating its fear of it, but what is also clear to see is that the Catholic Church, like many other political entities, used the continent's fear to its own advantage.
The more selfish part of the priesthood might think that a general belief in the
existence of witches should be permitted to remain, as a source both of
power and of revenue--that if there were no possessions, there could be
no exorcism-fees--and, in short, that a wholesome faith in all the
absurdities of the vulgar creed as to supernatural influences was
necessary to maintain the influence of Diana of Ephesus. They suffered
spells to be manufactured, since every friar had the power of reversing
them; they permitted poison to be distilled, because every convent had
the antidote, which was disposed of to all who chose to demand it.
However, the Church didn't just use the climate of fear to increase its income and respect. Religious or political opponents were often accused of witchcraft to jeopardise their standing in the eyes of their peers, and it often resulted in their death.
There are hundreds of examples of political enemies of the Catholic Church being incarcerated or executed as result of witchcraft propaganda, some of the worst being mass persecutions rather than individual cases.
The Waldensians were a sect of monks originating in Lyon who, like many, believed that the Catholic Church had wandered seriously off course. The Waldensians had different views from the Catholic clergy on how to live one's life to please God; for instance, that voluntary poverty was essential. As they saw it, as long as the clergy did not practise voluntary poverty they couldn't baptise, ordain priests, consecrate the Eucharist, confirm or hear confession. Although the Waldensians posed no real threat, the Catholics had an irrational fear of them. Franciscan John of Winterthur's view illustrates this:
"These people would overthrow the faith of Peter, if the teachers did not each day fortify it with the word of truth."Ã¯Â¿Â½
The text written by Reinerius Sacco (An inquisitor, and one of the harshest persecutors of the sect) Of the Sects of the Modern Heretics, written in 1254, shows the Catholic resentment towards the Waldensians:
[They say that] all vices and sins are in the church, and that they alone live righteously. That scarcely anyone in the church, but themselves, preserves the evangelical doctrine. That they are the true poor in spirit, and suffer persecution for righteousness and faith. That they are the Church of Jesus ChristÃ¢ÂÂ¦Ã¯Â¿Â½
In answer to this problem, the Catholics, led by Conrad of Marburg and Pope Gregory IX, accused the sect of orgies and Diabolism.
Although these accusations were mostly rejected, it certainly lost them a lot of support and it clearly illustrates the mentality of the Catholic Church. For many years to come the sect were punished and persecuted throughout Europe owing to this propaganda - a clear example of allegations being used to safeguard if not to further the Catholic Church's political standing.
A similar example is the Catholic persecution of the 'Rose Cross Brotherhood.'
The worst of all witch persecutions, the climax of the European craze, were the persecutions which broke out in the 1620s with the destruction of Protestantism in Bohemia and the Palatinate and the Catholic conquest of Germany. All over Europe Ã¢ÂÂ¦ the witch-trials multiplied with the Catholic reconquest.Ã¯Â¿Â½ This was an essentially political business, to do with power and control, over which northern Europe was to tear itself apart in the Thirty Years' War. A particular focus for the demonising hostility of the Catholic powers was a mysterious, secretive (and possibly mythical) organisation called the Rose Cross brotherhood which had, in documents published in 1614 and 1615, announced a dawn of enlightenmentÃ¯Â¿Â½ as well as reformed religion - indeed, Universal and General Reformation of the whole wide worldÃ¯Â¿Â½ - and the tendency of these documents was anti-Jesuit, and anti-Hapsburg. The documents created great excitement in Germany though the brotherhood remained invisible and uncontactable even by people anxious to join, but it also naturally procured the hatred and hostility of the Catholic forces. Because it was also associated with the ill-fated Elector Palatine, Frederick V, leader of Protestant, anti-Hapsburg forces which had been completely annihilated in the Battle of the White Mountain near Prague in November 1620, Catholic propaganda was quick to associate it, and Frederick, with witchcraft. In 1623, rumours about this Rosicrucian movement spread to France, where the pious organisation of the R.C. brothers was turned into an organization of devil worshippers; their secrecy becomes a diabolical secret Ã¢ÂÂ¦ their interest in the advancement of learning and natural philosophy becomes a wicked bait to lure the learned and curious to themÃ¢ÂÂ¦. An attempt is being made to start a witch-craze with the frighteningly 'invisible' Rosicrucians as the object of the hunt.Ã¯Â¿Â½ The French Jesuit, Francois Garasse, wrote in La Doctrine curieuse des beaux esprits de ce temps (Paris,1623, pp.83 ff.) that some Rosicrucians have recently been condemned as sorcerers at Malines, and gives it as his very firm opinion that they all deserve to be broken on the wheel or hanged on the gallows. In spite of some appearances of piety they are really wicked sorcerers, dangerous to religion and to the stateÃ¯Â¿Â½. Frances Yates comments that this scare creates 'the Rosicrucians' as real witch-like characters, belonging to a diabolical secret society.Ã¯Â¿Â½
One of the worst abusers of this political technique was Pope John XXII. Early on in his reign countless people became tied up in witchcraft trials - anyone he saw as political threat. Bishop Hugo Geraud of Cahors was burnt at the stake for conspiracy against the papacy and involvement in witchcraft. Wax figures and 'magical' documents were allegedly found incriminating the suspect and his followers; however, it was clearly a political move as the Bishop had been one of the Pope's most outspoken critics.Ã¯Â¿Â½ Under John's instructions, the Archbishop of Milan and an inquisitor charged Matteo and Galeazzo Visconti, who were two of John's main political rivals within the church, with entering into a pact with the Devil.Ã¯Â¿Â½
Witchcraft accusations were used as a political tool by all sorts of leaders and men of influence throughout the early modern period, for the simple reason that there was such a suspicion and fear surrounding witchcraft and magic in all walks of life that people could be persuaded that almost anyone was involved and once the seeds of doubt had been planted they were very difficult to uproot. As historian Jeffrey Burton Russell says:
The witch phenomena itself was deliberately encouraged by leaders of the Church and state for the simple political reason that one could accuse one's enemies of witchcraft almost with impunity. Not everyone could be credibly accused of being a Jew or a leper, and to force elaborate confessions of doctrinal heresy was exceedingly complicated. But almost anyone could be made to appear to be a witch. The secrecy of procedure permitted accusations of witchcraft to be made without much fear of retribution. Thus public policy and private spite exacerbated popular fear of witchcraft until almost any accusation could immediately gain wide credibility.Ã¯Â¿Â½
A good first example to demonstrate this is the famous case involving the Templars in 1307. The charge was brought against them by Philip IV, the Fair, of France, a deeply troubled - and cruel - monarch (for example, bullying the Lombards and Cahorsins into emigrating after forcing loans from them, levying heavy taxes on them and confiscating their property,Ã¯Â¿Â½ as well as restricting the rights of the Jews settled in France in two ordinances in 1294 and 1306Ã¯Â¿Â½ ). The rise of the Templars in power, status and wealth did little to lessen his insecurities and he jumped at the chance given to him by Pope Clement V to lay charges against them. Their status and popularity meant that the charges did not stick, until accusations of witchcraft were 'let loose upon them.'Ã¯Â¿Â½
The Templars were rounded up in France, tortured, executed or exiled. The fact that Philip was greatly in debt to the Templars from his war with the English shows that he also had financial motivations behind his witchcraft accusations.
Philip's political insecurity seems to be a common factor as it can also be seen in the Bernard Delicieux case, whom he had imprisoned for the rest of his life for diabolism and witchcraft.Ã¯Â¿Â½ This was because the Franciscan monk had spoken out against Philip's ruthless approach to the Inquisition. His outspoken thoughts were clearly disturbing to Philip though moral and just in the eyes of the people. Fabrications and lies about his involvement in the occult resulted in his perpetual In Pace or monastic incarceration in 1318.Ã¯Â¿Â½
Another unscrupulous politician who put this handy political instrument to good use was Edward II of England, a notoriously unpopular monarch, who often used this technique in attempting to consolidate his power. In the early years of his reign a rebel leader causing problems was charged with having made a pact with the Devil and kissing him on the backside in order to obtain the crown.Ã¯Â¿Â½ The Bishop of Coventry, Walter Langdon, who had been Edward I's treasurer, also faced trial for having made a similar pact. However, since he was not a serious threat to the king he was eventually acquitted.Ã¯Â¿Â½
An example of this involving a different English monarch, made famous by Shakespeare's Henry VI, was that of Eleanor Cobham, the Duchess of Gloucester. The case was brought against her by Henry Beaufort, Cardinal of Winchester and great uncle of Henry VI. Henry VI being a minor, control of the nation lay in the hands of the Lord Protector, Duke Humphrey Plantagenet of Gloucester, husband of Eleanor Cobham. He was considered a political threat to the king (and therefore Beaufort) because in addition to being Lord Protector, he was also next in line to the throne (should anything happen to Henry before he had any heirs). This troubling amount of power and influence is believed to be the reason behind Beaufort's accusations against Gloucester's wife. She and several 'accomplices' were found guilty and condemned to various fates (she spent the rest of her life locked in a crypt; the others were sentenced to death) causing Humphrey's political supporters to waver as well as leading to his divorce.
There are hundreds of other examples of witchcraft accusations being used against political opponents in order to tarnish their reputation or to result in their permanent removal or death, as can be seen in Louix X's actions against Enguerrand de MarignyÃ¯Â¿Â½ or the case of Bishop Guichard of Troyes.Ã¯Â¿Â½ Probably the most famous case of this, however, is the trial of Joan of Arc in which she is charged and executed for heresy and witchcraft by the English and Frenchmen loyal to them, for leading the struggling French troops out of the jaws of defeat through a string of surprising victories. The trial reports translated by W.P. Barrett,Ã¯Â¿Â½ show that, along with the fact that Cauchon (pro-English Bishop leading her trial) chose biased or timid assessors for her case, falsified useful evidence and misquoted her defence in a report to Paris University, her enemies were utterly determined to convict her.Ã¯Â¿Â½ She was burnt at the stake by the English on 30 May 1431,Ã¯Â¿Â½ yet another 'witch' put to death for political reasons.
One of the most ruthless cases of witchcraft being used as a political tool was that involving the people of Stedinger. The Stedinger were long celebrated for their attachment to freedom and their successful struggles in its defence. They inhabited the German district from the Weser to the Zuydersee. They had formed a general confederacy against the encroachments of the Saxons and the Normans back in the eleventh century and 'already had true notions of a representative government.'Ã¯Â¿Â½ Unfortunately this self-government scandalized the surrounding authorities and eventually, the Archbishop of Bremen, along with the Count of Oldenburg and other neigbouring potentates, formed an alliance against this section of Frieslanders. After many years battling, the Archbishop found their will for freedom and organisation in battle too much to cope with so he turned to Pope Gregory IX for spiritual aid who responded by labelling the Stedinger as witches and heretics, and encouraging all true followers of Christ to assist in their extermination.
"A large body of thieves and fanatics broke into their country in the year 1233, killing and burning wherever they went, and not sparing either women or children, the sick or the aged, in their rage."Ã¯Â¿Â½
The Stedinger forces, however, still achieved a heroic victory. The failure of his troops led the Pope to continue his flow of propaganda.
"The Stedinger, seduced by the devil, have abjured all the laws of God and man, slandered the Church, insulted the holy sacraments, consulted witches to raise evil spirits, shed blood like water, taken the lives of priests, and concocted an infernal scheme to propagate the worship of the devil, whom they adore under the name of Asmodi."Ã¯Â¿Â½
Catholic forces under various European leaders and bishops, swayed by the Pope's accusations of witchcraft and heresy, overwhelmed the Stedinger, exterminated the populace, set fire to the woods and villages and laid waste to the land.
It was not just leaders and people of influence who initiated witchcraft investigations for their own benefit. Politics at a local level were hugely important in the rise of witch trials. Like their social superiors, commoners often used accusations of witchcraft to settle debts, rivalries and arguments. As stated by Brian Levack: Sometimes individuals deliberately and maliciously brought charges of witchcraft against their antagonists - political rivals, economic competitors and sometimes even family members with whom they were in conflict - in order to resolve their differences and bring vengeance upon them.Ã¯Â¿Â½
Accusations of witchcraft were often made in order for the accuser to benefit financially, either simply by gaining money from the supposed witch, or by losing a debt owed to him or her. The case of Lady Alice Kyteler, the earliest reported case in Ireland (1324-1325), exemplifies both of these.
She came from a wealthy merchant family, and managed to accumulate even greater wealth through a succession of four marriages. She produced a son, William Utlagh (Outlaw) with her first husband, a money-lender and wealthy banker of the same name. He took up his deceased father's trade, and over time, many local nobles became indebted to both him and his mother. Her subsequent two husbands also died and her fourth developed a mysterious wasting disease. With jealousies and worries about money and inheritance playing a motivating role, the children of her later marriages accused her and her son William of witchcraft, devil worship and the poisoning of her current husband. She was tried by the Bishop of Ossory
Richard de Ledrede who (along with her stepchildren seeking inheritance money) tried to discredit Lady Alice and her financial success; the charges the bishop put forth clearly stated that her prosperity came from interaction with demons and other diabolical means. Moreover, the witnesses who testified against Lady Alice were many of them nobles in debt to her and her son.Ã¯Â¿Â½
Despite the fact that no one knows who eventually acquired Alice's considerable properties, she and her friends were clearly the victims of complex machinations prompted by politics and greed.Ã¯Â¿Â½
Although politically motivated accusations by no means account for the majority of witchcraft trials within the Early Modern Period, they certainly make up a significant portion. The climate of fear and mistrust provided the perfect environment for the slyer European to remove an adversary under the coverall of witchcraft with almost no questions asked. When taking the whole of Europe into account, it is difficult to identify the ideal political situations in which the fear of witches was likely to arise, but an unstable environment with weak leadership often affected by war or a major conflict of ideology such as that between Catholicism and Protestantism, intensified the climate of fear and mistrust.
As belief in the occult gradually diminished, a variety of different political manoeuvres were used by later generations seeking power, none have ever been quite so convenient as the accusation of witchcraft.
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Ã¯Â¿Â½ Cyrano de Bergerac, quoted in Addyman, I: Cyrano - The Life and Legend of Cyrano de Bergerac, (London, 2008) p.146
Ã¯Â¿Â½ Glanvill, J.: Sadducismus Triumphatus or Philosophical Cosiderations touching Witches and Witchcraft, (London, 1682) p.2
Ã¯Â¿Â½ Brian Levack p.64
Ã¯Â¿Â½ Spee - Cautio Criminalis
Ã¯Â¿Â½ Wolfgang Behringer, Weather, Hunger and Fear.
Ã¯Â¿Â½ Eva Lahourie
Ã¯Â¿Â½ Behringer, W., Weather, Hunger and Fear. P.83.
Ã¯Â¿Â½ Brian Levack p.99
Ã¯Â¿Â½ Find good info.
Ã¯Â¿Â½ Brian Levack p.98
Ã¯Â¿Â½ Daemonologie p.2
Ã¯Â¿Â½ Brian Levack p.98
Ã¯Â¿Â½ Demonisation of Medieval Heretics.
Ã¯Â¿Â½ Waldensian thing.
Ã¯Â¿Â½ Trevor-Roper, H.R., Religion, the Reformation and Social Change, London, 1967, p.136
Ã¯Â¿Â½ Yates, F.A., The Rosicrucian Enlightenment, St Albans, 1975, p.71
Ã¯Â¿Â½ Ibid. p.72
Ã¯Â¿Â½ Ibid. p.140
Ã¯Â¿Â½ Ibid. pp. 140-141
Ã¯Â¿Â½ Ibid. p.141
Ã¯Â¿Â½ Jeffrey Burton Russell, Witchcraft in the Middle Ages, p.168.
Ã¯Â¿Â½ Central MA p.83
Ã¯Â¿Â½ Central MA p.146
Ã¯Â¿Â½ Charles Mackay, Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness ofCrowds, p.10.
Ã¯Â¿Â½ Burton-Russell, Jeffrey, Witchcraft in the Middle Ages/witchcraft and rebellion in Medieval Society (blah) p.194.
Ã¯Â¿Â½ Blind Faith p.115
Ã¯Â¿Â½ WItchcraft reader pg. 27
Ã¯Â¿Â½ WItchcraft Reader - p.27
Ã¯Â¿Â½ Medieval Europe p.215.
Ã¯Â¿Â½ Jeffrey Burton Russell, Witchcraft in the Middle Ages, p.194
Ã¯Â¿Â½ Trial of JOA.
Ã¯Â¿Â½ atheism.about.com/od/Christianity violence/ig/Christian-Persecution-Witches/Joan-Arc-Witch-Heretic-Burn.htm
Ã¯Â¿Â½ Mackay p.8
Ã¯Â¿Â½ Mackay p.9
Ã¯Â¿Â½ Brian Levack p.169.
Ã¯Â¿Â½ Ã¯Â¿Â½ HYPERLINK "http://womens-history.suite101.com/article.cfm/lady_alice_kyteler \\\\l ixzz0CHtgHPNj"Ã¯Â¿Â½http://womens-history.suite101.com/article.cfm/lady_alice_kyteler#ixzz0CHtgHPNjÃ¯Â¿Â½
Ã¯Â¿Â½ Jeffrey Burton Russell, Witchcraft in the Middle Ages p.190.