Witchcraft: What Caused the Witch-Hunts in Early Modern Europe
Causes of Early Modern Witchcraft
Fear, hatred, guilt, jealousy, pain, grief, confusion, lust, and hunger are all feelings with one thing in common: They were the driving force that caused a witch-hunt amongst early modern Europeans. To fully understand what caused the witch-hunt, one must analyze the triggers behind these feelings.
Many social and religious factors triggered such emotions. Early modern Europeans were in the process of a religious reformation. Rather than calming the people, the Reformation heightened awareness of evil within the culture. As fears arose, new beliefs emerged. To combat these fears, people sought other means to fight evil, such as the benandante. Ironically, the very things people tried to protect themselves in this unpredictable setting where famine and poverty were commonplace was what increased the fear of witchcraft, leading to the death of many. The Reformation within the Church and the development of good witches with the already ingrained ideas about women and human sexuality set the stage for a witch-hunt by increasing emotions.
Witches in Europe During the Reformation
Between 1520 and 1650, the Reformation had a significant impact on European countries and the way people perceived religion. Due to increasing disagreements amongst the community and the Catholic Church, the Church needed to reform. Although Levack highlights that few witch prosecution occurred in the early years of the Reformation, after 1560, it “served to intensify the process of witch-hunting and perhaps helped to spread from place to place.” The Reformation became a catalyst for the witch-hunt by increasing the fear of Satan. One reformer responsible for the rise in fear of Satan was John Calvin who stated,
…for after Satan has possessed us once and stopped our eyes, and God has withdrawn his light from us, so that we are destitute of his holy spirit and devoid of all reason, then there follow infinite abuses without end or measure. And many sorceries come from this condition.
Due to such reformers as Calvin, the early modern European believed “the danger that Satan presented to a person was both physical and spiritual… Everyone, even the holiest individual, could be deceived and ensnared by the cunning treachery of Satan.” These beliefs brought about a heightened awareness of diabolical acts causing European societies to be more willing to put accused witches on trial due to fear. Communities wanted to purify their neighborhoods by getting rid of all evil, even if it meant putting their neighbor to death. They used the judicial system to advocate against any act that went against the Word of God.
History of Witches: Women Targeted
Although it was not just the poor women accused, they targeted women in general. The Malleus Maleficarum is one of the most notorious documents that reflect why early modern women were believed to be more susceptible to witchcraft. First of all, a woman was thought not to have any “moderation in goodness or vice,” which lent to the belief that if a woman was good, she was very good, whereas if she was bad, she was evil. This same document later backs this up by stating “that women are naturally more impressionable, and more ready to receive the influence of a disembodied spirit.” Martin de Castanega notes that “women are more subject to anger and are more vindictive.” Levack sums it up well when he states, “the common theme… is that women were more susceptible to demonic temptation because they were morally weaker than men and more likely, therefore, to succumb to diabolical temptation.”
The belief that women were not men’s equals may have formulated as a result of Eve, the first woman in the Bible, was the one who succumbed to the serpent’s temptations. The Malleus Maleficarum backs this up by stating that,
…it should be noted that there was a defect in the first woman since she was formed from a bent rib, that is, a rib of the beast, which is bent as it were in a contrary direction to a man. And since through this defect she is an imperfect animal, she always deceives.
The one fault in this line of thinking, according to the Church, would be that God does not make mistakes. Therefore, even those who did not believe that women were a “defect” would have focused on a woman’s purpose within society, which was fertility and companionship for men. Unfortunately, the focus became a view that women were primarily sexual creatures.
The idea of women’s sexuality became a driving force as to why accusations towards women were more common than men. The Malleus Maleficarum states, “all witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable.” Within a society that valued sexual purity, an insatiable desire for sex would have agitated the community, especially amongst the clergy. Although the question arises, whose desire provoked the accusation, the witch, or the accuser? The vow of celibacy many clergymen were sworn to would have caused feelings of uneasiness around women, especially women they may have found attractive. These same feelings may have been shared by married men who found themselves attracted to someone other than their wives. As reformers projected their feelings of guilt onto the more impoverished person in society, these men would have projected their feelings, either consciously or more likely unconsciously, upon women, by saying that women are lustful and seductive. Since many believed that “those who are given to lust, the devil has more power over them,” women would have been more susceptible to witchcraft accusations. Also, if someone suspected a woman of having an affair, a jealous wife may have accused her as well. They often pointed their fingers at aging women. They used the excuse that they required carnal satisfaction since many were either widowed or had husbands who were not as capable of sexual intercourse.
The witch-hunt does not have only one cause, nor could one ever specify a specific demographic. Many things set the stage for a witch-hunt in early modern Europe. The early modern period was a confusing time. As tensions grew, so did the witch-hunts. The Reformation worked as a source to increase the pressures and awareness of evil. Because of the fear of human sexuality and preconceived notions about women, they targeted women. Through these tensions, the benandante was created, with hopes of bringing order to a confusing world. In the end, the benandante was viewed much like the witches they were initially designed to stop. Although many of these factors played a role in the witch-hunts, the real culprit could most likely be that of human emotion.
The Terror of History: The Witch Hunts Video
Witchcraft in the Bible: Increased Readership
Part of the Reformation was also due to the increased readership of the Bible. During this time, scholars translated the vernacular of the Bible so the everyday person could understand it. There was an emphasis on a literal interpretation.
Unfortunately, some translations were misleading; consequently, when taken literally, it had deadly results. Levack gives the example of Exodus 22:18, which states, “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” In this passage, ‘witch’ actually meant a “poisoner or ‘someone who works in darkness and mutters things.’” Due to the literal translation, they understood the word ‘witch’ with the early modern perception of what a witch was. This understanding gave permission and even encouraged capital punishment on those accused.
With the Bible now written in an understandable language, it was being studied more extensively, especially by such reformers as John Calvin. Through Calvin’s studies, he formulated the idea of predestination, where God elected certain people to go to Heaven regardless of the actions of the person themselves. Those who believed in predestination strove to appear as one of the elected few by living a pious and upright life. When someone did sin, they felt intense shame and feared that they were not one of the elect; thus, they needed to get rid of that guilt. In a society already feeling insecure due to its current failing financial and agricultural condition, they learned to relieve these feelings by transferring it onto another person.
A typical example was when a poorer person begged for money. As Levack states, “by depicting the unaided person as a witch and therefore as a moral aggressor unworthy of support, he could rid himself of the guilt that he was experiencing,” for not lending them money. As this shows, although the Reformation began as a means to bring enlightenment, it intensified fear and guilt, increasing the witch-hunt.
Creation of Benandante: Women Healers
The creation of benandante was another way people tried to put others at ease. Although religion was of prime importance during this time, magic had its appeal. Due to the current problems such as a high infant mortality rate, crop failure, and illness, people sought quick answers and cures. As stress increased, many turned to those who could do magic. One such people were the benandante. Though they denied being witches and making pacts with the devil, many thought of the benandante as good witches, who healed and protected the crops by going out on the Ember days to fight witches, if they were victorious, the crops would be abundant and fertile. If they lost, there would be a famine. Because crop fertility was of absolute importance for survival during this time, people were eager to believe in something that allowed them to feel that there had some control over the crops' fruitfulness. Unfortunately for the benandante, the line between doing magic to save crops and heal people began to blur with those who did 'black magic.' Some believed, as Levack stated, "that those who could cure could also harm." The view of the benandante shifted because although they were good, they were witches.
Another reason for the shift was because of how the benandante went out on their fights with the witches. It sounded uncannily like that of a witches' sabbath. Ginzburg shows this when he describes the journey.
To these gatherings, 'some rode on hares, others on dogs, still others on sows or hogs, the long-haired kind, and also on other animals.' When they reached the church, 'both men and women danced about and sometimes ate.
This scene sounds very similar to Martin Le Franc's, The Defender of Ladies when describing a witches' sabbath. It states, "Ten thousand old women in a troop were there, as in a great assembly in the shapes of cats or goats… pleased themselves in dancing, others still in banqueting and booze." The similarities between the benandante and the witches raised many questions regarding the righteousness of a benandante.
A Shift in Feelings Towards Benandante
As the similarities between witches and benandante arose, feelings of resentment towards the benandante grew due to the financial burden they placed on the community. When a person desired for the healing of a loved one, the benandante may agree to heal, but required some payment. Even with payment, the person may remain sick. As Ginzburg states, the benandante were viewed as the “clever swindlers.” In the end, the financial drain on the community is what increased the ill feelings towards the benandante.
Similar to them, women were also often thought of as a financial burden on the community, especially one who was widowed or single. That is why it is not surprising when Levack claims that more than 75 percent of those accused of witchcraft were women. Some may have become beggars causing guilt in those who could not help them out, as mentioned above. Also, poor people were seen as easy targets by Satan. Martin de Castanega stated, “no one should consider it strange that the devil tempts poor people who desire inordinately temporal things since he did not hesitate to tempt even Christ by offering him worldly riches.” He then later specifies not just the poor, but “poor women are more easily deceived than young girls are, for the devil promises them nothing will be lacking if they follow him.” Someone may target the poor if they felt that their riches were in danger of a person of lesser status. Due to the fear of endangerment, feelings of panic would arise, and an accusation of witchcraft may take place then projected back to the accuser. For instance, a poorer person may accuse a person of higher status, if they felt that person had wronged them, such as in a case of someone enclosing their land that was previously common use.
Ginzburg, Carlo. The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Translated by John and Anne Tedeschi. (Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), 22-23.
Kors, Alan Charles, and Edward Peters. Witchcraft in Europe 400-1700: A Documentary History. Second Edition. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001), 269.
Levack, Brian P. The Witch Hunt in Early Modern Europe. Third Edition. (Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2006), 111.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
Questions & Answers
Did witches really do magic?
I guess it really depends on your definition of magic. Were the witches ever the kind you see on TV, no. Could they have had powers from evil sources? I am not going to rule out that possibility. Overall though, most people accused of witchcraft, were victims of discrimination.Helpful 6
© 2010 Angela Michelle Schultz