Chronology and Geography of witch hunting

Chapter 8 Levack

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Chronological Patterns

Before 1430- little concept of the cumulative concept of witchcraft- no charges of diabolism. Main focus of cases- individual cases of simple maleifcium (harmful magic). 1435-1500- charges of diabolism first appear and an increase in witchcraft treaties. Beginning of the European witch-hunt. 1500-1550- reduction of the intensity of  witch-hunting. This lull was caused by the initial shock of the Reformation- the authorities were preoccupied with the problems and solutions associated by profound religious change.

1550-1570s- notable increase in the number of small witch-hunts. 1580s onwards- new series of laws on witchcraft were passed. Resumption of the printing of the Malleus Maleficarum. Impact of the Reformation- Bible teaching- witches should be executed- was widely circulated by preachers as was the fear of Satan- both Catholics and protestant preachers reinforced a fear of the Devil and a hostility towards witchcraft. 

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 1580s onwards- significant problems of inflation, famines and plagues- led to political turmoil. 

1580-1650- height of the European witch-hunt. 

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Geographical patterns

Western and West central Europe- 75% of all witchcraft prosecutions occurred in Germany, France, Switzerland and the Low Countries (Belgium and Holland).

pGermany was largely at the centre of the prosecutions because of its politically  weak structure- a loose confederation of states and Imperial Cities. Local rulers in Germany had complete autonomy over witch-hunts and trials. pThere was no central authority to enforce the code of conduct as laid down by the 1532 Carolina Code on the use of torture. pTherefore, witch-hunting could easily go unchecked. pCase Study- pEllwangen- location of one of the most severe witch-hunts in Germany (1611-18)- 400 people were executed!

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 Regional variations in Germany- South and South West- more politically fragmented regions, whilst in the North and East- the more politically less fragmented regions- hence less intense witch-hunts! Switzerland- 10,000 witches were executed- similar political structure to Germany. Netherlands- like Germany it had a de-centralised political structure, however, Dutch judges did not believe in the cumulative concept of witchcraft. There was never the notion of a vast diabolical conspiracy.

France- parts of France had an independent judiciary- in places like the North, East and South West- on the fringes of the country. Therefore, in places such as Normandy and the Languedoc witch-hunts were more intense. The British Isles- mainly mild and restrained- witch panics more limited in size and number than in mainland Europe. Numbers of trials- 5,000 with 1,500 executions over the Early Modern period.


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Why was there not mass witch-hunts?

pNot a serious belief in the cumulative concept of witchcraft- no real sense that witches attended the Sabbath. pSparse use of torture- torture could only be used with the permission of the Privy Council- England had a strong centralised political and judicial structure. pUse of the Jury System- juries were independent. There were ‘checks and balances’ in the legal system monitored closely by the central authorities.  p Scotland- pScottish witchcraft statutes- called for the execution prosecutions of witches were more intense than in England- more of a belief in the cumulative concept of witchcraft and more use of illegal torture. There was also more use of local magistrates to investigate accusations of witchcraft. Scottish juries could convict on a majority vote; in England you needed a unanimous decision. of all witches.

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 Scandinavia- similar to Britain- an incomplete awareness of the cumulative concept and little use of torture. 5,000 prosecutions, 1,700 executions. Eastern Europe- started later than in Western Europe and went on into the 18th century. Poland- intense witch-hunts- there was the belief in the cumulative concept of witchcraft and ineffective central control over the witch-hunts- 5,000 legal executions. Are Poland’s belief systems the result of being the neighbour of Germany? Russia- low numbers- no belief in the cumulative concept of witchcraft. Southern Europe- use of the Inquisition.No more than 500 executions. Reluctance to execute witches. No belief in the cumulative concept- cases tended to be concerned with the effects of harmful magic. Little use of torture. There was also strict monitoring of the Inquisitors from the central authorities. There was also a greater emphasis on the importance of seeking reconciliation.

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