Decline and survival of the Witch craze

Chapter 8 Levack

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Judicial change

 Late 17th century onwards- decline in numbers and eventually an end to witchcraft prosecutions.

Why did this occur? Tightening up of legal procedures. Socio, economic, and religious tensions (that were present in the late 16th and first part of the 17th centuries) no longer prevailed. Scepticism of the elites- the lower classes still, however, believed in the reality of the witch. The demand for conclusive evidence regarding maleficium and the pact- Was it possible that sudden deaths had natural causes? Also, the mark of the witch was no longer sufficient evidence to point to the demonic pact. Stricter rules on the use of torture- The use of torture was the main reason why large witch-hunts had been able to develop. The abolition of torture became possible when the authorities no longer merited the death penalty for witchcraft. Laws passed that outlawed prosecutions for witchcraft- France 1682: the punishment for witchcraft was corporal punishment!

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New mental outlook

 Link]- new scepticism and legal changes. The authorities began to doubt the existence of witches. Christian Thomasius- Professor at Halle University- criticised judicial torture and witch-beliefs (early 18th century). Scientists, theologians- eventually their scepticism on the reality of witches fed into the educated classes. In the late 16th and early 17th century- sceptics like Weyer were ignored. People believed in the more extreme views of Bodin- a firm believer in the cumulative concept of witchcraft. 

What are the intellectual developments of the 18t century? Philosophy: Rene Descartes- his ideas rejected inherited authority and dogma. Stability- an end to religious intolerance and war= less moral panic in Europe’s communities. New Science- Scientific explanations replaced supernatural ones as reasons for calamities- ends the belief in the cumulative concept, sudden death and unusual behaviour- all associated with witchcraft in 16th and 17 century Europe.

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 Johann Weyer- 16th century- questioned the existence of maleficia and stated that witches were merely suffering from ‘melancholy’ (mental illness). Mid 18th century- doctors and the educated classes believed that natural causes were responsible for unexplained deaths and other calamities in the community- not the work of witches and evil spirits. Common people- still largely believed in maleficia; crucially though, the elites merely referred to them as ‘superstitious.’


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New religious outlook

 Post 1650- the age of the Reformation with its intense expression of religious zeal, religiously inspired warfare- the emotional over the rational  was slowly coming to en end.

pA more secular (non religious) and rational age was dawning. This would be known as The Enlightenment- here Science and rationalism replaced superstitious practices. pTheologians/Magistrates- Witchcraft trials and hunts were inspired by the determination of magistrates, clergy and the entire community to purifying the world by waging war on Satan and his allies (witches). Once this militancy died down, so did witchcraft prosecutions.

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Socio Economic Change

 1580-1650- socio-economic conditions had an impact on original accusations based on tensions in communities; not on actual prosecutions. Improvements in living standards- reduced local village tensions that lay at the heart of witchcraft accusations. Keith Witches less of a threat in local communities- Keith Thomas: introduction of the Poor Law in England led to the poor now being looked after by the state- guilty neighbours no longer had to denounce poor old women as witches to deal with their guilt after refusing to give the poor charity. Elderly and isolated women were no longer feared in communities- they were simply ignored!

3) Decline in pessimism late 17th early 18th century- no longer the link between socio-economic upheaval combined with religious instability, war, harvest failure and plague= deep pessimism/anxiety= identify, accuse and prosecute witches to relieve anxiety- witches (1580-1650) were scapegoats for daily misfortunes of village life and the ills of society.

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 Conclusion- 1660+= Europe gradually entered a period of social, economic and religious stability.

p Individuals and communities- led less reason to blame one another if things went wrong in their communities, which meant that there was less reason to engage in witch-hunts to remove an imaginary horde of Devil-worshippers who were threatening to overthrow the social order.   p1950s America- McCarthyism and the ‘Red Scare’- hundreds of Americans were interrogated to find out if there were hidden Communists in American society. Senator Joseph McCarthy was obsessive in his hunt for Communists (like a witch-finder General?) pArthur Miller wrote a play on McCarthyism: ‘The Crucible.’ p21st Century community fears- global terrorism and the ********** at large.

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