Introduction to Witchcraft

First Chapter of Brian Levack's textbook, summarised

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Basic Facts

1450-1750- Thousands of people, primarily women, were tried for witchcraft. This is referred to by historians as the European Witch Craze, or Witch Hunt.

The Geographical distribution and timescale of cases is uneven- a large amount took place in areas such as Germany.

There were several reasons fo the increase of wich hunts:

  • New ideas about witches
  • Changes in criminal law
  • Religious change
  • Social Tensions
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Witchcraft: A definition

The practice of harmful black or maleficent magic by supernatural means.

Latin words:

Maleficia (Witchcraft)

Malefici (Witches)

It was believed witches had the power to perform evil and harmful deeds. Maleficium was the word used to denote a witch's ability to inflict harm or death to a person or animal- by giving them the 'evil eye' or merely wishing they were dead.

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The Meaning of Witchcraft

Most of the accused witches during the witch craze were from the lower levels of society. Witches performed harmful magic but also made pacts with the devil- diabolism. Witches therefore became a threat to Christianity. It wasn't until after 1500 the link was made, so maybe fear of the devil was the root cause of the hysteria. A witch's pact with, and worship of the devil had greater significance than her magic, and the diabolical element was a key feature of an early modern 'witch'.

The authorities were more concerned with the diabolism, but communities were scared of the black magic and concerned about their misfortune due to the powers of a witch. White witches- those who healed and foretold the future- no longer existed, all witches were evil.

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Did people really engage in witchcraft?

There was evidence that people perform Maleficium (Spells, spoken curses and other paraphernalia, but this was rarely used in evidence at court. Evidence of this type usually came from confessions or accusations from neighbours. This evidence is suspect- torture was used in confession, and neighbours often used witchcraft to settle scores in times of socio-economic tension. Evidence of spell casting was lacking, although there was physical evidence of satanic worship. Witches were often used as scapegoats for things they were wholly innocent of, such as harvest failure or livestock death. 

A significant minority of the accused were practising 'white magic' like spiritual healing, which neighbours misinterpreted as being maleficent. The majority, however, practised no form of magic, but were outcasts of their communities, accused of causing harm through magic when something unfortunate happened to a popular neighbour, or they were named in one of a number of larger scale hunts, 

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The reality of the witch-hunt

Historians only have recorded confessions of witches, and accusations made by their accomplices. However, this is highly unreliable as there were refererences to impossible feats such as flyiong through the air, no one ever actually witnessed the collective satanic worship which took place on the Sabbath, and confessions were taken under torture- people would lie to avoid further pain 

"Torture...'created' witchcraft" Levack

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The Scale of the Witch- Hunts

The majority of the prosecutions took place in Germany- around 50,000

British Isles- 5000 trials

European approximate total= 110,000 trials with 60,000 executed as witches in the early modern period. The average execution rate was 47%

Most were innocent of witchcraft, and these high figures do not convey the number of accusations of being a witch, church court records are full of slander cases of those accused of witchcraft!

"Witchcraft accusations..were a much more common feature of early modern European villiage life than the number of accusations and trials suggest" Levack

The educated individuals in power were even sucked in; they claimed that at gatherings there could be anything from 500 to 100,000 witches present!

A perceived threat of this scale had to be dealt with through the judicial system- it was too large to be ignored..

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