The Impact of the Reformation

Chapter 4 of the Levack Textbook


What had happened to the church in this period?

—The reformers had all tried to restore the Church to its early Christian purity. This included denying the efficacy of indulgences —Redefined the function of the sacraments Eliminated or drastically altered the Catholic mass —Changed the role of the clergy —The autonomy of the individual conscience was proclaimed – removing any intermediaries. —Protestantism became the dominant religion in many parts of Germany, Switzerland and the Low Countries; in England, Scotland and the Scandinavian kingdoms; and in certain areas of France Hungary and Poland (Levack p 101) —Within the Catholic Church itself underwent a period of change but without altering the basic structure of the church. —This is known as the Counter-Reformation and was not only a response to the rise of Protestantism. —The main goal was to eliminate corruption within the church; educate the clergy and to inspire and strengthen the faith of the laity. —This created a number of international conflicts, the most significant being the civil wars in France in late sixteenth century and the Thirty Years War in the early seventeenth century – the result of which led to many countries returning to Catholic religion.

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Links between prosecutions and Reformation

—Some historians believe the Reformation and Counter-Reformation acted as a catalyst for witch-hunting. —But: “the European witch-hunt began almost one hundred years before Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the castle church at Wittenberg” (Levack p 102) —During the first two decades of the eighteenth century, witches were still being prosecuted in Poland, so again we can not link this directly to the Reformation

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—Witch-hunting took place in both Protestant and Catholic lands. —Catholics executed more witches in south western Germany than did Protestants – the opposite is true in Switzerland. —The witch-hunts took place in all areas during the Reformation era. —Both Catholics and Protestant rulers held the same fear of witch-craft and wanted to eliminate it.

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The New Religious outlook- the fear of the devil.

Europeans increased their awareness of the Devil’s presence

Notably Martin Luther and Jean Calvin – they held the same opinion of the Devil’s diabolical powers as the Catholic Church. 

—Martin Luther reportedly had active physical bouts with Satan and attributed a position in the world that borders on ‘dualist heresy’.  “we are all subject to the devil, both in body and goods’. (Luther) The danger that the Devil represented to man was both physical and spiritual. (Levack p104) Luther always believed the Kingdom of Christ would prevail over the forces of Darkness but the struggle would be continuous.

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Both Luther and Calvin were not overly preoccupied with witchcraft as such – only in punishing the witches.

They emphasised the heretical not magical aspects of witchcraft – this inspired a greater determination to eliminate it.

What the reformers did do was to disseminate their ideas on witchcraft from the pulpits from which they preached. 

This heightened consciousness of diabolical activity made European communities more eager to prosecute witches as agents of the Devil.  (Levack p105)

Both Protestants and Catholics were developing the same fears.

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Personal sanctity; guilt and witchcraft

Everyone wanted to show they lived a very moral life. This was the opposite to diabolical temptation.

The problem with this way of life was that it brought a deep sense of sin.

To relieve guilt, many people accused their friends or neighbours of witchcraft.

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Attack upon superstition, paganism and magic

People had to learn the elements of the true Christian faith as well as leading a moral life.

In order to do this the superstitious beliefs were eradicated; the vestiges of paganism eradicated and suppressing magic. Many liturgical practises were attacked.

The campaign against this superstition mainly focused on demonological writings by Protestant pastors which started out as sermons

These were dissimilar to treatises as they focused on charms and divination as well as maleficent witchcraft.

The counter-reformation also worked at eradicating superstition and error. These included eliminating many prayers and healing practises.

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These practices led to an increase in prosecutions in two ways:

Practitioners of white magic could easily be charged with maleficent witchcraft

It also deprived the victims of sorcery of some weapons they used to protect themselves with. For example, in Protestant countries, the victim could no longer make the sign of the cross. Protestants and Catholics both took action against white magic, long after  the witch hunts had finished.

“As the Reformation spread, increasingly large numbers of Europeans were able to read the Bible and to take the passages which refer to witchcraft literally”. (Levack p113) The word which had been translated as “witch” often meant someone completely different. The important thing though is that it was translated as “witch” in all Western languages and this text was used by preaches and judges to sanction an uncompromising campaign against witches.

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Religious Conflict

The Reformation naturally led to conflict. These tensions added to the witch-hunting phenomena but Levack argues it is more indirect than other historians suggest.

“Witch-hunting was most severe in countries or regions where either large religious minorities lived within the boundaries of a state or where people of one state or territory adhered to religion and its neighbours to another.” (Levack p 114)

Witch-hunting was more widespread and intense in areas of religious division. In comparison, areas of religious stability saw low numbers of witch-hunts and very few executions. The best examples of this are Spain and Italy which remained Catholic during this period. They did witness some hunts but nothing on the scale of places such as Germany and France.

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The religious divisions did not mean witches were condemned as they were opposed to one faith over another.

Witches were heretics because of their pact with the Devil  -not because she rejected doctrines of the established religion.

The religious wars did not inspire witch-hunting either.

Christianity played a role in the decline of witchcraft. It rejected the belief that the Devil had the same power as God.

This was underlined by other Protestant writers and preachers which in turn fostered a scepticism about maleficia.

This did not affect the main period of witch-hunting but eventually helped lead to its decline.

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Christianisation of the populace occurred throughout the Reformation notably in Rural areas – both Catholic and Protestant. This had instilled a sense of guilt and fear of magic. However, in the long term it reduced the belief in and practice of magic among the rural communities which in turn gave the witch-hunters less cause for concern. (Levack p 122) “It also encouraged the growth of a spiritual concept of the Devil and de-emphasised the common view of him as a physical creature, who appeared at the Sabbath” (Levack p 122) These changes developed over time and by the 1660’s they began to take effect. 

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