Servants of Satan: The Age of the Witch Hunts

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This is the first book to consider the general course and significance of the European witch craze of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries since H.R. Trevor-Roper's classic and pioneering study appeared some fifteen years ago. Drawing upon the advances in historical and social-science scholarship of the past decade and a half, Joseph Klaits integrates the recent appreciations of witchcraft in regional studies, the history of popular culture, anthropology, sociology, and psychology to better illuminate the place of witch hunting in the context of social, political, economic and religious change.

"In all, Klaits has done a good job. Avoiding the scandalous and sensational, he has maintained throughout, with sensitivity and economy, an awareness of the uniqueness of the theories and persecutions that have fascinated scholars now for two decades and are unlikely to lose their appeal in the foreseeable future." -American Historical Review

"This is a commendable synthesis whose time has come.... fascinating... " -The Sixteenth Century Journal

"... comprehensive and clearly written... An excellent book... " -Choice

"Impeccable research and interpretation stand behind this scholarly but not stultifying account... " -Booklist

"A good, solid, general treatment... " -Erik Midelfort

"Servants of Satan is a well written, easy to read book, and the bibliography is a good source of secondary materials for further reading." -Journal of American Folklore

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1. The Witchcraft Enigma

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Were there really witches? Did women attempt to inflict harm on their neighbors by magic? Did they actually gather for nocturnal rites of devil worship? Among modern interpreters of the witch trials, opinions about the existence and activities of witches have ranged from total credulity to complete skepticism. Even the most basic questions lack firm answers, and nearly all the logical possibilities have been upheld: that the idea of witchcraft was a hoax invented by self-interested churchmen and other authorities, that witches not only existed but also possessed supernatural powers granted them by Satan, and numerous intermediate positions. The witch trials constitute perhaps the greatest enigma of the least understood era in modern history. There is still no complete consensus among historians on this subject, but recent scholarship has approached the problem of the witch hunts with a high degree of precision and has achieved notable advances in our knowledge.

Seventy years ago there was little controversy. Numerous studies of the witch trials appeared from the 1880s to the years of the First World War, and scholarship pointed toward a single conclusion. Marshaling mountains of sources, the indefatigable writers of that generation, most notably the German scholar, Joseph Hansen, and Americans Andrew Dickson White, Henry Charles Lea, and George Lincoln Burr, concluded that witchcraft trials were the sad result of medieval superstitious fears and the copious use of torture to elicit confessions. From wide reading in the surviving trial records and demonological handbooks, these scholars became convinced that the authorities, particularly those in the Catholic church, were hypocritically manipulating a gullible public to enhance their own power. Or, alternatively, they classed churchmen and other officials among the gullible—honest but foolish victims of the superstitious belief in witchcraft.1

 

2. Medieval Witches

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Witch trials were virtually unknown until the final centuries of the Middle Ages. Through most of the medieval era, churchmen generally held that anyone who believed women went flying about at night was a victim of superstition. But, even as these assertions became formalized in influential collections of the church’s canon law, the foundation on which they rested was slowly eroded in the course of the medieval Catholic encounter with nonconformists whom the church perceived to be dangerous deviants.

Jews, heretics, homosexuals, and magicians were among the most important of the nonconforming groups. From the twelfth century on, outsiders came under increasing verbal and physical attack from churchmen, allied secular authorities, and, particularly in the case of Jews, from the lower strata of the population. In the early Middle Ages, a more easygoing acceptance of social diversity had usually been the norm. After 1100, however, new patterns of enmity quickly emerged, and a climate of fear and hostility became frozen into place. Not until the end of the seventeenth century, when ancient hatreds receded somewhat, did a few areas of Western culture temporarily abandon the stress on social conformity and unanimity of belief. But, by the time of this decline in preoccupation with unconventional behavior, the witch craze had run its course.

 

3. Sexual Politics and Religious Reform in the Witch Craze

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Why did the number of witch trials in Western Europe increase greatly after about 1550? Why did the crime of witchcraft, familiar for centuries, suddenly appear so much more menacing that thousands of trials unfolded between 1550 and 1700, whereas only a few hundred seem to have occurred earlier?

These questions have been posed by many writers on the witch trials over the past century. But they have taken on fresh urgency recently, in light of the findings (discussed in the previous chapters) of Norman Cohn and Richard Kieckhefer concerning medieval witch trials. These scholars, working independently, have uncovered convincing proof that previously accepted accounts of large-scale witch hunts undertaken by the Inquisition in fourteenth-century France and Italy were based on modern forgeries and other fraudulent evidence. Their discoveries have necessitated a complete revision of the chronology of European witch hunting. Until now, the mainstream of scholarly interpretation suggested a continuing flow in witch prosecution from the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries. Periods of flood may have alternated with relatively dry spells, and there were some especially spectacular inundations around 1600, but in the accounts of earlier scholars the channel of witch hunting remained intact over the centuries, with few and minor changes of course. Thus, Henry Charles Lea could devote nearly half of his massive digest on witchcraft to the period before the mid-sixteenth century. And, as recently as fifteen years ago, H. R. Trevor-Roper could argue that the witch craze was primarily an extension and magnification of earlier witch hunting.

 

4. Classic Witches: The Beggar and the Midwife

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Clashes of religious confessions during the Reformation, warfare of unprecedented scale and intensity, a doubling of Europe’s population, a five-fold increase in prices, and the persistence of plague and other epidemic diseases, as well as changes in behavior imposed by reforming elites—clearly, European communities were confronted by a galaxy of pressures from the mid-sixteenth to the mid-seventeenth centuries.

A witchcraft trial was one of the few outlets for stress acceptable to both the authorities and the populace. A phenomenon as pervasive and widespread as the witch hunts almost certainly answered the needs of more than one social level. Whether seen as malefice by the villager or construed as devil worship by the elites, witchcraft was a reality to early modern Europeans of all backgrounds. For this reason, efforts to see the witch craze exclusively as a kind of elitist conspiracy against popular culture are ultimately unconvincing. Almost a century ago, rationalist historians assumed that the clerical establishment was the sole active agent, imposing witch trials on a passive and inert population. Now there is a tendency once again to neglect the popular sources of agitation for witch trials. No doubt the predispositions of the elites, together with their control of the judicial apparatus, were necessary conditions for large-scale witch hunting. But there is also much evidence of popular pressure to initiate witch prosecutions. The witch craze is an outstanding example of reciprocal influences among higher and lower cultures in early modern Europe.1

 

5. Classic Accusers: The Possessed

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Demonic possession became a leading theme in witchcraft trials of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The idea itself was ancient by 1600. In the gospels, Jesus cures several individuals possessed by “unclean spirits,” and his early followers banished demons by uttering the Savior’s name. During the Middle Ages, stories of people whose bodies had been taken over by demons circulated in numerous manuscript collections.1 Eventually such tales became a staple of early modern works on demonology. But only as the witch craze reached its climax in Western Europe and North America did possession regularly move from the theoreticians’ pages into the real lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of men, women, and children.

To introduce the subject, consider a typical case of seventeenth-century demonic possession and witchcraft. This dramatic episode unfolded around 1620 in Lorraine, where witch trials had long been common. Elizabeth de Ranfaing, daughter of an upper-class family, had exhibited considerable religious feeling from early childhood. In order to dampen her disquieting piety (or so it would appear), her parents married her off at age fifteen to a professional soldier forty-two years her senior. Her husband treated Elizabeth with brutality. When he died some nine years later, she was left with six children. The young widow’s religious fervor was still strong, and she went off on a pilgrimage to Remiremont. After finishing her devotions, Elizabeth stopped to rest at a local inn, where she met a well-known doctor named Charles Poirot. Poirot bought her food and drink in which, Elizabeth later recounted, there was mixed a love potion that placed her under the doctor’s control. His very breath was enough to cast a spell over her, and she soon was invaded by “the Other,” who caused her to sink into convulsive seizures and utterly outrageous blasphemies. The local apothecaries could only recommend further treatment from Dr. Poirot, whom Elizabeth regarded with a mixture of fascination and horror. At last the village priest sent her to Nancy, where exorcists cast the devils out of her body. Elizabeth remained cured until she chanced to meet Poirot again. Her symptoms immediately returned, and this time exorcism was ineffective. Representatives of various religious orders sent their best men in hope of reaping the honor that would go to the healer of the demoniac of Ranfaing. But each specialist eventually had to admit defeat.

 

6. In the Torture Chamber: Legal Reform and Psychological Breakdown

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Without torture there would have been no witch craze. Certainly, some trials for witchcraft would have occurred in early modern Europe even without the use of torture to elicit confessions. But the immense scale of witch hunting derived in large part from the spread of coercive techniques in criminal law procedure. Even in England and New England, where most forms of torture were forbidden, the authorities’ ideas about witches were strongly influenced by continental writers who drew their evidence from confessions extracted by torture. In the same way, those who encouraged suggestible men and women to believe themselves bewitched had become familiar with witchcraft through accounts extracted under threatened or actual torture.

A case study can illustrate the impact of torture on witchcraft prosecution. Among the most wrenching documents to come down to us from the witch trials is the letter of Johannes Junius, a burgomaster in the German city of Bamberg. Junius was arrested on charges of witchcraft in 1628, while the community was in the midst of a large-scale witch panic. He was tortured, confessed, and went to the stake, but before his death Junius managed to compose an account of his imprisonment in a letter to his daughter. The burgomaster described his interrogation:

 

7. An End to Witch Hunting

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In a span of one or two generations, witchcraft went from a source of obsessive dread to a matter of apparent indifference. Witch trials rapidly declined in the late seventeenth century. Except in Eastern Europe, where the decline was somewhat delayed, trials had practically disappeared by 1700. Witchcraft cases, formerly classed among the most heinous crimes, vanished from the statute books and the criminal courts. Within half a century after the Salem trials, it was no more possible to bring a charge of witchcraft in nearly all Western courts than it is today.

What caused these dramatic changes? Any attempt to answer this question must confront certain built-in difficulties. As in all efforts to explain nonevents—in this case, the absence of continued witch trials—the problem is in finding relevant evidence. In general, historians find negative questions difficult. The tools of historical research seem inadequate to establish why something did not occur. Scholars admit as much when they call the decline of the trials the most baffling aspect of the witch craze.1 Much of the evidence for the decline of witchcraft is indirect or circumstantial, and the consequently tentative conclusions must be understood in light of their problematic derivation.

 

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