Witchcraft in the 16th & 17 Centuries: Response to Literature
At first glance, a logical 21st Century explanation for the "witch craze" (also known as a witch-hunt) during the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe was based largely upon human ignorance. That is to say, the belief that a sub-culture of the general population performed witchcraft (and other magic-related phenomena), and ate the flesh of children, helped the unenlightened explain the unexplainable, and helped the ignorant deal with the darkness. Witchcraft seemingly established a reason that a person had that bad luck and it explained illnesses, and probably it helped explain natural calamities such as tornadoes, seismic catastrophes and sudden killer bolts of lightning or sheets of rain turned into disastrous flooding. Or it could even explain a stillborn child and a puppy with a broken leg. Somebody put a spell on that poor dog. Mysterious events that had no apparent answers, quite possibly fed into the gristmill of suspicion which humans harbored; that there was some dark yet magical power brooding on the horizon. Indeed, Breslaw (2000, p. 3) summarizes this theory rather succinctly: "What was universal among these [European 16th & 17 century, and earlier] societies is the belief that misfortune - whether disease, death, a loss of crops, an earthquake - came from the deliberate actions of a spiritual force. Harmful events," Breslaw continues, "and human adversity were never accidents. Somehow, they felt, there was purpose and direction to every event." Explanations for witchcraft cry out today for examination. There is good cause for suspicion, not only of witchcraft's alleged existence, but for the impassioned writings which attempt to explain the evil and the hunt. Skepticism - not out-and-out-rejection - should be the order of the day, and this paper seeks to follow that preamble.
Meanwhile, having said that the above-mentioned initial explanations are too tidy, it would be difficult for a 21st Century person to speak of witchcraft without juxtaposing the pivotal role religion played in society 500 years ago - against the then supposed culture of witches. Witchcraft was, and perhaps still is, a reaction to - or rejection of - faith-based philosophies. For every action, there is reported to be some kind of opposite reaction, even in human terms. The balancing act in witchcraft placed the devil on one end of the teeter-totter, with God perched on the other (albeit He was closer to the ground).
In seeking insight through the myriad explanations of witches, this paper will also be a "witch hunt," but not in a cliched, negative sense. Rather, it will be a hunt for reason among the varied explanations of witches and witchcraft, in the sense of hunting down reasonable pieces of literary evidence. Were they even real? An explanation is only as believable as the backup factual data supporting it. And while it's difficult to assess precisely what available literature is "factual" and what is fiction, the search itself sheds light on diverse beliefs as regards witches.
Slaughter on a Massive Scale
How serious was the slaughter of innocents, people who were accused of being witches, individuals who were "different" and fell into "swoons" and allegedly "cast spells" to hurt others? One author, Allison P. Coudert (1989) flatly states that the "witchcraze [was] responsible for the death of between 60,000 and 200,000 people" (61). And contrary to the idea put forth in the introduction to this paper, Coudert asserts that the "...witchcraze was not the product of ignorance and superstition" (61). She puts the witchcraft (or "witchcraze" in her words) into historical scientific context:
The witchcraze] occurred during the period described as the scientific revolution and age of triumphant rationalism. During the same years that Kepler discovered the elliptical orbits of the planets and Galileo formulated the law of inertia, while Montaigne wrote his skeptical essays and Descartes forever changed the way men perceived the world, unrecorded numbers of women (including Kepler's mother) were accused of witchcraft, pricked, racked...until they confessed that they were indeed the Devil's Disciples, at which point they were burned at the stake or hanged. In 1602 the witch hunter Henri Bogueet announced that a vast host of 1,800,000 witches threatened Europe, a more formidable army than any Europe had ever experienced in its long history of warfare (Coudert, 1989).
Following that passage, Coudert wonders, as any thinking person should, "...what made intelligent, educated men view witches as so terrifyingly real..."
15th Century Witchcraft as a Prelude?
In order to understand the 16th Century concept of witchcraft, it may be instructive to examine views expressed by chroniclers in the years leading up to the 16th Century. An influential book from 1486, Malleus Maleficarum, written by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, sheds interesting, if lurid, light on the culture of witches. According to Breslaw (2000), much of the specific details that were printed in the book - details of copulation with demons, infanticide, cannibalism - was "extracted under torture" from some of those very witches who allegedly committed the heinous acts. This excerpt from Malleus Maleficarum recounts one method utilized by witches to corrupt and harm innocents:
There is a place in the diocese of Brixen where a young man deposed the following facts concerning the bewitchment of his wife. "In the time of my youth I loved a girl who importuned me to marry her; but I refused her and married another girl from another country. But wishing for friendship's sake to please her, I invited her to the wedding. She came, and while the other honest women were wishing us luck and offering gifts, she raised her hand and, in the hearing of the other women who were standing round, said, 'You will have few days of health after to-day.' My bride was frightened, since she did not know her (for, as I have said, I had married her from another country), and asked the bystanders who she was who had threatened her in that way and they said that she was a loose and vagrant woman. None the less, it happened just as she had said. For after a few days my wife was so bewitched that she lost the use of all her limbs, and even now, after ten years, the effects of witchcraft can be seen on her body." e.g. Kramer, H., & Sprenger, J. (1486), Breslaw (2000).
The themes and analogies and "facts" that this book's stories put forward were reportedly so widespread at that point in history that "...many of the details appear in later confessions and learned treaties even in England" (Breslaw, 2000).
Myths, Stereotypes, and Questions about the Veracity of Witches' Tales
While that book's narrative may or may not be true, and none of these sometimes ghastly tales can be proven, what can be taken with more than a wink and a grain of salt is the stereotype of the witch herself. "Herself" is used here because the witch was often a woman - though occasionally a witch could be a man or a child (Cohn, 1975). And just how did this stereotypical witch get her start? Why was the great witch hunt conducted in the 15th, 16th, and 17th Centuries in Europe and America? And how many witches were hunted down and executed? Tens of thousands? Answers vary with authors, of course, but the stereotype of what a witch looked like and how she became a witch in the first place holds pretty consistently, from writer to writer, century to century. To wit:
typical pattern was that an elderly widow, rejected by her neighbours and with nobody to turn to, would be approached by a man who would alternatively console her, promise her money, scare her, extract a promise of obedience from her, in the end mate with her. The money seldom materialized, the copulation was downright painful, but the promise of obedience remained binding. Formally and irrevocably the new witch had to renounce God, Christ, the Christian religion, and pledge herself instead to the service of Satan; whereupon the Devil set his mark on her - often with the nails or claws of his left hand, and on the left side of the body (Cohn, 1975, p. 99).
What Cohn goes on to say, is that typically, the new witch, though having been through a hardship prior to, and in becoming a witch, nevertheless she enjoyed her new power - supernatural powers to use against anyone she choose to harm. She then purportedly feasted on the soft flesh of young children, for she was now a cannibal. Cohn asks the key question: "How did this strange stereotype come into being?" He notes that the research into witches really began full throttle in the second quarter of the 19th Century. And from that research have come two principle explanations, Cohn concludes:
Some scholars have argued that a sect of witches really existed, and that the authorities who pursued and tried witches were in effect breaking the local organizations of that sect. Others have argued that the…
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