Europe is considered to be an epicenter of a lot of things be it the concept of rights or industrial progress or for that matter even intellectual progress. The early modern period in Europe is characterized by great strides of both science and culture. However, it is also a period of religious intolerance and mass hysteria, this was exemplified in the witch craze that occurred in Europe in 1550-1700.  At this time thousands of people were prosecuted and executed for the crimes of witchcraft or sorcery all over Europe.

The origins of witchcraft stories are various and complex in nature.  Over the course of a century and a half, 80,000 people were tried for witchcraft and half of them were executed, often burned alive. If we try to trace back its origin then the earliest law codes to punish the malevolent sorcery come from Egypt and Babylonia. The Code of Hammurabi (18th century BCE short chronology) prescribes that “If a man has put a spell upon another man and it is not yet justified, he upon whom the spell is laid shall go to the holy river; into the holy river shall he plunge. If the holy river overcome him and he is drowned, the man who put the spell upon him shall take possession of his house. If the holy river declares him innocent and he remains unharmed the man who laid the spell shall be put to death. He that plunged into the river shall take possession of the house of him who laid the spell upon him.”

If we really try to understand what was being prescribed to punish the sorcerer was actually a way to acquire property, so all a person had to do was to accuse someone of having malevolent powers and the state would throw them in the river, on this controversial hypothesis that if the person is innocent he or she would survive. But we all know the chances of survival for the victim, so essentially he would lose his property and the other person will acquire it. Looks like there is more economics involved in witch-hunting than magic!

The Witch Craze
During the 900 and 1400, the Christian authorities clearly denied acknowledging that witches existed. This was despite the fact that belief in witches was common in medieval Europe, and in 1258 Pope Alexander IV had to issue a canon to prevent prosecutions. There had been a widespread belief in the existence of witches and the power of black magic in much of Europe as the beliefs of the Church had failed to change the folk-beliefs of the country-people, who often remained half-pagan. It seems that countless people practiced folk-medicine that often involved cures and charms. These had long been tolerated by the authorities and were not considered a danger. There was a change in the legal definition of sorcery during the 15th century, and sorcery was deemed to be heretical. What made the church authorities to change their stance? 

During this witch craze period in Europe, there was a socio-economic crisis as well as religious wars had wracked the countries from at least the mid-sixteenth century, and much of the continent had been devastated by the 30 years’ war and the Huguenot Wars.

After the book ‘Malleus Malefic arum’ (the hammer of witches) was published in 1484, the persecution of witches started to grow in number. Both Catholics and Protestants accepted it as the authority on witchcraft. The work contained imaginative stories about witches based on folklore, presented theological and legal arguments against witchcraft, and provided guidelines on how to identify and eliminate witches. The Hammer of Witches has been described as “the most vicious and. . . The most damaging book in all of world literature.”

How were the witches described?
The Christian community by this time started to formulate a definite sense of sorcery, which involved Black Sabbaths, demonic worships, and black magic that harmed people and their property. This led to the folk religion and practices of the uneducated rural population, becoming regarded as sorcery and associated with the Devil. This doctrinal shift meant that the folk religion of the people was criminalized and considered to be demonic. It should be noted that some of the popular magical practices in rural areas were often considered to be malicious and involved cursing victims. This form of malignant magic was used as evidence for the existence of malevolent witches. Their representation in books and paints largely involved nudity and cannibalism of infants. A lot of the representation was also regarding women who generally did not conform to societal norms, we’ll look into the gender norms in later sections.

By the 15th century, Europe which had been relatively open and tolerant began to become reactionary. Those who did not follow the prescribed practices and beliefs were marginalized and often terrorized by the elite. By 1500 there was a widespread acceptance that there was a conspiracy of witches who in league with the devil were trying to harm Christians and even overthrow the Christian religion. The Renaissance is often seen as a rational cultural movement, but there was a strain of the irrational in it. Many leading Renaissance thinkers believed in magic and occultism, and they persuaded many of the elite to take seriously, the idea of magic and sorcery.

The socio-economic reasons
This century according to anthropologists was characterized by highly unstable societies with numbers of plagues, famines, wars, and old authorities being challenged. Many agriculture-related activities failed, and soon with climate change, the economic crisis started to unfold. As poor were the worst hit they started revolutionizing against the elite and capitalists, this hysteria led the upper class to stage someone to blame so they started labeling some people as “witches” or someone having demonic powers. Some studies have suggested that Germany (the highest number of witch hunts of about 40,000 women who were mostly burnt alive) experienced many outbreaks of witchcraft trials because it suffered greatly from war and famine. There is evidence of a direct link between those societies who were most impacted by war and the number of witches put on trial. This would help to explain that rise in the number of accusations brought against those who were called the ‘consorts of the devil.’ Given the instability of the times, many have argued that the trials became a form of social control. It was a way for the rich and aristocracy to control the poor who during periods of war and famine could become restive.

The Catholic and Protestants conflicts
Economists Peter Leeson and Jacob Russ of George Mason University in Virginia argue that the trials reflected “non-price competition between the Catholic and Protestant churches for religious market share”. There was intense competition between the Catholic Church and the Protestants denominations. They sought to ensure that there was great religious uniformity among the general population. For the first time, the ecclesiastical elite was concerned with the faith and the observance of the general population. The clergy had instructions to make their congregations comply with the doctrines of the Churches. This occurred in both Catholic and Protestant territories and was designed to instill in them loyalty to a particular religious grouping. One of the side-effects of this process was that anything that deviated from doctrine was deemed heretical. Many faith healers and those who practiced ‘white magic’ for fertility and good luck became suspect. They were regularly placed on trial by authorities who interpreted their beliefs and customs as sorcery and diabolical. The new analysis suggests that the witch craze was most intense where Catholic-Protestant rivalry was strongest. Churches picked key regional battlegrounds, they say, much like the Democrat and Republican parties in the US now focus on key states during the presidential election.

This explains why Germany, ground zero for the Reformation, laid claim to nearly 40% of all witchcraft prosecutions in Europe. Scotland, where different strains of Protestantism were in competition, saw the second-highest level of witch-hunts, with a total of 3,563 people tried.

After 1500, the population started to grow at a rapid pace this started putting pressure on resources and created competition especially for the ownership of land, due to the inability of poor women to pay up for the dowry the average marrying went up to 27 years. The number of unmarried women also grew the number of unmarried women in many areas was as high as one in four. They were often seen as a disruptive element in society because women who were not under the control of men were seen as threatening. So they were seen as someone who is disrupting the structure of patriarchy and can use their sexuality to gain power. Most of the women who were burned alive in the name of witchcraft were either unmarried or widowed (the property of dead husband also became a factor), some these women could not reproduce or were intellectuals and knew the art of medicine which delayed or prevented pregnancies. This was clearly seen as a threat for society were wars were frequent and the soldiers could only be provided by a woman and hence, they have declared witches by the state.

After the 18th century, the witch-hunting almost completely disappeared from Europe. However, it still continues to persist in many of the African, and South Asian countries, and the real reasons behind this witch-hunting are still the same. Therefore next time we hear stories from our grandparents about witches, demonic possessions, and magic we must think what could be the actual story behind it?

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