The witch hunt in early modern Europe is a continuing debate that has divided historians. Generally most historians agree that the peak of the witch hunts took place after 1560. Which is the time when new legislation had been created and changed in the climate was taking place. Yet prior to the peak of the witch-hunts, their were ‘white witches.’ These witches were used to help heal the sick and vulnerable, only using their powers for good. But as time went on people started to believe in witches that would cause harm to people, animals and had a pact with the devil. Historians are unsure how this came about, but many historians have their own views on how the witch-hunts started. Whether it be started from factors from ‘above’- the ruling elites and their influences or from ‘below’- a change in weather, the unusual death of animals or an a spread of new diseases, that caused individuals to suffer.
This can be seen between two contrasting historians: Brian Levack and Wolfgang Behringer. Levack takes on the view that the witch hunts took place due to causes from above. Levack’s interests are around the history of law and the relationship between the law and politics during early modern Europe. Which is the result of a more elitist view. Compared to Behringer who looks more into the socio-economic factors of the time, as to why the witch hunts took place. Behringer believes that there are three main factors which caused the witch hunts to take place; weather, hunger and fear.
Levack argues that ‘much more important than popular beliefs were those of the ruling and administrative elite. Because these men controlled the judicial process, their belief in witchcraft was essential to the conduct of a witch-hunt.’ In essence he is suggesting that in order for a large scale witch hunt to take place, their needs to be ‘bureaucratic disbelief and judicial inaction’ influence to create popular belief within society. ‘In order for a witch-hunt to take place, therefore, it was necessary for this group of officials to believe in the reality of witchcraft and to harbour deep fears of it.’ This shows that socio-economic factors are not the primary cause of the witch-hunts.
On the other hand, Wolfgang Behringer argues that socio-economic factors were the solo cause of the witch-hunts. He argues that the three main factors that caused the witch-hunts were: weather, hunger and fear. ‘These periods of inflation had more dramatic impact on southern Germany because the swabian textile industry had lost its traditional market in Holland as a result of the Dutch revolt. Malnutrition spread, thereby lowering immunity to disease.’ He then goes on to say that there were two main plague in 1585-8 and 1592-3 which eliminated and large amount of the population. ‘The situation of subsistence crisis accounts for widespread witchcraft persecutions around the year 1590.’ This shows that due to socio-economic factors, that the intense conditions that individuals had to deal with could have created popular beliefs; that witches were to blame for this disaster.
Levack goes on to explain that util legislation on witchcraft was introduced there were hardly any trials, that took place. This can be seen in England when a legal code on witchcraft was introduced in 1542. Before this date, hardly any trails were conducted. The Holy Roman Empire also had a similar code, which was called the Carolina of 1532. After these codes had been introduced, witch hunts reached their peak in the 1560s. This shows that socio-economic factors were not to blame for the rise of witch-hunts. But, Levack does recognise that socio-economic conditions did play a role in the rise of witch-hunts. He believes that it was out of fear from the ruling elites and their influence, which helped them to create new statues, political issues and concern from the state, which allowed them to create popular culture and influence the masses.
Behringer then suggests that countries like, England, Holland and Eastern Europe were not as affected by natural disasters, while having much more habitable space for individuals to live, that the rate of witch-hunts were much lower than countries like, Scotland, parts of France, Switzerland and Germany. All these countries had a much higher rate of witch trials. This could be due to the amount of habitable land they could use. Making their population much higher per geographical area. This meant that the villages had more pressure put on them, to keep their communities thriving. This would also mean that disease would spread much faster. Which would make it clear in the minds of sixteenth and seventeenth century people that witches were to blame for these disasters, as they already feared the unknown. This shows that socio-economic factors were the primary cause as to why witch-hunts took place.
There have been other historians that have added to the debate. This can be seen from Alan Macfarlane, who argues that no single socio-economic factor is the sole reason for the witch-hunts. He also says, that throughout this time, witches were presented as poor beggars. Yet he presents evidence that shows that this is not always the case. Poverty does not always lead to accusations. ‘In Little Baddow, a group of roughly sixty adult males in 1560 were working for an extra six months a year: without migration they would have been feeding an extra child each by 1566, for already births had exceeded deaths by sixty.’ After 1570, Little Baddow had no more persecutions. Macfarlane seems largely on the fence, as to whether, socio-economic factors had the main impact on the rise of the witch-hunts.
Macfarlane stresses that any misfortune to agriculture, injury to animals or unquestionable situations that took place, would be blamed on witchcraft. This correlates with Behringer’s argument that change of climate or situations that can not be explained put fear into the sixteenth and seventeenth century people. From their lack of understanding of the natural world and their only understanding of their world is seen through the bible, it would make sense that they would blame misfortune on that of the devil and his allies. Behringer firmly believes that the ‘little ice age’ was the cause for the start of witch-hunting. The evidence that he presents is, ‘As late as 1630, witch suspects had to confess that they had been responsible for the weather. According to the confessions, Franconian witches had discovered how to make frost. Having prepared a special potion from children’s fat, they flew through the air on the night of 27 May 1626, dropping the poison on the crops, until everything was frozen.’ The only way for the elites to obtain theses confessions, where to torture their victims. Showing that they would use witches as a scapegoat because they did not fully understand the world around them.
Gary. K. Waite agrees with Levack that the witch-hunts took place from ‘above’. Waite argues that there were fears of a radical movement against christianity in the sixteenth century. That this movement was moving away from the church and becoming protestant. This was known as anabaptists. Individuals who were classed as anabaptists, would not have their children baptised. This meant that the elites believed that if children were not baptised then they would be more susceptible to demonic possession. This threatened the catholic church and action needed to be taken. ‘Rejection of infant baptism carried with it, in the minds of the sixteenth century people, several diabolical ramifications, not least of which was the increase in the number of unbaptized and ‘unexorcized’ individuals who were presumed to be more susceptible to diabolical influence’ Waite makes a good point as to the ‘minds of the sixteenth century’ people. It is important to understand their mind set. They lived in a world were they had little knowledge of science and only had the church and bible as guidance. They feared anything that was not known to them. Which would make sense that once the elites started to become more educated, the influence and power they held over the illiterate would have been huge. Which means the popular beliefs from the ruling elites would have been very influential. Thus showing that socio-economic factors was not the sole reason for the witch-hunts that took place.
Another socio-economic factor that should be taken into consideration is the Thirty Years’ War. The Thirty Years’ was a religious conflict between Catholic and Protestants. The religious conflict could have caused the different religious to accuse individuals of different faiths to accuse people of sorcery and this has lead to speculation between historians, who have wondered if ‘it was a coincidence that the years 1626-31 saw the worst of all European witch persecutions.’ This war would have had tremendous effects on people’s livelihoods. This war would have created inflation and a serious loss of life, disease spread through Germany as soldiers marched through and looting. This period shows hardship for the people who lived in the sixteenth and seventeenth century and blaming it on witchcraft was the reasonable conclusion in their minds. This shows that causes from ‘above’ and causes from ‘below’ would have worked together, to cause fear into so many people, to carry on the witch-hunts for such a long period of time.
It is very clear, that different historians have their own views on how the witch-hunts took place. But in order to fully understand whether socio-economic factors were the primary cause of the witch-hunts, we must first look at primary evidence to see what the people of the sixteenth and the seventeenth century saw, in order to fully come to a conclusion as to weather the witch-hunts were primarily caused by socio-economic factors.
The first primary source that should be considered is the Act Against Conjurations, Enchantments and Witchcrafts, which was first introduced by Queen Elizabeth I. During this time England was going through a change that affected the whole nation. Since King Henry the VIII, the nation was transitioning from Catholic beliefs to Protestant beliefs. It is thought that this new statute was introduced because there was a radical group of Catholics were found using witchcraft against Queen Elizabeth I protestant regime. Yet nothing could be done about it, as there was no law to prosecute these radicalists. ‘While the 1563 statute may well have been the product of a particular situation, it is likely that the Elizabethan regime, emulating most other European governments of the period, would have enacted witchcraft legislation’ Although this might have been the case, it seems more likely that Queen Elizabeth enacted this statute due to fear of being overthrown. Queen Elizabeth I was known to be a very paranoid monarch. If there were talk of a group using sourcery to overthrow her, then it is likely that she would have introduced this statute on witchcraft and catholics as a scapegoat. By making the Catholic religion and witchcraft a crime, she is influencing her people.
But there have been two other Acts that were enforced before and after the 1563 Act. The first Act was the Witchcraft Act 1542 and the An Act against Conjuration, Witchcraft and dealing with evil and wicked spirits 1604. The 1542 Act made it a capital offence to practice witchcraft. But it was repealed in 1542. This was an Act created by King Henry the VIII. This was during a time that Henry the VIII was trying to turn England Protestant. By creating this Act, it would allow Henry the VIII to persecute anyone to be suspected as a Catholic. It is clear that the state had a lot of power to create fear into people for their religious beliefs. This is propaganda created by the statue to manipulate the minds of the people and clearly is the result of religious divide. The Act created in 1604 ‘imposed the death penalty for anyone who ‘shall consult covenant with entertain employ feed or reward evil and wicked spirit to or for any intent or purpose.’ While the 1542 was a way for Henry the VIII to control the religion of the English people, the 1563 and 1603 Acts made witchcraft a criminal offence and now it could be used in common law. This now meant that any conflict within the lower levels of society, any natural disasters that could not be explained back then, could be blamed on ordinary folk. This meant that they had the right to a criminal process to prove their guilt or innocence. This shows that socio-economic factors are not the primary cause of the witch-hunts.
The next source is a drawing by Georg Bartisan, Ophthalmologeia, (Dresden, 1583). This drawing shows a disease of the eyes, which was blamed on witchcraft. This drawing is propaganda, showing what witchcraft can do to individuals. This drawing shows that witches are out to hurt people and cause them pain. The people of the sixteenth and seventeenth century, would have seen this picture, fearing it. Theses were the days, that individuals did not understand science and solely relied on the bible. They feared what they did not understand, putting the blame on the devil. The mindset of the people had changed by this point. Instead of putting diseased down to acts of god, they now had something to blame- witchcraft. In cities such as, Geneva and Milan, witch craft was blamed for spreading plagues.
In most cases, the spread of disease that was blamed on witchcraft was very rare. The people usually accepted that disease being spread was part of life. So it is curious as to why these drawing were being made. Although, disease could have been one socio-economic factor that started the witch-hunts- it was once the elites became educated, which allowed this drawing to take place, causing so many people to fear the unknown.
The third source is Frontispiece of the Malleus Maleficarum, ‘The Hammer of Witches’, authored by Jakob Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer and first published in 1486. The Malleus Maleficarum was a manual written before the witch-hunt’s peaked around Europe. This manual brought together all the rules on witch-hunting into one book. The manual is in three parts. Part 1 is about any individual being able to testify about the accused witch, and anyone who does not believe in witch-craft is seen to be going against the church. Part two is stories about witches and what they can do and what activities they are involved in, for example, sexual relations with the devil, morphing into a different form or riding at night. Part three explains the procedures to conduct a witch trial, for example, allowing torture as a way to get an accused witch to confess.
Although this manual was created before the peak of the witch-hunts, it was used as a guide for the people to spot a potential witch, as well as the ‘correct’ procedures to follow when an accused witch was put on trial. Both Jakob Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer were Dominicans. This means that they were members of the Roman Catholic beliefs and would preach their views. Like many of the people during this time, their beliefs were influenced by Catholic or Protestant views. But the Malleus Maleficarum was accepted by the Catholics and Protestants alike, in order to protect the religious beliefs. This was propaganda used by the elites. This shows that socio-economic factors were not the primary cause of the witch-hunts in Europe from c.1560-1660.
It is clear from all the evidence presented that socio-economic factors where not the primary cause of the witch-hunts in Europe from c.1560-1660. Although socio-economic factors played a part in peak of the witch-hunts, it was mainly the elites that created the phenomenon. Many of the testimonies that were used to convict witches were that of children. The evidence provided by young children was seen a reliable source. This can be seen many parts of central europe and in Navarre in France in 1527. These children were used to find witches. In the sixteenth and seventeenth century the average age of death was quite young, so children were expected to grow up faster. But although the children were expected to carry out adult jobs, they were still children. They would have still been very impressionable and have a creative imagination. It is very questionable as to why the authorities would accept the testimony of children. But this demonstrates how the elites had power over societies and how much they could influences all levels of society.
Socio-economics did play a role in the start of the witch-hunts, from new diseases, to a change in weather that could not be explained during this time, the elites exploited this and caused all the misfortune that took place, on witches. Most of the sources that were written, drawn or legislation at this time was done by the elites. Many describing witches as poor, ugly, hags. This could have been a way to protect the higher levels of society and further the class divide at this time. As fears of witches spread through the lower levels of society, this caused villages to set up communes, taking witch-hunts into their own hands. This also allowed for people in their village to turn on each other, if they had a disagreement. By turning on their peers, this allowed the village people to start to gain a sense of power and authority, that they did not have before.
But during this time, the village people started to turn on the elites, accusing them of witches. If the authorities thought that witch-hunts had gone too far, then they would intervene. ‘This was certainly the case in northern France in the late 1580s. Hunderards were tortured, convicted and executed in the Champagne-Ardennes region between 1587-1588. As a consequence the French Parlement demanded to review all cases before convicted witches were executed. Many verdicts were subsequently reversed and the witch-hunt in the region declined.’ This shows that the elites have the power to causes panic in all levels of society, especially when many of the lower levels of society was illiterate and very sensitive to popular beliefs. But this also shows that the elites had the power to slowly stop witch-hunts taking place. Having the power to start the witch-hunts and the power to stop the witch-hunts.The witch-hunts in Europe between c.1560-1660, were ultimately the cause of a combination of causes from ‘above’ and causes from ‘below’.