Witch Hunt: The History of a Persecution

Witch Hunt: The History of a Persecution
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This important reassessment of witch panics and persecutions in Europeand colonial America both challenges and enhances existing interpretations of the phenomenon.

Locating its origins years earlier in the growing perception of threats to Western Christendom, Robert Thurston outlines the development of a 'persecuting society' in which campaigns against scapegoats such as heretics, Jews, lepers and homosexuals set the scene for the later witch hunts. He examines the creation of the witch stereotype and looks at how the early trials and hunts evolved, with the shift from accusatory to inquisitorial court procedures and reliance upon confessions leading to the increasing use of torture.

Robert W. Images and Realities. Among these is without a doubt some measure of the natural flux of generations, by which young people often have more in common in their temperament with their grandparents than with their parents. One cause which I have been able to trace in the book is the process by which a single, spectacular event can cause a social panic, resulting in a renewed zeal for moral and social control.

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The book opens with a summary of a trial that took place in Lucerne, where you describe how a secular, urban court had a man who was accused of theft tortured until he also confessed to a charge of diabolic witchcraft. Could you expand on this apparent paradox between a secular court and manufactured heresy?

LS: This is one of the puzzles that caught my fascination early in this project. I had made the assumption that heresy prosecution was the prerogative of the church, at least until the Reformation.

A Timeline of Witch Hunts in Europe

Yet although the case which opens the book is remarkable in many ways, it is far from unique in this aspect. These urban courts did not accept many practical limitations on their prerogative to prosecute misconduct, and they often crossed the line into matters which are usually seen as falling within the jurisdiction of the medieval church courts: marriage, sexual misbehavior, blasphemy, and even false belief.

This line crossing is of interest in part because it could, though surprisingly only occasionally, be a cause of direct conflict between the urban authorities and the local bishop. It is also of interest because it follows quite closely the contour of ebb and flow discussed above.

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This sort of case was a manifestation of the same secular championing of moral and social control that so characterized Reformed cities a few decades later. What kinds of primary resources informed your understanding that many admissions to witchcraft were induced by torture?

Top 10 Most Brutal Witch Hunts in History

LS: The details of criminal procedure are difficult to tease out from fifteenth-century sources. In each city I had quite different sources, each with its own set of flaws. For Basel I had details of the costs for interrogation and torture in the expense records, but shifts in recording practices elide these for decades at a time. For Lucerne, I have even fewer direct references to torture, but these are programmatic: they are statements about the outlay for the personal and process of torture generally and make clear that, at a certain point, torture became a regular part of criminal interrogations.

The best records exist for Nuremberg, where the detailed city council minutes describe every single instance in which torture was directed or allowed, albeit quite tersely. I have used the records from Nuremberg to analyze the transformation of torture practice across the late fifteenth century. You mention that while two of your city case studies - Lucerne and Basel - shared similar indigenous ideas of witchcraft in the fifteenth century, the following years would see witch-hunts and persecution become much more pronounced in the former.

How did this come to be? LS: In the most basic analysis, two key elements are necessary for witchcraft prosecution: accusations and a legal system willing to pursue them. The shared indigenous ideas of witchcraft in Lucerne and Basel gave rise to accusations in both places.

A Timeline of Witch Hunts in Europe

People believed in the existence of wolf-riding, storm-raising, milk-stealing, child-killing witches, and that belief led to specific accusations of witchcraft. In Lucerne, the urban authorities accepted and pursued the accusations of witchcraft brought by the populace. They clearly shared the beliefs of their rural subjects and urban neighbors. In Basel, by contrast, urban authorities had long been resistant to prosecuting witchcraft. They suspected their rural subjects were rather too credulous, and they ultimately labeled witchcraft accusations superstition.

Several factors influenced this difference between the two urban elites. One was the relative social proximity of the elites in Lucerne to the rest of the populace: the council was large and inclusive, comprising nearly a tenth of the urban population during the fifteenth-century witchcraft persecutions.

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The Basel council was smaller and more exclusive. Although the guilds were represented in the council, in practice councilors were drawn from a narrow circle of elite families. The Hebrew Scriptures addressed witchcraft, including Exodus and various verses in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. This text influenced later canon law and condemned maleficium bad-doing and sorilegium fortune-telling , but it argued that most stories of these acts were fantasy. It also argued that those who believed they could somehow magically fly were suffering from delusions.

Mater Gratian's compiled canon law, including writings from Hrabanus Maurus and excerpts from Augustine. Pope Alexander IV accepted that sorcery and communication with demons amounted to a kind of heresy. This opened the possibility of the Inquisition, concerned with heresy, being involved with witchcraft investigations. In his "Summa Theologiae," and in other writings, Thomas Aquinas briefly addressed sorcery and magic. He assumed that consulting demons included making a pact with them, which was by definition, apostasy.

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Aquinas accepted that demons could assume the shapes of actual people. The Church moved to eliminate the Knights Templar. Among the charges were heresy, witchcraft, and devil-worship. This was one of several assassination plots around that time against the pope or a king. Black Death swept through Europe, adding to the willingness of people to see conspiracies against Christendom.

Pope Innocent VIII issued "Summis desiderantes affectibus," authorizing two German monks to investigate accusations of witchcraft as heresy, threatening those who interfered with their work.

Historian investigates the history of witchcraft prosecution

If the holy river overcome him and he is drowned, the man who put the spell upon him shall take possession of his house. But witches—whether actual or accused—still face persecution and death. Some of the earliest histories of the European witch hunts used the trials to characterize the present as "more enlightened" than the past. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Like Sarah Churchill, Mary Warren could not bring herself to testify against her employer.

The " Malleus Maleficarum " was published. Many historians point to this period as one in which witchcraft trials, and Protestantism, were rising.

A Timeline of Witch Hunts in Europe

Ivan IV of Russia issued the Decree of , declaring witch trials were to be civil matters rather than church matters. It argued that much of what was thought to be witchcraft was not supernatural at all but natural trickery. The second English Witchcraft Act was passed.