Monday, January 20, 2014

The Witch Hunt In Early Modern Europe

Levack discusses the age of witch-hunting in Europe between 1450-1750. This time period is chosen for the great number of cases that took place in such a short span of time. He examines: why the trials took place, how many trials and victims we know about, where the accusations came from, where these trials tended to take place, and what eventually made them stop.

Two conditions that made it possible for witch-hunts to get out of hand were: the type of government an area had, and religious reformation. Levack argues that countries or states that had a more centralized government were less likely to allow massive witch-hunts, or have the death sentence for people convicted as witches. Typically, the higher courts were less apt to allow cases with little or no evidence to result in a death sentence. They were also not involved personally with the convicted witch, so were less likely to let personal grudges influence their verdict. As more countries changed to centralized governments, the number of witch trials decreased, as did the severity of the punishment.

Religious reformation played a role in the number of witch trials that occurred. Witch craft was seen as a heresy. Some people thought those who practiced a different religion were being influenced by the devil--hence the leap to the person being a witch. Although heresy and witch craft were similar crimes, they were not the same thing. A person was not automatically a witch if they were a heretic.

I did like the overview for witch-hunts in Europe. I had thought there would be more information about specific cases, but that was not the focus of this book. Some of the witch-hunts that were mentioned I want to learn more about are:

The Exorcism of Ursuline nuns at Loudun Occurred in Loudun France in 1634. A case of mass possession, the nuns were exorcised, but the demon possessed the priest performing the exorcism. It was determined that the spirit possessing them was a clergyman that had been in conflict with local church authorities. He was tried for sorcery and burned alive.

Rottenburg Germany witch-hunt Occurred in 1585. After a series of wars, famines, and bad weather the community started blaming and hunting witches. The number of condemned witches was so high authorities were afraid that there would not be any women left in the village.

Waldensians A Christian movement that started in Lyon in the 1170's. The group was deemed heretical, and persecution began. In 1487 Pope Innocent VIII gave an order of extermination, and in the following years there were several massacres. Witch trials were a common part of the persecutions of this group.

Plague Spreaders Were people accused of using witch craft to spread the plague. Usually, this was done by a special potion that included the disease. It would be smeared on a house, and the inhabitants would sicken with the plague.

Scotland under James VI Early on in his rule, James became convinced that people were trying to kill him through witchcraft. Because of his fear of witches, he started mass witch hunts.

Confessions of the Basque Witches These confessions provide us with some of the richest descriptions of the witch's sabbath in all of Europe.

There was some interesting material in this book. It will be helpful when reading about individual cases or hunts to understand how they fit in a larger picture of history. I would recommend this book if you are interested in understanding witch trials. It might be a little tedious for those that are not really interested in the topic. 

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