Title: Why did all groups in pre-modern society believe in witchcraft?
Why did all groups in pre-modern society believe in witchcraft?
The Early Modern Period saw the start of a craze in which tens of thousands were executed for witchcraft. The perpetrators of this crime, which we now perceive to be largely fictitious, were primarily women. The activities which the alleged witches engaged in had two branches; one being maleficia, which was the act of black magic, and the other the diabolical pact, in which women acted as the devil’s agent. One reason that the witch-craze has caused so much scholarly debate amongst Historians is why it was a crime which all groups within society believed in it, making the scale of the persecution vast.
This essay will argue that the belief that witches engaged in a diabolical pact resulted in a widespread fear of witchcraft from all groups within society. The Catholic Church, which was at the centre of life during the Early Modern period, defined witchcraft as heretical. This resulted in a fear of the crime from every class as it meant that witches threatened the stability of society. Furthermore it will argue that the heightened tensions caused by the reformation caused accusations from the clergy both protestant and catholic alike in a bid to discredit the opposing religions, and that it increased the fear and awareness of the devil. It will then go onto argue that the idea of witches as temptresses meant that men from all classes felt threatened by them and accused them. Finally it will argue that this religious crusade against witches, who were deemed to be heretical, was particularly convenient for the lower classes in the Early Modern period as they found a figure to scapegoat for their problems, but also for the upper classes who found an explanation for their problems. Therefore the social and economic climate at the time meant that the belief in witchcraft was re-enforced as cases of witchcraft continued to be heard by courts.
The heretical nature of the diabolical pact witches were said to engage in, created great amounts of fear throughout all of society. Religion was central to all early modern life, meaning that a threat to religion concerned all of the Christian society. On top of this the reformation, which can be said to have started officially in 1517 by Luther, served to heighten the fear of the devil. Awareness of the devil was raised by the new Protestant teaching of ‘Sola Scriptura’, which encouraged people to read the Bible for themselves in their vernacular language. This led to many literal interpretations of biblical passages such as Exodus 22:18: "thou shall not suffer a witch to live".1 This passage was used by the influential elite and clergy, such as Jean Bodin to encourage people to accuse witches as there was a genuine fear that they would be condemned if they did nothing about the threat. This shows that the reformation increased belief in witches amongst all members of society as there was a new heightened awareness of devil. This argument is given credibility through an assessment of the distribution of accusations. The Holy Roman Empire suffered the highest percentage of accusations, which is arguably the area most affected, by the reformation in stark contrast to Spain which had minimal accusations and was fairly unaffected by the reformation, maintaining Catholicism throughout the century. 2 However this new zeal to persecute witches inspired by literature was limited in its effect on the lower classes given that a mere 5% of the population were literate. Although the dissemination of such ideas amongst the elite was important as the ideas would be spread throughout society, reaching the lower classes too. Additionally it meant that when the lower class scapegoated witches for their problems their accusations were readily received by the upper classes who had replenished zeal to be rid of evil