The days until the OCR ‘Popular Culture & the Witchcraze’ exam continue to count down (gulp!). Whilst at a half-term revision session earlier in the week a new question was thrown into the ring and was discussed by the group. There were some interesting suggestions, particularly regarding how to approach it in terms of a thematic structure. And so I thought I would give it a go. Here’s the response:
‘Witch-hunts started, peaked, and ended at different times in different countries.’ How far do you agree with this view of the period?
There are many arguments that could be made regarding the start, peak, and ending of the witch hunts during the early modern period of 1500-1700. This essay response will employ a thematic structure that engages in the three distinct periods suggested in the question title: an analysis of the beginning of trials, the period of the peak years (suggested by many historians to be the ‘witch-craze’ of 1560-1660), before analysing the different speeds at which these countries/regions ended hunts. With regard to the historiographical debate about the existence of a ‘witch-craze’, this response takes the view that the hunts were far too erratic to provide such a clear pattern for the period of 1560-1660, but that clear trends can be found with regards to the beginnings, peaks, and endings of hunts in Europe.
Firstly, the hunts slowly spread across Europe and started to pick up speed at the beginning of the early modern period (post-1450). There is evidence of trials at the end of the fifteenth century, with panics notable in the Holy Roman Empire and France. The key trigger for this rise is explained in the spread of demonological literature, which became notable in the 1400s. Of particular importance were the 1484 Papal Bull, and Kramer’s The Hammer of the Witches in 1486. These highlighted witchcraft as ‘an exceptional crime’, and were instrumental in the formation of the witch stereotype in continental Europe, and were further supported by other demonological works, such as the Nider tract The Formicarius and Martin Le Franc’s Defender of Ladies. All of this suggests a pattern to the rise in the fear of witches in Europe during this period, especially when considering that this stereotype took hold in the popular imagination in the period before the Reformation, thereby meaning the Catholic Church had great influence on all the clergy and people of western Europe.
After a lull in persecution – noted by some historians as being from 1520-1560 – there began a seeming ‘witch-craze’ from 1560-1660. This is shown in the outbreak of large-scale witch-hunts in central and western Europe, notably in France and southern Germany (as found in the examples of Bamberg, Wurzburg, and Trier during this period). Although the peak years for trials in the Holy Roman Empire was the 1620s-early 30s, it roughly corresponds with other peak points in other countries, including France, the Basque region (1612), and even the British Isles (with the Hopkins hunts taking place in the 1640s). The peak years of the hunts occurred within a forty year period of one another, lending weight to the notion of a ‘witch-craze’ period. The hunts were further aided by the religious tension of the 1500s-1600s in the form of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. The recent work of Leeson, Russ, and Mason argues that the different religious houses became more hostile towards witches, in order to convince the laity that their brand of religion was the strongest and most sincere; in effect, a ‘market share theory’ of competing for the souls of people. Such religious tension can be found all across Europe, and in the American colonies, thereby providing a clear trigger for many hunts.
Furthermore, when expanding the focus from central Europe it is also evident that this same period brought out a rise in persecution in other areas. Historians have highlighted the differences between the British experience and the experience in continental Europe, with mass-hunts in the British Isles being the exception rather than the norm. Sharpe adds to this, by calling the problem in England ‘endemic’ rather than ‘an epidemic’. The reasons for this include the lack of widespread belief in the demonic pact (as found across Europe), and the strong role of the professional judiciary during this period (with the assize courts provided balanced, un-biased judgements). However, during the same period of 1560-1660 there is a notable rise in witch persecution, as found in North Berwick in the 1590s, the Pendle Witches of 1612, and the biggest mass hunt in East Anglia in 1645-47.
Although these British hunts were not on the same scale as those in the Holy Roman Empire, it is clear that they share a high number of triggering reasons. These include the heightened political and religious tension that led to war: the Thirty Years’ War in Europe in the 1600s also coincides – at its end – with the English Civil War. Such war was accompanied by a break-down in law and order (meaning the Hopkins was able to hold great influence in East Anglia in the 1640s when normally a strong judiciary would have limited this), and the resultant poor harvests and decline of the economy. Furthermore, the entire area of Europe would have shared similar economic catastrophes in the form of reoccurring poor harvests due to the power of the mini Ice-Age during this period. All of this suggests that a general pattern can be found in Europe during the first half of the seventeenth century.
Finally, with regard to the ending of the hunts, it is clear that the major countries/regions of Europe followed a similar pattern towards the end of the 1600s, with many outlawing witch persecution by the early years of the 1700s. This is evidenced in the Holy Roman Empire, France, and Britain. The reasons for this are similar across the continent, with a focus placed on the growth of political centralisation and stability, the ending of religious conflict (especially after the Peace of Westphalia in 1648), changes to the legal systems in light of the earlier abuses of torture, and even the influence of the Scientific Revolution that brought out a greater connection to scepticism among the elites. Of course, some oddities can be found, for instance, England’s final witch murders were in the 1680s, whilst in the North American colonies the infamous Salem trials did not happen until 1692. However, this can be explained in terms of these hunts happened further away from the political centres and away from direct controls of governmental elites: the English trials in the 1680s took place in rural Devon, where old superstitions continued much longer, whilst the American colonies were far away from political control on the other side of the Atlantic. Furthermore, despite the many similarities for the Salem hunt (such as the role of religion, and a non-functional professional judiciary), this trial has its own unique factors that were alien to the European experience (such as the fear of attacks from Native Americans). All in all, the decline of the hunts followed a similar pattern across western Europe, with the decline happening at later points outside this region, as found in Salem in the 1690s, and Hungary in the 1700s. Of course, there remain a couple of exceptions to this wider pattern, what with the Dutch Republic holding their last burning at the early stage of 1603.
On a whole, the notion of a ‘witch-craze’ can not be fully substantiated, but mainly in part due to the idea of a ‘craze’. This suggests that the people of early-modern Europe were continually obsessed with the idea of hunting and killing witches, but this is not the case, with hunts being the exception rather than the norm. However, in terms of finding a coherent pattern with regards to hunts in the early-modern period it is clear that they followed similar start points, peaks, and end points. Yes, they started at different times in different countries, but when taking a larger view of the period the pattern holds up for each of these stages, which strongly suggests that although there wasn’t a ‘witch-craze’ there was a general pattern followed by the countries of Europe.