- In the law of every European nation in the later Mid-dle Ages and the Renaissance, witchcraft was a crime punishable by severe penalties, including death, and at certain specific times and places, a "witch craze" developed in which a significant number of in-dividuals were accused, convicted, and executed. The idea of witch-craft involved two elements. First, the witch was a maleficus, an evil-doer, who employed supernatural powers in order to inflict actual harm on one or more victims, causing death, bodily injury, illness, impo-tence, or some other observable misfortune that was attributed to the action of the witch. Study of judicial records suggests that in cases where charges of witchcraft were instituted by members of a local community, this was almost the only kind of accusation made, espe-cially in countries like England, where witchcraft cases were tried in secular courts and torture was never applied in witchcraft prosecutions.But since the 13th century, scholastic theologians had associated the kind of witchcraft that caused (or was believed to cause) specific harm with the second element in witchraft prosections, belief that the witch disavowed Christ and the Christian God and engaged in worship of the devil. This worship was believed to involve not only some formal act of repudiating God but also some inverted parody of Christian worship, directed not to God but to the devil. In most de-veloped form of witchcraft lore (as in the Faust legend of the 16th century), the new witch would sign a formal written contract, often written in blood, with the devil and would defile consecrated com-munion hosts stolen from a church or consume human flesh (often described as the flesh of innocent babies) or venerate excrement with the same observances used by orthodox believers during veneration of the sacrament. In return for worshipping the spirit of evil, the witch would receive the supernatural powers by which he or she caused harm to individuals. Witches would also acquire other super-natural powers, and they would gather periodically to worship their diabolical master, dancing naked, engaging in sexual intercourse with demons, and (according to some theorists) flying through the air to remote mountaintops where these orgies — the witches' sabbath— took place.The first concept of witchcraft—limited to malevolent infliction of specific harm on specific individuals — was no novelty in the Renais-sance period; indeed, belief that some individuals possessed super-natural powers and used them to inflict harm goes back to the earli-est human societies. But the association of this primitive conception of witchcraft with the accusation of formal devil-worship and blas-phemous rejection of God and defilement of Christian symbols was essentially a product of the late Middle Ages, based on the theories of highly educated theologians. In the 13th century, scholastic the-ologians debated whether the blasphemous and obscene actions per-formed at the witches' sabbath were physically real or existed only in the deluded minds of witches. Even so judicious a thinker as ThomasAquinas (usually acknowledged as the greatest of the scholastic thinkers) concluded that the actions of the witches' sabbath were physically real. This development of an intellectual doctrine of witchcraft seems to have resulted from an association of the harmful acts of witches with belief that any form of heresy involved a renun-ciation of God and hence involved worship of the devil, the inverse of God. The campaign of Dominican, Franciscan, and other mendi-cant inquisitors to destroy adherents of medieval heretical groups like the Albigensians and the Waldensians often led to accusations that such heretics engaged in immoral acts (especially sexual ones) and met secretly to worship the devil.The emergence of this learned pseudoscience of witchcraft among clerical intellectuals culminated in the writing of a number of trea-tises defining witchcraft, indicating methods for identifying witches, and justifying punitive action. The most famous of these tracts, the Malleus maleficarum / The Witches' Hammer, was published by two German Dominican inquisitors, Heinrich Krämer and Jakob Sprenger, in 1487. Three years earlier, these beliefs had been given official status by Pope Innocent VIII in the papal bull Summis desiderantibus. The papal bull and the tract by Krämer and Sprenger together mark the emergence of a highly developed theological and legal justification for the pursuit and punishment of witches. The clerical witchcraft treatises laid more emphasis on the apostasy and devil-worship of the witch than on specific harmful acts, and the baneful effects of the theologians' beliefs are illustrated by the trial records: wherever ecclesiastical courts, dominated by these theories, tried cases of heresy (in most Continental countries and in Scotland), witches were persecuted more relentlessly and more clearly for worshipping the devil than for harming individuals, whereas in England and other countries where witches were tried in secular courts and laymen not indoctrinated by study of the witchcraft manuals con-ducted the trials, prosecution of witches (though by no means un-common) was less severe and involved accusations of specific harm-ful acts against individual victims.The inquisitorial procedure adopted in ecclesiastical courts in some ways made trials more rational because formal judicial action replaced the "swimming" (dunking) of witches or other primitive or-deals. But the inquisitorial procedure also allowed secret testimony by unidentified accusers. Theoretically, since testimony of two eye-witnesses to the defendant's criminal actions was required for con-viction, proof of charges might seem difficult. But since an alterna-tive basis for conviction was confession by the accused, and since inquisitorial procedure permitted the application of torture to elicit confessions, an accused witch might have very little chance of ac-quittal. In some jurisdictions, as at Rome and in the Parlement of Paris, torture was used sparingly, but in other regions, judges were less cautious. In England, where secular courts conducted the trials, torture was never used and conviction depended on testimony that could convince juries composed of laymen.Trials involving both kinds of accusations—harmful actions and formal worship of the devil—seem to have occurred first in western Switzerland, Savoy, and Dauphiné during the early 15th century. Significantly, perhaps, these were regions where medieval heretical groups still survived, so that the association between fear of heresy and the hunt for witches is clear. Witchcraft trials of the inquisitorial sort occurred in various continental countries during the 15th century— least commonly in Italy and Spain—but then seem to have declined gradually until the middle of the 16th century, when by far the great-est wave of mass prosecution of witches took place, concentrated mainly in regions destabilized by religious conflict and foreign or civil war, such as western Germany (especially the ecclesiastical principalities of the south and west), eastern France, parts of Switzer-land, and Scotland.The total number of individuals accused, convicted, and executed as witches can be only roughly estimated, but recent estimates sug-gest that altogether during the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries, about 100,000 people were brought to trial, with about half of these being found guilty and executed. In regions where hysteria took control, the effects were severe. According to contemporary reports, in the year 1586 in the diocese of Trier in western Germany, there were two vil-lages in which only two women were left alive at the end of a wave of prosecutions. At Quedlinburg in Saxony in 1589, a town of about 12,000 people, 133 convicted witches were burned on a single day. In England, where the prohibition of torture restrained but did not pre-vent convictions and executions, trials of witches flourished during the disorderly period of the Civil Wars. Between 1645 and 1648 nearly 300 witches were tried and most of them sentenced to death, compared to only 125 trials and only 47 executions during the long reign of Elizabeth I. After the end of the Civil Wars restored social stability, prosecution of witches became increasingly rare in England. The infamous witch-craze of colonial Massachusetts in 1692 is closely linked to a period of great tension caused by Indian raids on frontier settlements.One of the most striking features of the witchcraft delusions is the high percentage of women accused. In the early 15th century, when witchcraft was closely linked with heresy, a large proportion of the accused were men. But over the whole period when prosecution of witches was common, about 80 percent of the accused were female. In part this was because women were most closely involved in types of activity that might seem exposed to the intervention of evil spirits. They were the most likely to be locally known (and sometimes ad-mired rather than feared) as healers, dispensers of herbal and other remedies. In addition, almost all those most closely involved in the most awesome and mysterious (at least to men) of human experi-ences, childbirth, were female, and midwives who attended women at childbirth and other women who cared for very young infants and might be suspected of causing their deaths or ailments were often subject to charges of witchcraft.Modern social historians have noted that in many places, most of the accused were elderly, perhaps somewhat demented women who lived alone, might well have sharp tongues and antisocial habits, and in particular might feel vengeful when poverty drove them to beg for aid from neighbors who turned them down. If some misfortune hap-pened to a denying neighbor shortly after the refusal, the latent guilt felt by the neighbor might produce suspicions that the beggar had taken revenge through witchcraft. The prevailing misogyny of edu-cated clerical inquisitors suggested that women by their very nature were morally weak and sexually insatiable, so that they might be eas-ily seduced by a devil offering the sexual orgies of the witches' sab-bath as well as an ability to exercise power over potential victims.There were always some who opposed the pursuit and execution of accused witches. Before the emergence of theological support for be-lief in the physical reality of the witches' sabbath, the prevailing view was that while witchcraft was both illegal and sinful, the face-to-face pacts with the devil and the sabbath were not physically real but mere delusions induced by the power of Satan. This view had been part of church law since the 10th century but had been outweighed by scholastic witchcraft doctrine in the 13th century. In the 16th century, the German physician Johann Weyer and the Englishman Reginald Scot argued that the contract with the devil was a delusion and that witches should be regarded as mentally ill rather than criminal. The excesses of the witch craze eventually undermined the credibility of the accusations. In particular, the use of torture, which was applied not just to secure confessions but also to force accused witches to name all the people they knew as fellow witches, created a moral swamp in which each confession produced a list of new defendants who were tortured until they provided the names of still more alleged witches. This procedure explains why when a wave of prosecutions began, it tended to grow exponentially until the list of accused be-came so large and so incredible that the whole process was discred-ited. Johann Weyer inveighed heatedly against the use of torture to force victims of the courts to produce false accusations.By the late 17th century, while common folk in the countryside might still believe in (and fear) witches who inflicted specific kinds of harm, the educated classes became increasingly incredulous. In England, the last recorded execution of a woman for witchcraft oc-curred in 1684. In 1712 an English jury convicted an accused woman of being a witch but the judge, who had ridiculed the prosecution throughout the trial, secured a royal pardon so that the accused could be released. In 1736 the English and Scottish laws against witchcraft were repealed, and thereafter, witches could be charged with no legally recognized offense other than fraud. In Germany in 1679, the archbishop of Salzburg sentenced 97 witches to death. Germany ex-ecuted its last witch in 1775; Switzerland, in 1782; Poland was ap-parently the last European nation to execute witches, burning two victims in 1793.
Historical Dictionary of Renaissance. Charles G. Nauert. 2004.