Friday 27 February 2009

Review: The History of Witchcraft

Murder, cannabalism and sex with the Devil were all things witches were accused of in the Witch Craze in Europe of the 16th and 17th centuries.

The history of witches and their craft can be a matter of heated debate among modern pagans. If, like me, you have heard many different points of view but are not an expert in the subject, a book outlining the facts and fallacies, and detailing what has been written on subject in the past, is useful. The History of Witchcraft by Lois Martin is such a book.

It begins by defining its focus: historical witchcraft in Europe and not modern witchcraft, witches outside Europe, or witches in fiction or fairytale. Lois Martin argues that, historically, society's opinions on witchcraft grew out of the Aristotelian worldview of the Christian Middle Ages. It was believed the witch made a pact with the Devil, because it was only the Devil who could give magical powers.

According to this worldview, witchcraft was therefore heretical; anyone who had made such a pact had renounced Christ to serve the Devil instead. The book describes several trials for witchcraft - allegations of the accused having made pacts with the Devil feature in many of them.

It was this belief that led to the Witch Craze in which, according to the book, around 40,000 people were executed for witchcraft, mainly during the 16th and 17th centuries in continental Europe.

In order to understand the background to this, The History of Witchcraft looks at how Christian views of the Devil were formed, from him being the "Adversary" of the Old Testament - an angel appointed by God to test men's faith - to being a fallen angel who rebelled against God and swore to lead men astray. By the Middle Ages, pictures of the Devil often resembled images of old pagan deities, with horns and hooves, rather than biblical descriptions of Satan.

The stereotypical view of the witch making a pact with the Devil can first be found in records dating from the 9th century. However, the idea that witches met in organised groups, often called Sabbats, did not become prevalant until around the 15th century. At these secret, night-time meetings, witches were believed to engage in infanticide, feast on human flesh, take part in orgies and pay homage to the Devil, including kissing his arse.

According to Lois Martin, this idea of the Sabbat may have been derived from allegations against earlier Christian heretics, such as the Cathars, anti-Semitic propoganda and even Roman misconceptions about early Christians.

It was the idea that witches were not alone in their crimes - that they had to be involved with other witches - that led to hunts for accomplices, which spiralled out of control during the Witch Craze.

Changes in criminal procedure also affected the way accused witches were tried. Before the 13th century, crimes were dealt with by an ordeal - a physical trial in which God was the arbiter. This could involve such things as carrying a hot iron, or fighting a duel. It was believed an innocent party would heal quickly, or win the fight, because God was on their side.

During the 13th century, this was superceded by an "inquisitorial" procedure in which witnesses were sought and confessions became important evidence. After listening to these, a human judge would pronounce a verdict. Torture began to be used to extract confessions.

Slightly before this, the Christian Church stepped up its investigations of heresy. A common, modern misconception of the Witch Craze puts much of the blame for persecution of witches on the Catholic Church's Inquisition, However, more than half of all witch trials took place in secular rather than ecclesiastical courts.

One of the most famous handbooks for witchfinders was Malleus Maleficarum, or Hammer of the Witches, by German inquisitors Jacob Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer, published in 1486. It was a consolidation of information on what was believed about witches and ways to find and prosecute them. Kramer was a fanatical witch-hunter, but came under some criticism from his peers for his obsession and cruelty.

By the late 17th and 18th centuries, the methods of gaining evidence in witch trials began to be questioned. With growing scepticism in the Age of Enlightenment, the Witch Craze died out.

In England, the Witch Craze never took off as much as in continental Europe. Lois Martin explains that trials of witches in this country were mostly secular, for such things as blighting crops or killing cattle, and often resulted in prison sentences rather than execution. However, James I, who had spent many years on the continent and may have been influenced by trends there, introduced a law against witchcraft in 1604, which made it a capital crime on the first offence. This remained in place until 1736, when the death penalty was removed.

While much of this book, like many academic studies, looks at what the Church, the legal system and people in general believed about witches, in the last chapter Lois Martin discusses the search for the real thing. Egyptologist Margaret Murray in her book The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, put forward the idea that there had existed a universal goddess-worshipping witch cult before Christianity.

This idea has been widely criticised and is now largely out of favour. However, some historians, such as Carlo Ginzburg, have looked at localised pagan beliefs and people who practised magic. He studied records of the Benandanti, an Italian fertility cult that existed into the 16th and 17th centuries. These people did not claim to be witches and insisted they used magic for good. They came under the attention of the Inquisition, who subtly imposed their beliefs about witchcraft onto them, until they confessed that they were, indeed, witches.

I recently picked up a second-hand copy of Carlo Ginzburg's Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches' Sabbath, and I am now very much looking forward to reading it and reviewing it on A Bad Witch's Blog.

I found the History of Witchcraft a fascinating book, clearly written and and well-argued. However, the subject matter is one often disagreed upon, particularly among modern witches themselves. I am sure there are readers of A Bad Witch's Blog who know a lot about the issues and have opinions worth mentioning. It would be great to hear them in a comment below.

The History of Witchcraft by Lois Martin is published by Pocket Essentials and costs £7.49 through Amazon.

The History of Witchcraft
Bonewits' Essential Guide to Witchcraft and Wicca: Rituals, Beliefs and Origins
Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches' Sabbath


Anonymous said...

Sounds like a very interesting book! will have to pick one up if I see one around.

The history of the craft has always interested me.



Badwitch said...

Yes, definitely an interesting book. Hope you enjoy it.

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Badwitch said...

Thanks - comments to older posts are on moderation, so they don't appear on my blog until I accept or reject them. I didn't see your longer older post in my moderation box though so no idea what happened to that.

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