Sample History Paper on The Witch Craze: What triggered the Witch Craze?

Europe experienced a witch craze between 1500-1700. Before 1500, there was no concern about witchcraft and sorcery across the continent. The community believed that witches existed and black magic, and not even the spread of Christianity managed to change these perceptions. Additionally, some of the practices that those who practiced magic carried out were ill-intended. However, authorities did not mind such practice because did not consider it dangerous. With time, the church opposed and considered these practices harmful. The church explained that individuals who engaged in such practices had an intent to harm others or destroy their property. Thus, the church sought to put to end them by persecuting witches. The witch trials and craze encountered across Europe were also fueled by differences in the economic class of various populations, gender, social tension, and religious rivalry. Different groups used the witch trials to gain advantage over the other.

What triggered the Witch Craze?

The witch craze was a period in European history ranging from the late 14th century to the late 17th century. The witch craze saw the brutal execution of hundreds of thousands of suspected witches all over Europe. Most of the persons accused and later executed for witchcraft were women; mostly the vast poor and uneducated. The witch craze was a result of numerous factors that worked hand in hand to contribute to one of the evilest, systematic and deliberate extermination of humans by their fellow humans. The witch craze was a result of the socio-economic and political changes that took place during the Renaissance and was massively misogynistic.

The Renaissance Era in Europe was a period of massive changes in all the realms of European life. The politico-economic structure of feudalism was in turmoil due to the numerous urban and rural peasant revolutions that wracked Europe in the era. The sociological aspect of European life was also revolutionized with the changes affecting the contemporary social relations between the male and female gender in European society. The social relations between the male and female gender shifted from a more liberal relationship where all parties made equal contributions to a lopsided relationship where women were despised and deemed inferior. The economic sector of society was also revolutionized with the change in Europe from feudalism to a pro-capitalist economic superstructure that widened the gap between the rich and the poor.[1] The massive changes brought to the fore by the renaissance soon seeped into the ambit of religion thereby revolutionizing the doctrines and dictums of religion. The most ubiquitous religious belief system in Renaissance Europe was the Catholic Church although there were also traces of the Protestant belief systems. Before the 15th Century, the church, both Catholic and Protestants churches, lacked a well-formed ideology with regard to witchcraft and folk religious practice systems. The folk religion was then a relatively new religious belief system that had been formed mostly by peasant and downtrodden women who were deemed as societal outcasts. Scholar Erick Ross argues that witchcraft was a grotesque distortion made by the European elite and the church to discredit the folk religion.[2] The Catholic Church had previously rejected witches of the Middle Ages as misfits and isolated them from mainstream society. However, the Renaissance Era brought to the fore the folk religion which threatened to unite heretics who agitated against the church’s doctrines. This posed a major concern not only to the Catholic Church but also Protestant Churches.

On December 1484, the Catholic Pope Innocent VIII published a Papal bull that commissioned Heinrich Kramer and Jakob Sprenger as witch inquisitors and ordered the Church and other civic authorities to aid them in the fulfillment of their commission. By that papal bull, Pope Innocent VIII initiated a war pitting the Catholic Church against witchcraft and folk religion adherents. The two inquisitors, Heinrich Kramer and Jakob Sprenger authored a book containing the ideological and legal underpinnings of the fight against witchcraft and the practices of folk religion.  The book, Malleus Maleficarum, claimed that witches were heretics in pact with the devil, immoral and therefore had to be exterminated.[3] The book also provided a sham legal procedure that denied those accused of witchcraft the right to legal counsel and called for their torturing. The Malleus Maleficarum was disseminated in all major cities of Europe and formed the basis for the trial of witches and their execution. The Malleus Maleficarum was heavily misogynistic and biased against women. The book made general assumptions linking women to witchcraft and played a huge role in the massive extermination of women during the witch craze. The authors of the book, Heinrich Kramer and Jakob Sprenger, argued that women were more susceptible to witchcraft due to their limited intelligence similar to those of children and due to their high inclination towards carnal lust compared to men.[4] The writings of Kramer and Jakob were however not strange as they were in line with the then-contemporary societal views of women in which women were viewed inferior to men and mostly compared to children.

The Renaissance Era also saw the introduction of new and sophisticated diseases among the human race. The history of syphilis, as a human disease, can be traced back to the Renaissance Era. Thus, it can be hypothesized as a causal factor for the witch craze in Europe.[5] The most ubiquitous held concept with regard to the witchcraft complex of Renaissance Europe was the belief that witches held sexual relations with the devil an act that contributed to numerous social evils. According to Estes Leland, most of the victims of witchcraft complained of unexplainable health complications which bear striking resemblance to the symptoms of syphilis.[6] Most victims of witchcraft suffered mental illnesses with pregnant women suffering from spontaneous abortions and giving birth to stillborn children. These are symptoms suffered by syphilis patients. Ross Erick argues that upon the death of a child in renaissance Europe mothers were blamed for infanticide, the killing of an unborn child, by either malevolence or negligence.[7] If no natural involvement could be inferred in the death of the unborn child witches would be made the primary target. Since women were the only gender involved in both pre-natal and post-natal care either as nurses or midwives, they would automatically be termed, witches. The turbulent political atmosphere of renaissance Europe led to the spread of syphilis further instigating the witch craze.[8] The collapse of the feudal system due to numerous insurrections in both the rural and city centers of Europe instigated massive land enclosures and consolidations that increased poverty levels to alarming rates among the European peasants. The wandering and biting poverty made thousands of peasants move around Europe in need of improved wages and economic conditions carrying with them the syphilis bacteria. Authors Green et. al argue that more than any other disease syphilis coupled with the social and political unrest of the period would have directed people’s tensions into the inexplicable forms they took of the witch craze.[9] Soon all the societal classes of Europe had contracted syphilis both the rich and poor.

Changes in the societal relations between men and women during the renaissance era in Europe led to the creation of deep hatred and contempt for women in contemporary society. In the medieval period, women were vital members of the society who contributed to the society like farmers, counselors, alewives, and domestic servants.[10] They also played a significant role in the continuance of society by giving birth and raising the children according to the prevailing societal norms and values. Apart from their reproductive roles, women contributed positively to the economic growth and development of society as they engaged in economic activities in society for example craftwork, cotton spinning, and cloth making. However, the renaissance period changed the roles and responsibilities of women in society and therefore reduced their standing in society to that of male subordinates. The new legal, political and economic factors that underpinned the renaissance era laid the foundations for patriarchal structures and misogynistic conceptions that fueled the witch craze. According to historian Smith Moira, women’s role during the renaissance period changed and some of their responsibilities towards society as a whole were reversed as they became the scapegoats of society.[11]As earlier mentioned, the widespread misogynistic notions held dear by the contemporary society are what informed the anti-woman theology adopted by the church during the renaissance and their supporting documents such as the Malleus Maleficarum.[12] Soon the anti-woman stance was adopted by the civil courts of the 15th century which held that women like children lacked the requisite legal capacity to be involved in legal proceedings. The civil courts were quite vital in the witch craze as they conducted sham trials whose main purpose was to legalize the execution of accused witches. The women accused of witchcraft were mostly accused by men, searched by male prickers for any devil marks on their bodies, judged by male judges after being tortured by male tortures and finally executed by male executioners.[13] The massive influx of males in the operations of the witch craze reveals the huge role misogyny played in the European witch craze. Misogyny was so entrenched in reconnaissance Europe that social influence or age made no difference among women with regard to the witch craze.[14] Both rich and poor were subject to the same inhuman treatment when it came to witch-hunting and execution.

The witch craze can be attributed to the transformations that affected Europe during the transition from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment Period. The renaissance period affected every sphere of European life, socio-economic and political, and brought with it massive changes that can be directly attributed to the witch craze. The interruptions with the socio-political superstructure of feudalism that had up to then held the economy of Europe led to massive changes in the legal, economic, political and social institutions that upheld Europe’s values and way of life. The concepts of patriarchy and misogyny soon developed from the ensuing confusion and shaped anti-women theological ideologies. The anti-women theological ideologies galvanized the church and the civic institutions to start the evil practice of witch-hunting and killing.

 

 

 

Bibliography

Barstow, Anne Llewellyn. “On studying witchcraft as women’s history: A historiography of the European witch persecutions.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 4, no. 2 (1988): 7-19. https://www.jstor.org/stable/25002078

Ben-Yehuda, Nachman. “Problems inherent in socio-historical approaches to the European witch craze.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 20, no. 4 (1981): 326. https://doi.org/10.2307/1386181

Ben-Yehuda, Nachman. “The European witch craze of the 14th to 17th centuries: A sociologist’s perspective.” American Journal of Sociology 86, no. 1 (1980): 1–31. https://doi.org/10.1086/227200

Ben-Yehuda, Nachman. “The European witch craze: Still a sociologist’s perspective.” American Journal of Sociology 88, no. 6 (1983): 1275–79. https://doi.org/10.1086/227807

Estes, Leland L. “Reginald Scot and his discoverie of witchcraft: Religion and science in the opposition to the European witch craze.” Church History 52, no. 4 (1983): 444–56. https://doi.org/10.2307/3165565

Estes, Leland L. “The medical origins of the European witch case: A hypothesis.” Journal of Social History 17, no. 2 (January 1983): 271–301. https://doi.org/10.1353/jsh/17.2.271

Green, Karen, and John Bigelow. “Does science persecute women? The case of the 16th–17th century witch-hunts.” Philosophy 73, no. 2 (1998): 195–217. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0031819198000187

Ross, Eric B. “Syphilis, misogyny, and witchcraft in 16th-century Europe.” Current Anthropology 36, no. 2 (1995): 333–37. https://doi.org/10.1086/204365

Schuyler, Jane. “The “Malleus Maleficarum” and Baldung’s “Witches’ Sabbath”.” Source: Notes in the History of Art 6, no. 3 (1987): 20-26. https://doi.org/10.1086/sou.6.3.23202318

Smith, Moira. “The Flying Phallus and the Laughing Inquisitor: Penis Theft in the” Malleus Maleficarum”.” Journal of Folklore Research (2002): 85-117. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3814832?seq=1

Wiesner, Merry E. “Beyond women and the family: Towards a gender analysis of the Reformation.” Sixteenth Century Journal 18, no. 3 (1987): 311. https://doi.org/10.2307/2540718

[1] Schuyler, Jane. “The “Malleus Maleficarum” and Baldung’s “Witches’ Sabbath”.” Source: Notes in the History of Art 6, no. 3 (1987): 20-26.

 

[2] Ross, Eric B. “Syphilis, misogyny, and witchcraft in 16th-century Europe.” Current Anthropology 36, no. 2 (1995): 333–37

[3] Schuyler, Jane. “The “Malleus Maleficarum” and Baldung’s “Witches’ Sabbath”.” Source: Notes in the History of Art 6, no. 3 (1987): 20-26.

[4] Schuyler, Jane. “The “Malleus Maleficarum” and Baldung’s “Witches’ Sabbath”.” Source: Notes in the History of Art 6, no. 3 (1987): 20-26.

[5] Ross, Eric B. “Syphilis, misogyny, and witchcraft in 16th-century Europe.” Current Anthropology 36, no. 2 (1995): 333–37

[6] Estes, Leland L. “The medical origins of the European witch case: A hypothesis.” Journal of Social History 17, no. 2 (January 1983): 271–301.

[7] Schuyler, Jane. “The “Malleus Maleficarum” and Baldung’s “Witches’ Sabbath”.” Source: Notes in the History of Art 6, no. 3 (1987): 20-26.

[8] Ibid., 20-26.

[9] Green, Karen, and John Bigelow. “Does science persecute women? The case of the 16th to 17th-century witch-hunts.” Philosophy 73, no. 2 (1998): 195–217

[10]Wiesner, Merry E. “Beyond women and the family: Towards a gender analysis of the Reformation.” Sixteenth Century Journal 18, no. 3 (1987): 311.

[11] Smith, Moira. “The Flying Phallus and the Laughing Inquisitor: Penis Theft in the” Malleus Maleficarum”.” Journal of Folklore Research (2002): 85-117.

[12] Schuyler, Jane. “The “Malleus Maleficarum” and Baldung’s “Witches’ Sabbath”.” Source: Notes in the History of Art 6, no. 3 (1987): 20-26

[13] Ben-Yehuda, Nachman. “Problems inherent in socio-historical approaches to the European witch craze.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 20, no. 4 (1981): 326.

[14] Ben-Yehuda, Nachman. “The European witch craze of the 14th to 17th centuries: A sociologist’s perspective.” American Journal of Sociology 86, no. 1 (1980): 1–31.