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Renaissance Witchcraft

With two degrees in history, I enjoy researching and writing about historical events that the history books tend to gloss over.

Hans Jordaens III

Hans Jordaens III

The Renaissance

Spanning the upheavals of the Reformation and the Thirty Years' War, witchcraft investigations were conducted with much publicity, to uncover subversive activity, disloyalty, and heresy, however, the real purpose was to intimidate political opponents and eliminate those viewed as burdens on society.

Historically, the Renaissance was a period of cultural, artistic, and political rebirth in Europe after the Middle Ages. Additionally, the renewed interest in reading and education brought refreshed beliefs in the occult, alchemy, and witches. Many of the first books printed during this time were bibles or other religious material, and culturally, religion controlled every aspect of life. This contradicted some of the interests in the occult sciences as Exodus 22:18 of the bible clearly stated, “You will not allow a sorceress to live.” Publicly, according to the church, anyone with knowledge of curative herbs was under the influence of the devil and likely a witch. This belief juxtaposed the lack of certified medical doctors encouraging the sick to visit local wise persons knowledgeable in healing herbs. During the Renaissance, set against a backdrop of conflicted views, the stalking and persecution of witches unfolded. Throughout Europe the idea that witches, incited by Satan to act as his operating force on earth, began to circulate. As such, people of that time considered that witchcraft was not only real but expanded with a vengeance. The popularization of the witch frenzy was an excellent tool, that could be, and was, utilized by society, religion, and politics.

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Religion and Witchcraft

The churches used the publicity of the witch hunts to bring parishioners back to the church during a time of religious upheaval. The second bestselling book of 1678 was Malleus Maleficarum: The Hammer of Witches, written by Heinrich Kramer and Jakob Sprenger. The book was written based upon a single biblical command: “Thou Shalt not suffer a witch to live.” Considered the most prominent and authoritative book in regard to witchcraft, the authors, Catholic clergymen, laid out a detailed theological and legal framework for the extermination of witches. Interestingly, theologians associated with the Inquisition condemned the book and cited unethical and illegal procedures, as well as not aligning with Catholic doctrine.

During this time, both the Geneva bible and King James bible were the authority of choice and in both versions the verse was the same. Yet, some scholars have drawn into question the translation of the Hebrew word “mekhashepha” to mean witch. This argument dates back to the late 1500’s when Reginald Scot published The Discovery of Witchcraft. Scot argued that the word mekhashepha referenced, not witches, but ancient poisoners and therefore should be translated to mean herbalist or poisoner. Further, the church’s official stance was that anyone knowledgeable in herbs was under the influence of the devil. Scot also argued that believing in magic was both irrational and un-Christian.

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Politics of Renaissance Witchcraft

The witch hunts of the Renaissance were utilized as a way to root out and punish those thought to be treasonous as well as frightened those who may go against the crown. Not only was this a time of religious upheaval, but it was also a time of political instability. The Thirty Years War began as a religious fight, yet it became about who would have held the balance of power in Europe. Politically, the witch hunts were used as part of a larger plan to not only control the population, but to also coerce them into respecting the new laws, both political and religious, that were formed during this time.

An example of witch hunts that were used as a tool for political reform was that of the Kirk party of Scotland in 1649 whose aim was to create a “Godly Society.” As such, they lobbied for both enforcement and extension of the Witchcraft Act of 1563. Under this act, practicing witchcraft and consulting with witches was considered a capital offence. This had been used as the basis for previous trials in Scotland. Additionally, the Witchcraft Acts of James I and Queen Elizabeth altered the law of witchcraft by deeming it a felony, thus removed jurisdiction from ecclesiastical courts to courts of common law. When the British army marched across Scottish borders and retook the area of Kirk, the party disbanded, and the trials ended. However, not before over three hundred supposed witches were executed. Most guilty parties were hanged, however, those found guilty of petty treason, violating the authority of a social superior, were burned at the stake.

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Renaissance Society

Society used the witch hunts a way to eliminate those considered to be outcasts. Although there was a degree of social mobility, such as within the merchant class, the role of women was in constant fluctuation. Some scholars unflatteringly pointed to the “radical feminism” of the mid-twentieth century. This as a cause of the assumption that men targeted women as witches, and the witch hunts were nothing more than an attack on the female species. Statistically, it was true that more women than men were accused of being witches and more women paid the price.

The shifted cultural climate left many societies unstable during this time. Widespread war brought famine, pestilence, and death, while the reformation brought challenges to old held certainties. Unknown to many today, Europe experienced a mini-ice age in the late sixteenth century that furthered the instability already felt across societies in Europe. Evidence suggested that there is a direct link between communities that were most impacted by war and the number of witch trials held. Conversely, it had been argued that there were also numerous trials in areas that had not been effected by war, and the trials were a form of social control allowing the aristocracy to oppress the poor.

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Closing Thoughts

Spanning the upheavals of the Reformation and the Thirty Years' War, witchcraft investigations were conducted with much publicity, to uncover subversive activity, disloyalty, and heresy, however, the real purpose was to intimidate political opponents and eliminate those viewed as burdens on society.

The years between the Reformation and Thirty Year’s War were in turmoil. Not only was the Old World reeling from the effects of the Black Plague, but people also began to question the authority of the church that ruled life at the time. Not only that, but exploration had begun concurrently with these years and thus to escape religious persecution, many fled to the New World in hopes of freedom. Such chaos was ripe breeding grounds for the hysteria that was the witch hunts. It was a method in which both the government and church sought to keep the populace in order. Additionally, in these times of war-ravaged areas in which famine and pestilence were widespread, citizens often used witch accusations to rid their villages of those whom they felt were burdens on society such as the elderly, poor, and different. As the world began to enter into the Modern Age and science took hold, the incidence of witch trials began to fade. It was a dark spot in history brought about by many factors within society of the time.

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