European Witch Trials Foundations in Popular Culture

Richard Kieckhefer

Richard Kieckhefer

Recognising the close correspondence between European witchcraft and witchcraft in non-Western societies, they have made use of anthropological comparisons in analysing the development of witch beliefs and the motives for witch persecutions.

Most importantly, they have followed anthropologists in attending to the social context that gave rise to accusations of witchcraft.

Studies of this kind lend themselves to an important criticism: European society at the time of the witch trials was already distinct in many ways from primitive societies. Its political systems, family structure, and educational development were significantly different from those of non-Western societies, and it is misleading to suggest that the social mechanisms in early Europe are directly comparable to those of African or American Indian culture.

Still, the fact remains that the phenomena of witchcraft, witch accusation, and witch-hunting in early Europe are indeed closely analogous to such phenomena in primitive societies, whether one thinks they should be or not. One can only conclude that the mechanisms that underlie these activities are independent of the distinctive features of Western and non-Western societies.

In early European society, as in primitive cultures, one finds a lack of rigidity in notions of causality: magical explanations persist alongside natural and religious ones, with no suggestion of any incompatibility. And more importantly, the situations that call for a magical explanation seem to be closely comparable in the two settings.

There are other problems, however, that arise in carrying out an anthropological analysis of European witch trials. The methodological difficulties are especially great in the treatment of Continental cases. Because torture and other judicial coercion played an important role in Continental proceedings, the records that survive can scarcely be taken as accurate reflections of popular tradition.

The mentality of the accusers is thus obscured, and the social setting of the witch trials becomes only dimly perceptible. The problem may be illustrated with the trial of Pierre Chavaz in the diocese of Lausanne. Pierre supposedly belonged to a sect of devil-worshippers, who renounced the Catholic faith, raised storms, and killed infants.

Because the devil was hidden in his hair, he was unable to confess his deeds until he had been shaved all over his body. He had been accused by other witches, and according to the inquisitorial protocol public infamy further branded him as a witch.

The document narrating his case is extensive, but it tells little that is interesting from an anthropological viewpoint. There is no accurate information about the circumstances that gave rise to accusation; there is no way of determining, from the information given in this particular document, whether Pierre’s fellow-townsmen raised the specific charges against him or whether these allegations came from court officials. And the same difficulties arise in countless analogous cases.

The general problem that confronts the historian of witchcraft is a familiar one: it is notoriously difficult to glean the beliefs of the illiterate masses when the only sources are texts drawn up by the literate elite. Essentially the same problem confronts scholars dealing with mythology, legends of the saints, rural festivals, and other subjects.

Despite the enormous body of scholarship on European witchcraft, the problem remains unsolved.

To be sure, various historians have intuited distinctions between learned and popular levels of witch belief. Rossell Hope Robbins, for example, has argued that witchcraft proper, which he defines as “a form of religion, a Christian heresy,” involving allegiance with the devil, was never “of the people.”

The practice of witchcraft, in Robbins’s interpretation, was a fiction devised wholly by theologians and inquisitors. Joseph Hansen reached much the same conclusion: that notions such as diabolical assemblies, transformation into animal shapes, flight through the air, and so forth were taken by medieval theologians from Christian and Graeco-Roman tradition and woven into a “cumulative concept” of witchcraft that had no foundations in popular belief or practice.

A contrary view was stated in the nineteenth-century by Jacob Grimm, who suggested that the concepts associated with witchcraft arose from Germanic folklore, and thus by implication derived from popular tradition, and not exclusively from learned belief.

More radical still are those scholars who think of witchcraft as rooted not merely in popular tradition but in actual practice; numerous scholars have argued that the people accused of witchcraft did, in fact, engage in some kind of illicit rites.

The most extreme advocate of this view was Montague Summers, whose faith in the real existence of demons and in the genuine alliance between witches and Satan remained unhackable.

For some time the anthropological interpretation of Margaret Murray and her followers was considered more respectable than the extreme credulity of Summers. Miss Murray suggested that witchcraft was the pre-Christian fertility religion that survived as an underground cult after the nominal adoption of Christianity in Europe.

One of Miss Murray’s numerous critics, Elliot Rose, set forth the fascinating hypothesis that high medieval Goliards may have organized pagan vestiges and fostered the parodies of Christianity that inquisitors labelled synagogues or Sabbaths. And the notion has often been set forth that diabolism was a form of protest. Jules Michelet viewed it as a protest against medieval society; Pennethorne Hughes thought of it as largely a female reaction against male domination; “Jeffrey Russell has explained it as an outgrowth of heresy, and a manifestation of dissent against the established Church.”

Views on the foundations of witch beliefs thus fall into three main classes, emphasising the role of learned tradition, popular tradition, and actual practice respectively. None of these divergent views is either manifestly absurd or self-evidently correct. And the questions they raise are clearly fundamental.

Before one can begin to analyse the social mechanism that underlay persecution, one must know what the actual grounds were for the accusation of witchcraft, and one must determine the social levels from which specific accusations arose. Yet historians have failed to devise a way of answering these questions. Perhaps in despair of ever formulating the required methodology, they have typically proceeded on the basis of a priori intuitions of one form or another.

Thus, Elliot Rose openly admits that in judging whether witch beliefs were based on real practice, “we must ultimately rely on taste or intuition, the feel of the language employed.” And H. C. Erik Midelfort, citing Rose with qualified approval, agrees that “so long as the bulk of our information is tracts on the threat of witchcraft and records of trials for witchcraft, his statement is substantially true.” The present work will suggest that this counsel of despair is not necessary. The following chapters will propose a methodology for sorting out fact and fiction, popular and learned tradition, with some confidence and in some detail.

One might ask whether it is valid to distinguish between popular and learned beliefs, or whether it might not be reasonable to assume that the learned and unlearned classes in early European society held witch beliefs that were substantially identical.

Indeed, it is likely that popular culture had many features in common with learned tradition, and was subject to constant influence from it. There were numerous possibilities for contact and exchange between the literate and illiterate classes.

Parish priests, and perhaps merchants and other groups, might stand midway between the two extremes; they were frequently from the lower or middle classes, and constantly remained in touch with these classes, yet at the same time they were exposed to the beliefs of cultured individuals.

Sermons and plays could readily serve as media for popular dissemination of originally learned notions. Hansen suggested that the theatrical devils of the medieval stage influenced popular notions of how devils act. Even woodcuts could fulfil a similar function so long as there was someone on hand to interpret their representations in the intended sense.

The scandal aroused by trials for witchcraft might in itself spread learned notions about witches among the populace, whose presence at the executions would be a matter of common occurrence.

In one instance, the number of spectators at an execution was estimated between six and eight thousand; even allowing for exaggeration, there must have been many people present, and many of them must have known the specific crimes to which the subject had confessed.

During the sixteenth-century, when extended series of witch trials occurred in many communities, it would be odd indeed if these notions failed to permeate the people at large.

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