Witchcraft and Magic in Enlightenment Europe

Witchcraft and Magic in Enlightenment Europe
© Photograph by Jes Hunter

The so-called Enlightenment of the eighteenth-century has often been portrayed as a period in which much of Europe cast off the belief in witchcraft and magic under the influence of new philosophies, and advances in science and medicine.

This received wisdom has often led to the academic dismissal of the continued relevance of the belief in witchcraft and magic, not only for the poor and illiterate in society but also for the educated.

This article seeks to counter this scholarly tendency, by looking at aspects of the continuation of witchcraft and magic in Europe from the last of the secular and ecclesiastical trials during the late seventeenth- and early-eighteenth-centuries, through to the nineteenth century.

It will examine the experience of and attitudes towards witchcraft from both above and below, in an age when the beliefs and “worldview” of the “elite” and the “people” are often thought to have irrevocably pulled away from one another. It is too crude and misleading to portray the Enlightenment as a period of intellectual and social leaps. It should rather be seen as a period of subtler renegotiation between cultures, and a period when the relationship between private and public beliefs became more problematic and discrete, and therefore more difficult for the historian to detect.

The study of witchcraft and magic provides us with an important means of exploring these broad changing patterns of social relations and mentalities, just as it has done much to help our understanding of social relations in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century society.

Yet the “beyond” in the title of this article refers not only to the chronological emphasis of its contents, but is also indicative of the different methodological approaches that can be applied to the last of the trials, and the variety of sources that can be used to illuminate our understanding of the continued relevance of witchcraft once it was decriminalised.

The contributors come from different academic disciplines, and by borrowing from literary theory, archaeology and folklore they move beyond the usual historical perspectives and sources. The emphasis is not so much on witchcraft trials but on the aftermath of trials, not so much on the persecution of witches but on the prosecution of cunning-folk, not so much on supposed female relations with the Devil but on male satanic pacts, less on the declining belief in witchcraft and magic and more on the continuance of related beliefs across the social spectrum.

At present, no single academic discipline dominates the study of witchcraft and magic in the modern period. One might expect historians to have made the subject their own, but for several reasons they have been hesitant to give the late- and post-trial years the same attention as the period of the rise and main phase of witch prosecutions.

In particular, historians’ tendency to restrict their research interests within arbitrary, academically prescribed periods rather than within subject areas has meant that the interests of historians of witchcraft rarely continue beyond the early modern period.

The category “early modern” is part of the problem in a European context. It attributes a wide range of similar political, social, economic and cultural developments to the same chronological parameters, regardless of the complexities of cultural relations across social levels and geographical regions.

The decriminalisation of witchcraft is one such broad development that defines the end of the early modern. Yet the majority of people across Europe undoubtedly felt exactly the same about witches, and much else besides, whether they lived in the early seventeenth century or the early-nineteenth-century.

Academic periodisation certainly has its uses, and historians cannot be expected to develop an equal breadth and depth of knowledge about society in general over the last half millennium. But if we are fully to understand human experience and specific aspects of it such as witchcraft, we must be prepared to move beyond the received boundaries with far more confidence.

That said, the subject has attracted some interest in the last few decades, and increasingly so in the last few years. Historians of witchcraft in early modern western Europe, such as Jim Sharpe, Malcolm Gaskill, Wolfgang Behringer, Robert Muchembled and Eva Labouvie, have pushed forward the boundaries of their work to consider witchcraft in the decades of intermittent prosecution before decriminalisation, the debates that followed in the decade or so after, and to recognise the continued enactment of popular justice against suspected witches.

Several collections of articles with an early modern focus have conscientiously included contributions concerning the continued belief in witchcraft and magic. Ronald Hutton, an eminent historian of early modern England, has, in recent publications concerning paganism, contemporary witchcraft and shamanism, shown how skilled historians can apply their craft and range of experience to illuminate subjects in periods beyond their initial specialisation.

The editors of this volume also work across the traditional divide between early modern and modern eras, and in numerous publications have accorded as much attention to the story of witchcraft and magic in the centuries beyond the usual focus on the sixteenth- and seventeenth-centuries. De Blécourt’s study of the Dutch province of Drenthe is the only study of its kind, which meticulously uncovers and analyses the historical data on witchcraft over a 500-year period. The methodologies and interests of academics like de Blécourt represent a flexible continental historiographical tradition that has less respect for orthodox chronological and disciplinary boundaries. By way of further example, consider Le Roy Ladurie’s imaginative detective work into the origins of the witch poem by the mid-nineteenth-century hairdresser-poet Jacques Jasmin, and the work of Éva Pócs in Hungary who has drawn upon early modern archives and twentieth-century folklore to piece together patterns of belief.

Beyond the witch trials also appears in the wake of the publication of volume five in the Athlone ‘History of Witchcraft and Magic in Europe’ series, under the general editorship of Bengt Ankarloo and Stuart Clark. The volume consists of three important and lengthy essays by Brian Levack, Marijke Gijswijt-Hofstra and the late Roy Porter, which respectively deal with the decline of witch prosecutions, the continuance of popular witchcraft beliefs in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the place of witchcraft in intellectual thought over the same period. An appreciation of these essays has in part shaped the content of this volume. The broad surveys by Porter and Hofstra, while providing an impressive synthesis of work to date also highlight just how little work has been done, and the gaping holes that exist in the coverage of witchcraft beyond the late seventeenth century. The essays in Beyond the trials begin the task of filling in those lacunae geographically and contextually for an English readership.

Compared to the huge and ever-increasing historiography concerning the main period of the witch trials, then, the history of witchcraft and magic in the period academia refers to as either the Enlightenment period, or the less value-laden “long eighteenth-century”, is in its infancy. Yet the freshness of the subject also presents new opportunities to embrace interdisciplinary and longue durée approaches in the history of witchcraft and magic. Several of the contributors in this volume are scholars who are only just beginning to publish the results of their research, while others are well-established historians who are pushing their own boundaries forward. Bringing together the mix of experience proves rewarding, providing a cross-fertilisation of diverse work from different disciplines at an early stage in the field, so that future work can be informed by a variety of methodologies and sources. It is surely significant that despite the diversity of the contributions in this respect, three broad themes emerge in the chronological and conceptual context of the “Enlightenment” period.

The first concerns the shifting intellectual interpretation of folk magic from being a very real and implicitly satanic offence to being a merely fraudulent and morally reprehensible crime. Inextricably tied up with this process was the use and changing the definition of “superstition” — a subject that is ripe for further research.

The word has long been used in a derogatory sense to describe what were perceived to be unfounded, credulous or heretical beliefs. Ancient Roman and Greek authors applied it to “uncivilised” people outside the Classical world. The early Church used it in its campaign against the pagan religions which it ultimately vanquished. In Reformation Europe the word became a confessional swear word used by Protestants to characterise Catholic devotional practices; meanwhile the Catholic Church also used it against its own laity who dared assume clerical powers or who resorted to unsanctioned forms of piety.