Monday, 14 September 2015

Theological concepts behind the Early Modern ‘Witch Craze’

by Ethan Creamer

The fight of the City of Satan (Babylon) against the City of God (Syon). From Aurelius Augustinaus' De Civitate Dei, printed by Johann Amerbach, Basel, in 1489.

Both Exodus and Leviticus in the Old Testament had condemned witches in around 560 B.C.:

Exodus 22:18: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” The Latin Vulgate, (standard text of the RC Church) renders this passage as “maleficos non patieris vivere,” Maleficos meaning “Evil-doers.” The Suffix “os,” is gender neutral in Latin, implying that Evil-doers of both genders should not be tolerated. Leviticus 20:27 “A man also or woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death: they shall stone them with stones: their blood shall be upon them.”

Witch-hunts were not denomination-specific;  both Catholic and Protestant regions of Europe felt the force of the Witch Hunters – though they differed in some areas such as beliefs concerning the nature of Witchcraft, the power of Witches and Burning at the stake was the method employed most often by Catholics, whilst Protestant authorities often would hang those found guilty of Witchcraft. Whilst more women than men were tried, they were not gender-specific. We can observe that, whilst there were many contributing factors, by and large, that theological discussion, the theological literalism and the proclivity of this society not to respect the individual (in favour of social uniformity) are the main underlying causes of the Witch Craze largely between the years 1500-1700 – and all of this was inflamed by the reformation, which was a major cause of increasing theological dialogue and religious tension across Europe.
The Early Christian Theologian and Philosopher St Augustine of Hippo, in his work De Civitate Dei contra Paganos (The City of God against the Pagans), describes the doctrine of the two cities, one earthly and one heavenly and that salvation derives from acknowledgement only of the nature of Christ and of subsequent communion with the Church. Augustine even blames the existence of natural evil such as Natural disasters on Fallen Angels, thus negating any chance of the otherwise apparent imperfect design, which cannot be attributed to the omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent God of the Abrahamic faiths – and is a demonstration that this key Church Father sees the power of Satan and his host as tangible and therefore evidently immanent. He refutes the teachings of Apuleius in Book VIII where he suggests that demons are ‘the slaves of vice’ – they delight in what is abhorred by the virtuous and the just, this is an early connection given such things which are meant to be abhorred are magical practices, greed, idolatry and sexual vice – later to be the practices denounced as Witchcraft. The superstitions and idolatry must be abolished.

Conversely, he stated that all pagan magic and religion (whether their effects were illusory or real) were invented by the Devil to lure humanity away from Christianity. He also argued that neither Satan nor witches could have any real supernatural powers or could be capable of effectively invoking magic of any sort, and it was merely the "error of the pagans" to believe in "some other divine power than the one God of Christendom". Thus, if witches were indeed powerless, the Church had no need to concern itself with their spells or other attempts, or to bother itself with investigating allegations of witchcraft – this had been accepted by the early medieval Church for several centuries, and persecution of heresy the main focus of the Church. The Anglo-Saxon St. Boniface stated in the 8th century that belief in the existence in witches was un-Christian. The great King of the Franks Charlemagne had even claimed in 789 that belief in Witchcraft by its very nature was heretical, as it legitimized the beliefs held by Pagans. He was crowned Imperator Romanorum on Christmas day in 800 by Pope Leo III.

Pope Innocent III - also decreed the Fourth Crusade of 1198
In 1208, Pope Innocent III opened an attack on Cathar heretics who believed in a world in which God and Satan, both having supernatural powers, were locked in a state of Spiritual warfare after the murder of his papal legate Pierre de Castelnau – this begun the Albigensian Crusade in Languedoc in 1209, lasting 20 years. The Church attempted to discredit the Cathar belief by spreading stories that the heretics actually worshiped an evil deity(s) in person. The Church depicted Cathars kissing the anus of Satan in a ceremonial show of loyalty to him – later an image heavily used to condemn Witches. As a result of the Church's sustained efforts, the understanding of Satan shifted from that of a more impersonal entity of privatio boni who was a deceiver, remaining powerless to God and his rock on Earth the Church, to a deeply sinister force and potentially personal. This might be seen not as a theological move actually against witchcraft, but rather is a contributing factor, when the actual theological divide was over the beliefs of Cathars, and the lurid accounts of Satanism as a potent political tool, which set the stage for later witch-hunts given the persecution was inflamed along lines of religious divide and theological divide. The Inquisition was established in 1234 to uproot the remaining Cathars. In 1273, St Thomas Aquinas argued that dangerous demons and witches are roaming the earth – but he was no committed demonologist – instead he focused on other areas of philosophical thought, and is revered as ‘Doctor Angelicus’, and is notable for his teachings on Ius Naturale.

Cathars being expelled from Carcassonne in 1209.
It is clear that during the middle ages, Witches were thought to exist – but given (notably during the time of Augustine) the remnants of Paganism of the Classical world were still apparent, and that later in the middle ages ‘White Witches and Healers’ were well-respected in their communities (given the lack of any modern medical practices), and they were the most successful healers of the period, especially for peasants, the theologians of that period were concerned mostly with defining the church and its establishment – and even after the Great Schism of 1054, the Papacy remained unchallenged (on the whole) in Europe. This was about to be tested with the Protestant reformation of this period and the collapse of the Orthodox Christian Byzantine Empire in May 1453 to the Ottoman Empire, when the last Byzantine Emperor, Constantine XI fell in hand-to-hand combat after the fall of Constantinople.

A 'Wise Woman' Healer acting as a Midwife

Inherently, on a biblical level, women had been the victims of the accusations: they were responsible for the fall of man – and it is no doubt that this was at the back of many of the minds of the thinkers of the time. The Scholastic movement had grown since the great works of St Thomas Aquinas in the 13th Century, including his influential Summa Theologica – whereby Aristotelianism had (notably by Aquinas) been reconciled with Christian philosophy & even had a great influence upon it, with the focus upon deducing by way of inference thus inference may very well not be based solely upon experience as opposed to its purely logical deduction, therefore logical deduction of biblical scripture (remaining undisputed truth) can certainly result in support for Witch Hunting later on. Aquinas argued that demons had the habit of reaping the sperm of men and spreading it among women – there is a clear theological concept of sexuality and its connection to ‘un-godly acts’ of the more creative variety such as actively participating in Satanic pacts and rituals. Sexual desire is thus, in these theological theories, connected to the diabolical – the body is a temple of God, and ‘lower pleasures’ as the Secular J.S. Mill would have termed them are not virtuous, and most certainly not an emulation of the divine. Satan becomes that which tempts. Augustine believed sin entered the world because man (the spirit) did not exercise control over woman (the flesh). Exploration of these sorts of theological concepts require a whole other article.

The Devil seducing a witch, from Ulrich Molitor's "Von den Unholden und Hexen" (1489)

In the years approaching 1500 however, this theological view evolved into a greater view of demonic association – that witches were not individuals, but rather that communities suffered from a rise in Heretical, anti-Christian sects – these were organised groups that had supposedly been in communion with Satan at a Witch’s Sabbat. Furthermore, the nature of these witch’s gatherings were subject of lurid accounts, which would have horrified the common people of 16th century Europe. The Black Masses reported to have been performed were reversals of the traditional Catholic Mass – where the host would be desecrated, sacrifices (often of infants) made and sexual acts with demons and orgies were often rumoured to have been commonplace, with accounts going as far as claiming that witches would fly and animals would talk. The Summis desiderantes affectibus papal bull of Pope Innocent VIII in 1484 claimed that Satanists in Germany were organising meetings, casting spells and hexes, destroying crops, killing livestock, aborting children and the Papacy complained that the Clergy was not taking the issue of Witchcraft seriously enough.

Witch’s ritual kiss to Satan, from G. P. Guaccius' Compendium Maleficarum. Milan, 1626
It was (and is) a long established theological teaching that the supernatural is real and is active, consistent with the belief in an afterlife, and reconciled with the transcendence and divinity of God. ‘Magic’ – for want of a better word – occurs during transubstantiation (when the host of the Eucharist is transformed fully into the body and blood of Christ). The Catholic Church to this very day still trains priests as Exorcists. This is where the clear theological conflict arises – ritual magic performed by ‘Wise women’ and the like is a magical ritual outside of religious rituals such as partaking in the sacraments – that which is not of the church is by definition not of God. The religious fervour stirred by the reformation resulted in two key contributing factors: (a) there was created much more discussion surrounding Witchcraft given the heightened theological debates (b) it set the tone for greater persecution and scrutiny of unorthodox practisers of religion.

Satan & Witches trample a cross at a Sabbat, from a 1608 edition of Kramer's Malleus Maleficarum

The most infamous and the precedent-setting work comes from two Dominican Friars who had been Inquisitors – Heinrich Kramer and Jakob Sprenger published in Speyer in 1487. The Hammer of Witches – Malleus Maleficarum. The Malleus told ludicrous tales of women who would have sex with any convenient demon, kill babies, and even ‘steal penises’. The theory in the Malleus was that, whilst men were also witches, women had a disposition to desire sexual relationships with the devil – this is a quite an antiquated concept derived from the creation story. Certainly, there were elements of misogyny in so much as they viewed women as being more prone to temptation, although by no means were women the only victims of the hunts.  Kramer himself was described as being ‘childlike’ by the Bishop of Brixen and being a Monk, he may well have been intimidated by women. The conclusion from the Malleus was that true Christians should hunt witches down and kill them. Kramer and Sprenger addressed those who had once doubted the existence of Witches:

‘Whether the belief that there are such beings as Witches is so essential a part of the Catholic Faith that obstinacy to maintain the opposite opinion manifestly savours of Heresy.’ 

Kramer's infamous 1486 work Malleus Maleficarum

In 1580, Jean Bodin, a French Jurist and Philosopher (one of the great thinkers of his time) authored De la démonomanie des sorciers – intended to be a handbook regarding demonology and witchcraft for Judges. Bodin was unusually for the era quite tolerant of many various religious groups – but he despised the concept of witchcraft. To quote, ‘For the witch whom I have described does not just deny God in order to change and take up another religion, but he renounces all religions’. Bodin believed that Witches were perpetrators of heinous crimes, including sacrificing their children or dedicating them to Satan from the time of conception, and to finish he states that: ‘witches have carnal copulation with the devil’ – this places a grotesque and dishonourable image in the readers head which links to other crimes such as adultery, deplorable by the standards of the time. He defined a Witch as being: “One who knowing God's law tries to bring about some act through an agreement with the Devil” – this quote summarises the theological conflicts.

De la démonomanie des sorciers by Jean Bodin, 1580 

The Protestant reformation had also inflamed the rise in Witch-hunts. In 1553, Servetus (the first European to discover pulmonary circulation) was burnt at the stake for Heresy in Geneva – this had been supported by Luther’s collaborator Phillip Melanchthon and was effectively authorised by the protestant councils of Geneva and John Calvin. Calvin in Geneva presided over numerous persecutions stating in ‘The institutes of the Christian religion’ that his church had numerous enemies. A man who publicly protested against the reformer's doctrine of double predestination was flogged at all the crossways of the city and then expelled. In 1545 more than twenty men and women were executed after being found guilty of witchcraft in Geneva, after the city had suffered from pestilence. For Calvin, diabolical power of Satan was so potent and pervasive that the true Christian Saint was required to engage in an ‘unceasing struggle against him’. It is evident that in the Calvinist system, the pre-occupation with ensuring salvation (in so ensuring you act as a member of the elect) leads to a development in a specific religious character which is determined with moral perfection thus it is easy to see that allegations of witchcraft where immoral actions had occurred are likely to be commonplace.

Martin Luther had accused the Pope of being the Antichrist and compared the Catholic Church to the Whore of Babylon following the 1519 debate in Leipzig. The Devil, according to Luther ‘liveth yea, and reigneth throughout the whole world’ and, to quote, Witches were ‘the Devil’s Whores’. Ludicrously, Lutherans had debated in Wittenberg debated whether women were really human beings at all. It was the concepts of sola fide and sola scriptura even more so which, unlike many contemporary Christians, drove the Puritanical interpretations of the bible as literal. As opposed to the Catholic Church which did have its own codified doctrinal and a history of following church tradition – the vast majority of Protestant reformers sought to define everything by the contents of the bible. Translations of the bible into the vernacular was also a defining feature of the reformation – and this made the scripture, which, when interpreted  literally, might justify the theological ideas of witchcraft, easily accessible to many more people, not having to rely on the church teachings as opposed to individual scriptural study. Martin Luther argued that practicing witchcraft merits death for being high treason against God: ‘I should have no compassion on these witches; I would burn all of them. We read in the old law, that the priests threw the first stone at such malefactors,’ argues Luther referring to Witches who were accused of ‘spoiling dairy products’.  

A Woodcut from 1489 depicting Witches casting a spell for bad weather  
To conclude, it can be said that early modern Europe proved to provide the perfect the ‘tabula rasa’ upon which these trials and expressions of religious fanaticism were to take place. The church had toughened its stance – we had a Catholic church which after 1000 years had no longer found itself being truly ‘Catholic’ (Universal) in the sense it had been intended. The Catholic Church saw itself surrounded by ‘Heresy’ – the Holy Roman Empire was crumbling with political malfunctions and dealing with the disastrous 30 years’ War (over religion), the Ottomans were besieging Vienna in 1529, and did so again in 1683, Luther, Calvin, Erasmus, Zwingli and the other reformers openly criticised the church and this resulted in significant religious division – with the Schmalkaldic war dividing an already religiously divided Germany after the excommunication of Martin Luther and the adoption of his teachings by some of the Empire’s electoral states, after he published his 95 theses in 1517.

Protestant Reformers Martin Luther & John Calvin

The Catholic Stalwart Spain was powerful yet volatile and even at war with the Papal States at times – indeed Spain suffered from very little Witch Hunting comparatively, and this was largely due to focus on the persecution of Muslim and Jewish minorities as well as wayward Catholic Spaniards by the Inquisition. The Spanish Inquisitorial view was one of theological scepticism towards the power of witchcraft – and Witch Hunts were heaviest in the Basque country in Northern Spain, largely out of sight of the Inquisitor’s gaze focusing on the south of the country, were the large major battles of the Reconquista had been fought. England had broken from the Church between 1532 and 1534. After Mary Tudor, Elizabeth I was openly supporting Protestant Huguenots in France from 1562, and also aiding Protestant Dutch rebels from the 1570s, much to the agitation of devout Catholic monarch Phillip II (of the House of Hapsburg which also ruled the Holy Roman Empire) and the largely catholic peoples of the Spanish Empire. Catholic and protestant nations were besieged on all fronts – the Battle of Lepanto (1571), a great sea battle between galleys in the Mediterranean demonstrates the great threat of the Ottoman Empire, whilst internally the festering theological differences, even between denominations such as the debate over consubstantiation between Luther and Zwingli. Furthermore, the Papacy itself found itself at odds with even the Catholic nations, working against the Spanish due to Hapsburg territorial exploits in southern Italy, and Phillip’s control of Naples. The Pope even wilfully expelled Inquisitors when they arrived in Italy.  The French Wars of Religion (1562-1598), brought about by the rise of Calvinism caused a traditionally pious Catholic society to factionalise along Religious lines. The historian Levack argues that “Religiously homogenous or monolithic states generally experienced only occasional witch-hunts and relatively low numbers of executions.” This is key to explaining why there was a rise in Witch-hunts during this period – the theological discussion was both cultivated and heightened by the reformation, and the intoleration of those who do not conform.

Condemned Heretics at an Auto-da-fe (Act of Faith) held by the Spanish Inquisition 
Furthermore, society itself was undergoing several changes – there were more female monarchs in Europe than at any other point in European history and the education of women was increasing. For Protestants, this was a threat to social conventions of the ‘good wife’ who followed her husband – though of course male witches were persecuted (though fewer in number). The advent of the Printing press in central Europe, and the wide distribution of wood cuts made it significantly more accessible for peasants wishing to learn about theological concepts without the need for literacy or the knowledge of Latin – and of course, much in the style of modern tabloids, scandals sale. This age can be defined by theological and social change – and the theological upheaval is the main underlying cause of the ‘Witch craze’. Mix the religious fervour with political tension, social change, perpetual war and such is the unfortunate result, yet this concoction was fuelled for the most part by the increase in circulation of theological ideas i.e. the printing press was invented less than a century before the height of the theological division.

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