Ali, 1 Hashir Ahmad Ali Friday, November 05, 2010 Vazquez

Explaining the Hunts: Causes of the European Witch Craze*
The European witch craze took place in the Early Modern period in a time of social and political dynamism. This time period was marked by the Protestant and Catholic Reformations as well as the Industrial Revolution and the large-scale consolidation of many national governments. With a fiercely volatile social order as the backdrop, over a hundred thousand Europeans were tried for witchcraft. The accused were exiled, tormented, and burned by the dozens. Any historian that seeks to explain away every one of the witch hunts by a single reason is naïvely simplistic. Even associating economic greed to the witch hunts is slightly fallacious. Nevertheless, the witch craze can generally be rightfully related to three major factors. Firstly, while religion was not the only motivation for punishing alleged witchcraft, religious conspiracy definitely played a role in defining witchcraft. However, while religious intent may have justified the witch hunts, these hunts were also influenced by social control as well as social functionalist benefits. Thirdly, the hunts were shaped by misogynistic and other social prejudices to an irrefutable extent. At the time of the witch craze, Europe was in a state of religious instability. Regardless, the leaders of competing factions wielded immense socio-political power and were able to inherently generate and transmit the beliefs conducive to the witch craze. For example, the masses may have otherwise pointed out that the Devil is capable of causing all the evil that is associated with witchcraft. However, as Martin Luther, who may be credited for single-handedly transforming Christianity, preached, while the Devil is not “unable to do these things by himself without sorcerers […] he will not act without human help” (Document B3). Similarly, John Calvin taught his followers that Europe must “wage war against an infinite number” of the Devil’s associates (Document B4). The contemporaneous religious leader of perhaps greatest importance, the Pope himself, had written in 1484 that many people “give themselves over to devils” and that, therefore, such people will be dealt with by “correction, imprisonment, and punishment” (Document B2).

Ali, 2 These Christian ideas of hell, the Devil, and his associates were highly endemic. This is apparent in the diary of a young Protestant boy who wrote about his terrible “fear of Hell and the devils” (Document B5). While Luther, Calvin, and the Pope may have had personal reasons for their biases, the boy and laypeople like him were undoubtedly shaped by the ideas of witchcraft instilled by religious dogma. It only follows to propose that in such a society the average person could not help but feel compelled to acknowledge the existence of witches and to fear, hate, and even punish any sign of witchcraft. From as early on as 1563, men of learning had shown that “those illnesses, whose origins are attributed to [witchcraft], come from natural causes” (Document C2). However, science and logic was still hard pressed to achieve the sort of social clout that religion brandished. Almost in all cases, only religion was used to justify the European hunts. In this hostile atmosphere, the “existence” of witchcraft could easily be advantaged for personal and illicit gain and in fact it was. Public opinion on witchcraft was easily manipulated for control and functionalist benefits. Not only did such exploitation help maintain the size and loyalty of Christian congregations, but it also aided the rapidly fusing national governments. While it is tempting to link the witch craze to illnesses like syphilis, in reality, the witch hunts were not at all random and chaotic. They were largely organized by ruling elites and government officials in a systematic way. As a Canon Linden in Germany asserted, the witch craze “was promoted by many in office […] from court to court throughout the towns and villages of all the diocese, scurried special accusers” (Document A2). It is only commonsense to notice that the witch hunts were highly conducive to the creation of centralized authority, enlarged bureaucratic jurisdictions, and culturally unified populations. Additionally, witches functioned as scapegoats for the troubles of these indoctrinated people. This was well explained by Thomas Ady, a witness of the witch hunts in 1650, when he gave the example of refusing to provide refuge to an old man or woman sought it. Ady said that if, after such a thing, “my [Ady’s] child, my wife, myself, my horse, my cow, my sheep, my sow, my hog, my dog, my cat, or somewhat” suffered or was harmed in some way, then as a typical European, he would swear it was witchcraft “or else how should these things be” (Document A3).

Ali, 3 While much modern speculation may consider greed a significant catalyst for the witch hunts, in truth, most of the persecuted people lacked wealth. Statistical records of the fifteenth and sixteenth century plainly show that lower class citizens were far more likely to be persecuted (Document D1). Part of the functionalist benefits involved wiping out the burdensome margins. Particularly, in such a patriarchic setting, it was very common for widows, old women, old men, the poor to be targeted. The vast majority of accused “witches” were far too poor to serve economic greed. In fact, it was actually because of their poverty that these groups were targeted. In other words, while greed may have played a role in some witch hunts, in most witch hunts Europe’s many societal prejudices probably played a far greater role. It can be reasoned that the most victims were poor (Document D1), old (Document D3) women (Document D2). As Fulbecke pointed out, many people held that “aged persons are impure” and that the Devil employs them for “the vexation and destruction of others” (Document C1). Often, targeted women were widows. Walpurga Hausmannin, the scapegoat for a number of unfortunate events, was such a woman (Document A1). The prejudice against females was, in part, instilled by religion. Women were explained to be more fragile, credulous, and impressionable and it was noted that “there was a defect in the formation of the first woman” and so “she always deceives” (Document B1). In the end, the maddened killing spree of thousands of innocent people was spurred primarily by three over-encompassing catalysts – religious doctrine, social control and function, and prejudice. Perhaps this is best exemplified by the words of Roger North in Document A6. He noted implied that the accused was usually old and poor (“old wretch”) and female (“at the heels of her”). He points out that the trials were usually attended by mobs of people (“a popular rage”) that are generally socially homogenous and controlled. Finally, he alludes to the function of religion in the witch craze when he observes that if a judge were to treat a “witch” leniently, the people would cry “this Judge hath no religion for he doth not believe in witches”. Such was the European witch craze. This embarrassingly apparent scar on European heritage is a telling archetype of what happens when a zealous dogma spurred by social gain is encouraged by bigoted tendencies.


In response to the The Witch DBQ at <>

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