Why? Despite 300 years of scholarship – the first history of the rise and fall of witch burnings in England was published in 1718 – there is no agreement. Which I suppose is not really surprising, since we are equally in the dark about why the persecution began in the 1400s.
One is tempted, of course, to credit science. But actually science had nothing to say about the matter, at least not directly. In England the Royal Society was several times invited to investigate particular cases of witchcraft or other demonic visitations, and once a petition was got up to have them investigate witchcraft in toto, but they refused to get involved. Scientists were anyway divided on the question. One of England's top scientists, Robert Boyle, was a great defender of the reality of witchcraft, and while Isaac Newton was dismissive of village witchcraft he devoted years of his life to unraveling Biblical prophecy.
Was there, perhaps, some argument among philosophers, in which the believers were gradually beaten down by skeptics like Thomas Hobbes and Robert Hooke? Actually, no. There was next to no skeptical publication about witchcraft before the 1690s, after the trials had essentially ceased. The only prominent writer to take up the skeptical side was Thomas Hobbes, who devoted a single chapter of Leviathan (1651) to dismissing the whole business in terms so vague that orthodox divines found nothing in it to argue against. A writer of the 1670s who tried to defend the orthodox Christian position on Satan and demons found only three skeptical books in English to refute, compared to many hundreds of demonologies. The most prominent of those works, Reginald Scot's Discoverie of Witchcraft, had been published in 1584, before the worst of the persecution even got going, and really no skeptical author had found any additional arguments since Scot's time. The printed arguments for and against witchcraft did not change at all between 1500 and 1700, and the pro-witchcraft books always massively outnumbered those by skeptics. Somehow, though, the arguments of the demonologists ceased to persuade.
Back in 1971, English historian Keith Thomas published Religion and the Decline of Magic. This is one of my favorite academic books, a marvelous look at all the things English people believed in the 16th and 17th centuries. But when it came to the "decline" part, Thomas had little to say. Nobody found that part of the book in any way convincing. Thomas' own work showing how deeply belief in witches, demons, faeries, astrology, oracles and so on were woven into European society made the problem even more difficult.
The mystery of witchcraft's decline, highlighted by Thomas, inspired a generation of British historians to take up the question. Until this week I would have said they had not made much progress, but I am happy to report that Michael Hunter's The Decline of Magic (2020) changes that. The Decline of Magic is not an elegant or charming book; Hunter explains in the introduction that it was cobbled together from a series of articles and talks, and rather than trying to smooth over the breaks he keeps calling attention to them. Despite being only 180 pages long it repeats itself to an irritating degree. Really Hunter has only one thing to say, but it is such a fascinating and important thing that I happily forgive him the foibles of this book.
Hunter says there was a great argument over the reality of witchcraft, in which the defenders of witchcraft were routed and the skeptics emerged triumphant. It does not appear in books because the whole argument was carried on orally. It was within the oral culture of the English elite, at the court of Charles II, in the coffee houses, and among chattering lawyers at the Inns of Court, that witchcraft accusations were made ridiculous and demons ceased to be taken seriously.
Here we encounter one of the great challenges facing any historian: most of what matters in history is spoken, and few of history's major actors have been book-writing people. We have to reconstruct the culture within which history happened from the bits and pieces that chanced to be written down. Hunter does this in a very impressive way. He starts from the many books written by ministers and philosophers arguing for the reality of witchcraft. Since there were hardly any skeptical books, who were they arguing against? Fortunately, they tell us. They write, over and over, that England is plagued by "wits and scoffers" who deny the reality of magic and demons and come perilously close to denying God. They tell us, over and over, that these wits and scoffers are to be found at court, in the coffee houses, and at the Inns of Court.
The later 17th century is the first period from which private letters survive in quantity, and Hunter makes great use of these. In these letters some of the coffee house scoffers and wits are named, and we are told about the skeptical things they said. Others of their breed appear in Pepys' diary. We also meet them in Restoration drama and occasionally in verse. They are, once Hunter started looking for them, everywhere. He even has first-hand accounts of dinner parties at which these matters were argued out, the believers against the scoffers. By 1705 we have doctors like Sir John Sloane arguing that anyone who sees spirits or hears their voices is suffering from a mental disease.
Hunter seals his argument with an amazingly detailed analysis of a single case, a poltergeist known as the Drummer of Tedworth. This famous case of mysterious drumming and other odd phenomena in a grand country house, in the years 1671-1673, was reported on and debated all over Britain. A memorandum on the case even appears in the papers of the Privy Council, and it eventually showed up in a comedic play by Addison. Hunter has dug up dozens of mentions of the case in letters, books, broadsheets, even a printed ballad. He shows that the believers who used the case to argue for the reality of spirits were mocked at every turn by "wits and scoffers" who thought the whole thing was faked by the servants to get revenge on a bad employer. At least two churchmen whose letters survive found themselves embroiled in arguments over it with coffee house skeptics. Two noble friends of the king (Lords Sandwich and Chesterfield) went to Tedworth and reported back in mocking terms to the court. They seem to have treated the whole thing as a lark, an amusing way to get out of London for a few days of ribaldry on the road.
So the question of why the English stopped trying people for witchcraft when it was still a capital crime, and most of the common people still believed in it, and most of the books published on the subject still argued for it, has this answer: because any lawyer or judge who involved himself in such a case risked being laughed at by all the other lawyers, and jeered out of his favorite coffee house. As John Wesley later wrote in his diary, "the infidels have hooted witchcraft out of the world." Plus, any English capital case could in theory be appealed to the king, who would hear it in his privy council, stock full of wits and scoffers like Lords Sandwich and Chesterfield. This actually happened in 1712, when one of England's last convicted witches received a royal pardon.
Hunter is writing only about Britain, but I feel certain that all of this applies to France and Holland as well. Charles II's court was after all modeled on the French court, and the French Parlements were equally stocked with worldly lawyers, the salons with scoffing wits. Meanwhile the Dutch led the world in both coffee house culture and philosophical skepticism.
As to why the European elite turned toward deism and against demonology, that is a very grand question. One could point to a reaction against the religious enthusiasm of the 1500-1650 period, and the wars it spawned. But certainly skepticism about witchcraft fits perfectly with the whole elite culture of the eighteenth century: neoclassical architecture, the great arc of Baroque and classical music that runs from Bach to Mozart, the obsession with the Roman world, the cult of Reason.
What is great about The Decline of Magic is that Hunter ties the cessation of witchcraft trials to those big cultural changes without any hand-waving. He shows us the places, the people, sometimes the very words by which the change was made. Where other authors have given us vague assertions about the influence of science, or the philosophical triumph of deism, Hunter shows us the men, the conversations, the jokes that made this change happen. It is a remarkable work of scholarship.
I think Hunter's point about the great difference between print culture and oral culture has much wider application. For example there have lately been several major books about the survival of "superstition" in the eighteenth century, with titles like The Dark Side of the Enlightenment. The claim or at least the insinuation of these books is that the Enlightenment was not really so rational, that people continued to believe in demons, witches, and the like, besides dreaming up new false beliefs like racism. All of which is true, to a point. Many people still believe in ghosts and demons. But as Hunter convincingly shows for the 1670s and 1680s, people may be writing books because they have been shouted out of the coffee houses and have no other way to get their ideas out. Consider how many books in our own time were written from their authors' frustration that "you never hear about x." Most people don't write books, and we cannot, ever, assume that those who do publish speak for the rest.
And, I should add, most people who write books are not nearly as smart as Michael Hunter.