More from my old web site:
Between 1400 and 1700 the governments of Europe killed somewhere between 35,000 and 200,000 people for the crime of witchcraft. It was during the Renaissance, not the Dark Ages, that the fear of witches reached its peak; the terrible fires of the Rhineland that depopulated whole villages burned against the backdrop of world exploration and scientific revolution. Leaders of both the Protestant and Catholic reformations joined the outcry against witches, and notable preachers and the founders of seminaries added their denunciations to those of eminent judges, famous courtiers, and brilliant scholars. Sometimes it seems that the whole continent was witch mad, including some of the grandest intellectuals. Jean Bodin, author of a famous book of political theory and creator of the first quantitative economics, wrote the most terrible of all the witch books, arguing that anyone who opposed burning witches must be a witch himself and deserved to be burned.
Reading books about witchcraft written in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is a profoundly unsettling experience. Apparently sane men foam at the mouth about the threat posed to civilization by impoverished old women who fly to the Sabbath, and the petty crimes that earn them the wrath of their neighbors (milk spoilt, sheep sickened) are revealed as part of a gigantic conspiracy against Christendom hatched in Hell and organized by demons. Scenes of horrific torture are presented as Christian good works, since it was the theory of the witch hunters that the witches only denied their crimes because they were in the grip of Satan. Sometimes, indeed, the victims were tortured and exorcised at the same time, and their exhausted confessions marked the moment at which they were freed from the grip of the Evil One.
Why? The question has hung over Renaissance history since men of the time wrote their own narratives. Their own explanation was that they were so greatly afflicted by witches because they were approaching the End of Days, and their reading of the Bible suggested that attacks by demons would intensify as the second coming approached. During the eighteenth century Enlightened philosophers dismissed the whole witch panic as a symptom of the medieval barbarism and religious stupidity they were struggling against. Though both these explanations still have defenders, historians have abandoned them since we have failed to find evidence that either Satan's assault on humanity or religious stupidity was worse in the 1600s than in any other time. The questions remains unanswered.
The latest attempt to offer some kind of explanation of the witch craze comes in the form of an immense book from British historian Stuart Clark. Thinking with Demons (1997) is an amazing book, and Clark's learning is astonishing. The history of witchcraft has been my chief intellectual hobby for 15 years, but Clark has read dozens of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century demonologies that I have never even heard of. His 686 pages of text are followed by no less than 106 pages of bibliography--and these are big pages with little print. Clark's intent is to understand what witchcraft beliefs meant to intellectuals during the centuries when the crime was routinely punished by death. It is a question I find fascinating, and Clark's picture of thought and belief is rich and convincing. Yet in the end, though he manages to rule out a whole class of possible explanations, he comes no closer than anyone else has to answering the basic question of why so many old women were burned.
Books of Renaissance demonology are so repulsive to us that we instinctively dismiss their authors as backward savages. The works of witchcraft skeptics, on the other hand, are so pleasing to us that we try to assimilate their authors to ourselves, making witchcraft skepticism a sign of modernity and classing the skeptical authors as "progressive" or "advanced." Clark shows that this is a gross distortion of the historical situation. The basic beliefs that made up the lore of witchcraft were nearly universal among Renaissance writers. The existence of witches and demons was proved by their appearance in the Bible. The reality of the cures, curses, and other magic performed by village witches was accepted nearly as widely as the truth of scripture. Since everyone knew that the sorts of verbal charms and spells used by witches could not have any power of their own, their efficacy could only come from the assistance of demons. And have demons ever helped people without demanding something in return? Obviously magicians had sold their souls to get their power.
Even most of the skeptical writers accepted that witchcraft was possible. The Renaissance skeptic whose work was best known in his own time was German physician Johann Weyer, who denounced the witch trials of Cleve in an emotional book published in 1563. Weyer believed that the trials he witnessed were perversions of justice because the poor old women convicted were too weak in mind and ignorant of theology to even understand the crimes they were accused of, let alone commit them. What they needed, he thought, was the care of doctors and ministers, not the attentions of the torturer. Weyer's humanity and compassion shine across the centuries, but there is nothing particularly modern about his thinking. He had no ties to up-to-date science, and he accepted the possibility of witchcraft--indeed, he suspected that it was rife among the cynical courtiers who promoted witch trials as a way to advance their careers.
Those skeptics who completely rejected the reality of witchcraft, such as Montaigne and the English writer Reginald Scot, were hardly more intellectually progressive than Weyer. They tended to take their inspiration from the ancient Cynics and to be skeptical of everything, including the advanced science of their day. Their thought points toward nothing in particular, certainly not toward modern science.
The intellectual arguments demonologists used were not only widely accepted, they were very old; none of them would have seemed unusual to St. Augustine. They existed, therefore, centuries before the time of the witch burnings. They also existed after the fires ceased to burn; as Clark shows, most English writers of the early 1700s continued to accept both the activity of demons in the world and the possibility that people would ally with them, even though English witch trials had stopped in the 1660s. If there is a direct connection between witchcraft skepticism and the rise of experimental science, nobody has yet been able to find it.
Clark's exhaustive tour of the intellectual underpinnings of the witch trials shows that intellectual changes explain neither their start nor their end. What, then, does explain it?
Fear. Fear that the Christian world was under assault by demonic forces was the thing witch persecutors had in common with each other and that distinguished them from those who, though they accepted the possibility of witchcraft, were not particularly concerned about it. Clark demonstrates this convincingly. The advocates of witch burning thought their world was descending into chaos, and they sought order in a religiously-based government. This was the age that elevated the divine right of kings to rule to its most absurd pitch--and what better way for kings to prove they had God's sanction than by warring against those soldiers of Satan, the witches? For the intellectuals who codified and chronicled it, witch burning was one weapon in a war fought against demonic disorder, a war also fought with preaching, catechism, church reform, the hiring of more policemen, the imposition of harsher penalties for criminals, and the elevation of royal power to a divine sacrament.
The question of why so many people were burned as witches during the Renaissance is therefore the question of why so many people were afraid. There are many possible explanations, from the Black Death to the Turkish conquests to changes in the weather. All of these may have contributed, but my guess is that the pervasive fear was generated by the same great changes that make us celebrate the Renaissance as a time of marvels. The opening of new continents upset the old structure of the world and overturned parts of the economy, enriching some people and some regions while ruining others. New ideas were exciting but also frightening. Religious reform thrilled those who sought a more perfect church but abolished many comforting traditions; confessional conflict turned what had been a source of comfort into a sphere of battle. Rapid change is disturbing, and sometimes it makes people profoundly afraid.
But whatever the causes of the fear that haunted Europe, the hanging and burning of so many innocents reminds us of the grim dangers of being afraid. When people are afraid, they lash out stupidly. They mistrust friendship and put their faith in violence and revenge. They elevate petty criminals and political opponents into agents of the Devil and make war upon them. In times of fear we should do all that we can to set it aside, for it is a wicked counselor. We should turn, instead, to the other legacy of the Renaissance, the faith in the intellectual power and great traditions of our species that we call humanism. We must reject madness and obsession in favor of reason and empathy. If we must use violence, we should use it with reluctance and with compassion for the those we fight against, not as if we were battling demonic creatures born of our darkest nightmares.
April 13, 2002
For a review of a more recent book that sheds light on these questions, see here.