Ah, the European witch trial--few concepts have seeped into our collective imagination or metaphorical concepts as thoroughly. The rise of Neo-pagan movements has cast a different light on the whole matter. Many modern day self-identified witches strongly insist that witch trials in the past were about oppressing pagan substrate influence, and their spiritual ancestors didn't even believe in the dark forces they were believed to be in league with. While there actually isn't a huge direct connection between modern neo-Pagan groups and medieval paganism, might they be onto something? Were witch trials about smoking out stubborn people clinging to the old ways? Were they the ultimate example of an out-of-control monolithic church?
Of course, the pre-modern age in Europe was one marked by piety, massive mixture ofChurch and State, and general superstition. In such a mix, one would suspect that the Church had been seriously pushing around witches and sorcerers ever since the twilight years of the Roman Empire. You know, running around with priests, accusing any pagans they found of witchcraft. Well, not quite.
It's important to note that anti-witchcraft/anti-sorcery laws in a more general sense go back well before the existence of Christianity. The Code of Hammurabi (approximately 1800 BC) says:
"If a man has put a spell upon another man and it is not justified, he upon whom the spell is laid shall go to the holy river; into the holy river shall he plunge. If the holy river overcome him and he is drowned, the man who put the spell upon him shall take possession of his house. If the holy river declares him innocent and he remains unharmed the man who laid the spell shall be put to death. He that plunged into the river shall take possession of the house of him who laid the spell upon him."
So, the general idea of punishing someone for using "evil magic" is a cross-cultural and present in most every religion. Though interesting enough, the Code seems to object less to sorcery or witchcraft per se rather than inappropriate sorcery and/or witchcraft. This makes perfect sense given that "magic" in the form of things like divination were part and parcel of many ancient societies. Of course, when things got bad, a lot of people suddenly ended up accused of evil sorcery. The rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire actually helped cut down on witch hunts, and despite a somewhat common meme of overzealous Christians running around afraid of pagans and equating them with infernal forces, the early Christians were far less likely to grab a random woman or man, pagan or otherwise, and accuse them of being a witch and kill them than many pagans were around the same time. Of course, in the beginning, the Christians were the ones often accused of undermining societies with their unusual rituals and what not. Still, though when they got the post-Constantine upper-hand, the early Church was striking in its general lack of concern about witches. Arguably, though, they were still working out such basic stuff like fundamental organization, what they wanted to include in their holy book, et cetera. Worrying about hunting down witches may have been putting the cart before the horse in those early years even once they become the dominant religious force rather than the persecuted minority.
Now, this isn't to say there wasn't political and military oppression of pagans or the occasional charge of sorcery and what have you. Indeed, the last few centuries of the Roman Empire, despite the efforts of Julian the Apostate (333-361 AD; he was the last Roman emperor who had a serious shot at reversing the rise of Christianity in the empire) was marked by a curious and chaotic mix of Christian internecine fighting between the Arian and Nicene factions (a fascinating historical topic, but I'm trying to avoid turning these entries too deeply into theological minutiae) and vacillation toward the pagans in the empire. Anyway, we all know how that went down in the end.
Back to the late Roman Empire, even though the pagans were vilified as heretics, there wasn't as much concern or association with them being actively league with infernal forces working to undermine the empire. Sure, there was a lot of concern about them undermining the empire for political reasons, but that's a slightly different angle. There also was the occasional spasm of anti-pagan violence, but given the tenor of the times, it's hard to sort through how much of that was religious versus political. Heck, the Arians and the Nicenes also scrapped on occasion. For the most part though, a combination of sustained political and economic repression rather than inquisitorial judicial power was the hammer used against those pagans. The people actually accused of evil sorcery might get in trouble, but the religious background didn't seem to matter as much as the just the use of evil magic.
So, we jump forward a thousand years or so. By the late-15th century, we have people rushing around various European countries now concerned about various witches calling forth the power of Satan who may or may not have been associated with pagan substrate beliefs systems in the eyes of authorities or not at all. Some have argued that success of the medieval Church at purging (often violently) heretical Christian sects, left various heretic-hunters in search of a job and that got directed toward "creating an enemy" within as it were. While that's certainly at least one aspect of what likely influenced the rise of the witch hunts, there's a more technological explanation I'll touch on here soon.
It would take weeks to sort through all the misinformation from the period and a lot of the misinformation from well-meaning and not-so-well meaning moderns concerning witchcraft. Suffice to say, though, the perception of the people at the time was what was important, even if it wasn't actually justified by reality. The threat, as they perceived it, was different than say some pagans sitting around not thoroughly converted. Instead, there was a deep fear that instead of heretics worshiping the wrong gods hiding out in some country or rural area, there were secret and organized Satanic worshipers undermining society with infernal magic. This all reached a fever pitch around the tale end of the 15th century and would not fade, in some European countries, until the 19th century. For example, the Holy Roman Empire (which as the joke long ago went was neither holy nor Roman) executed their last "witch" as late as 1775!
So, why did it take so darn long for the real witch hunts to get going? Why weren't the witch patrols strolling about looking for witches more seriously before the 15th century whether they be pagans, infernals, or just maybe some poor Zoroastrian who got on the wrong boat or something (Note to self: write that story)? Well, whatever one may think about the medieval religious institutions of Europe, they actually didn't, for many centuries actually believe in formalized witchcraft for the most part. None other than the rather Christian King of the Franks himself, Charlemagne (742-814), actually banned the execution of accused witches ten years after a Church council basically voted witchcraft officially out of existence as far as the religious authorities were concerned. In fact, this council, The Council of Paderborn, actually ascribed the death penalty for witch hunters.
So, ironically, despite the modern association in the common mind with the Christianity and witch hunts, the early Church actually broke with the tendency, present in laws in many pre-Christian pagan societies, to have harsh penalties for witchcraft and sorcery. One can spend weeks discussing why they did that (or why we think they may have done it), but it's just important to note that the organization later most directly associated with later witch hunts were basically, early on, saying it was not only not a serious problem, it was technically a problem that didn't even exist.
In a way, that's easy for many modern people in many places to understand. Sure, I'm sure there's some old law still on the book in some township somewhere that still says something about witch craft, but, for the most part, if your congressman or MP introduced an anti-magic piece of legislation, he or she would be roundly mocked. They are supposed to concentrate on real problems and similarly, the early Church wanted to concentrate on "real" problems (e.g., the Crusades, heretical Christian sects, et cetera,, conversion of pagan areas).
This doesn't mean your typical "Francois the peasant" didn't fear witchcraft and sorcery. A little mob violence against someone thought to be hexing a neighbor or something might erupt in a village on occasion, but you didn't really see the organized Church-lead efforts against it. In addition, there were various secular laws against it, but penalties were often minor. Execution was rare for centuries.
Around the 14th century, there began a more organized effort against witchcraft, particularly by religious authorities. Despite the involvement of the Inquisition as early as 1320, people who had zero moral problems with torturing heretics, there was a curious lack of concern about witchcraft. There are various reasons likely contributing to that, but the long tradition of the early Church and later Catholic Church of not even really officially believing in witchcraft contributed to it. There were even a few documented cases in the end of the 14th century where the Inquisition initially only gave a slap on the wrist to accused witches.
A lot can happen in a century. There were those in the Church who made a lot of noise not just about witches but, more importantly, about witch conspiracies to undermine society. That's the key element needed for a lot of the true out-of-control persecution, the idea that these people weren't just the occasional harmless magical wannabe, but they were organized cells of dangerous Satanic lackeys with actual magic they were going to use to undermine society.
Still though, a review of several early 14th and 15th-century witch trial cases involves the religious authorities basically denying the existence of true witchcraft and the secular authorities, in contrast, insisting it was a real threat.
By the mid-15th century Gutenberg had introduced the printing press to Europe. Besides aiding the burgeoning Protestant movement, it allowed the wide-spread dissemination of books like Formicarius (1437) and Malleus Malificarum (The Hammer of Witches, 1487). These books codified and spread widely several ideas about witchcraft such as the strong and clear association with the Devil, the idea of organized Satanic groups, and a very clear and strong association between witchcraft and women (even if they didn't deny the existence of evil sorcerous males). There's a lot of back and forth on how much of witch hunting was motivated by misogyny (and it's important to note men could and were accused of witchcraft), but it's still striking to note that Malleus Malificarum is focused on and obsessed with witchcraft as a heavily female endeavor.
Iit's hard to see passages like this and not see misogyny:
"Concerning Witches who copulate with Devils. Why is it that Women are chiefly addicted to Evil superstitions?"
". . . that they [women] have slippery tongues, and are unable to conceal from the fellow-women those things which by evil arts they know; and, since they are weak, they find an easy and secret manner of vindicating themselves by witchcraft. See Ecclesiasticus as quoted above: I had rather dwell with a lion and a dragon than to keep house with a wicked woman. All wickedness is but little to the wickedness of a woman. And to this may be added that, as they are very impressionable, they act accordingly."
Sure, I guess not that more misogynistic than many other texts at the times, but this was something where you could easily see how a woman who didn't "know her place" suddenly could end up accused of an executable offense.
More than anything else these books helped promote the idea that witchcraft, with its accompanying infernal magic, was real and a clear and present danger to European society. Malleus Malificarum even laid out procedures for how to run a proper witch trial along with such tidbits as noting a proper non-witch knows to sob in front of the judge:
"If he wishes to find out whether she is endowed with a witch’s power of preserving silence, let him take note whether she is able to shed tears when standing in his presence, or when being tortured. For we are taught both by the words of worthy men of old and by our own experience that this is a most certain sign, and it has been found that even if she be urged and exhorted by solemn conjurations to shed tears, if she be a witch she will not be able to weep: although she will assume a tearful aspect and smear her cheeks and eyes with spittle to make it appear that she is weeping; wherefore she must be closely watched by the attendants."
Malleus Malificarum, Part III, Question XV
I'm guessing crying while being tortured was less of an issue.
The fires of the witch hunts (note: most witches were hung, not burned at the stake) would eventually burn themselves out for many reasons. In a reversal of the original situation where the secular authorities insisted witchcraft was real, a lot of it was arguably the rise of the Enlightenment. People were still religious, but the secular authorities stopped placing as much stock in the idea that an individual could summon actual supernatural powers.
The distrust lingered on, though and in some places in Europe, anti-witchcraft laws would linger until even the middle of the twentieth century though more in a context of fraud-related laws than actual anti-magic laws. While this discussion was focused mostly on European witchcraft, there are still countries in the world today that people can and are executed for witchcraft or sorcery.
If you're interested in getting your inner witch hunter on or just shaking your head at the paranoia of the past, you can actually read Malleus in translation at: http://www.malleusmaleficarum.org/