Why did regional variations exist in the prosecution of witches between 1560 – 1620?
The European Witch Hunt is one of the most fascinating and amazing events in the middle Ages. It developed from a small matter, which was investigated due to the lack of knowledge about witches and eventually turned into a continent wide campaign to wipe them out.
The coursework title that I have been asked to write about enables me to explain the reasons for why the small-scale witch hunts turned into large-scale hunts. It also enables me to outline the differences in the way these hunts were conducted in different regions of Europe. I plan to outline the different factors, which determined the prosecution of the witches and explain how each one contributes to a hunt. I will also attempt to explain how these factors developed and changed and also how each one helped to determine regional differences between countries.
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Before I start entering the essay and answering the question I will give a bit of background information about the witch-hunts, which I feel, will enable me to give a full and complete answer.
The main three countries that I will be focusing on in this essay are England, Germany and Scotland. This is because they are all countries full of examples and contrasts in the way they prosecuted witches. England, famous for its Essex trials, which were the biggest in the country, will prove to be a very good example of how the hysteria of witchcraft spreads around Europe. Germany on the other hand is a country, which is famous for a large amount of hunts in their country, such as in the south of Bavaria. Scotland is also a very good example to use because although geographically it was very close to England, it took a very different view towards witchcraft.
The main thing that we must remember when we try and define the ways of the different countries is that each country is original and unique. They all have different rulers who naturally will have different opinions about the threat of witches. They will also have different views on how witches should be dealt with and to what extent they should attempt to persecute them. For example the rulers of England at the time in question, Elizabeth then James were much more relaxed and content as rulers of their country. They were at the top of a country with a
The different judicial systems played a major part in the way witches were hunted and eventually prosecuted. There were different styles of judicial systems and as a result, the ones picked in different areas had a different effect. The two main judicial systems that there were at the time were the Accusatorial and the inquisitorial systems. The difference in systems means that the amount of witches that were persecuted varied a lot and this meant that in some countries the size of the witch-hunts were far greater than in others.
The difference between the two systems was the way in which witches were accused and then how these accusations were investigated. The Accusatorial system was in comparison with the other system a much fairer one and which gave those accused the opportunity to argue their case and prove their innocence. It also made those who made the accusations think twice before they tried to get people convicted of being a witch. There were many different outcomes to a witch trial under this system. The person accused can be let off by proving their innocence, they can admit their guilt and be punished, the accuser can prove guilt or if all else fails, the accused receives a trial by ordeal. The only real flaw to this system is the trial by ordeal, which is very un-scientific. The way this worked was that to test whether they were a witch or not they were forced to do things like hold a burning rod for 20 seconds and make them burn themselves.
Then after a week if the burn had healed then it meant that they were not a witch.
The best example of a country that used this system was England.
In comparison to countries on the continent England had a very fair and honest trial system for witches. They used this system and as a result the number of burnings or hangings or supposed witches was far less then in Europe. I like this system as it means the person who is accused has a fair trial, there is no use of torture and diabolism cannot be proved as a result.
The other judicial system is an inquisitorial one. This is whereby a judge or someone with senior authority goes looking for accusations. The rules of evidence were quite relaxed and this made it easier to successfully accuse someone. The way someone’s guilt was decided was either by a confession or by 2 sworn witness claiming that they are guilty or not. Juries were used in some countries with a view to making it fairer on the accused. The main fault with this system was that due to the difficulty of obtaining a confession, torture was used to enable an admission to be made that they are a witch.
This is what is used across Europe and in particular in Germany. This is the reason that the Germans had many more witch hunts within their country than England did.
Religion played a major part in the European witch craze simply because at the time there was a huge upheaval of the religious system and also there was a new craze to follow God and his beliefs. The reformation caused people to change/modify their beliefs to conform to the new system. There was also the problem of the split between Catholics and Protestants in which a new rivalry surfaced. Religion was to prove to be a problem throughout the whole period of the European witch craze. When the faults of the Church were brought to attention by radicals such as Erasmus and Luther it was only a matter of time before they got their way and the church was modified.
A new base of Christianity was formed call Protestantism and this was going to be a big change for the continent of Europe to deal with. This was because a large rivalry sparked up between the two groups and stories started to spread. For examples catholic school children would be told that the Protestants were all witches who worked for the devil and the protestant school children would be told the same about the Catholics. All it meant was that the hysteria of witch craft, which was already high in the continent, managed to rise higher than before and people were as a result becoming more and more scared of being cursed by one.
There was some unity on some aspects though. For example, both Catholics and Protestants in the 16th century had a renewed emphasis on the devil and the supernatural world. The Devil is recast as the equal of God but on the bad side, a sort of enemy to goodness. There had always been a belief that the witchcraft being used had been enabled by the devil and that God wouldn’t allow it. But in the 16th century they believed that they were directly doing his work, in a demonic pact. There were however groups who supported the devil claiming that he would over throw God and rule the Earth, one such group were the Cathars, a group of heretics. You can see how easy it was for the people of Europe to be caught up in this
Religion itself was not the only problem when it came to influencing the people about witches at the time. The religious figures at a local and national level all had large powers in influencing their people. This was because they were the figure head of the religious groups that were supported all over Europe so any message that they sent out or claimed to be the word of God. This is clearer in Europe than in England because the Europeans were much more religious in the sense of following the pope or archbishops very word than the English were. The English had their beliefs and as a result worshiped God accordingly.
Probably the most important factor when it comes to investigating the persecution of witches is the choice of system, diabolism/maleficium. Depending which system a country picked they would be affected by it and so would the scale of the witch hunts in that country. Maleficium was the cursing of people and property whereas Diabolism was making a pact with the devil. In England we never see Diabolism because it was never conceived that witches actually communicated with them. The only time is does is during the Pendle witch trial. Maleficium on the other hand was apparent in England in 1542 when it became apparent that witchcraft, which had been tolerated, up till that point was a bad thing and could be used in a bad way. The main reason why diabolism isn’t accepted is because we follow in the accusatorial judicial system and this meant that diabolism wasn’t accepted as a logical answer
Europe was not so lenient, they believed in Diabolism and due to this belief they were able to try and execute people on the grounds of Heresy, notably Germany. It was this acceptance of the role of the devil that made the public more afraid and increased the hysteria surrounding them as it was no longer just witches they should be afraid of but also the devil.
There were many other factors which determined the amount of witch hunts and accusations. One of these is the problem of socio/economic problems. These are things at a local level which can affect the problem of witch accusations and hysteria. It is easy enough to understand the reason for these problems becoming major ones. For example say a beggar comes to ask for a piece of bread from a wealthy land owner. That bread will cost them next to nothing and could help keep the beggar alive; if the owner says no then it would be usual for the beggar to mutter words of dissatisfaction against them. It is these kinds of actions which cause the division of class rivalry in Europe. There was also the issue of farming whereby people stopped farming all the land together for equal benefit but instead they all farmed their own land and rivalry would appear as the better and more efficient farmers were able to make more money and go further than the farmers who lacked success.
It is these sorts of rivalries that set witch accusations into action. The jealousy of one farmer over another ones success will mean that a spiteful comment and then a bad season on his crops could lead that farmer to being a supposed witch or wizard; this just shows how little you have to do to be labelled as a witch.
The Role of the central authority also played a major part in the persecution of witches. This is because they were the leaders of their respective countries and so were idolised by most. They also had control in how the country was run and were directly responsible for the legal systems that the country had. This made them responsible and able to affect the way in which the country operated and to what extent witches were persecuted. By giving permission to witch hunters to try and capture witches they can either stop the problem quickly or they can spark a full scale riot as the people who live there get really worried because they are scared of being accused of being a witch. In England it was very rare for Witch Hunters to be sent out to find them, this is because it was viewed that if there is a problem with Witches then someone will speak out against they and that will be our queue to go in and try to get rid of them.
The political elites also had a lot of influence when it came to the topic of witchcraft. This was because they had a lot of beliefs and views and as they were viewed as the intellectuals people trusted what they said. Out of all the groups of people who have senior authority, these men were probably the most influential and were able to sway people’s minds. This meant that what they believed in, people believed in and it was due to some of the political elite’s that the witch craze became as crazy as it did.
In conclusion it is clear that there were many different variations between regions when it came to prosecuting Witches. This was due to factors such as influence from senior figure, rivalries, superstition and most importantly because of the legal system.
I believe that without the variance in legal systems that we would not have seen the big differences between the different countries that we do see.