In folklore, a Witch (far from the later diabolic meaning of the term) is a mere sorcerer or magician, associated with the spirits of nature; the tales themselves reflect both a fear of the witches and a sense of their power. Though the meaning, like the meaning of any symbol, changes from tale to tale, the witch usually (in these tales) represents an elemental natural force possessing enormous and unexpected powers that are, while not necessarily evil, so alien and remote from the world of man that they constitute a threat to the order of the cosmos. This gut terror of witchcraft may explain the excesses of fear and hatred that welled up during the witch craze.
The advent of Christianity suggests that potential Christians, comfortable with the use of magic as part of their daily lives, expected Christian clergy to work magic of a form superior to the old Pagan way. While Christianity competed with Pagan religion, this concern was paramount, only lessening in importance once Christianity was the dominant religion in most of Europe. In place of the old Pagan magic methodology, the Church placed a Christian methodology involving saints and divine relics — a short step from the old Pagan techniques of amulets.
Augustine, an influential Christian theologian, argued that all pagan magic and religion were invented by the Devil to lure humanity away from Christian truth; he argued that while some of the effects were illusion and some real, both were workings of the Devil. Shortly thereafter, theologians identified the pagan gods of old, such as Jupiter and Diana, as demonic servants of Satan that sorcerers would call up to do their bidding; later such claims extended to northern gods such as Odin and Freyja.
In the seventh and ninth centuries, the Church began to influence civil law to create anti-witchcraft legislation. The Latin 'maleficium', which originally meant wrong-doing, now came to mean malevolent magic, presumed to be associated with the Devil. Not only was magic now a crime against society, but heresy and a crime against God. The Council of Leptinnes in 744 drew up a "List of Superstitions" which prohibited sacrifice to saints and created a baptismal formula that required one to renounce works of demons, specifically naming Thor and Odin.
Similarly, the Lombard code of 643 states:
This conforms to the teachings of the Canon Episcopi of circa 900 AD (alleged to date from 314 AD), following the thoughts of Augustine of Hippo which stated that witchcraft did not exist and that to believe in it was heretical. The Church of the time, rather than opposing witchcraft, opposed what it saw as the foolish and backward belief in witchcraft. To believe that witchcraft could possibly have any power was to deny the supreme power of God.
Compared to the tortures and executions favored by the laws of both the Roman Empire and the later Middle Ages, the two or three years' penance for maleficium, incantation, and idolatry seems rather lenient. However, the law became more and more severe as time went on. By 830, several kings were ordering execution for witchcraft based on the findings of the Synod of Paris (June 6 829), whose ruling was in turn based on Leviticus 20:6 and Exodus 22:18. In the face of such threats, pagan practices began to be reduced. In 900, the Canon Episcopi was written:
Due to the widespread belief that the Canon dated back to the 4th century, it was given great authority in medieval canon law. It helped to forestall the witch craze by denying the reality of witchcraft; it also indicates that belief in strange phenomena was widespread and helped spread them further. It helped establish the concept of the sabbat by equating Diana with Satan, and by showing that the witches rode with her in spirit, established that the witches served Satan in spirit.
By 1300, the elements were in place for a witch hunt, and for the next century and a half fear of witches spread gradually throughout Europe. At the end of the Middle Ages (about 1450), the fear became a craze which lasted more than 200 years. As the notion spread that all magic involved a pact with the Devil, legal sanctions against witchcraft grew harsher. Each new conviction reinforced the beliefs in the methods (torture and pointed interrogation) being used to solicit confessions and in the list of accusations to which these "witches" confessed. The rise of the witch-craze was concurrent with the rise of Renaissance magic in the great humanists of the time (this was called High Magic, and the Neoplatonists and Aristotelians that practised it took pains to insist that it was wise and benevolent and nothing like Witchcraft), which helped abet the rise of the craze. Witchcraft was held to be the worst of heresies, and early skepticism slowly faded from view almost entirely.
In the early 14th century, many accusations were brought against clergymen and other learned people who were capable of reading and writing magic; Pope Boniface VIII (d. 1303) was posthumously tried for apostasy, murder, and sodomy, in addition to allegedly entering into a pact with the Devil (while popes had been accused of crimes before, the demonolotry charge was new). The Templars were also tried as Devil-invoking heretics in 1305–14. The middle years of the 14th century were quieter, but towards the end of the century, accusations increased and were brought against ordinary people more frequently. In 1398, the University of Paris declared that the demonic pact could be implicit; no document need be signed, as the mere act of summoning a demon constituted an implied pact. Tens of thousands of trials continued through Europe generation after generation; the famous witches in Macbeth were committed to paper during the reign of James I, who hanged more witches than any other English monarch.
The craze took on new strength in the 15th century, and in 1486, Heinrich Institoris, a member of the Dominican Order, published the Malleus Maleficarum (the 'Hammer against the Witches'). Although this book was banned by the Church in 1490, it was nevertheless reprinted in 14 editions by 1520 and became one of the most influential books used by secular witch-hunting courts.
Persecution continued through the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, and the Protestants and Catholics both continued witch trials with varying numbers of executions from one period to the next. The "Caroline Code", the basic law code of the Holy Roman Empire (1532) imposed heavy penalties on witchcraft. As society became more literate (due mostly to the invention of the Printing Press in the 1440s), increasing numbers of books and tracts fuelled the witch fears.
The craze reached its height between 1560 and 1660. After 1580, the Jesuits replaced the Dominicans as the chief Catholic witch-hunters, and the Catholic Rudolf II (1576–1612) presided over a long persecution in Austria. Interestingly enough, the Jura Mountains in southern Germany provided a small respite from the insanity; there, torture was imposed only within the precise limits of the Caroline Code of 1532, little attention was paid to the accusations of or by children, and charges had to be brought openly before a suspect could be arrested. These limitations contained the mania in that area.
The nuns of Loudun (1630), novelized by Aldous Huxley and made into a film by Ken Russell, provide an interesting example of the craze during this time. The nuns had conspired to accuse Father Urbain Grandier of witchcraft by faking symptoms of possession and torment; they feigned convulsions, rolled and gibbered on the ground, and accused Grandier of indecencies. Grandier was convicted and burned; however, after the plot succeeded, the symptoms of the nuns only grew worse, and they became more and more sexual in nature. This attests to the degree of mania and insanity present in such witch trials.
In 1687, Louis XIV issued an edict against witchcraft that was rather moderate compared to former ones; it ignored black cats and other lurid fantasies of the witch mania. After 1700, the number of witches accused and condemned fell rapidly.
Some torments were designed to test the guilt of a witch. "Swimming" the witch (a survival of an ancient ordeal by water) involved tying the accused hand and foot and immersing her in deep water. If she sank, God's creature water accepted her and she was deemed innocent. If she floated, the water rejected her, and she was deemed guilty. Similarly, if the witch weighed less than a bible on a scale, she was guilty. Witches were thought to have insensitive spots where the Devil had (visibly or invisibly) marked them; the accused would sometimes be pricked all over with a sharp instrument in the search for such a spot.
Other, more traditional tortures were devised to elicit confessions and accusations against accomplices. These included thumbscrews, leg vices, whipping stocks with iron spikes, scalding lime baths, prayer stools furnished with sharp pegs, racks, and the strappado (where a prisoner's arms were tied with a rope attached to a pulley, and he or she was hoisted into the air, often with weights attached at the feet to pull the arms from the sockets). These tortures would be often accompanied by a long list of questions, most of which asked how and when the accused had committed a certain act of which they were accused, not whether they were innocent or guilty.
Margaret Murray claimed that witchcraft was a holdover of a worldwide ancient fertility cult; however, modern scholars have rejected this as unfounded and due to a deliberate misinterpretation of the evidence. For more information, see her article.
Another school, currently the most influential, emphasizes the social history and social patterns of witchcraft accusations. This assumes that witchcraft never existed, but blames widespread superstition rather than the Church for the craze.
Yet another school of thought emphasizes the history of ideas and argues that witchcraft is a composite of superstitions collected across the centuries; of these, the most influential are Christian heresy and theology rather than actual pagan practices.
Rossell Hope Robbins, among others, contends that the chief motive behind the prosecutions was the desire for the property of the condemned; however, the number of confiscations overall was relatively small, and a disproportionately great number of people convicted were of small means.
For more information, see the extensive discussion under witchhunts.
It was in the Church's interest, as it expanded, to suppress all competing Pagan methodologies of magic. This could only be done by presenting a cosmology in which Christian miracles were legitimate and credible, whereas non-Christian ones were "of the devil". Hence the following law:
While the common people were aware of the difference between witches, who they considered willing to undertake evil actions, such as cursing, and cunning folk who avoided involvement in such activities, the Church attempted to blot out the distinction. In much the same way that culturally distinct non-Christian religions were all lumped together and termed merely "Pagan", so too was all magic lumped together as equally sinful and abhorrent. The Demonologie of James I explicitly condemns all magic-workers as equally guilty of the same crime against God.
At the end of the Middle Ages, the recurring beliefs about witches were:
The Malleus Maleficarum (1486) declared that the four essential points of witchcraft were renunciation of the Catholic faith, devotion of body and soul to evil, offering up unbaptized children to the Devil, and engaging in orgies which included intercourse with the Devil; in addition, witches were accused of shifting their shapes, flying through the air, abusing Christian sacraments, and confecting magical ointments.
Witches were credited with a variety of magical powers. These fall into two broad categories: those that explain the occurrence of misfortune and are thus grounded in real events, and those that are wholly fantastic.
The first category includes the powers to cause impotence, to turn milk sour, to strike people dead, to cause diseases, to raise storms, to cause infants to be stillborn, to prevent cows from giving milk, to prevent hens from laying and to blight crops. The second includes the power to fly in the air, to change form into a hare, to suckle familiar spirits from warts, to sail on a single plank and perhaps most absurd of all, to go to sea in an eggshell.
Witches were often believed to fly on broomsticks or distaffs, or occasionally upon unwilling human beings, who would be called 'hag-ridden'. Horses found sweating in their stalls in the morning were also said to be hag-ridden.
The accused witch Isobel Gowdie gave the following charm as her means of transmuting herself into a hare:
Witches also appear as villains in many 19th- and 20th-century fairy tales, folk tales and children's stories, such as "Snow White", "Hansel and Gretel", "Sleeping Beauty", and many other stories recorded by the Brothers Grimm. Such folktales typically portray witches as either remarkably ugly hags or remarkably beautiful young women. In the classic story The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, witches from both ends of this spectrum play important roles.
Accusations against witches were almost identical to those levelled by 3rd-century pagans against early Christians:
Traditionally, a white witch was a cunning man or wise woman, who sold magical services to ward off or reverse the effects of witchcraft.