“From 1100 [CE] on, however, indistinct and often idiosyncratic strains of belief were systematized into a coherent and generally uniform system of theological and juridical dogma, the logical implications of which were the obligation of the Church and the secular courts actively to seek out and extirpate the witches and their defenders... Two phenomena whose causal interaction with other social and intellectual conditions constitutes one of the great problems of European history become increasingly clear after 1100: the growing codification of witch beliefs centering on the universal malevolence and diabolism of the witches, and the growing awareness of the active and horrific dangers presented by the ever-increasing number of witches at large.Before 1100, ecclesiastics and theologians were often skeptical of popular beliefs concerning witches and their magical powers. The church, after all, had disarmed the last bastion of paganism by convincing men that belief in the Christian god protected everyone from the inept assaults of pagan demons. As the intellectual synthesis of witch beliefs progressed, however, it was precisely the ecclesiastics and theologians and other educated men who were to shape and channel popular opinion. As awareness of the theological and juridical ramifications of the reality of witchcraft spread, so did men's perception of the nature of the witches' activity; as the latter grew, so did the demand for theological and juristic clarification and response. From 1100 on, one can observe (and sometimes even date rather precisely) the appearance of certain common elements which both learned and popular opinion were to consider universally characteristic of witchcraft, and one can follow also the emerging realization that something new and dreadful in the history of Christendom had appeared... At the height of these fears, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, men speculated on when and why the concerted and terrible assaults of the witches had begun. Some dated the crisis from the later fourteenth century, some from around 1500. Protestants later accused the Catholic clergy of fostering witchcraft through “popish blasphemies,” and Catholics in turn proceeded to identify witchcraft first with traditional and recognized heresy and later with Protestantism itself. Almost all agreed, however, that intensive witchcraft was essentially a new danger and a particularly urgent one.”- Kors & Peters, Witchcraft in Europe: 1100 – 1700, A Documentary History. (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1972.)
It is the fifth of November, a rather auspicious day to write – I think – about religious terrorism, splintering beliefs, and the responses of the populous and those caught up in waves of frenzy. It is also a fitting day to put down a few words on the witch trials, and the rather seriously explosive series of social and religious furor that set the stage for them.
I am of the opinion that there is a problem with the way many neo-Pagans in America and Europe discuss the witch trials, and how they came about. The problem is this: many of them, including certain authors celebrated by the neo-Pagan movement as a whole, appear to be incapable of reading texts on history and critically evaluating the material they see. This may be because reading allows for easy suspension of disbelief, or it may simply be because certain aspects of the witch-trials that are downright ahistorical are repeated ad nauseam and warp the situation that appears – at least from the historical data we have at present – to have progressed to its utmost furor and horror.
A lot of readers may see what I'm about to say and think that I'm devaluing religious witchcraft, or claiming it has no place in history. That is not what I'm getting to. I am, like so many others, an initiate in a tradition of European (British, specifically) witchcraft and a religious devotee. This means that while I take a very history-friendly narrative to the subject, I still believe that for myself and others the religious aspects of witchery are extremely important and that we do, in fact, have a history stretching backward in time considerably. This does not make witchery “the oldest religion on the planet,” nor do the witch-trials have anything to do with it aside from the prospect of scape-goating problems on a relatively “new” category of “malefic” individuals: witches.
Concern over individuals with malefic powers and their attendant demons, not to mention their ability to affect the world, is a rather ancient subject matter. Almost all cultures seem to have them, however the juridical (secular) and religious concern of them did not reach the point of widespread emergence until around 1100/1200, as Kors and Peters indicate in their wonderful book. Prior to that the juridical views were often deeply skeptical, and even the religious authorities took a dim view of enticing the populous to take action against such problems. In the Dead Man's Hand: Part Three, I made sure to discuss it a bit. Around 906 CE, the (Catholic) Church adopted the Canon Episcopi as it's major point of reference. Despite quoting it in the earlier entry, I will do so again:
“Bishops and their officials must labor with all their strength to uproot thoroughly from their parishes the pernicious art of sorcery and malefice invented by the devil, and if they find a man or woman follower of this wickedness to eject them foully disgraced from the parishes... It is also not to be omitted that some unconstrained women, perverted by Satan, seduced by illusions and phantasms of demons, believe and openly profess that, in the dead of night, they ride upon certain beasts with the pagan goddess Diana, with a countless horde of women, and in the silence of the dead of the night to fly over vast tracts of country, and to obey her commands as their mistress, and to be summoned to her service on other nights. But it were well if they alone perished in their infidelity and did not draw so many others into the pit of their faithlessness. For an innumerable multitude, deceived by this false opinion, believe this to be true and, so believing, wander from the right faith and relapse into pagan errors when they think that there is any divinity or power except the one God. Wherefore the priests throughout their churches should preach with all insistence to the people that they may know this to be in every way false, and that such phantasms are sent by the devil who deludes them in dreams... Whoever therefore believes that anything can be made, or that any creature can be changed to better or worse, or transformed into another species or likeness, except by God Himself who made everything and through whom all things were made, is beyond a doubt an infidel.”
In this view, the aberrant experiences of so-called “witches” and still lingering heathens was dismissed as nothing more than delusion, and they were simply to be cut off from their respective religious bodies. Insofar as we are concerned, this is a particularly non-offensive and possibly the best perspective we can ask for. Witches end up being neither scape-goats for terror, nor being burned at the stake. Unfortunately, this perspective did not last.
Between 1100 CE and 1500 CE waves of necromancers began infesting the Catholic Church. This was the beginning of the Grimoire boom, and in certain cases the practitioners were assuredly malefic. They were also, despite what one might expect, often trained clergy. The Inquisition was established in the late 1100 through early 1200s [the Papal Inquisition, specifically, which was also empowered to torture certain subjects. Edited for clarity. Jack.] to deal with the threat of the Cathars and their antagonism towards traditional Catholic hierarchy, structure, and the threat they posed when the populace of France adopted elements of their religious praxis. Following the emergence of Necromancy within the church, these tensions were heightened considerably. Michael D. Bailey's From Sorcery to Witchcraft charts this emergence, and the turns it took, in a highly specific manner that is of interest to anyone involved in witch practices today.
While witchcraft was earlier shoved off as nothing more than delusion, these new elements meant that the word itself changed shape and entered the popular lexicon from the learned elite. From there the same term was used to extend over a large body of magical practices, high-lighted in the Malleus Malificarum with the shape and belief of what they meant being changed as well. This formal codification from elite authorities on religion and secular juridical created the basis for the witch furor, but took centuries to foment. Bailey explains:
“Yet during the years of the great European witch-hunts, the term malefica carried a far more specific and far more sinister meaning than just a person accused of working harmful sorcery against others. Witches were certainly believed to perform magic with the aid of demons, indeed via the supplication and worship of demons. But worse even than that, they were accused of complete apostasy, of rejecting their faith and surrendering their souls to Satan himself in exchange for their dark powers. They were thus thought to be members of an organized cult headed by the Prince of Darkness and standing in opposition to God's church on earth. At regular nocturnal gatherings known as sabbaths, they would assemble in the presence of their demonic master, worship him, and, in exchange for his promise of magical power, forswear Christ, the church, and the entire Christian faith. They would also murder and devour babies, engage in sexual orgies, and perform other sinful and abominable rites.”
No longer was malefica simply cursing, hexing, or harming another. Now it was contingent on alliance with the powers of Darkness, and the view that the Devil was acting as a Field Marshall to a great and vast army of followers... Who were witches. This view allowed the older cultic and religious aspects of Indo-European spirituality that we consider “witchcraft” today to be effectively re-branded in a way that we can see surviving even now. The Sabbat, which has its roots in the Wild Hunt and Revels of Old, was reformated into a Christian context. Ironically, it was often not the cults and practices of outsiders that drew the ire of the Church (for plenty seem to have been wise enough to keep their heads down), but rather the Protestant/Catholic conflict that excited the Witch Hunts.
In January, 1518, Martin Luther (my ancient enemy) kicked off the Protestant reformation and enabled a series of conflicts that ripped through the very fabric of Christendom, shattering the church into a number of divergent bodies. Alongside popular rebellions, famine, and the internecine strife amongst Christians, the stage was set for the persecution of witches! Unfortunately, they rarely actually were witches. In Protestant areas, the Protestants turned on Catholics. In Catholic areas, the Protestants were branded as witches.
And Europe, as a whole, lost what little glory had been left to the Church until that time.
But let us take a moment to look at the sects outside the Inquisition involved in this 600 year period of struggles (from heretical outsiders usurping the Churches' authority in the 1160s – 1180s to the later sects):
The Anabaptists were formed around 1521 – 1524. They had important precursors, but let us skip that for the time being. The Anabaptists were largely important for their role in the Great Peasant Revolt in Germany and Switzerland. They helped foment uprising against Church and State, hoping that total war against religious and secular authorities with the hope of creating a truly Christian utopia. They did not actually number greatly in the Revolt, but their ideals helped inspire it. The Anabaptists acted, often, as terrorist cells and burned a number of churches... As well as writing a number of threatening letters and books aimed at both the Lutherans (who, following the late Luther's lead, became increasingly antisemitic) and the Catholic Church.
I sometimes find myself rather liking them, even if they were largely composed of over-zealous fanatics and the occasionally criminally insane. Today we'd probably declare war on Germany if they returned.
The Mennonites were formed following the failure of the Anabaptists to achieve their goal. Unlike the earlier encountered group, they taught a largely peace-based theology that focused on the Ministry of Christ and spreading the Message of Jesus Christ. They found the basis of their teachings in Menno Simons. Today they form one of the larger bodies of Christian believers in the world, and are on par with the Mormons, Baptist sects, and other groups.
In England, the Anglicans increasingly dominated discourse and the Church of England's progressive anti-Catholic stance eventually lead to the rebellions such as those by Guy Fawkes and the other members of the Gun-powder treason and plot.
The combination of these sects and their conflicts lead to growing awareness of the social and spiritual problems of the 15th – 17th centuries and ensured that the witch trials would reach their full furor... With brother turning against brother, and everyone scape-goating the conflicts on the Devil and witches.
The end result is the Christendom of today, with it's sectarian conflicts and flare-ups and an ever present fear of witches' everywhere. Let us be on our guard. Because the scary cycles of the past have this tendency to repeat themselves when we fail to look for them.
Lux & Agape,
Hashasheen of the Cult of the Head & Witch.