Monday, June 3, 2013

“Suzy, what do you know about Witches..?”*

“Although through the notions of the marvellous and of occult forces in nature, the idea of natural magic endured, there were no legal distinctions between mageia, goeteia, and theurgia – ambiguous magic, black or fraudulent magic, and magic employing the supernatural to benign, spiritual ends – distinctions of the kind made by classical philosophers. A central issue was harm, and the classical term for malevolent magic or witchcraft, maleficium, was used into the Renaissance. Themedieval terms 'witch' and 'witchcraft' are broadly synonymous with maleficus and maleficium. 'Sorcerer' and 'sorcery' are more likely to imply divination, reflecting the origin of the term (Anglo-Norman sorcer from Latin sortiarius, from sort-, sors, 'lots, chance'), perhaps implying consultation of demons but also denoting magic much more generally. Before 1375 there were very few cases of prosecution for witchcraft in Europe (mainly in England and Germany). Charges are usually of sorcery, sometimes with invocation of demons, and often seems politically motivated. Only after 1375 does the charge of diabolism become prominent, and the number of trials for witchcraft increases between 1375 and 1500. It is from 1500 onwards that the Continental witch-hunt gains momentum...

The earliest secular laws condemn magic according to the degree of harm it causes. The Theodosian Code (AD 438) repeated late imperial prohibitions against consulting soothsayers, astrologers, diviners, augurs and seers, classifying the practitioners of magic as maleficos, and magic or witchcraft as maleficium...**

The science of those men who are equipped with magic arts and who are revealed to have worked against the safety of men or to have turned virtuous minds to lust shall be punished and deservedly avenged by the most severe laws.

A gloss notes that those enquiring into the future may call upon demons, and that diviners merit capital punishment. Malefici may be of any class; maleficium of any kind, and emphasis is placed on secrecy and potential treason. Even the Code, however, excepted certain forms of protective magic, such as the use of simple prognostications (based on animal behavior, the weather or symptoms of illness) to safeguard crops. Justinian's Code and Digest (sixth century, but not known until the twelth century) incorporated many aspects of the Theodosian Code, similarly condemning practitioners of magic, astrology and divination, so that a clear tradition of Roman law was established, on which later secular law codes drew. Such codes address not elevated, learned magic so much as rituals addressed to individual human desires concerning love, health, prosperity and good fortune, much of the kind suggested by both material and written evidence for the classical period.”
I have said this before, and so I will repeat myself, the subject of what one means by the words “witch” and “witchcraft” are always context dependent. They depend on two primary things:
1. The location in which the assertions are made.
2. The time period in which the assertions are made.

One can simply say, “there is no reference to witchcraft in (insert location/time period here),” but one runs the risk of obscuring the subject. Witchcraft, as the charged concept it came to be, did not evolve out of a vacuum. Rather it represents a co-mingling of different elements that came to be conceptually linked and then, during peak periods of unrest, sought out. That there were not at least a few individuals who could accurately described as 'witches' during the period of the trials is highly unlikely. However, given the sheer amount of individuals involved in the trials, most of those who stood accused of being witches were not. Rather they came from rival Christians sects which decided to interpret each other's religious differences in what might be described as a “witch-like fashion.”

Nonetheless, there came to be individuals who very much fit the descriptions – or sometimes outright seemed to defy it while remaining suspiciously similar in the eyes of the authorities that they encountered – of witches. In part, this is due to cultural shifts with regards to magical practices that had existed from deepest antiquity onward. And in part, it is because during peak periods of cultural upheaval elements of the past tend to seep into the minds of the religious and plant new seeds. Attempting to suppress certain magical elements tends to result in those elements being wide-spread. As to whether or not the “witches” actually fit the descriptions of what the Inquisitors, Protestant factions, and secular authorities were actually looking for is answered by my first assertion: context matters. Where the individuals were encounter, what elements remained culturally to fuel their practices, and at what point in time they happened in.

We could assert that before 1200 CE, there were no witches. However the primary allegations that fueled witch-beliefs did exist: namely, the ability to blight a fool's crops, his family, or the ability to consult supernatural or natural intelligences to gain information that others could not come by. 

“In the late-antique world, as Peter Brown has aptly noted, “the human agent is pushed into a corner by the demon-host.” That is, compared with the malevolence of Satan and his demonic legions, in whom Christian society saw its prime enemies, the human sorcerer involved in the performance of socially harmful maleficium hardly seemed important. The demon, and ultimately Satan, was the real author of the evil involved. This de-emphasis on the human agency in sorcery helps to explain the medieval church's centuries-long ambivalence, verging at times on outright uninterest, in persecuting practitioners of such magic. Throughout the early Middle Ages, sorcerers were often depicted, not as powerful agents of evil in their own right, but as unfortunate victims of the deceits and temptations of the devil, and thus the church reacted to them with correction and penance rather than with calls for severe persecution.

By the thirteenth century, however, clerical authorities began to take magic, and magicians, far more seriously. One main factor behind this shift was the rise of various types of learned magic, including astronomy, alchemy, and spiritual and demonic magic, among the educated elites of western Europe. Grounded in Arab, Greek, and Jewish texts, such magic became the focus of much interest among the scholars and intellectuals of Europe. While some were fascinated, many others greatly feared this new learning. The church remained convinced that demonic power lay hidden at the root of even apparently innocent magical practices. Even worse, the darkest aspect of magic, involving explicit demonic invocation, often proved the most seductive to young scholars, giving rise to what one expert has termed a “clerical underworld” of “necromancy,” as such learned demonic magic was generally termed...”

“Shifting conceptions of sorcery, beginning in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries and culminating in the notion of witchcraft in the early fifteenth century, created subtle but significant changes in many basic elements of magic-what sort of person could interact with and manipulate supernatural forces, how such manipulation was possible, what the motivating factors and goals of such manipulation might be, and, most basically, what the nature of the relationship between human magician and the supernatural power he or she manipulated was...

In the ancient Mediterranean world, while ideas about magic were highly complex and nuanced, the official stance, that is, the legal stance on magical practices, was fairly straightforward. Magic was seen as a morally neutral act that an individual could employ toward either beneficial or harmful ends. The Greco-Roman world condemned only harmful sorcery as illegal. As Rome became increasingly Christian, however, an important change took place. Classical daimones, supernatural spirits upon whom magicians often called to perform acts of sorcery, were gradually transformed into Christian demons. While daimones could be hostile to humanity, they were not necessarily so, often being merely ambivalent spirits, while demons were completely evil, the legions of Satan arrayed for battle against the church and all Christian society. Thus early Christian authorities quickly moved to condemn any magic, regardless of apparent effect, that might involve trafficking with demons. In short, the classical world's social objection to the harmful consequences of sorcery became the Christian world's moral and theological objection to the very nature of much magical activity.”
- Michael D. Bailey, From Sorcery to Witchcraft (Speculum, Vol. 76, No. 4 Oct., 2001).

 As you can see from this shift in thinking, any person who could be found practicing most forms of magick was suspect. They were especially suspect if they:
- Performed a ritual in which barbarous names (such as the Voces Mageia of the PGM) were called upon.
- Called up a spirit that could not be proven to be an Angel, or a name of the Christian God.
- Was thought to be meddling with spirits which were not explicitly Christian (again, Angels or one of the divine names of the Holy of Holies).
- Etc.

As one can imagine, this places the vast majority of magical practitioners on the fast track to being suspected of practicing witchcraft. Emma Wilby, in both The Witch's Familiar and the Fairy in Early Modern England and Scotland,” and Cunning-Folk and Familiar Spirits, notes incidents in which those facing trial for the charge of witchcraft actually admitted to having encountered or having been up to something that could be contextualized as witchcraft. However the authorities looking for witches generally did not wish to hear about how one had encountered a fairy on the road, or the Queen of the Fairies. Thus they would jump to a new topic, like:
Tell us about when you met the Devil and had Unholy Sex with him as part of your initiation.”
This form of directing confessions is also noted by Carlo Ginzburg in Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches' Sabbath, such as in the testimony of Andrew Mann (P. 96-97). This suggests that certain practices, such as obtaining a spirit that could aid one (a familiar spirit) in various facets of life was, in fact, still occurring, and that there were individuals who had – as in the past – randomly encountered spirits who offered them aid. Unfortunately for those individuals, it was a fairly shit time to have such a thing happen, and should they be discovered they would face reprisal from one or another faction of individuals seeking to scapegoat the problems of the late Middle Ages to the Renaissance upon them... Largely due to the shift in beliefs. Finally, trials such as that of the Pendle Witches' suggests that the practice of Maleficium continued even as the witch-hunts reached their zenith, practices which could also potentially expose a practitioner of the magical arts.

Part of the reason for the above was the rather resolute conflation between “low magic” practices (which could easily involve the elements I high-lighted above as being suspect), particularly those for dealing with spirits. Or as Jeffrey Burton Russell puts it in Witchcraft in the Middle Ages: “Witchcraft's most important connection, however, was with low magic...”
Russell's work is particularly illuminating, given that he shows how trials for heresy within the church were gradually replaced with trials for witchcraft. Of particular note is that the trials for heresy often included many of the same charges that would later to be leveled at witches:
- Participating in nocturnal orgies.
- Cannibalism or using human remains in magical rituals or to procure magical ointments or potions.

But this is not to suggest that these elements did not exist. It might, rather, be more correct to assert that the Inquisitors and secular authorities that often encountered them did not understand what they encountered. One notes a hefty difference in the
Malleus Malifcarum and Compendium Maleficarum's understanding of spells, ointments, and the like and what was actually occurring. Having dreamed up a Satanic Army, such authorities saw justification in their actions whenever they encountered elements that seemed to confirm their suspicions. Of course, sometimes they found nothing at all and proceeded to use torture to elicit suspect information. Finally, as the elite concepts of magick and witchcraft filtered down to the populace, at least a few individuals came to identify themselves as part of even the most diabolical elements. (So, no, you can't argue that witches have never worshiped Satan. At least a few professed to do so.)

The end result is an awful lot of confusion, and several hundred years later, people still wigged out when anything smacks of diabolism or witchery.

Honestly? I could write about this all day, and cite all damn day. But I'm sure some would be terribly bored.

Thus, I will shortly return to ointments and fungi.

* The title of this entry comes from the Dario Argento film
** What follows, prior to the italicized text, is the Code in Latin. I have simply sampled the English translation for the sake of reducing redundancy.


V.V.F. said...

I wonder, would it be playing by the rules to point out Old English references to witches in the 9th, 10th, and 11th centuries?

"Tha faemnan, the gewuniath onfon gealdorcraeftigan and scinlaecan and wiccan, ne laet thu tha libban. [Women who are accustomed to receiving enchanters and sorceresses and witches, do not let them live!]" -Laws of Aelfred.

"Ne sceal se cristena befrinan tha fulan wiccan be his gesundfulnysse. [A Christian should not consult foul witches concerning his prosperity.]" -Aelfric of Eynsham.

"Some men are so blind that they bring their offering to earth-fast stone and also to trees and to wellsprings, as the witches teach [swa wiccan tæcaþ], and are unwilling to understand how stupidly they do or how that dead stone or that dumb tree might help them or give forth health when they themselves are never able to stir from their place." -Halitgar's Latin Penitential. (Old English added in an 11th c. translation.)

Jack Faust said...

That is totally fair. I should also note that Charlemagne specifically forbid the burning of witches in his Capitulary for Saxony (775-790 CE):
If any one deceived by the devil shall have believed, after the manner of the pagans, that any man or woman is a witch and eats men, and on this account shall have burned the person, or shall have given the person's flesh to others to eat, or shall have eaten it himself, let him be punished by a capital sentence.

So, clearly there were 'witch-beliefs' before the 12th century. They were not fully formed, nor the beliefs that specifically fueled the later craze, however.

Jack Faust said...

I'd also add that "witch-beliefs" may never be fully formed, anyway. LOL.