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Historian investigates the history of witchcraft prosecution


A depiction of two witches raising a hailstorm. Woodcut from a 1493 edition of a book on witches by Ulrich Molitor, entitled "De Lamiis et Phitonicis Mulieribus."

Study of Fifteenth Century Criminal Records Reveals the Origins of the Witch-Hunt

A dark but iconic moment in U.S. history, the Salem witch trials of 1692, are taught in American schools to educate students about religious extremism and the judicial process. But the origins of witchcraft prosecution can be traced back to Europe centuries prior, when pre-Reformation courts first induced criminals to admit to heresy and witchcraft to exert social control through displays of harsh and often violent punishment.

Laura Stokes is an Assistant Professor in Stanford’s Department of History, whose work has mostly focused on the origins and prosecution of witchcraft in fifteenth century Europe. Her Ph.D. dissertation, which chronicled the rise of such persecution as well as its linkages to developments in judicial torture, has now been revised into a book, Demons of Urban Reform: The Rise of Witchcraft Persecution, 1430-1530.

Focusing on case studies from the European cities of Basel, Lucerne, and Nuremburg, Stokes’ work examines the legal underpinnings of witchcraft persecution as well as the religious and esoteric influences that fueled it. Considering how and why the three cities in question took different paths with regard to witchcraft persecution, Stokes highlights how the concept of witchcraft as a legally condemnable crime emerged from the intersection of religion and indigenous belief in magic, superstition and necromancy. Her work sheds light on how social and religious forces are capable of breeding persecution, informing how we should consider the persecution of witches as it exists today in various parts of the world.

How did you become interested in the history of witchcraft prosecution?

LS: I first encountered the history of witchcraft as an undergraduate at Reed College, as I searched for a topic for my senior thesis. I was interested in the social dynamics of persecution and in deviance as a constructed category. That thesis turned out to be the opening of a door rather than a finished project in itself. Witchcraft persecution is a very complex historical phenomenon, the understanding of which requires one to be versed in three forms of law (both in theory and practice), theology and religious history, as well as a wide array of political and social phenomena. After ten more years of study, I was ready to write a book on the subject.

What is significant about the distinction you make between "witchcraft" and "diabolic witchcraft?"

LS: Diabolic witchcraft is a specific, historical concept. It is the one that drove the early modern European witch hunts, and as such is justly infamous. Witchcraft, when broadly defined, is a concept which appears in nearly every human society. Witches are still persecuted in the world today, often with extreme violence. If historians are to have anything to offer to this pressing human rights issue, they need to find a way to make the specific experience of Europeans pertinent to the rest of the world. Viewing the European phenomenon with a broader lens is part of this process, and it turns out also to enrich our understanding of European witchcraft. The assumption that diabolism was the defining feature of early modern witchcraft blinds us to the non-diabolic, indigenous concepts of witchcraft that lay at the roots of the persecutions. 

Lucerne, Basel and Nuremberg serve as the case studies in Demons of Urban Reform. What led to you to focus on those particular cities?

LS: The book deals with an early phase of European witchcraft prosecution and, for this reason, most of the potential case studies come from the Swiss region. The phenomenon of the diabolic witch and the early modern practice of witchcraft prosecution originated in the region of what is today western Switzerland around the year 1430. From that geographical origin, the beliefs and practices that fueled both prosecutions and witch hunts spread most effectively from one region to adjacent regions. Although rumors of the "new sect of the witches" appears to have inspired isolated witch hunts in such far flung places as Arras in northern France, most of the fifteenth century witch trials took place in a fairly narrow geographical region.

Witch-hunts did not exist in Europe before the mid-fifteenth century. What conditions fostered the concept of the witch-hunt?

LS: Over the course of about two centuries, European clergy went from condemning witchcraft beliefs as "superstitious" to sharing them and elaborating them into the concept of the diabolic witch. Why did this happen? In part, it was due to the influence of magic within clerical circles, where esoteric knowledge derived in part from the Arabic world was cobbled together with quasi-magical elements of popular religious practice to create the art of necromancy.

The popularity of necromancy among the narrow upper crust of learned men contributed to their belief that magic was likely to be real, and provided the fabric for fears of secret attack. These fears were particularly strong among the high clergy during the fraught years of the great Western schism, when two popes vied for control of Europe. The schism was resolved in the early fifteenth century, but left a profound dispute over the seat of power within the church. Meanwhile, the development of the medieval inquisitions had led to the creation of guides for the discovery and persecution of heresy. These guides, in the manner of medieval religious writing, aimed to systematize knowledge and to explain how apparently quite disparate elements fit within a single, coherent Christian worldview. In so doing, the manual writers merged together heresy, village magic, popular fears of witchcraft, and the demonic elements of clerical necromancy. 

What new insight have you gleaned in considering the persecution of witchcraft from a legal, rather than religious or purely social, standpoint?

LS: Persecution is a phenomenon which can take place within religious, social, or legal spheres, as well as across them. Prosecution is the particular prerogative of the legal apparatus. By examining the persecution of witches through the lens of legal prosecution and within the context of prosecution generally, my work highlights the persecutory nature of early modern criminal prosecution.

It is the similarities, not the differences, between witch trials and other criminal trials that are most instructive in this regard. This is of importance to historians of witchcraft, who have often examined the witch hunts as an exception within early modern criminal justice. It is of importance to contemporary observers of law as well, because it was in combating that persecutory tendency of early modern justice that the modern legal protections of the individual arose. Given that our modern system is also prone to lapse into persecutory paths, it is useful to know how the persecutory tendencies of the old system were facilitated, that we might better fight their intrusion into our own criminal justice system.

You describe witchcraft prosecution as ebbing and flowing during the period of 1430 to 1530. Is this evidence of the importance of social control in pre-Reformation cities?

LS: The ebb and flow of witchcraft prosecution is not so much evidence for the importance of social control, as it is evidence that both social control and witchcraft prosecution were driven by the same forces.  That social control was important to pre-Reformation cities has been long understood by historians of the urban communes, and indeed is seen as one reason that early Reformation innovations in social control were largely urban experiments.

What is interesting about the relationship between social control and witchcraft prosecution in my work is that they follow the same trends, that both appear to be expressions of a zeal for reform within the ruling circles of the cities. The waxing and waning of that zeal had many causes, some of which are lost to the historian. Among these is without a doubt some measure of the natural flux of generations, by which young people often have more in common (in their temperament) with their grandparents than with their parents. One cause which I have been able to trace in the book is the process by which a single, spectacular event can cause a social panic, resulting in a renewed zeal for moral and social control.

The book opens with a summary of a trial that took place in Lucerne, where you describe how a secular, urban court had a man who was accused of theft tortured until he also confessed to a charge of diabolic witchcraft. Could you expand on this apparent paradox between a secular court and manufactured heresy?

LS: This is one of the puzzles that caught my fascination early in this project. I had made the assumption that heresy prosecution was the prerogative of the church, at least until the Reformation. Yet although the case which opens the book is remarkable in many ways, it is far from unique in this aspect. These urban courts did not accept many practical limitations on their prerogative to prosecute misconduct, and they often crossed the line into matters which are usually seen as falling within the jurisdiction of the medieval church courts: marriage, sexual misbehavior, blasphemy, and even false belief.

This line crossing is of interest in part because it could, though surprisingly only occasionally, be a cause of direct conflict between the urban authorities and the local bishop. It is also of interest because it follows quite closely the contour of ebb and flow discussed above. This sort of case was a manifestation of the same secular championing of moral and social control that so characterized Reformed cities a few decades later.

What kinds of primary resources informed your understanding that many admissions to witchcraft were induced by torture?

LS: The details of criminal procedure are difficult to tease out from fifteenth-century sources. In each city I had quite different sources, each with its own set of flaws. For Basel I had details of the costs for interrogation and torture in the expense records, but shifts in recording practices elide these for decades at a time. For Lucerne, I have even fewer direct references to torture, but these are programmatic: they are statements about the outlay for the personal and process of torture generally and make clear that, at a certain point, torture became a regular part of criminal interrogations.

The best records exist for Nuremberg, where the detailed city council minutes describe every single instance in which torture was directed or allowed, albeit quite tersely. I have used the records from Nuremberg to analyze the transformation of torture practice across the late fifteenth century.

You mention that while two of your city case studies - Lucerne and Basel - shared similar indigenous ideas of witchcraft in the fifteenth century, the following years would see witch-hunts and persecution become much more pronounced in the former. How did this come to be?

LS: In the most basic analysis, two key elements are necessary for witchcraft prosecution: accusations and a legal system willing to pursue them. The shared indigenous ideas of witchcraft in Lucerne and Basel gave rise to accusations in both places. People believed in the existence of wolf-riding, storm-raising, milk-stealing, child-killing witches, and that belief led to specific accusations of witchcraft.

In Lucerne, the urban authorities accepted and pursued the accusations of witchcraft brought by the populace. They clearly shared the beliefs of their rural subjects and urban neighbors. In Basel, by contrast, urban authorities had long been resistant to prosecuting witchcraft. They suspected their rural subjects were rather too credulous, and they ultimately labeled witchcraft accusations superstition. Several factors influenced this difference between the two urban elites.

One was the relative social proximity of the elites in Lucerne to the rest of the populace: the council was large and inclusive, comprising nearly a tenth of the urban population during the fifteenth-century witchcraft persecutions. The Basel council was smaller and more exclusive. Although the guilds were represented in the council, in practice councilors were drawn from a narrow circle of elite families. Another factor which should not be forgotten is the presence of a young and vigorous humanist university in Basel, founded in the fifteenth century. The men who ruled Basel did not share the witchcraft fears of their subjects, and although they pursued witchcraft accusations when it was politically expedient to them, they ceased to pursue them once their power was sufficient to make it unnecessary.

Immigrants and foreigners in Lucerne were often the target of accusations of witchcraft; was this insider/outsider dynamic in relation to witchcraft, characteristic of Lucerne only? As a means of control, how did it gain prominence and acceptance and how has it developed since?

LS: The best evidence on late medieval and early modern communities generally leads me to suspect that the sort of insider/outsider dynamic which can be demonstrated in Lucerne was a common occurrence throughout Europe. This does not mean, of course, that all witchcraft suspects were outsiders. It does mean that a failure to integrate fully into a new community was a potentially deadly problem.

Social integration, whether one was born into a given community or arrived there as an immigrant, was absolutely vital to early modern people. The mechanisms of social control were fundamentally a means of ensuring such integration, and were often targeted at eliminating foreign modes of dress, play, dance, and mores.