“It is putting a very high price on one’s conjectures to have a man roasted alive because of them.”
Montaigne, “Of Cripples”
Among the Gebusi, a small tribal society on the edge of the New Guinea highlands, all the deaths that we would call natural were attributed to witchcraft. Most natural deaths led to an inquest to determine who the witch was. Children and young women were pretty safe from accusation; others were fair game. Witchcraft was a capital crime, and one third of alldeaths of adults in the immediate pre-contact period were killings of suspected witches! The Gebusi are an extreme case, not typical of New Guinea, or of tribal societies in general. But witchcraft beliefs, and punishment of accused witches, have been widespread across cultures, including Europe in past centuries.
A common idea about European witchcraft accusations and executions is that they’re “medieval,” both in the literal sense of happening in the Middle Ages, and in the figurative sense of expressing the spirit of a dim and barbarous age. Monty Python gave comic expression to both ideas. But neither idea is true. For much of the Middle Ages, the Church condemned the idea that people could fly through air on broomsticks, and similar beliefs, as pagan superstitions, unbefitting good Christians. It is only toward the end of the Middle Ages that the fear of witches starts to take off. And it is at the beginning of the Modern Age – the Age of Discovery, the time of the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the early Scientific Revolution – that the witch craze reaches its height. Most witchcraft trials and executions in the West happen between 1550 and 1700. The total number executed is probably in the high tens of thousands, with additional tens of thousands persecuted but not killed. About 80% of the victims are women.
And some of the most educated men in Europe contribute to the witch craze (although some are skeptics, like Montaigne). In the 1570s, Henri Bouget, a respected French jurist, calculates that there are 1,800,00 witches active in Europe. Slightly later, Jean Bodin, a major figure in early modern political theory, argues that witches are so dangerous and devious that normal judicial safeguards should be suspended: there can be no presumption of innocence for accused witches. King James VI of Scotland (=James I of England) writes a whole book on witches, Daemonologie, and organizes witchcraft persecutions in Scotland; the witches in Macbeth are Shakespeare’s nod to James.
A new information technology, the printing press, doesn’t just foster the Reformation and the Scientific Revolution. It also helps the witch craze go viral. The Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of the Witches), a 400 page witchcraft treatise originally published in 1486, goes on to become a best seller, through multiple editions. It is just one of a number of treatises and tracts on witchcraft pouring out of the printing presses.
And the witch craze is also tied up with the religious struggles of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. Witchcraft persecutions are strongly associated, both in time and space, with confessional battles between Protestants and Catholics. Where Protestants and Catholics are in competition with one another – especially southern and western Germany and neighboring areas – they try to outdo one another in their zeal for persecuting witches. Where one denomination or the other is securely in power – Catholics in Spain and Italy, Lutherans in Scandinavia – witchcraft persecutions are mild. Although the persecutors wouldn’t have admitted it, witches are innocent collateral damage in the great religious struggles of the age.