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February 27, 2009

Witch hunts and the Reformation

 

The formation of the cumulative concept of witchcraft and the various legal developments made the European witch hunt of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries possible.  If these intellectual and legal developments had not occurred, then the hunt would not have taken place, at least in the form and in the magnitude that it did.  These preconditions do not, however, provide a complete casual explanation of the hunt.  They were, in other words, necessary but not sufficient causes of the process that claimed the lives of thousands of Europeans.  In order to achieve a fuller understanding of the hunt we must explore the religious, social and economic conditions that prevailed in Modern Europe.  These conditions created an environment in which the hunting of witches was not merely possible but was likely to occur.  They encouraged people to believe in witch craft, created tensions that often found expression in witch craft accusations and strengthened the determination of both the ruling elite and the common people to prosecute individuals for this crime.

The Reformation restored the Church to its early Christian purity.  In doing so, they denied the efficacy of Indulgences, redefined the function of the sacraments, eliminated or drastically altered the Roman Catholic mass, and changed the role of the clergy.....The period during which all of this reforming activity and conflict took place, the age of the Reformation, spanned the years 1520-1650.  These years include the period when the witch hunting was most intense, some historians have claimed that the Reformation served as the mainspring of the entire European witch hunt. [The Witch hunt in Early Modern Europe.  Brian Levack Longman P109]

To what extent was the Reformation responsible for the rise in the witch hunt in the 17th Century?

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The reformation was not responsible at all. The mini ice age had a far greater effect on the veractiy of the hunt. The climatic changes seemed very scary to the un-enlightened peoples of the 16th century. Furthermore they created a scarcity in crops that bred jealousy and resentment in the worst effected populations.

The main area hit by the Witch craze in 17th century was mainland Europe, especially the Holy Roman Empire. This is because of social, economic and religious factors and many others; the main one of these being the segregated country. Many of the German princes had different, legal, religious views after the Peace of Augsburg 1548 and this caused feuds between states. Due to this trade routes were affected and the use of witch accusations for financial gain increased. If the Holy Roman Empire had been a collected and coherent country with a clear religion and sturdy legal system, the witch craze would not of had such a strong effect. This contradicts the question at hand and supports the inclination that there were other factors that contributed to the witch craze.

The reformation and the aspects that developed from it were a vast contribution to the witch hunts. The reformation caused tensions between Protestants and Catholics, affecting their leaderships and effectivley stripping away people's previous explanations for the unexplainable. Becuase people had diminishing support from their religion, they needed new scapegoats instead of using indulgences or pilgrimages; the reformation focused more on 'justification by faith alone'.
These tensions caused societes to split because of contrasting religions, which held huge rivalries against one another. Therefore individuals within communities that were otherwise aquaintences turned on each other and blamed them for their misfortunes.
The reformation caused suspicion to grow among communities becuase of natural causations as well. This hysteria over witch hunts made it acceptable for neighbours to accuse one another of witchcraft if their crops were of better quality than theirs. The lack of scientific knowledge and explanations meant that the effects of the mini ice age-climate changes and less produce-was, at that time, the work of the devil.
One alterior factor as to why the hysteria of witch hunts grew was to do with the lack of central government in the Holy Roman Empire, one area where these hunts were rapidly increasing. The lack of control meant that each state was dealing with this hysteria in different ways and, alongside the economic distress people were looking for explanations and began to be influenced by other groups of believers. As well as influence from peers, high status characters such as James VI were strong believers, causing belief to spread faster as these accusations did not become out of the ordinary.

By restoring the Church to its early purity, the central belief system of a whole population was taken away. Spiritual beliefs were therefore immediatly replaced by a growing uncertainty and anxiety. At the time germany had 300 states of these 50 princes rapidly converted to Lutheranism taking their own populance beliefs with them. Already in the 17th century had economic and social hardships become a major factor in all classes of society, the reformation stretched these issues to the extreme.
Fractional states who before were united were given an immediate reason for warfare. Catholic states became quickly surrounded by Protestant neighbours leading to hostilities which were often drawn out over a many years- such as the 30 years war. With little or no stability in peoples lives who's one central point of stability had been their faith, people began embelish on superstitions that had previously existed in the 16th century.
Believing in withcraft gave people the opportunity to blame their hardships on people, this increased stereotyping allowed for people to express their anger at their current situation such as increasingly hard hrvest caused by the mini ice age. Decentralisied villages who previously wouldn't be able to get away with this victimising were left unchecked and literally got away with murder. In extreme cases this resulted in the towns own leaders being targeted such as Johannes Junius the mayor of Ban de la Roche.
However torture was also a main factor in the rise of the with-hunts in the 17th century which is not directly linked to the reformation. Never did Luther condone the use of torture, yet it carried on and escalated as a means to an end of the witches. With a weak legal system and torture growingin its use more and more people were forced to confess the names of fellow witches leading to a snowball effect with escalated in the 17th century.
Established knowledge passed through generations also served to cause a rise in witch hunting. Universities existed in nearly every German state and provided a fountain of knowledge for its citizens, when the notion of witchcraft was introduced, theologicians began to work on the idea bringing up further evidence. Information gathered by the universities were spread to rural areas by the trade routes and in a way justified witchunts to the village members. Literature such as the Mallus Malificarum fueled this growing gathering of evidence on witches and provided universities with a rich base of information on which was expanded to devastating effects.

The reformation had several aspects that were contributory factors toward the rise in witch hunting in the 17th century, such as: the wars it caused, spiritual uncertainty. By this time, however, Europe had entered a post-reformation period where other factors took precedence. The french wars of religion (1561-98), for instance, were over and the religious identity of the majority of communities was decided whether by centralised monarchy or provincial rulers. The spiritual confusion of the mid 16th century peasantry had now been resolved - several generations of the short lived peasants having passed. 'Tug of war' counters like the case of Ban de la Roche and Balthasar Nuss where Catholicism attempted to re-assert its control over an area by instigating a witch hunt similarly were drawing to an end by the first quarter of the 17th century. What i'm saying (in an overly lengthly and verbose way) is that the distabilising effect and the anxiety caused by the reformation had calmed down by the end of the 16th centruy and the witch hunts of the 17th century were exacerbated by other causes - which will be discussed below.

That being said the ramifications of the reformation were being felt on a far larger scale than at the level of communities. The 30 years war (1618-1648)was, to some extent at least, was caused by religious tensions in the Holy Roman Empire which was increasingly religiously diverse with the emergence of calvinism and other factions aside from Catholicism and Protestantism. Religious tension left over from the reformation was already turning to violence as early as 1606 in the free city of Donauworth where Cathloics were barred from having a procession.

Other factors were responsible for the rise in witch hunts in the 17th. Most notably it was exacerbated by the role of individuals such as jolly Mr.Hopkins or James VI of Scotland. Even the aforementioned Balthasar Nuss played a prominent role in increasing the veracity of a particular witch hunt although not on the scale at which James or Matthew managed. The cycle of torture and denunciation, of course, was an exacerbating bastard. Social rivalry and jealousy too was caused by economic difficultlies (spanish gold causing hyper inflation and such...unemployment...so on) and a mini ice age killed off crops. Intellectual teaching also had less efficacy as people were turning more and more toward rational thought and the age of enlightenment was coming ...

The changes that came about because of the Reformation made a great contribution to the rise of the witch hunt. Tension due to religious differences fuelled a general sense of anxiety, and, in certain cases, hatred between the different factions of Christianity. It was a period of unrest and uncertainty - people's belief structure had been taken away; whereas before they had relied on the church and the clergy to provide an explanation for natural disasters or general problems, when this pillar of stability was taken away many felt the need to find something or someone to blame. This scapegoating meant entire communities turned on each other. The change in religion, and the instability that ensued, also led to instability with rulers and those in charge. In Ban de La Roche, Balthasar Von Dernbach's wish to get rid of the Protestants led to him bringing in a witch hunter, Balthasar Nuss, who in turn prosecuted large numbers of inhabitants. In areas where Protestants and Catholics lived near other, such as in the Holy Roman Empire, it was common to accuse anyone who didn't share your religious views. As a result of the disruption of the law and order system, and the central judiciary system, small communities became more and more independent. This was exacerbated by the breakdown of communication - communities and towns suddenly found themselves with a lot more power and found they could get away with a lot more. Conviction rates rose when communities didn't have a centralised judiciary system, as did the use of torture and lynchings. Overall, it seems the Reformation had a great impact on the rise of the witch hunts, but it was by no means a sufficient cause. War, the mini ice-age and certain individuals all contributed the rise of the witchcraze. Without individuals such as Matthew Hopkins - the 'Witchfinder General' - King James VI/I, the witchhunts would have been much less widespread in certain areas, and may not have spread at all to certain regions. Had James VI/I not had what he believed to be a personal experience concerning withcraft, he wouldn't have encouraged the huge witchcraze that swept across Scotland, where much higher numbers of people were prosecuted, and executed, than in England. The general feeling of anxiety and hysteria was increased by the mini ice-age which greatly affected crops. Therefore, it was a combination of a number of factors, including the major factor of the Reformation, which led to the rise in witchhunts in the 17th century.

The Reformation was a key factor in the rise of witch hunts in the 17th Century; however it was not the only cause. Other elements to be considered include the social and economic issues of the time such as disease, crop failure and misogyny, which affected the general public and led to hysteria.

The Reformation was an important cause in rising witch trials because it led to social insecurity, confusion and fear at the loss of old traditions, which caused more accusations. Religious upheaval gave rise to Protestants and Catholics accusing one another of witchcraft, such as Balthazar Von Dernbach did in his local area. The Reformation also caused war in the countries affected, such as the French Wars of Religion, and both before and after the war, accusations rose in response to the fear and hysteria. As well as this, Luther’s work was widely distributed using the printing press during the Reformation and this new invention then spread works on witches, which were sometimes also anti-feminist pieces. This educated the literate on the matter of witchcraft and built superstition and beliefs, for example, the Malleus Maleficarum. Finally, it becomes clear that the Reformation is in some part directly linked to the rise in trials because it led to a lack of centralized governments which allowed more trials in rural areas. Also, it is interesting that the areas most affected by the Reformation, such as Germany, were also the most affected by witch trials. This is further backed up by the information that areas with relatively low religious upheaval due to previous internal issues like the Inquisition also had a low number of witch hunts, for instance, in Spain.

On the other hand, many other factors also caused the increase in witch trials, without the aid of the Reformation. Fear, and hatred, of women led to an increase in the number of females accused (e.g. in Switzerland where 80% of the accused were women) because women often worked in the home where unexplainable bad things happened, such as cot deaths. For example, Ursula Kemp was a midwife accused of cursing her patients and making them ill. Economical issues included the increase in crop prices, due to a lack of supply from crop failure during the mini ice-age and a decrease in wages as mechanization gave fewer jobs and increased the number of beggars. This instability was increased by the rising population which gave more competition for resources, this led to famine and consequently those in wealthier positions were envied and often accused, for example Johannes Junius who was the mayor of his town. Diseases which could not be explained, such as the plague, also gave high social insecurity and fear and people often needed a scapegoat, resulting in more trials. Other wars of the time, non-religiously based, for instance the English Civil War also disturbed the juridical system and allowed more unofficial trials in rural areas to take place. Some leaders, whether local or more important like James VI, also supported the trials and encouraged them.

To conclude, the Reformation was a necessary factor in the increase of the witch trials in certain areas, but it was not sufficient. Although key to the events, many other causes had to combine to give the correct social context for the increased accusations and witch trials. However, it is possible that in some areas greatly affected by the Reformation it catalyzed an increase in the hunts.

Whilst the point that the open hostility caused by the Reformation had ceased by the 17th Century (especially with the cessation of the French Wars of Religion in 1598) is true, the impact of the events was far from over. Europe was left in an air of confusion and uncertainty, and this is emphasized in the following Witch Trials; fear of the unknown was always an underlying cause behind accusations, and the religious confusion created a great deal of fear. In this way, the Reformation was still a driving force behind Witch accusations throughout the 17th Century.

However, there were other underlying reasons – especially in the economy, with the mini ice age, the epizootic plagues inducing hallucinations and crop failures, influxes of gold from the Americas resulting in inflation and widespread poverty. The poverty was also induced by great job losses, implemented by inventions such as the plough – these drove women towards prostitution and increased levels of misogyny and therefore Witch accusations. This can explain why Witchcraft accusations not only continued through the 17th Century but actually increased.

Another major event that raged for most of the 17th Century was the Thirty Years’ War, which whilst being mainly about political disputes was essentially driven by religious conflict. The importance of the war on the witch trials leads back into the importance of religion post-Reformation; the atmosphere before and after war – of tension and uncertainty – led to confusion, terror and trials. In this way, the Reformation was still a precedent cause after it had actually occurred; its implications continued throughout the 17th Century.

It is certainly true to argue that the Reformation had a part to play in the increasing number of witch hunts in the 17th century. Indeed, the switch of some states from Catholicism to Protestanism in mid 17th century Germany had an impact on peoples' beliefs and trust in others. People certainly became more suspicious of those of the other religion and saught out to accuse them for anything possible. However, it is also vital to look at the other factors that caused the rise in the witch hunt which could be perceived as perhaps more important. For example, the role of such cynics as James VI and Matthew Hopkins, who believed deeply in the witch craze and strived to get rid of them through any means possible. Matthew Hopkins was also helped by the fact that his witch hunting coincided with the English Civil War, which could perhaps be seen as him seizing his chance to gain power and influence whilst people were at their most vulnerable. However, whatever his motives, he managed to successfully cause hysteria in the English population, deifnitely raising the amount of witch trials in an otherwise fairly disbelieving country.
In addition, whilst looking at the witch trials in Germany, it is important to look at the pre-conditions preceeding the 17th century witchcraze. Germany was a fragmented state, so any disruption would hit them harder than another country with a strong, centralised government. This meant that the German people were a lot more vulnerable to beliefs such as witchcraft as there was a lot more suspicion in distrust here than in, say, England. The social and economic difficulties, especially in Germany, also cannot be forgotten. Unemployment was on the rise and misogyny was also see an increase, with women losing their place in society. This, paired with the mini ice age, unexplained deaths and poor crop harvests, meant people gained an 'everyone out for themselves' mentality during the 17th century, probably the main reason why witch hunting became just so popular.

The Reformation was to a large extent responsible for the rise in the witch craze in the 17th century – primarily due to the religious upheaval and confusion. This is evident based on geographical information that historians have at their disposal: it is widely accepted that nations such as the Holy Roman Empire, which was an area key to the Reformation, was highly susceptible to witch trials whereas places like Spain – which remained devotedly Catholic – had very few witch trials.

Religious confusions in the post-Reformation period seem to be a cause behind many of the social difficulties. Academics like Luther denied that charms or superstitious customs had any effect on the Devil or witches. However he advocated belief in witchcraft. Misinterpretations of his teachings led to people thinking that they had no alternative but to rid of the witches with trials and executions. Additionally Calvinism – a religious ideology – born from the Reformation promoted the idea that sin was completely unacceptable and unforgiveable. To avert moral guilt a Calvinist would be inclined to blame a ‘witch’ of forcing them to sin.

The Reformation saw Protestants pit themselves against Catholics due to the bitter rivalry that was a consequence of the Reformation. For instance the Catholic abbot – Balthazar von Dernbach - had 250 “witches” executed between 1603 and 1606 to undermine and politically attack his Protestant and Calvinist rivals. His victims were mainly his enemies’ wives and children so he was attacking them emotionally by having their loved ones burned at the stake or otherwise hung.

The Reformation not only caused religious tensions it also caused wars (such as the Schmalkaldic War) and other issues. Consequently the Reformation can be seen as the trigger that evoked such a large number of witch hunts in this period.

All these points above are necessary, especially when you consider places like France. In the war between the Huguenots and the Catholics tensions between families led to an increase in witch trials. When you consider that in this country everyone spoke the same language, then it was more liable that gossip could spread and people accused. We know that on the borders people were more suspicious of their neighbours, and so in countries where religious divides were occurring then there has to have been more accusations, leading to more trials. Things would spread much more quickly if people spoke the same language and if on the borders there were accusations with different languages – then if religion came into the picture, there would be a burst of trials.

The reformation was a subsequent factor of papacy corruption which in itself has numerous connections to the witch craze. The corrupt clergy used women as scapegoats to excuse their promiscuous behaviour branding women by the seductive stereotype of a “witch”. Furthermore, the reformation caused religious confusion and upheaval, not only bringing fear with the removal of catholic traditions and rituals, but allowing new ideas to open minds.
On the contrary, there were various other factors contributing to the rise in the witch hunt. Economic, social and authoritarian factors throughout Europe were necessary in the rise of the witch hunts. They encouraged people’s belief in witch craft and heightened the tension. This encouraged accusations and the determination of the authorities to prosecute for the crime. The lack of central authority throughout the states led to lynching in rural areas and lack of control. The existing belief in witches was also necessary in the rise of the witch hunts as it gave a foundation to people’s accusations.

On one hand the reformation can be seen as a major factor responsible for the witch hunts in the 17th century. This is because it was the catalyst for the anxiety and fear of the time, this was due to the introduction of new religous ideas such as 'justification by faith alone', this meant that you only needed faith to get into heaven, rather than the catholic practices of ceremonies and traditions. This effectively abolished all catholic 'protection' against demonic forces (e.g. Holy Water), so left the peasantry feeling vulnerable. Luther himself exascerbated this by advocating the existences of witches, which could be said to cause widespread anxiety as people beleived they could be attacked at anytime. The german states who experienced the reformation ( 300 out of 50 princes turned to lutheranism) where the most hard hit by the craze, this correlation suggests that the reformation impacted on the intensity of the witchunts. This could be because of the intense rivaries felt between catholic and protestants in these states, as exemplified by the case of Ban de la Roche. The reformation created suspcion amongst neighbours of new customs and as there was little communication this grew into hysteria. The reformation also made the princes more powerfull as they where now in control of religion and state, this further decentralised Germany, giving more power to local judiciary system. Thus making the reformation responsible for the witch trials as it enabled people to be prosecueted more easily. Lastly the increased conflict between catholics and protestants influenced the witch trials, this is shown in Scotland as the resentment of the catholics caused protestants to target them mercilessly, ultimatley showing how the reformation was responible for the witch craze as it heightened existing social tensions and enabled people to persecuet their percieved enenmies.
However there are also other contributing factors such as the socio-economic climtate of the time. Northen Europes inflation had doubled since 1550, unemlpoyment and prices where rising while wages where decreasing. This helped create a suscpetible atmoshpere of jealous and hostiltiy towartd neghbours, prehaps explaining denunciations. This erosion of the community was further exacabated by wars, such as the English Civil war which caused towns to become rivals with one another. This lack of cohesion was a factor in the witch hunts as people where more likely to accuse one another. Also the role of torture in places such as Soctland and Germany could explain the increase in mass trials as many people gave forced 'confessions'.
Although these reasons are important I beleive that the reformation was a necassary factor as it created the anxiety and confusion needed for a widespread witchcraze.

The Reformation was to a degree responsible for the witch craze, as it caused religious unrest and made people question their faith. However, there were many other important factors that lead to the witch craze. There was the geographical area that the trials occurred, in the rural areas there were more witch trials due to the lack of authority. In the centralised regions, there was less witch trials.
There was the idea that witchcraft was used a scapegoat for when things went wrong e.g. the mini ice-age and illnesses. This meant that people used witchcraft for things that they couldn’t explain. This is similar to the neighbourhood disputes etc.
Overall, I don’t think that the reformation was a necessary cause of the witch craze, as there were other pre-conditions.

I personally believe that the Reformation played a minor role towards the rise of the witch hunts, and that social and economic factors contributed far more. 'Witch-finders' caused much of the hysteria - travelling from town-to-town, spreading their ideas and in some cases actually "culling" some of the town's population. The unexplainable matters of the mini ice-age and plague also gave people an excuse to accuse their neighbours of practicing witchcraft.

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