Origins of the Witch Craze in Europe Essay
Although the European witch craze has been embraced by mainstream culture it is distorted and shrouded in controversy especially when trying to trace its origins. The widespread witch craze in Europe is not a simplistic reaction as it is portrayed in the media but rather a build up of frustration at the political, social, and religious institutions throughout the continent.
The idea of witchcraft in Europe, through a myriad of wars that fractioned society based upon belief, alongside support from the Catholic Church and misogynistic views surrounding the female body, caused a demon ideology to turn into a rampant and crazed fanaticism with evil that we understand as the witch craze today. During the early modern era, wars in Europe were becoming ideologically segregated.
An influx of accessible rationalist information as well as, public intolerance towards the Catholic Church through Protestant beliefs were notable and began to create civil divides amongst a once highly regimented class system. A microcosm of growing rifts between people for ideological reasons is noteworthy during the English civil war, in which supporters of the parliament fought against King Charles I and his son King Charles II in a conflict that lasted almost a decade and led to social upheaval and monarchial replacement.
“The collapse of religious and political consensus after 1640… England fragmented into parties, factions, and sects, so to did these groups attempt to appropriate for themselves the sole custodianship of traditional moral, religious, and political authority. ” Across Europe religious divide drenched in warfare was becoming a norm thus the use of witchcraft was invoked in response to both understanding and ending the disorder. During the English civil war religious sects were baffled by the terror around them and tried to understand the combat through cosmic perspectives of duality and openly promoted the idea of evil, curses, and witchcraft.
“…sides habitually resorted to the language of witchcraft most obviously as a form of propaganda, but equally as a valuable authorising agent in the struggle to establish one’s particular cause. ” Popular demonology was utilized to counter opposing moralistic and political beliefs; it allowed groups to perpetuate their cause and provide answers to the chaos. Therefore, as political leaders were unable to wield their full authority during periods of war they could not resolve the growing societal divisions, which allowed the idea of witchcraft to continue to spread.
Conflicts such as the English civil war exposed the people to ideological separation that was viewed as hostile to their ability to thrive and produced claims of witchcraft. Despite political and ideological identity, the Catholic Church played a major role in developing the idea of evil, demonology, sorcery, and witchcraft across Europe. Witchcraft was an essential part of ancient societies and after the fall of Rome continued to define the daily rituals of newly converted Catholic worshippers.
To counter-act the use of pagan activities the Catholic Church who felt threatened by paganism sought out to propagandize witchcraft as a separate and demon cult. “The conception of witchcraft as an organized cult, as opposed to individual maleficia is another product of the Christian environment that made witchcraft a form of perverted religion. ” The Catholic Church after realizing the disunity that paganism could bring created an organized system dedicated to the demonization of witchcraft.
Although, a complex system was in place that focused on the definition, understanding, and analysis of witchcraft the ideologies behind it were open to debate and often faced scrutiny from all levels of the Catholic Church, but towards the end of the middle ages public opposition to demonology and witchcraft was considered heresy and punishable by death. “…it was never condemned, though before the thirteen century theologians could be found who denied or modified the belief.
From the thirteenth century and increasingly through the fifteenth and sixteenth such doubt was no longer tolerated…could incur accusations of heresy. ” The local church was often the center of a European town’s social, political, and religious foundation, and usually guided public reaction towards accusations of witchcraft. With the denial of witchcraft deemed intolerable and threatened with heresy, religious leaders no longer held the power to stop townspeople from accusing each other of demon possession during times of regional or national hardships.
With the Church also surrounded by other religious beliefs that criticized Catholicism’s fundamental inner-workings its focus shifted away from denying the idea of witchcraft to embracing it as a tool to combat accusations against them. Through embrace and the criminalization of witchcraft denial the Catholic Church that was the single most power force in Europe subjugated Europeans to the idea of evil as a living force amongst them and perpetuated the witch craze of the early modern era.
During the Early modern period, the understanding of the female body was still crude, religiously based, and drenched in misogynistic ideals that corrupted medical knowledge of childbirth, maternity, reproduction, and menstruation. Many cases of witchcraft were often placed against lying-in-maids whose sole purpose was the care for newly born infants and watch over the mother’s health in the weeks following childbirth. “…typically accusations brought by mothers, soon after giving birth, against women intimately concerned with the care of the child, most often the lying-in-maid and not the midwife.”
Cases of witchcraft have many roots in explaining chaotic or irrational experiences and due to a myriad of unsanitary conditions in Europe at the time high infant mortality rates were common. In order to explain situations in which the mother or infant unexpectedly died blame was placed on the maid who had access and control over the health of the household. A lack of medical knowledge and understanding of the female body therefore lead to an exaggeration of femininity and the death of many innocent women. Elderly and single women were also the targets of numerous accusations through a polarized view of female expectations.
“Often elderly widows and spinsters were widely prosecuted…through overblown fanaticism involving the duties and goals of a woman. ” As war ravaged Europe the male populations of many regions was greatly reduced and as a result there existed a brief surge in the amount of widows and unmarried women. Early modern ideals focused on childbirth as an integral part of the female life; those who did not fulfill that goal were often viewed as stemming away from God and womanhood which is equated with carnality and evil and encouraged witch-hunts in times of chaos.
In a papal bull from Pope Innocent VIII the theme of childbirth and maternity is strongly implied; “…heedless of their own salvation and forsaking the catholic faith… ruin and cause to perish the offspring of women… hinder men from begetting and women from conceiving, and prevent all consummation of marriage…” With burgeoning sects of single women the Catholic Church’s understanding of female fulfillment involving marriage and childbirth was not being met stimulated ideas of witchcraft and evil amongst mainstream society.
The witch craze despite its popularity within modern media and culture is not a simplistic, random, and misogynistic event but rather the cultivation of moralistic and political beliefs stirred into chaos by war and religious intolerance. Misunderstandings of the female body with a surge in elderly and single female groups with support from the Catholic Church and the inability for governments drenched in warfare to intervene in a divided society caused many fractions of people to turn against each other. In order to rationalize the engulfing chaos around many European nations at the time, people turned to blaming evil that was noticeable in out casted groups such as women.