Witch Trials in The Early Modern Period - Background - Magic and Witchcraft

Magic and Witchcraft

Further information: European witchcraft, Christian views on magic, Medieval magic, Renaissance magic, and Shamanism in Europe

During the Medieval period, there was widespread belief in magic across Christian Europe, and as the psychologist Gustav Jahoda noted, "the new world as people saw it included witches, devils, fairies and all kinds of strange beasts ... magic and miracles were commonplace." The Mediaeval Roman Catholic Church, which then dominated a large swath of the continent, divided magic into two forms: natural magic, which was acceptable because it was viewed as merely taking note of the powers in nature that were created by God, and demonic magic, which was frowned upon and associated with demonology, divination and necromancy. This idea of malevolent magic, or maleficarum, was mentioned by historian Robert W. Thurston, who stated that "One of the most persistent features of European world views ... was the presence of humans who used magic to help or hurt their neighbors."

During the Late Middle Ages and early modern period, magical practice was roughly divided into two forms. The first of these, folk magic, was the form of popular practice widely found amongst common people, consisting largely of simple charms and spells. There were various professionals who performed folk magic in a professional capacity, including charmers, astrologers, fortune tellers, and most importantly, cunning folk. These were believed to "possess a broader and deeper knowledge of such techniques and more experience in using them" than the average person, and it was also believed that they "embodied or could work with supernatural power which greatly increased the effectiveness of the operations concerned." One of the primary purposes of the cunning folk was in removing curses and other bewitchments that their clients believed that they had suffered, and in this manner cunning folk were in most cases working actively against witchcraft, using such methods as the witch bottle in order to do so.

The other form of magic was ceremonial magic, followed by those who adhered to philosophies like Hermeticism and the Qabalah. Whilst the Church disapproved of demonic magic, which was practiced by both certain cunning folk and ceremonial magicians, and condemned it in Early Medieval texts, they did little to actively suppress those that they believed practiced it, not believing them to be any significant threat to Christendom.

Various historians, notably Carlo Ginzburg, Éva Pócs, Gabor Klaniczay and Emma Wilby have theorised that many elements of early modern witchcraft were based upon, or even a continuation of, pre-Christian religious beliefs about visionary journeys that had connections with both shamanism and animism. In early modern Europe, there was often a belief that witches (and in many cases also cunning folk) were aided in their performance of magic by supernatural entities known as familiar spirits, who appeared in many different forms, usually taking the appearance of either humans or animals. As historian Ronald Hutton remarked, "It is quite possible that pre-Christian mythology lies behind this tradition", an idea supported by other historians, such as Wilby.

In the early modern period, it was also widely believed by the prosecutors that the witches traveled to a nocturnal meeting known as the Witches' Sabbath where they worshiped the Devil, feasted, and committed various Christian sins. Although some historians believe that this was entirely a fictional idea created by the witch hunters, others, having studied the first hand reports given by self-professed or accused witches, have come to the conclusion that these trips to the Sabbath were genuine visionary journeys that some witches believed that they went on. Emma Wilby compares these to similar claims made in the early modern period by certain cunning folk that they traveled on a visionary journey into Fairyland, where they found an assembly led by the King and Queen of the Fairies, feasted, and danced. After making various comparisons with ethnographic and anthropological examples of shamanism in Siberia and North America, she came to the conclusion that both the witches' Sabbath and the Fairyland journeys were visionary experiences undergone by various magical practitioners that likely had their origins in earlier, pre-Christian shamanic ideas.

Some historians have traced the idea of a visionary nocturnal journey from the early modern period into earlier periods of European history that were closer to the pre-Christian era. The fact that such nocturnal journeys containing praeternatural entities have been found across Medieval and early modern Europe, from the Benandanti of sixteenth-century Friuli in Italy to the supposed werewolves of early modern Hungary has led historian Carlo Ginzburg to believe that they were a part of an "ancient stratum of beliefs" in Europe, that had been found in pre-Christian paganism. Indeed, historian Robert Thurston noted that in the tenth century document, the Canon Episcopi, the author (likely a Christian monk) described that there were women who, due to a trick of the Devil, had visions that made them think that they met other women at nocturnal meetings to ride in processions led by the goddess Diana across "great spaces of the earth". Thurston notes that it was these descriptions of women's nocturnal travels which were "clearly the cultural forerunner of the witches' sabbath." According to these historians therefore, the idea of the witches' sabbath, along with the similar idea of familiar spirits and the cunning folk's journey to Fairyland, were not developments of the witch hunters but were genuine visionary traditions amongst the European populace, ones with their origins in pre-Christian religion.

Read more about this topic:  Witch Trials In The Early Modern Period, Background

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