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Early modern Europe religious history

Believing in Witches and Demons

by guest contributor Jan Machielsen

By Jan Machielsen

How do we assess whether a claim is worthy of belief? What does it mean to treat it with scepticism? Do we reject it outright as a fiction or lie? Or do we simply refuse to act while we wait for further confirmation? After all, as the French essayist Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592) observed, ‘it is putting a very high price on one’s conjectures to have a man roasted alive because of them.’ Montaigne was writing about witch-burnings, but the question as to whether to act on witchcraft belief was, for him, as much a matter of temperament—a question of trusting one’s beliefs—as it was about reasoned argument. When he was given the opportunity to interview a group of convicted witches while traveling through Germany, he was not convinced, deciding the women needed hellebore instead of hemlock—that is, they were mentally ill, rather than deserving of death. And yet, Montaigne’s witchcraft scepticism was not certain knowledge of a falsehood. It was not knowing. Witches might well exist—Montaigne did not know, and if they did, it might not even matter.

Michael Pacher, The Devil holding up the Book of Vices to St. Augustine (1483)

We do not typically think about the early modern witch-hunt in this way. We tend to see witchcraft almost as axiomatically false, as a falsehood which will wilt away when exposed to reason. US Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis used witches in that sense in a famous 1927 free speech case: ‘men feared witches and burnt women. It is the function of speech to free men from the bondage of irrational fears.’ Witchcraft, unfortunately, did not die because more and better speech was available. Indeed, as Thomas Waters has shown in a marvellous recent study, witchcraft was nothing if not free-speech-resistant. Yet the concepts and categories—credulity, superstition, bigotry—meant to contain the irrational have been equally persistent. Credulous folk and bigoted inquisitors believe in superstitions, and those superstitious beliefs demonstrate their credulity and/or bigotry. Do not prod this further. Whatever the cost, witchcraft belief can never be reasonable.

Inevitably, it was nineteenth-century historians keen to banish witchcraft into the past who transformed it into an eschatological battle between reason and superstition, between science and (a perversion of) religion. Andrew Dickson White and his student George Lincoln Burr co-opted witchcraft in their A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology (1896) as one more battleground between reactionaries and ‘the thinking, open-minded, devoted men … who are evidently thinking the future thought of the world.’ This reduced the early modern witch-hunt into a conflict between ‘bigots and pedants’ and their heroic opponents, who risked their lives for ‘some poor mad or foolish or hysterical creature.’ This struggle for reason, in which White and Burr were still very much engaged, was very much the preserve of men alone. White’s principal reason for supporting women’s education at Cornell, the university he co-founded in 1865, was to ‘smooth the way for any noble thinkers who are to march through the future’—by ‘increas[ing] the number of women who, by an education which has caught something from manly methods, are prevented from … throwing themselves hysterically across their pathway.’

The early modern witch-hunt has served many moral purposes since then—noble yet doomed peasant revolt, Wiccan holocaust, or feminist ‘gynocide’—but the structures sustaining such readings have long collapsed. Witch-hunting was, for the most part, not an organized affair, instigated by elites. Instead, it was the product of daily interactions between villagers who did not get along. Nor was the witch-hunt particularly severe. With most estimates ranging between 40 and 50, 000 victims—across a continent and multiple centuries—it is easy to list a number of recent environmental catastrophes that cost as many lives in weeks, days, even seconds. The persistence of these moral readings tells us more about our own time than it does about the early modern period.

Jan Luyken, Two Bamberg Girls taken to Their Execution Site (1685)

Now, even the containment field of irrationality no longer appears to be holding. This may also reflect the present, when truth claims seem to have lost their value and the world’s most powerful figure proclaims himself to be the victim of a witch-hunt. In that sense, to study the historiography of witchcraft really is to study ourselves. Yet the demise of irrationality has been a long time coming. In a seminal book in 1997, Stuart Clark taught us that witchcraft belief, far from the preserve of a fringe group of demonologists, was embedded in larger modes of political, religious, and—indeed—scientific thought. Yet the question he was effectively pointing to, and with which we opened, is only more recently being answered: what did it mean to believe, or not believe, in witches? Precisely because it appears to us as almost axiomatically false, the early modern witch-hunt invites us to think about what it means to believe in anything

Historians of early modern demonology have mostly stopped dividing authors into (irrational) believers and (rational) sceptics. As Montaigne has shown, belief can take on many forms. It may be cautious acceptance, or indistinguishable from certain knowledge. It can be highly reasoned, or entirely unthinking. It can also be entirely passive—part of a wider subscription package. Certainly, many eighteenth-century elite thinkers, most notably the founder of methodism John Wesley, treated witchcraft in this way: as proof of the existence of the spirit world but without any expectation to ever meet a witch. Witchcraft belief could be partial and caveated, or it could be extreme. The heterodox political thinker Jean Bodin believed that the devil could even break the laws of nature (because God would permit him), while King James VI of Scotland was virtually alone among the major demonologists to support the ducking or swimming of witches. Belief could be sustained, or discredited, by direct experience with witches and their bodies, which could be tortured and examined for a devil’s mark. Or it could be textual, founded on a wide range of biblical, patristic, and classical texts whose authority was incontrovertible. Nor was belief founded on fear alone. For those ensconced in the safe comfort of their study, tales of witchcraft delighted and entertained as much as any horror story today. And partly because of different and shifting emotional registers, belief in witchcraft could also change over time. Scepticism yielded to belief, and vice versa.

Seen from the angle of what it meant to believe—and why, how much, and when—the entire field of early modern demonology looks very different. It no longer resembles a battlefield between two opposing camps, nor can it sustain an opposition between irrationality and reason, between false belief and knowledge of falsehood. The science of demons is much messier and hence, for historians, much more interesting. It consisted of many conflicts and disagreements, both major and minor. Could witches transform into mice and thus enter homes through key holes? The Lorraine judge Nicolas Remy said yes, the Flemish-Spanish Jesuit Martin Delrio said no. Witchcraft also looked very different from different vantage points and at different points of time. One ardent Catholic, the Jesuit Juan Maldonado living in Paris in the run-up to the 1572 St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, could see Protestantism and witchcraft as the devil’s twin attacks. Like any good brothel-keeper, the devil transformed beautiful courtesans (heretics) into procurers (witches) when they lost their physical appeal. Writing twenty years later in the midst of the Trier ‘super-hunt’, the Dutch Catholic priest Cornelius Loos considered witchcraft belief to be diabolical in origin, making the witch-hunters the devil’s true human allies. Yet Loos was not, as White and Burr once supposed, a harbinger of enlightenment, as they saw themselves. A religious exile from the Dutch Republic, he repeatedly called for a universal crusade against all Protestants.

Unshackled from moral straitjackets and the concepts that defined them, the early modern witch-hunt can actually teach us a great deal. On the level of human interactions, it shows us how forced daily interactions can foster resentment. (A colleague once suggested I write a book about witch-hunting as office politics.) It reveals the processes by which we demonize those with whom we disagree. At the level of belief, following in Montaigne’s footsteps, it should make us question why we believe what we believe, and how we know what we think we know. Most importantly, the early modern witch-hunt, when studied properly, teaches us that we are, when push comes to shove, not very different from those who came before us. And that is perhaps the most sobering thought of all.

Jan Machielsen is Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History at Cardiff University. He is the author of Martin Delrio: Demonology and Scholarship in the Counter-Reformation (Oxford University Press, 2015), and the editor of The Science of Demons: Early Modern Authors Facing Witchcraft and the Devil, published by Routledge on April 13, 2020. 

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