Why the witch craze was so recent

By LOU MARANO  |  March 1, 2002 at 2:16 PM
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WASHINGTON, March 1 (UPI) -- Something about the great European witch craze never made sense. Why did this “primitive” hysteria come as late as it did, beginning only in the mid-15th century and lasting well into the Age of Enlightenment?

How was Christian doctrine transformed from reasonable and humanistic teachings to those that condoned the infliction of unspeakable tortures and the most horrible death upon the innocent, some children as young as eight? Why was it heresy to believe in the reality of night-flying hags in 1000 A.D. and heresy to question it 600 years later?

A Johns Hopkins scholar may have the answer.

Walter Stephens, a professor of Italian studies at the Baltimore university, said witchcraft accusations arose not from an excess of religious fervor, but rather from a crisis of faith. The determination of some late medieval theologians to prove the existence of witches and demons was really an effort to shore up their faltering belief in God in a grim and increasingly rationalistic age.

“Until sometime around 1400, the Church condemned the belief in witchcraft,” Stephen said in a phone interview. “Suddenly, individual theologians start persecuting people for things that were declared to be imaginary and nonsensical until very shortly before that time.”

Stephens -- who holds doctorates in both comparative literature and philosophy -- studies the intersection of theology, philosophy and literature in early modern Europe. In his book “Demon Lovers: Witchcraft, Sex and the Crisis of Belief,” he wrote that clerics went to great lengths to “prove” that humans (usually women) could copulate with evil spirits as a way of repressing their own doubts about the existence of a beneficent Creator.

Of course, Christians have always believed that the devil and his minions prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls. Also, the employment of enchantment and healing magic was variously accepted as fact, although generally condemned. But the Church taught that those who believed they could fly through the air to rendezvous with wraiths were deluded unfortunates suffering from hallucinations.

Stephens said the definition of witchcraft changed from maleficium (harmful magic) to maleficium plus devil worship – i.e., physical interaction with demons, including sex. “But to anyone who’s been raised a Christian, there’s a problem here. Demons don’t have bodies.”

How did our recent ancestors get into this mess?

“Basically, they created a kind of equation: If witches, then devils; If devils, then spirit; If spirit, then God,” Stephens said.

This was a largely unconscious process that took place over a period of about 300 years.

In his book, the professor traces the development of a crisis of belief that begins about the year 1150, when, he told United Press International, “the notion of demons is beginning to seem unreal to many for whom it should be a foundation of their thinking” – along with their belief in God. This is when theological speculation begins about whether demons have bodies or are pure spirit.

It also is a period that ushers in the rise of urbanism, the disruption of feudal institutions, and the beginnings of modern European states – followed by many natural calamities.

Stephens believes the association of harmful magic and the physical congress of humans with demons was an outgrowth of scholasticism – the neo-Aristotelian theology of St. Thomas Aquinas (born circa 1226, died 1274).

“Aristotle is the man who said there’s nothing in the mind that didn’t come through the senses,” Stephens said. “So if angels and demons can to our satisfaction be proved real, there must a sensory way of proving that. Otherwise we have no proof that they’re not imaginary.”

Stephens paraphrased Aquinas’ dilemma: “‘Our definition of God is that He is infinitely good and infinitely powerful. If that’s true, there’s no reason for evil to exist. But we notice that it does exist. Therefore, God does not exist.’ And then (Aquinas) goes on, basically, to write a five-foot shelf of books to explain why that kind of reasoning is wrong.”

Aquinas says sometimes devils prevent the sacraments from working – with human help. Humans commit sin, and God allows humans free will. So witches and devils provide an explanation for why (a) the world is an evil place after all, and (b) why the Catholic sacraments sometimes look like they’re not working.

In “Demon Lovers,” Stephens writes: “After about 1200, the literate elite had less and less reason for uncomplicated belief in the reality of devils, angels, and the whole world of spirit; by 1400, the entire notion was demonstrably in crisis. Most, if not all, witchcraft theorists – and probably the majority of witchcraft interrogators – were interested in sexual or other corporeal relations between humans and demons (such as rallies, called sabbats) because they were anxious to confirm the reality of the world of spirit. They considered the carnal knowledge of defendants their most valuable proof of that reality.”

But such “mentalistic” explanations are limited. Ideas usually change for a reason. What was going on in the material world that might have precipitated a crisis of faith?

“The 14th century right into the beginning of the 15th century was one of the most devastating periods in all of history,” Stephens said. Historian Barbara Tuchman called it “calamitous.” In 1315 a wet spring made it impossible to plow all the fields that were ready for cultivation, and heavy rains rotted some of the seed grain before it could germinate, leading to a cycle of famine and illness that lasted almost eight years and left a weakened population susceptible to disease.

The Black Plague devastated Europe from 1347 to 1352, carrying off more than one-third of the people. Another wave of the pestilence struck in 1365, followed at intervals by typhoid fever, typhus and cholera.

Warfare was incessant, notably the Hundred Years War. A series of heresies and doctrinal discords arose not just among the few who were educated but among ordinary people as well. First came the Albigensian Crusade (1209-1255), which, Stephens said, essentially devastated southern France in a campaign of “genocide.”

“From 1022 until Luther, there is a steady stream of controversy over the nature of Christianity,” he said. The corrupt and avaricious Avignon Papacy (1305-1378) undermined confidence in religion and was considered a puppet of the French crown.

“Some of the earliest guys who wrote witchcraft treatises ask why the world was becoming such an evil, horrible place to be, and ask, ‘Where the heck is God?’” They went to look for both the positive and negative evidence. Witchcraft was offered as negative evidence.

This was not a conscious process, Stephens said. Full-fledged atheism, as we understand it, doesn’t appear until the end of the 16th century.

“‘Belief’ is the misnomer here,” the Stephens told UPI. “By what someone says and the way they argue, you can figure out if they actually believe in what they’re stating. In other words, whether they are stating something they believe firmly, or whether they are stating a hypothesis they are trying to prove.

“The standard way of describing this is that (witch hunters) believed in devils, and they wanted to wipe out contact with them. My thesis is, these people said they believed in devils – but they didn’t, really.” And they may not have been fully aware of their disbelief.

“They weren’t fearing that people were interacting with devils. They were hoping that they were, and they were looking for proof of it.

“If you believe in the need to hunt and exterminate witches, that for me is a sign that you don’t believe in demons. You’re looking for proof that they exist. If you believe in demons, you leave them alone. And you stay away from people who are having contact with them.

“Plus, your whole mentality since about 1150 – yours and that of your peers – has been to reason, and to reason in ways that are empirical. Therefore, if demons are the explanation of why the world is so evil – not God – then I want to see one. I want to know they’re there.

“My premise is they’re explaining away evidence that makes them really uncomfortable. The evidence is that there’s a world full of evil overseen by a God who sometimes looks like he’s not there – or at least not listening.

“So these guys are profoundly worried.”

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